Thursday, 4 March 2010

Link to TV Discussion of Adam Smith

C-Span (USA) discussion of Adam Smith’s economics and ethics

Samuel Fleischacker, left-liberal political philosopher, and Russ Roberts, free-market libertarian economist, discuss Adam Smith’s economics in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

An example of one of my favourite themes, free market libertarians and left-liberals in dialogue and mostly agreeing. Roberts and Fleischacker agree on all the interpretative issues, including Smith’s ethics. He is not advocating wealth as an end in itself, he is advocating moral choices and moral relations between humans, with free economic exchange, as a necessary component, but just a component. Roberts agrees with Fleischacker that the government does more than provide law and order, and national defence, and that money is just a part of life; Fleischacker agrees with Roberts that the US government bail outs of finance and industry are a bad thing, rewarding bad business decision, and that the state should do less. Roberts and Fleischacker’s only clear disagreement is on whether ‘single payer’ health care (i.e. comprehensive government health services paid for our of general taxation) is in the spirit of Adam Smith. Both admit that various positions could be found to have support in Smith, but I think that where they agree, they essentially set the reasonable limits to plausible interpretation.

My own view, looking at what Smith says about education, is that is in the spirit of Smith for the government to ensure that everyone has health care, but that this should be achieved as far as possible by private arrangements, and through the government keeping down costs by preventing anti-competitive practices; the government only to be involved in purchasing, and possibly providing, health care, where those on low incomes, or in circumstances difficult to insure or save for, need help.

I’ve been posting recently on Nietzsche’s criticisms of ideas of the ethics if sympathy and the domination of the producer by the consumer in commercial society. It’s a coincidence that I am posting this link, but a useful one. We can see in the conversation that commercial society and an ethics based on sympathy are both present in Smith, and are brought together. There are aspects of Smith I’ve alluded to before, which connect his thoughts with the Antique virtues Nietzsche puts forward against sympathy and commerce. I hope to return to those issues in future.

Original version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog.

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