Invasion of the quote snatchers – Adam Smith, Google and the London riots

Adam Smith recognised that a well-ordered society can never develop "when a sizeable number of its members are miserable and, as a consequence, dangerous", writes Mary Riddell in the Telegraph. She argues that "social democracy, with its safety nets, costly education and healthcare" is the only solution to the recent disorders in London.

Those who oppose the welfare state might also quote Smith. For example, here’s something I found with Google Books:

… it is not so much the police that prevents the commission of crimes as the having as few persons as possible to live upon others. Nothing tends so much to corrupt mankind as dependency, while independency still increases the honesty of the people.

With tools like Google Books, it’s easier than ever to find and lift quotes from classic works by great thinkers. And with social media like Twitter, it’s never been easier to share them. But it’s just as difficult as ever to understand these quotes in context.

Riddell is drawing on a favourite quote from Smith’s Wealth of Nations: "No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable." But on its own and in context this isn’t exactly an argument for social democracy. Here’s a slightly longer version:

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.

Earlier in her piece, Riddell writes about Britain’s "deskilled, demotivated and under-educated non-workforce". But it’s clear that Smith isn’t talking about unemployed hoodies on housing estates. He’s arguing that working people should have a fair share of the wealth they’ve helped produce.

The second quote comes from Smith’s Lectures on justice, police, revenue and arms. And understanding the context is even more important here.

When Smith writes about ‘the police’ he’s not referring to our modern uniformed police force. Here’s the definition he offers in his Lectures on Jurisprudence:

The name is French, and is originaly derived from the Greek πολιτεια, which properly signified the policey of civil government, but now it only means the regulation of the inferiour parts of government, viz. cleanliness, security, and cheapness or plenty.

When Smith writes about ‘dependency’ it’s tempting to think he’s talking about recipients of poor relief. But what he’s actually referring to is the dependency of servants on masters. In his Lectures on Jurisprudence he writes that disorders in France:

… seem to be owing to the vast number of servants which it is fashionable for the great to maintain … These servants, being frequently turned off for misdemeanours and therefore without any recommendation, are the most helpless set of men imaginable. Their idle and luxurious life in ease and plenty when with their masters renders them altogether depraved both in mind and body, so that they neither are willing nor able to support themselves by work, and have no way to live by but by crimes and vices.

Smith argued that the solution to this problem of dependency was to move away from feudal relationships of servitude and expand the market. This would make people more independent. He wrote:

The establishment of commerce and manufactures, which brings about this independency, is the best police for preventing crimes. The common people have better wages in this way than in any other, and in consequence of this a general probity of manners takes place through the whole country. Nobody will be so mad as to expose himself upon the highway, when he can make better bread in an honest and industrious manner.

Smith’s ideas are relevant to today’s debates over the causes of public disorder. But to understand how they are relevant we need to slow down. The same tools that make it easy to snatch out of context quotes also make it easier for patient readers to access the original texts.

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14 Responses to Invasion of the quote snatchers – Adam Smith, Google and the London riots

  1. Ted says:

    Thanks for the post, Don. It helps highlight how Google Books and all can bu misused to exacerbate selective, perhaps inappropriate, quotation (particularly of Smith).

    Indeed, there are entire blogs based on the misappropriation of Smith’s works.

  2. Catching up says:

    What Don, we on the left are not allow to do what the Opposition and the anti climate change mob do. That’s not fair.

  3. Patrick says:

    Great post!

  4. wizofaus says:

    What I find more intriguing is why somehow an Adam Smith quote is apparently suppposed to trump any other sort of argument (and I’d say lefties are often the more guilty of this). Smith may have been a great thinker, but he lived in a very different age, and even if you can find a genuine Smith quote that clearly backs up your particular opinion, it’s hardly any sort of proof that it magically applies to today’s particular situation.

    I do wonder what Ms Riddell meant by ‘costly’ when applied to education. I would have thought *lack* of education was costly.

  5. Pedro says:

    Yes, wiz, it is the proposition that is right or wrong. The name of the author is only useful to the extent it gives you a starting point and context.

    I expect she meant it is not cheap to educate people. But still, what does it cost me if you are not educated?

  6. wizofaus says:

    Just me? Probably very little indeed, but if it were true for everyone else in the country that is not you, rather a lot I would say.

  7. Pedro says:

    How exactly? If you mean that I would be living in a less productive environment and so would suffer a dearth of trade opportunities, then yes that would be true if just a few of us were educated. But probably most people would get educated at their own cost (hey, it pays), so it is perhaps more sensible to ask what it would cost me if only a small, but significant, proportion of the population were not educated. And then I think the cost to me starts to take on a different character.

    One thing I thought about the riots is that they are the ultimate justification for the welfare state. Give these people stuff or they’ll take it anyway.

  8. wizofaus says:

    “Most people would get educated at their own cost”…well, that certainly wasn’t the case before education wasn’t compulsory. And I don’t see how you can make something compulsory but then demand they pay for it entirely themselves (especially something that takes such a long time to pay off – and indeed for a percentage of individuals, will never pay off personally within their own lifetimes).

    “Give these people stuff or they’ll take it anyway” – but you’d said previously you didn’t accept the “stealing because they can’t afford” notion, which is, in fact, rather doubtful, going by the link you provided in the other thread – the link between economic disadvantage and crime is obviously much more complex.

  9. Patrick says:

    Crap, wiz, if you abolished state education I’m about 99.99% sure you could make it much cheaper.

    You might have some worse outcomes, especially at first, but I strongly suspect that with just a decade of actual competition you would be starting to have a large increase the quality of actual schooling available to most people. Vouchers and ‘charter schools’ would be less disruptive short-cut to this. Copy Sweden!

  10. wizofaus says:

    I don’t doubt there are better ways universal education could be funded and/or provided – it was only the claim ‘most people would get educated at their own cost’ I took issue with.

  11. Pedro says:

    Wiz, I didn’t say that justification was correct, just that it is the ultimate justification.

    Lots of things are compulsory with the govt having to fund them, like eating. Besides, I didn’t say school should or should not be compulsory, just that most people will get their kids and themselves educated. Where is the evidence that schooling rates before compulsory education were far below where it made sense at the time?

  12. wizofaus says:

    Um, except the government doesn’t punish you for not eating, or apply force to ensure that you do.

    It’s hard to find definitive numbers, but I’d say compulsory education has been the ultimate ‘successful policy meme’: e.g. in the U.S. after it was first introduced in one state, it didn’t take long for every other state to see the benefit and do the same, and of course, it’s been since copied in every region of every successful nation on the planet. If there were still any genuine question over the benefit of it, you would reasonably expect that by now in at least one location in the world someone would have thought to trial eliminating it, given how much it costs.

  13. Paul Bamford says:

    Lots of things are compulsory with the govt having to fund them, like eating.

    No Pedro, eating is a biological necessity. I could do a spot of quote snatching here but in the spirit of Don’s post, I’ll just suggest you read Smith on the the subject of education. (You’ll find it in the section on the expenses of the sovereign).

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