Homo Dialecticus V: Why Adam Smith is to markets what Jane Austen is to marriage¢â¬

I’ve just got back from a trip to Canberra which allowed me to pick up the family copy of Pride and Prejudice – my Dad’s favourite book by his favourite author. I wanted to bring it back for my 11 year old daughter to read as she’d loved the movie. There was quite a few books there other Austen novels and biographies and an anthology of literary criticism on her the kind students used to cram in Year 12 when I did it (then it was called form 6) though my Dad would have bought it as I never did the book at school.

Anyway, we’re up to chapter 7 in a family reading aloud after dinner. Great fun, and having seen the film means that eleven year old Anna doesn’t get lost though she misses some of the language.

Anyway, the point of this post is to make my case that Adam Smith is to markets what Jane Austen is to marriage. What I have in mind is that both Smith’s and Austen’s approach to their various subjects are to a very large degree rhetorical.

Both writers write to praise virtue and condemn vice, and often this is all they do. Jane Austen’s critique of the follies of Mrs Bennett and the vices of Mr Wickham, is not intended to invite us to consider some improved arrangement with regard to the marriage laws. Her point is an ancient idea that virtue is likely to be it’s own reward (a good marriage) whereas vice, folly or just lack of self-command is it’s own punishment (as it has been for Mr Bennett and will no doubt be for Lydia Wickham (nee Bennett).

This is what I think Smith is up to with the frequency and trenchancy of attacks on the vanity of the rich and powerful, their tendency to conspire against the public and the ‘corporation spirit’ of local merchants who seek to monopolise their selling power and monopsonise their purchasing power over labour. Of course where it is possible to undermine these perfidies by undoing the legislative handiwork they have had done for themselves import restrictions, privileged monopolies, ‘apprenticeship laws’ preventing their workers from selling their labour to the highest bidder well and good.

Smith also quite likes the idea of sumptuary taxes. But that’s because his sense of noblesse oblilge leads him to favour the rich making a greater contribution to the common revenue rather than any preference for redistributing wealth beyond this and the relief of the poor.

The policy response of Smith to the lack of virtue amongst the rich and Jane Austen’s response to Mr Wickham’s and Catherine de Burgh’s lack of virtue are the same. They can and will be rightly censured by right thinking people and this is a valuable thing in itself, but beyond the proper administration of law that’s the way things are.

Of course it has been a great development of modern times that we look for structural solutions to problems rather than ‘merely rhetorical’ ones as we did in the days when political science consisted of the ‘prince books’ which did nothing more than try to inflame the prince with the godly desire of doing his duty and embracing ‘the good’ the books that Machiavelli might have been sending up in ‘The Prince”. One can appreciate that this has been one of the crowning achievements of modernity and yet appreciate not only that it does not solve all our problems but that perhaps we often rather overdo it.

It is a modern conceit that praising virtue and censuring is ‘mere rhetoric’. Go tell Steve Vizard that praise and blame amount for nothing. I imagine he would gladly cough up twice the fine he’s bearing in order to have escaped the social disgrace that his disgraceful actions has brought upon him. The legitimate need for rhetoric for discourse in which ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ are endlessly worked over is attested to by editorials and op ed pages of newspapers and our very own blogosphere. I’m doing a bit ‘shoulding’ and ‘should notting’ right here.

At the end of all the structural solutions, the human drama goes on and we must do the best we can whether we attribute the origins of the situation in which we find ourselves to God, Nature, Humanity or some mix of those.

This is Jane Austen’s view of marriage. A theatre for the human drama to play itself out. If there is more virtue in a marriage and all those other things that are fitting for a marriage, then life will proceed as happily and as fittingly to our station in the scheme of things as is possible.

That’s Adam Smith’s view also – or to quote him “What institution of government could tend so much to promote the happiness of mankind as the general prevalence of wisdom and virtue?”

Hence his praise and sympathy for virtue and his denunciation of those whose lusts for wealth and power over their fellows know no bounds. Though I presume Smith would have supported the case for outlawing slavery and for disengaging British involvement in it, he is also a passionate anti-slavery rhetorician. Here he is at his finest and most passionate and note the rhetoric of Smith’s theory of moral sentiments at work in this passage.

The contempt of death and torture prevails among all savage nations. There is not a negro from the coast of Africa who does not, in this respect, possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of conceiving. Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished.

My reading of the literary criticism of Pride and Prejudice has given me another string to this idea that Smith to markets is as Austen to marriage. In “Pride and Prejudice in the eighteenth century mode” Samuel Kliger writing in the University of Toronto Quarterly in 1947 comments on the dialectic between art (for which read civilisation) and nature, which is very much at the heart of Smith’s thinking. (Recall how the baby, the ball of infantile ego is gradually drawn into society by way of a dialectic with his evolving conscience coming to embody social approval and disapproval.)

The right solution is a dialectical one of moderation between extremes. Here are some extracts from the article.

[Elizabeth] says “You appear to me, Mr Darcy, to allow nothing for the influence of friendship and affection”. Elizabeth may be right. But she may be wrong also. Darcy scores a point for the reason and the ‘art’ of human relationships when he replies: Pride where there is a real superiority of mind pride will always be under good regulation”. Pride, he is saying, is a proper human trait; but Elizabeth is scornful. Her prejudice for dealing with humans qua humans, irrespective of class standards, naturally instead of artfully, emotionally instead of rationally, has nearly fatal consequences for her in so far as it almost brings her to a marriage with Wickham. . . .

The fundamental principle of noblesse oblige is never to complain, never to explain. No gentleman will either complain or explain when his actions are falsely reported. It is beneath Darcy’s pride to explain that Wickham [is misrepresenting Darcy]. [I]t is certainly part of Elizabeth’s later humiliation that she must recognize her failure to understand Darcy’s silence.

As Kliger comments “A complete surrender of either Darcy or Elizabeth to the other would completely falsify the eighteenth century’s ideal of moderation” and so each wins and each loses. Each brings something to the other.

In chastened spirit, Elizabeth learns to respect Darcy’s pride of class. Her surrender is expressed explicitly in the words which she intends to remove her father’s anxiety about her impending marriage. . . “I love him. Indeed he has no improper pride”. . . . The exposure of Wickham’s perfidy makes Elizabeth, as she reflects backwards on her willful misunderstanding of Darcy’s class idealism, realise her defect of considering people exclusively in their natural relations with corresponding neglect of their opposite qualities arising out of their social relations as the arts of government and society shape them.

This next passage captures what might be called Jane Austen’s ‘rhetorical radicalism’ her trenchant dismay at the presumption of the rich and powerful, their refusal to take on the obligations that, in her scheme of things rightly belong to their station. It is very much of a piece with Smith who was also rhetorically radical to the point of being a great favourite of a particular favourite of the French Revolutionaries. His sympathies were consistently and radically with the poor and the weak against the rich and the powerful, though he conceived of no systematic political means of addressing that sympathy other than by opposing mercantilistic conspiracies against the public.

As Kliger says:

There is not a single statement in the novel which is politically tendentious. . . . Yet Pride and Prejudice is not merely a mild satire on manners but, as we have seen, hands down a social verdict. . . .

Lady Catherine de Bourgh . . . is born to her class, as is Darcy. But she represents merely the husk of the doctrine of class, not its inner living spirit. Her arrogant demands that Elizabeth give up Darcy reveal that her mind has been brutalised rather than stimulated to kindness by her notion of her class mission. The ‘art’ of human relationships of which she is a devotee has no really human bearings whatsoever. . . . Lady Catherine represents what Darcy might become, his pride of class hardening into brutality, had not Darcy met Elizabeth and had not he learned from her to soften his astringent class idealism with human kindness for people in their natural dignity.

The upshot is one of dialectic as progress.

If the conclusion of the novel makes clear that Elizabeth accepts class relationships as valid, it becomes equally clear that Darcy, thorough Elizabeth’s genius for treating all people with respect for their natural dignity, is reminded that institutions are not an end in themselves but are intended for human happiness

They each bring to the table what they have, and in so doing each becomes more than they were, their union more than the sum of its parts. This is precisely Adam Smith’s description of a bargain in a market place. Where benevolence is hardly sufficient to motivate right action, but “self-love is not enough” till it be addressed to the self-love of another. Dialectic is the instrument of moderation, of wisdom, of mutual accommodation, of virtue, and in the long run, as occurs in Pride and Prejudice it brings together nature (the order of natural liberty) and art (finery and opulence).

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8 Responses to Homo Dialecticus V: Why Adam Smith is to markets what Jane Austen is to marriage¢â¬

  1. Rafe says:

    This is really interesting in many ways. What a good thing to read the book aloud daily! The art of reading aloud is dying and it is really embarassing when most of us are called, moved or obliged to read aloud, and it is worse with poetry. One result is that we are losing the sense of music in good writing. Of course that process is aided by the tradition of writing poetry that just consists of prose that does not go to the end of the line.

    Note the role of great literature in maintaining the moral framework, or at least a sense of it (one of the three basic requirements of the liberal order, along with free trade and the rule of law).

  2. Vee says:

    Wow – Smith and Austen.

    Thankfully P&P is the only decent book out of her collection. The rest are a tedium bore. Now Dickens on the other hand….

    Seriously that’s a whole new light on Smith and Austen for me.

    Comments about Virtue and Vice that I’ve never considered. Well done!

  3. meika says:

    You realise Jane Austen never married, don’t you. A failure in the marriage market.

    Beyond art and ego there is bias (individual preference/soul/psyche).

    Its the pure demographic aggregates of bias that give art its content through time. The ego make do with it, choosing these over that, and occasionaly attempting something new.

    Only marketeers talk about bias. As they have no art to their craft they are all wickhams and we are all the worse for it. Vizard fell in with dogs, but he was the one caught out.

    The deficiencies of Austen and Smith, as all our current pickled conversations on nature verus nurture, lies in the laziness these conversations generally exhibit. All polemics are lazy, indulgent excresences of human nature, it is a failure of our art that they are so. Shame!

    The result of this group laziness, and the fetish for focussing on educating Prince, is that the best we can do is moderate ourselves, while tolerate them fools over there, which means we fail to take up the brittle Lady Catharines and actively avoiding the Wickhams as best one may– all for a quiet life. Rhetorical two bits worths are just that.

    When what we need do, as a good deed and more, is actively appreciate our biases, and know them for what they can and cannot do. Then our conversatons will move away from trolling and fawning alike. These conversations will then actively create institutions that can teach this when needed as an art, and be something we can be proud of.

    Moderation stands by, calling, at most, for moderation, waiting for the rain to pass— all very well if you have the income to spend on patient noblesse oblige…

    Ideologies (calls for action) indulge one set of biases/preferences/interests (or compromised set of them) at the expense of another (which are demonised and witch-hunted), while liberal toleration and classical moderation may well temper society for a while, they too get stuffy, calcified and a lip-service excuse for laziness, i’m-all-right-jackism.

    the trick is to find the tao of it before one’s teeth rot, I certainly haven’t yet, although I suspect I will in good conversation

    thanks for the linkage worked here Nicholas, I am writing a short story called ‘Human Resources’ and this will work in really well.

  4. saint says:

    Fun post Nicholas.

  5. David Tiley says:

    Will you go on to read Adam Smith at the table?

  6. Chris Lloyd says:

    The are two main problems with the essay, the general thrust of which I find myself totally at odds with. Perhaps my view has been jaundiced by my low regard for Jane Austen, who I consider half a rung higher than Barbara Cartland. Every book she wrote has the same plot… Two sisters, one dumber but prettier than the other, from middle class family have lost land and face possible loss of position in society. Girls need to marry money. Problem: Should they marry the rich and landed jerk? Or the penniless poet? Resolution: Poet ends up with sufficient money that they can marry him. Or jerk actually turns out to be a closet poet (as in sense and sensibility).

    Anyway, my first problem is with the feigned admiration for the “miracle of the markets”

  7. Patrick says:

    the implicit suggestion that runs throughout the essay (but attributed to Smith) that our modern material wealth is due to markets.‘ – er, implicit?

    No-one would dispute that the knowledge, philosophy and thinkers you refer to have contributed immeasurably to our progress. But one can perform a simple test: this knowledge was universally available for the last century – so why didn’t everyone get richer? DO those countries that did get richer share any prominent characteristic? Like, er, markets?

    Not to mention that markets are culture!

    But if you want to be absolutist about it, one could reasonably say that the factors you refer to have contributed to our knowledge and progress, but markets have made that into wealth.

    After all, what good inventing toilets if you can’t sell them? Or if you have no running water? Or if you can’t afford either?

    This doesn’t do justice to the inanity of your comment, but hopefully someone else will make the effort.

  8. Chris Lloyd says:

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