Pravi Adam Smith: Kako so konzervativci sprevrgli in zlorabili njegova spoznanja

Paul Sagar v AEON razgalja zgodovinsko zlorabo Smithovih spoznanj s strani konzervativcev. Njegova “nevidna roka”, v nasprotju s spervertirano propagando konzervativcev, ni bila uporabljena v kontekstu boja proti državni intervenciji in v korist nereguliranih trgov, pač pa v kontekstu boja proti trgovinskim monopolom tedanjega časa in ujetju države s strani interesov monopolistov kot posledice nereguliranih trgov.


Admittedly, Smith’s reputation as an economist isn’t entirely mysterious. His oft-quoted An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) was undoubtedly important in the eventual formation – in the next century – of the discipline of economics. But even here things are not as straightforward as they appear. For The Wealth of Nations – a 1,000-page doorstopper that blends history, ethics, psychology and political philosophy – bears little resemblance to the ahistorical and highly mathematical nature of most current economic theory. If anything, Smith’s best-known book is a work of political economy, a once-prevalent field of enquiry that suffered a striking decline in the latter half of the 20th century.

Smith’s reputation, however, began to get away from him early on. Shortly after publication, The Wealth of Nations was fêted in the British Parliament by the Whig leader Charles James Fox. Ironically, Fox later admitted that he had never actually read it (few subsequent non-readers of the book have showed such candour, despite plenty of them citing it). Indeed, Smith suspected that those quickest to sing his praises had failed to understand the main arguments of his work. He later described The Wealth of Nations as a ‘very violent attack … upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’. Despite this, his vocal political cheerleaders in Parliament continued to prop up the very system that Smith was railing against.

Neoliberals often invoke Smith’s name, believing him to be an early champion of private capitalist endeavour, and a founder of the movement that seeks (as Thatcher hoped) to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ so as to allow the market to flourish. The fact that there is a prominent Right-wing British think tank called the Adam Smith Institute – which since the 1970s has aggressively pushed for market-led reforms, and in 2016 officially rebranded itself a ‘neoliberal’ organisation – is just one example of this tendency.

It is certainly true that there are similarities between what Smith called ‘the system of natural liberty’, and more recent calls for the state to make way for the free market. But if we dig below the surface, what emerges most strikingly are the differences between Smith’s subtle, skeptical view of the role of markets in a free society, and more recent caricatures of him as a free-market fundamentalist avant-la-lettre. For while Smith might be publicly lauded by those who put their faith in private capitalist enterprise, and who decry the state as the chief threat to liberty and prosperity, the real Adam Smith painted a rather different picture. According to Smith, the most pressing dangers came not from the state acting alone, but the state when captured by merchant elites.

The context of Smith’s intervention in The Wealth of Nations was what he called ‘the mercantile system’. By this Smith meant the network of monopolies that characterised the economic affairs of early modern Europe. Under such arrangements, private companies lobbied governments for the right to operate exclusive trade routes, or to be the only importers or exporters of goods, while closed guilds controlled the flow of products and employment within domestic markets.

As a result, Smith argued, ordinary people were forced to accept inflated prices for shoddy goods, and their employment was at the mercy of cabals of bosses. Smith saw this as a monstrous affront to liberty, and a pernicious restriction on the capacity of each nation to increase its collective wealth. Yet the mercantile system benefited the merchant elites, who had worked hard to keep it in place. Smith pulled no punches in his assessment of the bosses as working against the interests of the public. As he put it in The Wealth of Nations: ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’

Indeed, Smith’s single most famous idea – that of ‘the invisible hand’ as a metaphor for uncoordinated market allocation – was invoked in precisely the context of his blistering attack on the merchant elites. It is certainly true that Smith was skeptical of politicians’ attempts to interfere with, or bypass, basic market processes, in the vain hope of trying to do a better job of allocating resources than was achievable through allowing the market to do its work. But in the passage of The Wealth of Nations where he invoked the idea of the invisible hand, the immediate context was not simply that of state intervention in general, but of state intervention undertaken at the behest of merchant elites who were furthering their own interests at the expense of the public.

It is an irony of history that Smith’s most famous idea is now usually invoked as a defence of unregulated markets in the face of state interference, so as to protect the interests of private capitalists. For this is roughly the opposite of Smith’s original intention, which was to advocate for restrictions on what groups of merchants could do. When he argued that markets worked remarkably efficiently – because, although each individual ‘intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention’ – this was an appeal to free individuals from the constraints imposed upon them by the monopolies that the merchants had established, and were using state power to uphold. The invisible hand was originally invoked not to draw attention to the problem of state intervention, but of state capture.

Vir: Paul Sagar, AEON

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