Adam Smith. Critical responses

Adam Smith. Critical responses

History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 205–226 Book reviews Adam Smith. Critical responses Hiroshi Mizuta (Ed.); Routledge, London, 2000, 6 volumes, Vol...

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History of European Ideas 28 (2002) 205–226

Book reviews Adam Smith. Critical responses Hiroshi Mizuta (Ed.); Routledge, London, 2000, 6 volumes, Vol. I pp. lxxvi, 482; Vol. II pp. 399; Vol. III 774; Vol. IV pp. 321; Vol. V pp. 362; Vol. VI pp. 631. ISBN 0 414 15794-3 Adam Smith published in his lifetime two books—Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)— both of which have been republished and translated continuously from the later 18th century up to the present—a complete bibliography of editions and translations of the latter for instance would be somewhere in the low hundreds. Editors and translators have taken the opportunity to comment upon and annotate the works, guiding the reader this way and that. The Theory of Moral Sentiments has nearly always appeared as one volume, but Wealth of Nations was early on most frequently read in three or more volumes, so that the manner in which an editor divided its five books itself played a role in quite what was likely to be read. Many of the editions came with biographies of Smith which, given that we still know relatively little about his life, endlessly rehearse the same limited particulars. Despite this limitation, there are also many biographies. The secondary literature, which primarily treats Smith as the pre-eminent founder of modern economics, is quite simply enormous. Two books have engendered hundreds of books and articles by the thousand. This is clearly a phenomenon that repays consideration, despite the sheer unreadability of, for example, the entire fourth volume of barely relevant notes (mostly recycled from his other, in turn much recycled, writings) that McCulloch helpfully appended to his 1828 four volume edition of Wealth of Nations, the 1870 edition still for example including Note XIII ‘‘Impressment—Plans for it Abolition’’ and Note XXV ‘‘Colonial Policy’’ exactly as they stood 42 years earlier. Reading this sort of literature makes picking oakum seem an attractive pastime. But sheer repetitiveness on this scale is an important phenomenon in its own right, and Hiroshi Mizuta has made a valiant effort at providing an overview of the literature, directing his attention primarily to editorial responses and editorial comment, leaving to one side wider commentary on particular aspects of Smith’s arguments. His approach is to present sections of writing organised roughly chronologically, and thematically (a completely chronological table of the extracts is appended to Mizuta’s ‘‘Introduction’’). Vol. I deals with the early response Smith’s writings, presenting firstly letters extracted from the one volume Correspondence— Smith found writing laborious, and so was no great correspondent—followed by reviews of TMS and WN. In the later eighteenth century it was the usual practice to

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simply excerpt the book in question, and so we find here a review of TMS from the Annual Register for 1759 which, after some vacuous preliminaries cuts to the chase and just reprints the entire first chapter from the book, since, the anonymous author avers, in this way the reader can form directly a view of Smith’s clear and easy style. The second half of the volume is mostly taken up with pamphlets and occasional comments written in response to aspects of WN, concluding with Dugald Stewart’s definitive biography from 1793, and a lesser-known one which engages in some appraisal of Smith’s work. Volume II is principally taken up with the editorial apparatus of the Playfair (1805) and Buchanan (1814) editions of the Wealth of Nations, together with some early criticism of Smith’s moral philosophy, and later essays by Brougham and Bagehot. The latter represents some of the best in later nineteenth century English comment on Smith’s legacy, providing insights and a balanced assessment while not overladen with scholarship. Playfair and Buchanan lacked both. The Playfair edition appeared the year after the copyright to WN expired, and seems to have represented an attempt on the part of Smith’s publishers to refresh their title to his writings. Unfortunately Playfair was largely ignorant of political economy—Francis Horner’s savage critique of the Playfair edition from the Edinburgh Review is included (pointing up the importance of that journal to the emergence of critical, attributed reviewing). Playfair’s edition appears to have sunk without trace, it was never reprinted in Britain until 1995. A Glasgow three volume edition of Wealth of Nations of the same year was by contrast reprinted several times up to 1819, indicating that if Smith’s publishers were right to suspect that there was a steady demand, they made a very bad choice in their editor. Buchanan’s edition appears to have been more successful, being reprinted in 1817, but is distinguished by a running commentary in Book I which suggests that Smith repeatedly and inexplicably ‘‘got it wrong’’, pointing the reader towards Vol. IV, where Buchanan outlines his own, rather uninteresting, ideas. These are the editors from hell. Vol. III assembles more of the same: four hundred-odd pages from McCulloch’s edition of Wealth of Nations, about one hundred and fifty from Wakefield’s 1843 edition, the rather more restrained contributions of Rogers (1869) and Shield Nicholson (1887), Bax’s ‘‘Introductory Sketch of the History of Political Economy’’ where he discusses everyone but Adam Smith and, towards the end of the volume, Edwin Cannan’s introductions to the first scholarly editions of the Lectures (1896) and Wealth of Nations (1904). Fortunately Cannan’s editorial work set the standard for discussion in the twentieth century, bringing to a close a period in which mere opinion, forcefully expressed, often passed for scholarship. That this was not entirely an English vice is demonstrated at the opening of Vol. IV; Kaufmann’s 1887 article from the Scottish Review on ‘‘Adam Smith and his Foreign Critics’’ (1887) turns out on closer reading to consist mostly of a diatribe against some French economists. This volume includes French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish responses to Smith’s writings, again culled largely from prefaces and introductions. Among these the Garnier edition of Wealth of Nations is very important, given that in the first half of the nineteenth century more people probably read Smith in French than any other language (and as later excerpts make clear, Karl

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Marx’s reading of Wealth of Nations was courtesy of Germain Garnier). Given the importance of the Garnier edition, originally published in 1802, some comments on the strategy followed in these volumes can perhaps be made. Mizuta excerpts Garnier’s introduction to Wealth of Nations from the 1843 Blanqui edition, newly translated into English. The first problem is that this 1843 version differs substantially from the French 1802 original, at some stage between 1802 and 1843 having apparently been partly rewritten. Furthermore, the 1802 introduction was in any case quickly translated into English and first published in 1805 (in the three-volume Glasgow edition noted above). It was then copied remorselessly from edition to edition, turning up for example unaltered (besides spelling and punctuation) in the Wakefield editions (1835 and 1843). In the absence of any editorial apparatus at all in the volumes under review, it becomes difficult to disentangle the form and substance of Garnier’s contribution to readings and rereadings of Adam Smith—we are presented with a modern English translation of a variant of a text with which English readers of political economy in the first half of the nineteenth century were already quite familiar, but in a way that, as presented here, is difficult to reconstruct. It can be assumed that the mass of material presented in these six volumes was reset at the behest of the publisher, since the cheaper option of reprinting original pages would have added considerably to the bulk of this enterprise. But although one might look askance at a publisher charging inflated prices for doing little more than advanced photocopying, at least the reader is given a version that keys into the contemporary literature. There is only one good reason for resetting historical texts of this kind, which is that the editor is able to insert notes into the text which can explain names or events, ideas, allusions, and so forth. But here there is no such apparatus. Even the choice of edition, at times apparently quite random, goes unexplained. In the case of the McCulloch edition of Wealth of Nations mentioned above, for example, the key difference between the original 1828 edition and that of 1838 was that the latter was in one volume, not four, and hence significantly cheaper. It was also stereotyped, and so the barely readable two-column main text remained unchanged through all subsequent editions, up to and including the 1870 edition already mentioned. By selecting the 1838 edition as the base copy here, the reader is left without any idea of how this related to the earlier edition. Nor is the modern reader prompted to wonder how predecessors, lacking modern optical aids and halogen lamps, could ever have deciphered the text, let alone engage in sustained study. The key development in the assessment of Adam Smith, laying the foundation for our modern understanding, takes place during the second half of the nineteenth century in Germany. Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography (1898) entry on Adam Smith, for example, refers in closing exclusively to German-language works with respect to modern scholarship. Jastrow’s 1928 edition of the Lectures and Eckstein’s 1926 edition of Theory of Moral Sentiments demonstrate that German scholarship continued to predominate into the 1920s, a German tradition that Nazism destroyed as surely as many others. Vol. V of the collection under review does include some German material, but here again the selection is idiosyncratic— Cohn’s 1873 Fortnightly Review article ‘‘The History and Present State of Political

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Economy in Germany’’ could perhaps most politely be described as a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end, while on the other hand the inclusion of a full translation of August Oncken’s 1898 ‘‘The Adam Smith Problem’’ (an abbreviated version appeared in the Economic Journal) is very welcome, since this is one of the most intelligent end-of-century appraisals of Adam Smith. The selection from Schmoller’s Charakterbilder essay on Adam Smith is however less helpful, since it gives no sense of Schmoller’s lack of understanding of contemporary Smith scholarship, nor his unreflecting hostility to ‘‘Smithian economics’’. More space is devoted in this volume to Hodwala’s 1901 summary of Books III to V of Wealth of Nations, but there were many such condensations and summaries in the nineteenth century and it is not clear why this one should have been included, nor why more space should have been given over to it than German discussion. The final volume assembles Marxist and Marx’s responses to Smith. Perhaps a time will come when Marx’s reading of Smith will once more be the object of serious study, but any understanding of these texts—from the Paris Manuscripts, the Poverty of Philosophy, and Theories of Surplus Value—requires far more than a careful reading. It has already been pointed out that Marx read Smith in French, while chronologically his understanding of political economy remained trapped in the 1820s and 1830s, lacking understanding of contemporary American, French and above all German developments. It goes without saying that these volumes are hideously overpriced. Publishing is a commercial enterprise, of course, as Adam Smith well understood when he completed his revisions for the 1790 edition of Theory of Moral Sentiments so that his publisher might refresh copyright to extend beyond his death the same year. These volumes are only one part of a steady stream of such collections and reeditions that have emanated from Routledge in the past few years whose chief purpose is to divert the funds of hard-pressed university libraries in their direction with the minimum of effort. On my desk as I write is a related collection, published in 1997, from a publisher affiliated with Routledge, an important work but with a very small print run and distributed so carelessly that it makes samizdat look an attractive alternative option for an author with something to say. It is fortunate in the case of Adam Smith that all his writings are in print in cheap paperback copies, and will remain so. Liberty Press has not sold so many copies of Adam Smith’s writings as eg. Bill Bryson has shifted—but they have come surprisingly close. Perhaps Liberty Press understands the linkage between commerce, liberty and culture rather better than publishers in Britain today.

Keith Tribe Driftway, Leigh Sinton, Malvern, Worcs, WR13 5EH, UK Email address: [email protected] PII: S 0 1 9 1 - 6 5 9 9 ( 0 2 ) 0 0 0 1 7 - 7