I've run into yet another case of someone complaining about conservatives falsely claiming Adam Smith in support of their views while doing exactly that himself. The complainer this time is David Brin, who wrote an interesting book
on surveillance some years back but has, in my experience, a tendency to pontificate well beyond the limits of his knowledge.
In the relevant passage, he wrote:
But anyone who actually reads Adam Smith also knows that he went on and on about that "fair and open" part! Especially how excessive disparities of wealth and income destroy competition. Unlike today's conservatives, who grew up in a post-WWII flattened social order without major wealth-castes, Smith lived immersed in class-rooted oligarchy, of the kind that ruined markets, freedom and science across nearly 99% of human history. He knew the real enemy, first hand and denounced it in terms that he never used for mere bureaucrats.
In a comment, I asked him to produce a quote from Smith saying that excessive disparities of wealth and income destroy competition. He responded with the following (from The Theory of Moral Sentiments).
"This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."
Which, as I pointed out in my response, has nothing to do with disparities of wealth and income destroying competition. Apparently Brin couldn't find any examples of Smith saying what he claims Smith went on and on about, so quoted something else instead.
I could have gone on to point out that Smith's attacks are not, for the most part, against the "class-rooted oligarchy," which at his time consisted mostly of the landed gentry. On the contrary, he tried to persuade the landowners that the policies he thought were in the general interest were also in their interest—sometimes stretching his argument pretty far to do so. His attacks were mostly directed at the "merchants and manufacturers."
But it didn't seem worth the trouble.
Those interested in reading Brin's post and our exchange of comments will find them here
My earlier post on people misrepresenting Smith while complaining about other people doing so is here
P.S. Since I put this up, Brin posted another response and I answered it. As I suggest in my answer, my fundamental complaint about Brin is the same as my complaint elsewhere about Rothbard—that as long as he believes he is arguing for the right side, he doesn't really care whether what he says is true.