Friday, October 16, 2009

Gavin Kennedy responds to "Adam Smith and Glibertarianism"

A recent post of mine Adam Smith and Glibertarianism: History Vanished into the Memory Hole was sparked by a comment thread at Angry Bear attached to the post Adam Smith in a wider context which in turn ultimately linked back to a post by Gavin Kennedy at his blog Adam Smith's Lost Legacy (ASLL). Mr. Kennedy left a comment HERE pointing back to a new post THERE and kindly offered to allow me to cut this Gordian Knot and start afresh from his take by reposting his piece in toto here.

I have yet to read through it in full and still less to formulate a response but I put it up in hopes that others will weigh in here. My response when it comes will be in comments. Mr. Kennedy:
[Please follow the link {above} as our debate is "parallel" rather than direct (I am not sure exactly what Bruce is debating with me, so I have offered an alternative perspective of history, which I think I share with Adam Smith.]

"Hi Bruce

I shall offer some comments on your article: “Adam Smith and Glibertarianism: history vanished into the memory hole”, first stating I am not sure to whom you address your remarks and,adding, I do not share your narrower view of history than Adam Smith’s, nor (on a lesser scale of philosophical symmetry) mine.

Applying class analysis to history, especially where it is informed by back-projecting 19-21st century consciousness, is limiting. If the mass of people in the distant past were deprived of the category, “democracy” as an idea, they were unaware of it. Athenian “democracy” disenfranchised women and slaves; in its modern context, glimmers of democracy appeared in Cromwell’s England (Levellers) and in late 18th century British colonies, and in Britain and France. Until then, the issue of “Liberty” was more important and, in my view, liberty still is more important than democracy – the former cannot be other than self-evident, the latter often is a sham (as recent and current examples show).

In Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762-63) he gives a very clear account of the very ‘slow and gradual’ political evolution of liberty: Magna Carta, trial by jury, independent judiciary, rule of law, Habeas Corpus, through the absolute monarchies of the ‘allodial’ and ‘feudal’ disorders of Europe from the fall of Rome in the 5th century to the Constitutional Monarchies after the English civil war, 1740-60, and the ‘Glorious Revolution’, 1688.

A lack of democratic consciousness runs right back to and throughout pre-history and, incidentally, so does a lack of consciousness about property. The discovery of “property” was a revolutionary idea enabling a minority of the world’s tribes to move to rising population levels from the population-limiting mode of subsistence of the forest and rivers in which, well past the 18th century, the absence of private property among the majority of the world’s tribes in the vast land-mass of Africa, south Asia, Australia, the Pacific and the Americas, held their human populations in check. Tribal populations before property, and many of them afterwards, unaware of the phenomenon of property lived on in their subsistence modes. Both property and non-property societies were oblivious of each other’s existence until relatively recently.

Whilst their concepts of property were primitive and were confined to tribal properties, they were firmly resistant to other tribes intruding on “their” particular territories, but without their having clear concepts of property they could not evolve into early civic societies, based on laws, that were practiced over millennia. The group and individual violence common in many such primitive regimes of ‘tribal’ property is well documented in anthropological studies. Marxists idealise the ‘forest’ mode of subsistence as “primitive communism”, but it certainly had a bloody record among populations over hundreds of millennia, with women mainly suffering as victims and ‘war’ booty, and men suffering early and violent deaths (proportionally greater than well-known, so-called “murder capitals” in modern times).

Shepherding and agriculture (Smith’s 2nd and 3rd ages of man) gradually brought more sophisticated forms of property, first from tribal towards extended familial property forms and then towards individual families, and finally to inheritable personal properties. With such local property forms the need for resolving disputes emerged, many of them violent. Societies with individual property forms developed fairly high forms of civic society, at least for short periods, and while the annual distribution of “the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life” remained skewed, the long accumulations of stone-civilisations spread across Europe and the north Asian landmass, while not much changed elsewhere.
Into this world of cycles of civilisation and barbarism, with accumulating knowledge amidst “pusillanimous superstition”, and slow growth in total “GDP” (for want of a better term), though fairly constant per capita GDP (the surplus creamed off and directed to stone monuments, the detritus of such is scattered across the Euro-Asian landmass), Bruce introduces a conceptual apparatus to judge past epochs as if such concepts are applicable or remotely relevant to the past generations involved, or to modern generations, about what is called “history” (none of which we can change, experience, or even remedy now).

The distant past is, well, distant. The terrible crimes of oppression, genocide, sexual dominance, shaman-led atrocities, wholesale slavery, conquest, and ignorance, cannot find a remedy, a balm or an anti-septic comfort, nor can they be “revenged” (by whom on whom?). We are not just the descendants of noble savages, ignoble tyrants, and human saints. There are now six billion (and counting) where two millennia ago there were 100 million, and a couple of hundred millennia ago there may have been 50,000 or fewer.

Back-projecting modern indignation onto that past is an awesome vision. Who knows which “crimes” and degrees of “culpability” were shared by which individuals in the ancestors of each of us? Who knows who, among the past populations aided and abetted any of the “crimes” of their fellows, whether chasing and killing interlopers from other tribes on “sacred land”, or stole their women, or swung the lash or the sword at the defenceless “spoils of war” and unspeakable domination, right up the modern genocides of Nazism or Stalinism?

A Smithian perspective is somewhat less ambitious, and more to the point. It is to study the past to learn how the present came about; to neither condemn nor praise it, but to understand it, and to offer advice in areas where changes may be made to improve the lot of those unable to prosper humanely under the current regimes of the current plenty.

Property made some societies in the mainly Northern latitudes incomparably more opulent that the majority of the rest of the world’s population; attacking, perhaps destroying, the basis of that opulence is to act as if property never happened, or that it should have happened differently. That it didn’t happen differently is sufficient warning that what didn’t happen couldn’t happen. No examples of societies without property, "fairly" or “unfairly” distributed, managed to create the technologies and knowledge levels of those with property. Searching for evidence of seething masses of revolutionary inspired “soldiers” held down by perfidious state functionaries is as futile as it is fictional.

I think understanding such awesome facts is a proper prelude to understanding how and why we might move, slowly and gradually, towards societies more in line with the sentiments, oft expressed by Adam Smith, where those who sustain and co-operate in the progress towards opulence share in the resultant growth in “the annual output of the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life”.

[My 2008 book, Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, (Palgrave Macmillan) gives a more detailed account than I managed to squeeze in here.]


Bruce Webb said...

Well I don't see that this really caught my point in 'Adam Smith and Glibertarianism' where my claims were not quite so global as they are here. But no matter Mr. Kennedy raises all kinds of interesting issues and maybe can help launch this blog on a different arc from that of Angry Bear.

In fact interesting enough that I am inclined to address them in the form of new extended posts rather than limit them to comments. Anyone wandering by feel free to join any conversation or submit some relevant piece of your own for guest posting, my e-mail is linked in the top right side-bar.

coberly said...

well, i don't have much of substance to add to the debate, but the Kennedy letter reads like a fairy tale. I would point out that while the Greeks disenfranchised women and slaves, so did America for the first 200 years or so. And while the American indians did not call it democracy, everything i have heard suggests something that looks like democracy without the secret ballot, which we no longer have...if you are the least suspicious of machine voting.

Moreover I suspect (note I am not a scholar, just suggesting avenues for "research) that "primitive" people have a pretty clear concept of private property. it just does not extend to land or money...

etc. Again, I don't claim to know anything, but Kennedy as not made his case.

coberly said...

that case, i would assume, is that the particular forms of democracy and capitalism and property that evolved in the west did so for more than coincidence.

and if they were mutually reinforcing,it remains to be shown that their net effect is for human good.

saying that we have more "wealth" is just begging the question.