|Beyond Economics: Intersections and Opportunities with Adam Smith in the Writing and Rhetoric Classroom page 5 of 8|
Uncover the Truth: Smith and Regulation
The work of economics and rhetoric scholars who have identified some of the common misunderstandings of Smith’s theories also presents a persuasive argument for students to consider: the relevance of significant works of theorists and philosophers centuries after their publication. In Book IV of Wealth of Nations, “Of Systems of Political Economy,” Smith describes the two objectives of a political economy: “to provide a plentiful revenue or substance for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with revenue sufficient for public services” (Smith 537). As a news clip from a conservative news broadcast or an article about the Tea Party’s 2010 and 2011 fiscal policies reveal, this is not how contemporary fiscal and social conservatives represent Smith’s free-market principles. Alan Greenspan, champion of the US economy in the 1980s and 1990s, and former chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, spoke on February 5, 2005, at the Adam Smith Memorial Lecture in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. The speech includes references and quotes from Wealth of Nations that support Greenspan’s thesis that Smith was a genius and his most important intellectual contributions are found in that text. Greenspan argued:
[Smith] concluded that, to enhance the wealth of a nation, every man, consistent with the law, should be "free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of . . . other . . . men. . . It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." The individual is driven by private gain but is "led by an invisible hand" to promote the public good, which was no part of his intention. (Greenspan)
Greenspan asserts that Smith gives license to individuals to pursue their own interests and to trust that this type of economic freedom will naturally provide for those less fortunate, but this is only a facet of Smith’s overall argument in connection with this portion of Wealth of Nations. Greenspan goes on to state, “Classical economists, who battled the rear guard of mercantilism in their days, would certainly recognize the assault on their paradigm in the anti-capitalist, anti-free-trade rhetoric currently prevalent in some contemporary discourse.” Stephen McKenna asserts that “[i]mmediately before and after his remark, Smith is not on the subject of benevolence per se, but is discussing the centrality of persuasion as a means of achieving the cooperation necessary in civic society” (134).
Those who cut a portion of this passage out of Wealth of Nations to assert Smith’s theories provide for an economic policy that provides for no oversight missed his point as Smith advocates for some centralized control over certain aspects of society. In Chapter 11 of Wealth of Nations, Smith states, “The legislature, were it possible that its deliberations could be always directed, not by the clamorous importunity of partial interests, but by an extensive view of the general good, ought upon this very account, perhaps, to be particularly careful neither to establish any new monopolies of this kind, nor to extend further those which are already established” (537). The Theory of Moral Sentiments sets forth Smith’s position that it is human nature’s propensity towards selfishness and pursuit of personal desire over what is best for all members of society that mandates some involvement of the state in business affairs (356-7). James Buchan notes in Adam Smith and the Pursuit of Perfect Liberty, that while Greenspan quotes Smith, his 2005 speech fails to even mention the greater moral concerns that Smith explores in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1-2). Thus, Smith’s theories are not fully understood or applied, merely cut and pasted into discourse to support a free-market, capitalist agenda.
When students are given an opportunity to read a section of Wealth of Nations along side a related section in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, then discuss the current financial situation faced in the US, their own opinions about sound financial approaches bring forth classroom conversation that allows them to share their understanding of Smith and see the rhetorical situation of 18th-century Scotland and 21st-century America. From there, writing assignments that ask students to report on their analysis and research yields projects where students synthesize complex data and organize it in a persuasive and effective format. Students can then present their work individually or in groups using a variety of writing formats—memorandum, response papers, essays, PowerPoint or Prezi presentations, or business reports.