Saturday, June 25, 2011

Don't screw it up

The Penguin Classics abridgement of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations includes an introduction by Andrew Skinner.

In Skinner's introduction there is a quote from Smith about systems:

Systems in many respects resemble machines. A machine is a little system, created to perform, as well as to connect together, in reality, those different movements and efforts which the artist has occasion for. A system is an imaginary machine, invented to connect together in the fancy those different movements and effects which are already in reality performed.

So Adam Smith says the economy is a system. It is comparable to a complex machine. In our day you could compare it to a computer.

Years back, a friend of mine would try to fix his computer when it went haywire by going in and changing a bunch of settings. Far as I could see, he was only making things worse. One has to be methodical, one has to remember the lessons the system teaches. You don't go messing with it, because you're liable to screw it up.


Clonal said...


Skinner is being a bit disingenuous here, if he included that quote from Adam Smith in an introduction to "Wealth of Nations," implying thereby, that Adam Smith thought of the economy as a machine. The quote from Adam Smith is actuallly from Adam Smith's "Essay on the History of Astronomy" from Essays on, I. Moral sentiments: II. Astronomical inquiries; III. Formation of languages; IV. History of ancient physics; V. Ancient logic and metaphysicis; VI. The imitative arts; VII. Music, dancing, poetry; VIII. The external senses; IX. English and Italian verse

Nowhere in the context of Smith's essay is there any implication that Adam Smith thought of the economy as a system, comparable to a complex machine.

Clonal said...

Further I believe, that most economists (or for that matter most people who quote them,) have taken both Adam Smith and Karl Marx out of context, and used cherry picked quotations to prove their own personal ideologies.

Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx were prolific authors, and thus it is not too hard to cherry pick quotes.

The Arthurian said...

And you, Clonal, must be one prolific reader.

Blame me, not Skinner. The "So Adam Smith says" line is mine. Here's Skinner:

Smith was concerned with a type of economy recognizably 'capitalist' in outline, and his purpose was to expose the basic laws of motion which govern its operation... Looked at in this light, Smithian economics in fact provides the reader with the analytical means of understanding the modus operandi of a particular type of economy, and with a body of theory which falls exactly within his own definition of the nature and purposes of the intellectual system:"

(The quote from Astronomy follows)

The Arthurian said...

(Guess I screwed it up.)

Thanks, Clonal.

Clonal said...

I still think Skinner was being disingenuous. The quote he cherry picks has nothing to do with economics as far as Adam Smith was concerned. Adam Smith's view of economics was more as a set of "morals" I think as a church minister he would have been flabbergasted if anybody thought that human economic interaction was machine like.

Given Adam Smith's views, if asked to say whether his views were like Ayn Rand's views, or like Karl Marx's views, in my opinion, he probably would have felt closer to Marx's viewpoint than Rand's.

But again, Adam Smith died in 1790, just as the industrial revolution was beginning. Karl Marx was living right in the middle of the rapidly industrializing Europe, bang in the middle of the 19th century. So it is presumptuous to make such comparisons.