Monday, November 28, 2011

David Brin and Adam Smith

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.


Neolibertarian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neolibertarian said...

Brin:You come in - as so many conservatives do these days - ignoring the general topic or the sweep of the essay in question, and instead pick-bone over a matter of linguistic minutia.

Unfortunately Brin is correct. You fall in the same trap you did last time of picking nits instead of addressing the broader issue. I suppose you'll score a few points from prescriptivist pedants, while you and they miss the point.

AB said...

@Neolib: The prescriptivist v. descriptivist issue is irrelevant, as it refers to the usage of grammar. Brin didn't offend the rules of grammar, he falsely claimed that Smith supported his views w/r/t "excessive disparities of wealth and income destroying competition" whilst taking-to-task conservatives for falsely claiming Smith supported their views. What Brin did - and what DF was objecting to, as far as I can tell - was imply that the Right were largely fools for believing that Smithian insights supported their "dogmatic illogic of staggering magnitude" by, himself, mischaracterizing Smithian insights.

DB: You idiots on the Right ought to read Smith sometime because he says X.

DF: Where does Smith say X?

DB: Here?

DF: No...

DB: Stop focusing on my "words", man; you're missing the point.

DF: Wasn't your point that Smith said X - and that X has some important implications on conservative arguments?

DB (and you, it seems): But, you're missing the main point. So stop using those cheeky rhetorical tactics to skirt the issue.

For you, Neolib, all DF is saying, I think, is that if you want to attack the positions of conservatives - attack their positions. If you want to make a compelling argument against excessive wealth and income disparity - leave the false attribution at the door.

Neolibertarian said...

all DF is saying, I think, is that if you want to attack the positions of conservatives - attack their positions.

Actually, that's Brin's point. Friedman is welcome to engage Brin's position, but instead of doing so, he chooses to pick nits on secondary issues.

If David would like to argue that Adam Smith thought that excessive disparities in resources were good for competition, he's free to do so. If he want to play the {{citation needed}} game, he should go to wikipedia.

AB said...

@Neolib: Are you winding me up? We are getting dangerously close to irony here. Let's recap:

Brin advanced an argument that claimed Smith went "on and on" about "excessive disparity in wealth and income destroying competition".

DF responded by requesting that Brin point to any number of possible Smith quotes to support his claim (he [Smith] went on and on, after all)

Brin responded with...nothing. He didn't actually have a direct Smith quote that could be reasonably used to support his supposition.

And, Neolib, BRIN'S POSITION in this case - the case in question - is that Smith regarded an excessive disparity in wealth and income as a destroyer of competition. So in every sense relevant, DF is fully engaging Brin's "position".

DF *is not* advancing an argument that Smith thought excessive disparity in wealth and income was good for competition. He is just pointing out that if Brin wants to hang his hat on a Smithian insight, he ought to have a Smithian insight to act as a hat-rack. Instead, Brin favors lazy conjecture.

Andy Z said...

"tendency to pontificate well beyond the limits of his knowledge"

Heh, sounds a lot like you! (just with a lot more book sales)

Intellectuals are all like that.

Jonathan said...

I used to read Brin's novels long ago, but I don't seem to any more. In retrospect, my favourite is The Practice Effect, his least serious novel, which is quite fun, and occasionally worth rereading for that reason.

Neolibertarian said...

DF responded by requesting that Brin point to any number of possible Smith quotes to support his claim

Quite. Instead of discussing the thesis of Brin's essay, Friedman chose to play the {{citation needed}} game.

Friedman could respond to the main thesis of Brin's essay:

That "one of the directions that conservatism has gone a-wandering" was that "Though [Smith] praised private enterprise and market initiative, [he] did not share today's idolatry of personal and family wealth as the fundamental sacrament of economics."

Instead Friedman questions a supporting sentence of a supporting paragraph of a supporting section of the thesis.

AB said...

@Neolib: Two issues. First, even in your restatement of the main thesis, your (or Brin's, as it were) formulation begs the question: Where, in the works of Smith, do you find a passage that supports the view you are attributing to him [Smith]? This question isn't a game. It's a necessary step to clarifying the position advanced. Asking the question doesn't imply that I hold some opposite position, it's simply the only viable response I have, other than a flat "You're wrong."

Secondly, you actually think that the main thesis is that Smith didn't share the views you and Brin ascribe to conservatives regarding the "idolatry of personal and family wealth..."? Smith penned his works at a time when there was precious, little wealth relative to today -- even for the class-rooted oligarchs. He did think about the way in which future generations might-or-should value the institutions and societal structures that enable capital accumulation for both persons and families, but saying "he did not share today's idolatry..." is useless speculation. The society Smith knew was so far removed from today, especially with respect to personal and family wealth and the context of today's discussion of income and wealth disparity, that it's hard to believe he expressed any relevant insights that can be co-opted to support a position that says anything like: "Smith would have frowned on the way today's society values the distribution of wealth."

And, if I'm me.

Neolibertarian said...

@AB, You've gone off the deep end here.

I appreciate that you feel vested in this somehow, but if you're going to respond, at least try to be coherent and stick to the topic at hand. Your cavalcade of arguments against positions I've not expressed is impressive only as an illustration of the extent to which you would go to avoid acknowledging the fact that Friedman chose to pick nits instead of address Brin's thesis.

Don said...

Gee, thanks, Andy Z. This was one of the few thoughtful economic blogs devoid of snarky trolls with nothing substantial to contribute treating the comments section like a bathroom wall.

But now that you're here that has changed. How clever you must feel.

Unlearningecon said...

Gavin Kennedy has a well informed blog on Adam Smith, approaching it from the 'anti-conservative' angle:

Anonymous said...

I don't think David Friedman understands how hard it is for the average person to admit they are wrong. David Brin not admitting he made a mistake is like a fat man eating a pizza. Both are driven to this unprofitable end by deep-seeded, primal desire.

Most of us were raised in simple homes by simple people. If you watch "Everybody Loves Raymond" there is an episode called "The Canister". Mother-in-Law says she left a Canister over at Raymond's House, Raymond's wife insists that the Canister has been returned. After a big argument, Raymond's wife wins and mother-in-law leaves after apologizing. Shortly thereafter, Raymond's offspring comes in, carrying the canister. It turns out that mother-in-law was right all along. The mother makes the following speech:

>>"But let's just say I bring this thing [the canister] back, and then she thinks she's always right. She has more power than ever. When you say, "Mom, I don't want to marry that girl. I think you're wrong about her." "Oh, really? Was I wrong about the canister?" Or you, when you say, "Mom, you know, I don't think you should move in with us now that dad has passed." "Oh...have you forgotten about the canister?!"

Raymond, his wife, and his brother all then agree that the Canister should be destroyed, lest Raymond's mom find out she is right and gain "more power than ever". The idea that just because Raymond's mom was right about the Canister means she will be right about things like who to marry and whether or not to move in with her children is assumed as a given. You see, if Brin had conceded any points it would have been the same thing as returning the Canister. For most people who weren't raised by scientists, being "correct" isn't a matter of fact, it's a matter of power and reputation. People in such households will trade agreement strategically with no regard to reality (i.e., I told him he was right about getting lost when he was clearly wrong, so now he has to pretend I'm right about the curtains not being overpriced).

neoclassical_libertarian said...


"Instead of discussing the thesis of Brin's essay, Friedman chose to play the {{citation needed}} game. Friedman could respond to the main thesis of Brin's essay..."

What Friedman *could* have done is based on what you think he ought to do, not what he really wants to do. His brain, his blog, his interests--it's really none of your business. I take it that you don't have anything productive to do and often make a big fool out of yourself by telling other people exactly what portion of a blog entry they should respond to. Friedman specifically found a flaw--something so subtle only a professor who has taught Smithian ideas can identify--and cleared it up. Sometimes an entire post can be refuted by a single flaw most people gloss over.

David Gordon said...

You have in the past made a number of criticisms of Rothbard, to which I've tried to respond, obviously not to your satisfaction. Even if your criticisms were correct, though, they would not show that Rothbard didn't care whether what he said was true. On what basis do you make this further claim?

In like fashion, if my rejoinders to your comments on Rothbard are correct, this would not show that you didn't care whether what you said about him was true. All that would have been shown is that you were wrong.

David Friedman said...

"Even if your criticisms were correct, though, they would not show that Rothbard didn't care whether what he said was true. On what basis do you make this further claim?"

Because in at least two cases, I do not see how he could have believed that what he was saying was correct--and in one of the two, I interpreted his response when I pointed out that it was not correct as implying that what mattered was the conclusion, not the argument.

That was the time when he offered the nominal increase in federal spending under Reagan as showing that Reagan was increasing the size of government, not shrinking it. I pointed out that he ought to be using real rather than nominal spending. His response was that Reagan was responsible for the inflation, so it was only fair to use it to make him look worse.

That's by memory, but I think reasonably accurate--do you see any alternative to my explanation? Rothbard wasn't stupid, and surely would not have used nominal figures in a case where they went against his conclusion--arguing, say, that Weimar Germany obviously had a very good economic policy, since income went up so much.

My other example is Rothbard's treatment of Smith, which we have been through. I do not see how someone who cared about truth could have attacked Smith for advocating an export tax on wool without mentioning that what Smith was proposing was to abolish a prohibition on the export of wool and replace it with an export tax.

Similarly, I do not see how someone could attack Smith for being insufficiently libertarian while praising Turgot—and fail to mention Turgot's proposal to the King of France that he nationalize the French educational system.

I think those examples are sufficient. The alternative is more insulting to Rothbard, since it implies that he was both incompetent and irresponsible--wrote extensively about Smith and praised Turgot without knowing the facts I just mentioned, practiced as an economist without understanding the difference between real and nominal.

Take your pick. I'm not arguing that everyone who makes errors does so because he does not care whether what he said is true--only that that is a reasonable conclusion if the errors are ones that have to have been obvious to the person making them.

Similarly for Brin. Believing that Smith shared Brin's views about the affect of income inequality on competition isn't sufficient. Even believing that Smith went on and on about the subject isn't sufficient--Smith wrote two books, one of them very long, and lots of people have opinions about them without having actually read through them with any care.

But looking for a quote to support the belief, being unable to find one, offering a quote that doesn't support the belief instead, and then continuing to defend the position, is pretty good evidence. Supported by several other exchanges of the same sort.

George. Menrohm said...

David F.,

Any thoughts on why Rothbard would be pro-Turgot and anti-Smith?

David Gordon said...

On the use of nominal rather real figures, I suspect that this was simply a mistake. People make them all the time, without showing either incompetence or mendacity. There are well-known cases of great philosophers who committed elementary logical fallacies.

On the Smith and Turgot cases, I stand by what I said in my earlier comments.

David Friedman said...

David Gordon:

"On the use of nominal rather real figures, I suspect that this was simply a mistake."

A very unlikely mistake for an economist to make. But in any case, I pointed it out to him and he defended it in the way I described.

On Smith and Turgot, you are stuck either attributing an implausible level of ignorance to Rothbard--on the subject on which he was writing a book--or claiming that an honest man could deliberately leave out of his presentation facts that greatly weakened his argument, even though he knew them and his readers were unlikely to. That's not a very high standard of honesty.

George asks: "Any thoughts on why Rothbard would be pro-Turgot and anti-Smith?"

That chunk of the book is largely an attack on Smith. If I had to guess, Rothbard attacked Smith because more conventional economists of a generally free market sort admired him, but that's only a guess. Turgot was one of a group of contemporary French economists who Rothbard was arguing were superior to Smith.

David Gordon said...

I was wrong---Rothbard was not making a mistake when he used nominal rather than real figures in his remarks about government spending under Reagan. His view was that nominal figures were the correct ones to use. Note the following, from an article in Liberty, March 1989:

There was no "Reagan Revolution." Any "revolution" in the direction of liberty (in Ronnie’s words "to get government off our backs") would reduce the total level of government spending. And that means reduce in absolute terms, not as proportion of the gross national product, or corrected for inflation, or anything else. There is no divine commandment that the federal government must always be at least as great a proportion of the national product as it was in 1980. If the government was a monstrous swollen Leviathan in 1980, as libertarians were surely convinced, as the inchoate American masses were apparently convinced and as Reagan and his cadre claimed to believe, then cutting government spending was in order. At the very least, federal government spending should have been frozen, in absolute terms, so that the rest of the economy would be allowed to grow in contrast. Instead, Ronald Reagan cut nothing, even in the heady first year, 1981.

Xerographica said...

Confirmation bias can be tricky. Just the other day somebody shared this article on tax choice...Your Money, Your Choice. It was a wonderfully pleasant surprise to find that a liberal Ph.D. had come to the same conclusion that I had. If you get a chance you should read it...and then you can let me know if my own confirmation bias is making me overestimate the significance of a liberal recognizing the value of the invisible hand.

Speaking of Adam Smith...the other day I wrote that his concept of the invisible hand was nearly the same thing as Buddha's concept of the blind men and the elephant. The person I wrote this to called me out on it and said that they did not see any connection between the two concepts. So I'm there a connection between the two concepts? Or is my confirmation bias making me see a connection where there is none?

Anonymous said...

Do you actually think that if you asked Rothbard who he thought was the better free market economist, Smith or Turgot, he would have said Turgot? I didn't read the piece in question, but this seems a little implausible, even for Rothbard.

If I had to make an excuse for Rothbard, on the first case I think he just made a mistake and attempted to save face by saying, "Oh well, I'm not entirely wrong you know."

On the second case I think Rothbard sought out to attack one of the gods of capitalism to show that in certain cases he was wrong. He then used Turgot as an example to show certain cases where he was superior to Smith. It would be akin to saying "Oh well you know, on some issues Glenn Beck is more of a libertarian that Ron Paul", while using something like abortion or open borders as issues where Beck is superior. (Although I doubt Beck supports either)Though perhaps I am wrong and his argument as a whole was that Smith was inferior to Turgot in terms of laissez-faire capitalism, I don't really know the argument well enough to make that distinction.

I think the greatest example of Rothbard being overly-critical towards a libertarian, however, was in the case he made against you. He seems to adopt the same mentality in it, he says the most important thing for a libertarian is an intense hatred for the state, without ever explaning why. Again in this case it seems as though he's arguing that "It's more important to hate the state than be right."

Regardless, great work handling Brin.

Anonymous said...

Follow up: Have you ever seen this or have responded to it in any way?

Charlie Schnickelfritz said...

The article is, like most articles on, mostly incoherent bluster, rhetorical questions, and the usual mishmash of nonsense.

It's a pretty worthless website, but that's what happens when you consider your little clique to be an adequate substitute for the entirety of academia.

David Friedman said...

To Anonymous:

Googling around, I find that I made several brief responses to David Gordon's piece and to comments on it in the comment thread at:

gustavosauer said...

I apologize for going off-topic, but since you mentioned the dishonest character of Rothbard, I'd like to add a passage I read from one of his articles called "is it the economy stupid?" (part of his book “Making Economic Sense”).
Rothbard tried to show how miserable young boys of 1995 were and how living standards decreased on the past decades.
Quoting from Rothbard:
"But now the reality is quite the opposite. People know they are worse off than their parents, and therefore they rationally expect their children to be in still worse shape.[...]Even official statistics bear out this point, if you know where to look. For example, the median real income in dollars, (that is, corrected for inflation) of American families is lower than it was in 1973."
"if you know where to look". That's the way Rothbard lies with statistics to prove his point and bash the State. Don't get me wrong, I love to bash the State too, but not with lies.
But where is the catch here? The graph seems to corroborate with that. Well, I'll let Thomas Sowell explain it:
"It’s not true that income stagnated. People who argue that way almost invariably cite the household statistics or family income statistics when in fact the income per person, even in real terms eliminating inflation, has been rising very substantially over the years. The problem is that households and families are getting smaller and smaller so that today if there is a family where, for example, there are two people working and in the past there were three people working, now the two people are making what the three people used to make. Then they say, “Well, you see, income has stagnated.” No, income has gone up by 50 percent.”

Belém, PA, Brazil

Russ Nelson said...

@Neolibertarian, sorry, I cannot take you seriously.Brin's whole point was that Smith is saying something that conservatives are ignoring. When DDFr asked "exactly what did Smith say that leads you do that conclusion?" Brin then waved his hands and accused DDFr of focussing on the details and ignoring the broader picture.

That's like accusing a housebuilder of incorrectly obsessing with getting the foundation square, when he should be building the house.

David Brin said...

I just saw this calumny. Sorry, but it is a load. Anyone who calls himself a "libertarian" should be about promoting the one core creative force in the universe -- flat-fair-open competition. But even the word "competition" has gone out of use, along with almost any reference to the "First Liberal" Adam Smith.

Instead, the anti-competitive forces who have hijacked American conservatism spend tens of millions concocting incantations to woo libertarians down a heretical path... declaring fealty only to Property. Sacred property, centrally perfect and limitless property...

...even though it was owner-lord oligarchs who crushed competition in 99% of human societies across 6000 years.

These two things, -- competition and property -- are compatible and necessary for each other... up to a point! But all good things... oxygen, water, food... become toxic in concentration. And ADAM SMITH SAID SO.

It was concentrated, monopolized political and economic power he denounced as ruining markets, in his day. That is what the American Founders rebelled against (before they seized and redistributed half the land in the former colonies.)

Oh but here's the deal... instead of grappling with ANY of this, all our host can do is armwave ad hominem ridicule. Feh

David Brin said...

PS... seriously? Owner moderation of comments? It figures.

David Friedman said...

(added many years later)
I notice that David Brin is arguing on the basis of "which side are you on," ignoring the minor question of whether what he wrote about Smith was true.