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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/5182/friedman-contra-rothbard/

Friedman Contra Rothbard

June 14, 2006 by

In a series of posts to an Internet discussion group several years ago, David Friedman severely criticized Murray Rothbard’s account of Adam Smith in his Economic Thought Before Adam Smith (Edward Elgar, 1995). These comments have enjoyed wide circulation, and various posters to the Mises Institute Blog have referred to them. For that reason, I propose to examine Professor Friedman’s extraordinarily insulting remarks. FULL ARTICLE.

{ 43 comments }

Hugh Akston June 14, 2006 at 2:04 am

Why is a response to a Usenet thread from 8 years ago on the Mises Institute front page? If you want to argue Usenet, do it on Usenet. This is beneath the Mises Institute.

Peter June 14, 2006 at 3:22 am

Quote: These comments have enjoyed wide circulation, and various posters to the Mises Institute Blog have referred to them.

Gavin Kennedy June 14, 2006 at 6:11 am

I am impressed with the amount of space that Mises.org is devoting to Adam Smith, though I have severe reservations about the approach of Murray Rothbard to the subject. I have already criticised material published under Rothbard’s name on the division of labour (which I believe he got seriously wrong, as well as muddling his reading of the relevant passages). I posted some of this here and also on http://www.adamsmithslostlegacy.com (‘Murray Rothbard’s Myths’).

However, I am grateful for your publishing this 1998 exchange between David Friedman and the Misses institute and also this latest article by David Gordon. Ii will take some time to read through it all (36 pages of a web debate), plus what Gordon has published today. I shall return to this when I have digested the issues.

On one point I can contribute right now.

‘Rothbard’s contention that Smith did not consistently advocate laissez-faire is much less radical than Friedman insinuates.’

If this is an argument about whether Smith was in favour of laissez-faire, I can state, with authority I hope, that Smith was not in favour of laissez faire to the degree that Friedman appears to be asserting, which I take is from his version of Adam Smith, as preached at Chicago, and not the Adam Smith who lived in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

Smith never used the words laissez faire in his nearly one-and-half-million published words. He was never in favour of (nor thought it was other than utopian to believe that) such an economic arrangement be instituted. He was not an anarchist or a libertarian, as we call them today. If Rothbard is asserting that Smith was less than an advocate of laissez-faire, then he is correct and Friedman is wrong.

On Cantillon, I commented on this blog last week (or the week before). I shall return to the other issues in today’s article soon.

CALVIN June 14, 2006 at 8:37 am
Paul Marks June 14, 2006 at 10:52 am

It would have been better had Rothbard mentioned that Turgot was not a pure free market person. I know that he was not comparing Smith and Turgot on that score (but as theoretical economists) but it would have been better.

However, Rothbard’s main attack on Smith stands.

That Adam Smith contributed nothing that was both true and original. When he said something that was true it had already said by others (for example even the account of the pin factory was lifted from a French reference book – as one can tell because he gives the number of stages in a French factory not a British one) such things as the division of labour had already been gone into by others.

And when Adam Smith does produce something fairly new (such as the Labour Theory of Value – which he falls into having in his early years understood that there was no “paradox of value” on such things as gold and water [see his lectures versus the Wealth of Nations]), it is not true.

So Rothbard is correct and David Friedman mistaken.

The political influence of Smith (how his name was used) is, however, another subject.

Marco de Innocentis June 14, 2006 at 12:45 pm

Frankly I don’t think there is anything “insulting” in Friedman’s comments on Rothbard. David Gordon’s post is basically about nitpickings and nothing substantial.
Personally I quite like Rothbard. He was not a great economist but he did write many interesting articles about contemporary events, and it’s great pity that he died so early. However, in this case it seems to me that Friedman is right and Rothbard’s critique of Smith is indeed a ‘hatchet job’.

anon June 14, 2006 at 1:03 pm

ROFLMAO

“He was not a great economist”

David J. Heinrich June 14, 2006 at 1:46 pm

Marco,

If Rothbard wasn’t a great economist, then there has never been a great economist. He wrote extensively and knowledgeably about numerous topics, and had numerous penetrating insights.

Prof. Gordon’s article isn’t “nitpicks”. He’s arguing substantial points, as relate to Rothbard’s position on Smith.

Gavin kenendy June 14, 2006 at 2:30 pm

Paul
You are compounding the same errors Rothbard made on the ‘pin-maker’ trade.

1 Diderot’s Enclyopedie was itself copied from a British text, Cyclopaedia (4th ed.1741) and Smith states at the head of the paragraph ‘the division of labour has been very often taken notice of’. He made no claims to his precedence at all – people who read his text carelessly (as I believe did Rothbard) credited precedence to him long after he was dead. Plato wrote on the division of labour, so did Sir William Petty, and others; none were credited by Diderot. The division of labour was a phenomenon well known by the 18th century.

2 The 18 operations were all performed by ‘distinct hands, though in others the same man will perform two or three of them’ (Wealth of Nations) and Smith gives an example: ‘I have seen a small manufactury of this kind where ten men only were employed’ and ‘where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations’ (next sentence, Wealth of Nations) but he does not state how many distinct operations there were in the manufactury he visited (Rothbard states Smith never visited one!).

3 You forget it seems that Smith lived in Kirkcaldy, a small village across the Firth of Forth in Fife where there were several little ‘manufacturies’, some he visited, including the nail maker.

4 I hardly think there was a ‘British’ norm, and as the Cyclopaedia was published in London, not Scotland, its information came from nearby. It is Edwin Caanan who pointed out (vo.ii, 2nd and 4th editions) the ‘number of separate operations [at] twenty-five’. Smith reported what he saw, not what Rothbard misread in a footnote to a book published in 1937.

5 Briefly, Smith’s reference to the ‘labour theory of value’ is no different than Cantillon’s (valeur intrinseque = labour price; valeur de marche = market price) and Smith (Natural price = labour price; Market Price).

I do not understand why in the one case this is a sign of great economic foresight and in the other a sign of causing a relapse in economic theory for 100 years!

I think Murray Rothbard had a tendency to hyperbole.

Glen Raphael June 14, 2006 at 2:34 pm

I’ve often seen that Smith quote that starts with “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, their counselors are always the masters” misused by left-wingers (who haven’t read Smith) to claim he favors worker-protection legislation such as minimum wage laws. It’s nonsense. Smith isn’t advocating specific legislation, he is expressing an insight about the legislative process that is valid but highly context-sensitive.

To wit: If one lives in a time and place where businessmen have a lot of political clout and workers have none, then any proposed law that “protects workers” will need to overcome quite a lot of skepticism and resistance that a similar law that “protects businessmen” will not. If such a proposal overcomes all political resistance to become law, all other things being equal we ought to be somewhat more inclined to suspect the “pro-worker” law was good, just and equitable than the “pro-master” rule.

Applying the same principle to the modern day we notice that workers’ advocates now have quite a lot of political influence so it is no longer the case that “worker-protection” legislation deserves a free pass. Rather, it should receive the same scrutiny for bias and injustice as other laws. In accordance with the principles of Adam Smith.

So I agree with DF – it looks like Rothbard skimmed or relied on secondary sources here.

Glen Raphael June 14, 2006 at 2:43 pm

To clarify my phrase “deserves a free pass”: As I read it, Smith isn’t advocating that any specific kind of pro-worker law ought to be passed. Rather, he is saying that if such a law does pass (in such a circumstance), it was probably a good law. The principle is descriptive more than prescriptive.

Vincent Cook June 14, 2006 at 5:36 pm

It was quite a surprise to learn that my 1998 vintage arguments with David Friedman concerning Cantillon, Turgot & Smith are in wide circulation today. I had no idea that anyone else even remembered that exchange.

Friedman’s remarks in that thread should not be taken as a serious review of Rothbard’s work–after all, Friedman was relying on my brief characterization of Rothbard, not on actually reading the original. Moreover, Friedman and Rothbard had clashed in other contexts (especially in arguing the foundations of anarcho-capitalism). Friedman is far from being an impartial judge of Rothbard’s work.

While I tried to be careful to qualify my arguments so as not to overstate what I had learned from Rothbard’s book, Friedman paid no attention to the nuances of what I wrote. Once I told him that I was relying on Rothbard as a source, Friedman continually misrepresented my arguments, particularly with respect to Cantillon.

It should be noted that Friedman didn’t have anything against me personally at that time (up until this thread I was his ally in most of his Usenet debates); his intemperate resort to straw-man attacks and poisoning-the-well tactics was strictly in response to my mention of Rothbard.

David Gordon June 14, 2006 at 8:55 pm

I’m grateful to Glen Raphael for his excellent objection, but I don’t agree that Smith isn’t advocating specific legislation. Immediately after the passage quoted in my article, Smith gives reasons that the act that required “masters in several different trades to pay their workmen in money and not in goods is quite just and equitable.” Smith says: “It imposes no real hardship upon the masters. It only obliges them to pay that value in money, which they pretended to pay, but did not always really pay, in goods.” The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter X, Part II.

Eric June 14, 2006 at 10:22 pm

This debate about Adam Smith is like debating about what’s true and historical in the bible. Adam Smith is remembered for his one cool line about invisible hands. That is his legacy, and it gives us all a sound bite that can hold up to this day. It’s a wonderful metaphor for what we libertarians wish to be understood about the free market.

Now, since it does seem that David was a bit on the nasty side, perhaps it’s because Rothbard has written so harshly on Milton (they are related, no?). And maybe someone who considered Milton Friedman to be a near socialist, and/or he made things worse with his ideas on withholding taxes, negative income tax, and of late the school voucher. Rothbard wrote of Milton as being instrumental in the growth of government, while at the same time claiming to be against it all. So, he’s saying Milton is either dishonest, or he’s just plain dumb.

So who really knows, and why does it matter? Take the best from each.

gene berman June 15, 2006 at 6:56 am

Rothbard’s a continuing mystery in my own estimation.

If readers here want another Rothbard matter to investigate and from which to draw some conclusions, I have an even more clear-cut example.

Read the Rothbard piece (on this site) entitled “The Myth of Neutral Money.” It is essentially a piece of criticism, by Rothbard, of Mises’ understanding of money and its attributes. In it, he “corrects” and “improves” upon what Mises had written previously on the subject.

The test is to read not only what Rothbard has written (and including his footnoted references) but to make actual comparisons to the relevant passages from Mises.

Of particular note to me was the fact that (either in the text or one of the footnotes–I disremember which) Rothbard even reveals an ignorance as to the characteristics and significance of the ERE (though he could have cleared this up for himself by simply flipping back to the appropriate pages in HUMAN ACTION).

My conclusion is that, although Rothbard was undoubtedly brilliant, he was not an honest scholar. And my estimation is that one cannot expect honorable polemics from other than an honest scholar, no matter how brilliant.

David June 15, 2006 at 7:25 am

INteresting…. the debate continues.

Having only observed that Rothbard wrote beautifully and clearly and that I can find little to gainsay what he said, I have not the background to argue one side or the other on the Adam Smith , er, problem.

But my only criticism of Rothbard is in his attachment to the word ‘trenchant’. boy, did he ever overwork that one………

Geoffrey Allan Plauche June 15, 2006 at 8:38 am

gene berman wrote: “Of particular note to me was the fact that (either in the text or one of the footnotes–I disremember which) Rothbard even reveals an ignorance as to the characteristics and significance of the ERE (though he could have cleared this up for himself by simply flipping back to the appropriate pages in HUMAN ACTION).”

That seems like a rather uncharitable interpretation of Rothbard. Surely it is no heresy to question the characteristics and significance of the ERE. It is only a thought experiment afterall.

gene berman wrote: “Read the Rothbard piece (on this site) entitled “The Myth of Neutral Money.” It is essentially a piece of criticism, by Rothbard, of Mises’ understanding of money and its attributes. In it, he “corrects” and “improves” upon what Mises had written previously on the subject.

The test is to read not only what Rothbard has written (and including his footnoted references) but to make actual comparisons to the relevant passages from Mises.

My conclusion is that, although Rothbard was undoubtedly brilliant, he was not an honest scholar. And my estimation is that one cannot expect honorable polemics from other than an honest scholar, no matter how brilliant.”

You seem to have biased the test with your advance commentary before we have even had a chance to undertake it.

I must say I am surprised by the number of Rothbard bashers coming out of the woodwork on this issue, criticizing him on such an important matter as the general character of his scholarship. You’ll get no argument from me that Rothbard was infallible, but a dishonest scholar? Come on! For one thing, there is an important difference between being dishonest (a conscious falsity) and simply being unusually impatient or biased in one’s reading, although I am not prepared to accept the latter as a pervasive characteristic of Rothbard’s scholarship either. I have yet to see clear and sufficiently abundant proof even for this weaker claim.

Philippe Gay June 15, 2006 at 9:43 am

Franchement, n’y a-t-il rien de plus intéressant à se mettre sous la dent que cette petite polémique à 8 ans de distance !
Trouver que Friedman fût “exessivement insultant” est un tantinet exagéré non ?
Mais que David Gordon s’oublie à dire “His insults serve only to show that he cannot control his manifest dislike of a scholar and thinker far above his own level.” … relève d’une petitesse qui n’honore pas la tribune ou il prend la parole … et c’est domage !
Un clin d’oeil n’eut-il pas été … tout simplement plus convaicant ?

Paul Marks June 15, 2006 at 10:24 am

It is a long time since I read the Wealth of Nations so I will have to stand corrected on the question of whether Smith implied he had thought of something original about the pin factory.

However, the basic point stands. Adam Smith did not tend to come up with things that were both true and original.

On the Labour Theory of Value, Rothbard’s point was never that Smith was the first economist to ever make mistakes or even that he invented the Labour Theory of Value, the point was that Smith made it popular (which he did). True David Ricardo is the main man here (a man who, along with James and John Stuart Mill, did vast harm to 19th century British economics, and is, like them, still held up as “great” today – whereas better economists like Richard Whately and Samual Bailey are almost ignored) – but could there have been a Ricardo without a Smith?

The economic value of something is simply what someone thinks it is (and he will pay less than or equal to this valuation to get the good or service).

End of story: No labour influence there at all.

Talking about labour (in the context of value) is to lead economics up a blind ally (which Smith did in this and in other matters).

One can argue about what led Smith into this folly, but folly it was.

And, as Rothbard points out, it was not the only folly.

Gavin Kennedy June 15, 2006 at 10:32 am

I hope I am not included among those as ‘coming out of the woodwork’ to ‘bash Murray Rothbard’. I have no axe to grind against a person I did not know. In reading his critique of Adam Smith and I found gaping holes in his argument, at least on a subject I know something about. As to his standing generally, I have no view whatsoever.

I offered criticism on two items: his attack on Smith on the division of labour, where elementary textual errors are found, which I have detailed twice; and on the alleged superior merits of Cantillon, in which I find both Smith’s and Cantillon’s presentation of market and labour value relationships are identical, yet Smith is blamed for Marx and the horrors of communism, and the delay in establishing marginal analysis to the 1870s, while Cantillon’s complicity – if such an absurd charge could be made against Smith for what many talented people did or did not do in the 19th century, long after he was dead. Having pointed this out twice, like the division of labour, I have received no comments from Rothbard’s defenders.

“For one thing, there is an important difference between being dishonest (a conscious falsity) and simply being unusually impatient or biased in one’s reading, although I am not prepared to accept the latter as a pervasive characteristic of Rothbard’s scholarship either”.

I completely agree. Though when someone is as abrasive in scholarly exchanges as Rothbard appears to have been, scholarly carelessness is bound to become an issue. Scholars in their ‘cooler hours’ should, well, cool it, and check their references and, as Smith expressed it, ‘by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him’ and should endeavour to ‘flatten .. the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him’ (Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.i.4.7, p 22). I shall try to remember this too.

Paul Marks June 15, 2006 at 10:37 am

I must not be held to think that Rothbard’s history of economics was perfect.

For example, I was shocked that there was no mention (as far as I could see) of Gossen in the second volume. Certainly Gossen’s ideas about government ownership of land are absurd (for example his belief that governments have a longer time perspective than private owners), but he did important work on the theory of economics and he should have been considered in the volume that dealt with the early 19th century.

On the question of the invisible hand – Rothbard points out that various people had used words like this.

On the concept itself I was impressed by a letter by Descartes (I do not have the reference to hand) to the Princess Elizabeth in the early 17th century (more than a century before Smith).

Descartes points out that God (or nature if you prefer) has created a world in which people serve the general interest when they prudently work for their own interest – as long as they work for their own interest honourably (i.e. they refrain from force or fraud).

In short if a man honestly and prudently works for his own interests he will serve the general good – even if this was no part of his intention.

Of course their were schoolmen who thought of the same point long before (and Descartes was educated by Society of Jesus people – much though he liked to stress his break with past thought), but I liked the way Descartes explained matters in his letter to Princess Elizabeth.

Geoffrey Allan Plauche June 15, 2006 at 11:46 am

Gavin…Regarding Cantillon, I don’t read French, so I can’t address this issue. However, your critiques are relatively minor and hardly suffice to demonstrate as Rothbard as a sloppy scholar, much less as a dishonest one, not that I’m accusing you of making such claims. You do, however, remark that he has a tendency toward hyperbole, but I think your examples are not enough to justify a claim that he is unusually so for a scholar.

Gavin Kennedy June 15, 2006 at 1:38 pm

Geoffrey

I agree my two points questioning the accuracy of two of Murray Rothbard’s ‘myths about Adam Smith’ (in his book, not a web posting, where a certain degree of informality is inevitable and accepted) cannot judge the overall quality of his oeuvre. I have written a detailed critique of his other points in a book I am currently writing on Adam Smith, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2007.

However, I believe there is much more to the 17th-18th century problem focus on what is known today as the ‘labour theory of value’ and Smith’s ‘contribution’ 19th-20th century confusion.

That some posters are adamant that value is ‘obviously’ to do with what something is worth to a consumer, can hardly be a serious critique of an author who did not have the benefit of 200 years additional work by many bright minds. When Smith wrote his ‘juvenile’ (graduate?) essay on Astronomy he did not use Rothbard’s language and tone to mock Plato, Eudoxus, Ptolemy, Descartes, and others, who were stuck in the conventional ‘certainties’ of the Sun revolving round the Earth (‘obviously the Earth went round the Sun!’). Scholars treat their distant predecessors, errors and all, with respect, not derision and tabloid headlines.

Ask yourself: how much did you know about the theory of value on day 1 of Economics 101, which some posters assert with such confidence, almost sneering at Smith because he knew only what everybody around him knew? Suppose you had to write an essay on it without access to a modern textbook, a library full of journal articles and a your tutor’s guidance?

Smith, and his contemporaries, had John Locke, Hutcheson (and Cantillon?), etc., when he delivered his lectures at Glasgow, 1752-64. He hadn’t yet met Turgot and the French Physiocrats. Ricardo had Smith and a few others. Remember, Smith gave lectures on political economy, using the materials he had written, much of which appeared unchanged in Wealth of Nations in 1776 between 12 and 24 years later.

Judge him as predecessor, not as some kind of rival for the respect to which you are entitled for what you contribute to economics today.

Vincent Cook June 15, 2006 at 5:23 pm

Let’s not lose sight of the main point of Rothbard’s book. As abrasive as Rothbard was, it was neither “dishonest” nor a “hatchet job” for him to stress that Smith has been unfairly accorded priority as a founder of economics and has been dishonestly characterized as a champion of laissez-faire. Rather, it is the critics who are discarding the norms of academic fair play when they refuse to accord priority to Cantillon, Turgot et al., and who are being dishonest when they fail to acknowledge Smith’s statism.

David Friedman June 15, 2006 at 7:16 pm

I’m not inclined to engage in a detailed rebuttal; interested readers can check the original thread against the account here. I did want to make a few points, however.

1. I wasn’t arguing the question of how important Smith was or wasn’t in the history of economic thought, however interesting that might have been, or have how pure a libertarian he was. Indeed, I explicitly conceded that Rothbard was correct in pointing out that many of Smith’s ideas appear in earlier works.

I was focussing on a simple question: was Rothbard’s account of Smith and his French contemporaries an honest and accurate one or, as I argued, a hatchet job, deliberately distorting by omission and selection.

2. I suggest that readers consider one simple case, where David Gordon and I do not disagree on the facts, merely the interpretation: Smith’s views on the wool trade. Rothbard said that Smith advocated taxing wool exports and offered that as evidence of his non-libertarian views. Rothbard did not mention that Smith was proposing the tax as a replacement for the existing situation—an absolute ban, enforced by extensive regulations and ferocious penalties, described in detail by Smith.

Gordon argues that Smith’s position was not all that libertarian, since the proposal can be read as imposing a tax high enough to collect most of the gains from the repeal of the ban. Whether that is true or not, he does not deny that Rothbard accused Smith of wanting to impose taxes on the export of wool without mentioning that he was proposing the tax as an alternative to a much less free existing system–a fact that the average reader would not have known.

Perhaps David Gordon believes that an honest writer could have done that. I do not.

3. Gordon thinks I am mistaken in reading Smith as undecided between public and private support for schooling, despite Smith’s plain statement that “The expense of the institutions for education and religious instruction … might perhaps with equal propriety, and even with some advantage, be
defrayed altogether by those who receive the immediate benefit of such education and instruction, or by the voluntary contribution of those who think they have occasion for either the one or the other.”

Gordon wants us to read that as making a distinction between the cost of setting up schools and of maintaining them. He may not have noticed that the previous paragraph, on roads, specifically refers to “maintainance.” This one does not. There is no basis in the text I have just quoted for separating out the capital cost of establishing a school from the operating cost; both are expenses.

Gordon’s response is to quote an earlier passage, where Smith suggests, as one possibility, having the state establish schools, with much of the fee paid by parents. But of course, Smith in his discussion of education considers lots of alternatives. Indeed, Gordon quotes a bit from my lecture notes–where I describe the proposal in question as “Possible public role in the education of the common people.” There is nothing in that passage implying that the cost of setting up a school is not part of “the expense of the institutions of … .”

4. Vincent Cook writes:

“Moreover, Friedman and Rothbard had clashed in other contexts (especially in arguing the foundations of anarcho-capitalism).”

I’m not sure we ever did clash on that, although it’s probably the most important and interesting substantive disagreement between us–assuming that what Vincent means is the disagreement on how the legal code of an anarcho-capitalist society gets produced.

But I think the real conflict was something quite different. Rothbard has a piece, webbed somewhere, in which he criticizes me for not hating the state. In his terms, he was correct. In my view, the fundamental conflict is not between bad men and good men but between mistaken beliefs and correct beliefs.

The flip side of that is that, in my view, Rothbard was consistently more interested in whether an argument was on the right side than whether it was correct. I think I have demonstrated that in the context of his attack on Smith–that he was willing to deliberately mislead his readers about the facts in order to get them to what Rothbard considered the correct conclusion. I can think of other examples.

Marco de Innocentis June 15, 2006 at 8:00 pm

David:

If Rothbard wasn’t a great economist, then there has never been a great economist.

What exactly did he discover?

Juan G June 15, 2006 at 8:12 pm

Friedman:
In my view, the fundamental conflict is not between bad men and good men but between mistaken beliefs and correct beliefs.

That’s the hallmark of moral relativism.
Mass murder is not a crime. It’s an intelectual mistake…

This ‘theory’ about human actions is the cherished credo of elitist intelectuals who like to think that people act based on ideas. Their ideas, of course. If that’s the case, then intelectuals can control people as if they were robots, putting the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ideas in their minds.
Idealism and free will do not get along.

David Gordon June 15, 2006 at 10:46 pm

I’m grateful to David Friedman for his response. I’m also not inclined to continue the controversy in detail, so I shall make only a few comments on his points.
1 and 2: Friedman writes that he wasn’t arguing the question of how pure a libertarian Smith was. But just the issue that concerned Rothbard, in the discussion that Friedman criticized, was the extent of Smith’s deviations from complete laissez-faire.
As I mentioned in my article, Rothbard fully recognized that Smith in general did support the free market; but he thought that Smith allowed a number of exceptions to laissez-faire. Surely it would be foolish to deny that Smith’s proposals were a vast improvement over the mercantile system, and Rothbard didn’t deny this. If one is concerned with Smith’s deviations from laissez-faire, though, what is the relevance of mentioning that a deviation improved on the existing system? Friedman is right that Smith’s proposal on the wool trade was better than absolute prohibition, even when one takes into account that, as Smith notes, the prohibition was often evaded in practice. But it is still a deviation from laissez-faire.
3.Friedman’s point about “maintenance” in the paragraph before the one on the expense of the institutions of education is a good one, and I indeed failed to note it. But against Friedman’s reading of the education paragraph I would offer three points:
a. The passage occurs in a brief “Conclusion” to Book V, Chapter I and prima facie should be read as summarizing the chapter, rather than as advancing new proposals. In Article 2d of the Chapter, “Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth”, Smith very favorably considers a proposal to have the public set up local schools. (In the context, it seems to me more than a just a possibility.) He suggests that the masters would be paid in part from school fees but not that fees cover the cost of setting up the school. The Conclusion should be read so that it is consistent with the material it summarizes.
b. It is more plausible to think that poor people who immediately benefit from local schools or voluntary contributors could cover the operating expenses of the schools than that they could cover the capital costs as well.
c. In the paragraph that follows the one Friedman cites, Smith says that if “the institutions or public works which are beneficial to the whole society” either cannot be or are not maintained altogether by “such particular members of the society as are most immediately benefited by them, the deficiency must in most cases be made up by the general contribution of the whole society.” If private funding did not suffice to support schools, the state would step in.
It should also be noted that Smith says,”The public can impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education, by obliging every man to undergo an examination or probation in them before he can obtain the freedom in any corporation, or be allowed to set up any trade either in a village or town corporate.”(Book V, Chapter I, Article 2d)
4. If Rothbard had included the two items the omission of which Friedman considers the most deliberately misleading—the prohibition of wool exports and Turgot’s education proposals—Rothbard’s conclusion that Smith deviated from laissez-faire on trade and education would not be weakened.
I am disappointed that Professor Friedman would accuse Rothbard of deliberate dishonesty on such flimsy grounds.

Geoffrey Allan Plauche June 16, 2006 at 9:13 am

Friedman wrote: “2. I suggest that readers consider one simple case, where David Gordon and I do not disagree on the facts, merely the interpretation: Smith’s views on the wool trade. Rothbard said that Smith advocated taxing wool exports and offered that as evidence of his non-libertarian views. Rothbard did not mention that Smith was proposing the tax as a replacement for the existing situation—an absolute ban, enforced by extensive regulations and ferocious penalties, described in detail by Smith.”

I think a better interpretation than Gordon’s and Friedman’s, but closer to Gordon’s can be found in the mercantilist rationale that Smith gives for the wool tax. Correct me if I am wrong, but Smith doesn’t make a free trade argument here but rather a mercantilist one: repealing the ban on wool exports and imposing a tax will reap more revenue for the state. This isn’t the only time we see Smith concerned with state revenue where he could have made a free trade, i.e., laissez-faire argument.

Vincent Cook June 16, 2006 at 3:30 pm

David Friedman wrote:

1. I wasn’t arguing the question of how important Smith was or wasn’t in the history of economic thought, however interesting that might have been, or have how pure a libertarian he was. Indeed, I explicitly conceded that Rothbard was correct in pointing out that many of Smith’s ideas appear in earlier works.

I was focussing on a simple question: was Rothbard’s account of Smith and his French contemporaries an honest and accurate one or, as I argued, a hatchet job, deliberately distorting by omission and selection.

But these aren’t separate issues. If Rothbard’s main theses about Smith are true, then he is not guilty of distorting Smith’s role in the history of economic thought, let alone doing so deliberately.

For example, Friedman’s concession that Smith had significant predecessors seems to endorse Rothbard’s honesty and accuracy in describing Cantillon, and not Smith, as the founder of modern economics.

An issue like this is highly significant for judging Rothbard’s honesty, as it flatly contradicts the “hatchet job” thesis. Given that Rothbard’s overt purpose was to debunk the customary hagiographic treatment of Smith and customary slighting of Smith’s French predecessors, a concession on this point implies that Rothbard was truthful in boldly challenging the mainstream consensus and giving the French their place in the sun.

I think much the same applies to the other main points of Rothbard’s book. What I have discovered upon reading the original Cantillon and Smith sources and then rereading Rothbard’s analysis of them is that Rothbard made precisely the same qualifications to his main arguments that I would have. Rothbard didn’t omit anything of interest to those who evaluate the merits of economists from an Austrian perspective.

On the contrary, I discovered that Dr. Friedman committed an error of omission himself 8 years ago, though I trust that it wasn’t deliberate. In the now infamous Usenet thread, I was informed that Smith’s maximand was the welfare of the people. However, this is incorrect. Smith wrote in his introduction to book IV of The Wealth of Nations:

“Political Å“conomy, considered as a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator, proposes two distinct objects: first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services. It proposes to enrich both the people and the sovereign.”

I would say that including the plunder of the sovereign in the desired aggregate casts Smith’s policy goals in a somewhat different light.

David Friedman June 17, 2006 at 2:37 am

I wrote:


1. I wasn’t arguing the question of how important Smith was or wasn’t in the history of economic thought, however interesting that might have been, or [of] how pure a libertarian he was. Indeed, I explicitly conceded that Rothbard was correct in pointing out that many of Smith’s ideas appear in earlier works.

I was focussing on a simple question: was Rothbard’s account of Smith and his French contemporaries an honest and accurate one or, as I argued, a hatchet job, deliberately distorting by omission and selection.


To which Vincent responds:

“But these aren’t separate issues. If Rothbard’s main theses about Smith are true, then he is not guilty of distorting Smith’s role in the history of economic thought, let alone doing so deliberately.”

On the contrary. It’s perfectly possible to make dishonest arguments for a correct conclusion. If you choose to do so, people who notice will conclude that you cannot be trusted as a source of information—which is one reason not to do it.
Among the reasons I haven’t bothered to read the rest of Rothbard’s book on the history of thought is that I would have no idea which of the things he said were true unless I checked them all myself, which would be a lot of work.

Nobody I know of argues that Smith was an anarchist, or that he wanted to eliminate all taxes. Everyone familiar with his work knows that he advocated some additional violations of strict laissez-faire. Some people probably overestimate how much of what is in The Wealth of Nations was original, but people knowledgable in the field know that not all of it was—I had heard of Cantillon before our exchange, although I don’t think I had read him.

My complaint about Rothbard, here and elsewhere, isn’t primarily that his conclusions were wrong—after all, we agreed about a lot of things. It is that he was willing to make dishonest arguments for conclusions he believed, at least sometimes correctly, to be true.

What would you think of someone who, speaking to an audience completely ignorant of American institutions, attacked the Drug Policy Foundation for suggesting taxing marijuana–without mentioning that they favored legalizing it? That’s Rothbard on export taxes on wool.

What would you think of someone who argued that Nozick was much less libertarian than Rawls, and did it by giving examples of non-libertarian views Nozick held and carefully not mentioning the much more non-libertarian views Rawls held? That’s Rothbard’s comparison of Smith to Turgot.

Finally, Vincent argues that I was wrong to claim that Smith’s maximand was the welfare of the people, on the grounds that Smith described political economy as having two objectives—first benefitting the people and second supplying the state “with a revenue sufficient for the public services.” I don’t see the error. Smith obviously believed that some level of public services was necessary for the welfare of the people, and hence that the second objective was needed for the first.

A more interesting point is raised by the final sentence Vincent quotes: “It proposes to enrich both the people and the sovereign.” That points at what I suspect may have been an element of dishonesty in Smith’s writing, although I’m not sure how deliberate. I think it is clear that one of his objectives was to persuade those with political power that the policies he thought were good for the population as a whole were also good for them, in order to get them to support those policies.

The clearest case is not that quote but Smith’s argument that repealing trade barriers on the import of agricultural products would benefit land owners. I find it distinctly strained—which makes me suspect that he was making it because the landowners had most of the political power and it would therefore be much more difficult to repeal the corn laws if the landowners were against it. What I’m not sure of is whether Smith was doing that deliberately or whether he had convinced himself that his argument was correct.

gene berman June 17, 2006 at 7:02 am

Geoffrey Allen Plauche:

Just about 60 years ago, I decided to “up and quit” reading fiction. It was a drastic but practical decision: I was a kid with an enormous appetite for reading but didn’t want to be a “bookworm” and just chose to draw that particular line. I have not been perfect in my practice; I made a partial exception for short stuff–magazine pieces, some sci-fi short stories, even a detective novel (I, THE JURY), and, about 30 years ago, Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED. Again, I stress there was no rhyme or reason other than a simple (some might say simplistic), expedient cutoff.

But, along about 40 or so years ago, I began to focus on the extent to which popular media and their contents, ostensibly non-fiction (books, magazines, TV news and analysis, etc.) are so thoroughly infested, not only with misinformaton arising from ignorance but frequently with deliberate attempts to falsify and mislead, most usually for the purpose of “improving” an account but (not rarely) with the intent to influence the reader’s opinion in one fashion or another. And so, since 1980, I haven’t read a newspaper or news magazine, haven’t watched network TV news, etc. And haven’t missed ‘em, either.

The stuff (Friedman/Rothbard/Smith etc.) being discussed is relatively complex. Without some of the relevant background reading, I’m unqualified to comment on that very specific matter. However, because of that very complexity, its discussion tends also toward complexity and nuanced interpretations.

But, because of my extremely limited experience (of reading Rothbard: no experience and no opinion)) and the dramatically simple exposition of his method that I had encountered in my very first, I thought it useful and starkly illustrative to throw it into this particular forum. And, though it is true that I’d expressed my own conclusion in the matter I’d suggested (to you and others), that is a particularly moot point in that, had my conclusion been any other than negatively charged, there’d have been no reason for any comment whatever (the fact that someone, in places A, B and C or at times X, Y, and Z said things that were true or made arguments that were logically unassailable CANNOT, in any fashion, counter evidence that that person is either ignorant or a deliberate liar in Case X, whether or not Case X does or does not involve A, B, C, etc.)

It’s really a simple matter. Reading what I suggested is far easier and less time-consuming than wading through all the matters raised in the basic discussion article. And, if, after doing so, the conclusion you reach is significantly different than mine, I’d be very surprised.

gene berman June 17, 2006 at 7:48 am

Geoffrey Allen Plauche:

Your comment regarding the ERE sound very much like something I would’ve said back when I had first encountered Mise’ HUMAN ACTION and had, on first reading, more or less “skimmed” that part without much reflection or analysis. But, though it is imaginary and depicts conditions never encountered in reality nor even ever attainable
in reality, it is simply indispensable to a real understanding of economic phenomena and relationships. To the degree that Rothbard (citing his own questions from the above-referenced material) did not understand the ERE
(or disagreed with Mises as to its characteristics), it is incredible to me that these were not expressed and resolved long before–during the years in which persoanl access was possible and, apparently, frequent. Not having read Rothbard any further, I’m in no position to declare that the matter isn’t raised anywhere else–but I think scholars of the Austrian school would be more aware (and expressed) on such a potentially schismatic question.

I should also point out that one other matter (of which I am aware) characterizes divergence between various views of Mises and those of Rothbard/Rockwell. That is the view of conscription expressed eloquently (by Mises) in several editions (of HUMAN ACTION) but conspicuously absent in one edition on this site.
Lew explained to me that the wording had been inserted at the insistence of a publisher over Mises’ objections (unenforceable because of immediate financial need) but Mises’ transcriptionist (Mrs. Bien-Graves) has denied this utterly (in personal conversation with me).
In this case, we are left to guess at who the liar is. (And you know what my guess is.)

gene berman June 17, 2006 at 8:16 am

David Friedman:

I don’t know you and don’t know whether or not I agree with much of whatever you think or write. But, if you read my posts to Mr. Plauche, particularly the penultimate, you’ll gather that we share an aversion (perhaps even more extreme in my own case) to liars (and particularly to “scholarly” liars).

One of the best examples to my recent memory was the proceeding in Leon County (FL) Court, Judge Sauls presiding, pitting Bush’s legal team against Gore’s team (Boises) in an election matter. Gore’s people were so outrageously manipulative of both testimony and evidence that I was surprised Sauls didn’t jail ‘em all. The “expert” statistician (a Yale prof) was so expertly crossed that he literally fell apart and slunk off the stand (probably expecting to be arrested for perjury, evidence-tampering, or obstruction). Also, there used to be an on-line magazine called “Upstream” which had some brilliant commentary (by a Dr. Finnis of Oxford, to my recollection) on the “scholarly” expert witnesses presented by Roe in the original case v. Wade.

David J. Heinrich June 17, 2006 at 10:08 am

Gene,

Well, Mises’ passage on conscription is totally out of line with his entire body of work; he didn’t advocate conscription during WWII when he was surrounded by Nazi’s — certainly a most critical moment. Hoppe’s comments on this are insightful:

AEN: The strongest evidence against Mises as a radical anti-statist is the passage in
Human Action that endorses conscription.

HOPPE: This passage is very peculiar. It, and the several paragraphs that precede it
and the one that follows it, is not in the first edition. It makes its first appearance in
the 1963 edition. It comes out of the blue, and has no foundation in his overall
thinking. To me, this addition appears completely ad hoc.
You just have to remind yourself about his general position on government. Every
group and, if it can be technically done, every individual, can secede from the
government. Accordingly, conscription, in this sense, is completely illegitimate. If you
read the 1949 edition of Human Action, there is nothing at all that would seem to lead
to these particular funny conclusions.

AEN: Perhaps the Cold War explains it.

:HOPPE: But the likelihood that he would make a statement like this is the greatest in
prior editions. In 1940, he was in Switzerland, surrounded by Nazi forces. In 1949, he
had just seen the old Europe smashed by war and imperialism; what better time to
endorse the draft so it could be used to stop this type of thing in the future? But he did
not. Why, then, does he do this in 1963? There is no major war going on. Vietnam was
in its early stages. The Cold War is not at a peak, and the Soviet Union was in its
post-Stalinist period. These passages cry out for explanation.

As explained earlier in the Interview with Hoppe, Mises expressed very strong views in support of secession. You can look through some of his works, but here’s a starter: Quotable Mises: Secession.

Perhaps instead of arguing that one side is a liar, it would be more charitable to argue there’s a difference of opinion. I think it’s a little bit biased and unfair when people refer to Mises’ passages on conscription, without noting his huge body of work in support of the opposite, including secession. If anything, his passage on conscription is an aberration.

Dennis Sperduto June 17, 2006 at 11:29 am

David Heinrich’s comment regarding Mises and conscription is significant as it notes that Mises did not endorse conscription in the first (1949) edition of Human Action. Further, relative to the entire body of his work, Mises did not support conscription until the 1963 edition of Human Action.

Instead of name calling, would not a more constructive approach be to examine any existing evidence and offer reasonable explanations as to why Mises apparently changed his lifetime opposition to conscription in the 1963 edition of Human Action?

In my humble opinion, maybe Mises came to believe that monetary problems, especially inflation and the distortion (and possible destruction) of economic calculation caused by socialism, interventionism, and inflation, are greater enemies of civilization than conscription, and that in order to gain a wider audience for his views on monetary issues, Mises apparently modified his opinion regarding conscription.

Geoffrey Allan Plauche June 17, 2006 at 2:03 pm

Mr. Berman,

Perhaps you could provide me with the footnote number(s) that you referred to in Rothbard’s Myth of Neutral Taxation? I’m having trouble finding the remarks about the ERE you mentioned.

David Gordon June 17, 2006 at 6:50 pm

My reply to David Friedman’s post is wrong on one point, and I’m grateful to him for helping me to clarify and correct my argument. The issue concerns the interpretation of Smith’s remarks on the expense of education in the Conclusion to The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter I. Friedman correctly notes that when Smith suggests that private funds may suffice for the expense of education, he makes no distinction between capital and operating costs of schools.

In my response to him, I thought that this distinction was needed to make the passage consistent with Smith’s proposal for government establishment, in certain circumstances, of local schools. But it isn’t necessary to make the distinction to preserve Smith’s consistency. Under Smith’s proposal, the government mandates that local schools be established. How these schools are to be financed is a separate issue. Voluntary contributions, even if they suffice for all expenses, do not transform a government program into a private one.

gene berman June 18, 2006 at 7:48 am

Geoffrey Allen Plauche:

The footnote is #72.

Some “history” may be instructive as well.

As mentioned, when the piece appeared a couple years ago , I read it, having a general intent to rectify my ignorance of Rothbard’s thought.

But, immediately, the piece seemed to me to impute specifi8c thought to Mises which, to my knowledge and understanding, was simply at odds with the facts (though I hadn’t seen the relevant passages in years, I was as morally certain of Mises’ thoughts on the matter as I’d be of my own kids’ names). Without “checking up” (or even finishing the Rothbard piece), I dashed off an e-mail of protest to Lew. Shortly, I received Lew’s reply, directing me to the explanatory footnote #72 that I’ve indicated to you.`

Indeed, I was somewhat chastened–embarrassed at my neglect of “thoroughness.” So, I read the footnote. Initially, my reaction was that I’d been unfair to Rothbard; the footnote seemed so considered, so thoughtful, so analytical.

But that’s when I went back and read the passage in HUMAN ACTION which was the subject of criticism. And, it’s quite true that Mises wrote: “A neutral mode of taxation is conceivable…” That’s the focus of the argument Rothbard has raised..the nail on which his hat is hung, so to speak.

What Rothbard does not relate (because it would knock his soapbox out from under him) is that, after a couple paragraphs explicatory of the
characteristics of such a “neutral tax” under constructed, unrealizable conditions, Mises concludes: (In a market economy) “In the frame of such a system, no tax can be neutral. The very idea of a neutral tax is as unrealizable as that of neutral money.” That case (contra Rothbard) is closed and moreover, airtight.

The second, the matter of the ERE, is less conclusively (to my thinking) settled and admits of two distinct (but not mutually exclusive) explanations. But neither is favorable to an opinion of Rothbard’s scholarship.

Rothbard questions (in footnote #72) why income equality is a requisite feature of general equilibrium, more or less as though he’s questioning a potentially superfluous characteristic of one of Mises’ mental tools. If Rothbard wrote those words honestly, it shows him actually ignorant of ERE characteristics because INCOME EQUALITY IS NOT A CHARACTERISTIC OF THE EVENLY-ROTATING ECONOMY (and if Rothbard ACTUALLY had honest doubt, he could’ve simply refreshed his memory by flipping back from the pages drawing his critcism to those defining the ERE).

So where does the “income equality” question come from? The answer is that it comes from the very set of unreralizable conditions Mises proposes (in the same set of passages) as necessary to a “conceivable” neutral tax. The only question remaining is whether Rothbard was ignorant (and sloppy) in an egregious misinterpretation of what Mises had written (and remember–he had personal access to question directly) or whether the entire purpose of footnote #72 and its “thoughfulness” is to forestall readers’ potential examination of the Mises text in question and direct comparison to Rothbard’s criticism.

The world of thought is rife wth the opportunity for the intrusion (whether deliberate or inadvertant) error; we may safely assume that none are immune to the inadvertant variety. Once I’ve detected the deliberate variety, though, my practice has been simple avoidance; I’ll leave the polemics and counterarguments to my betters in that field. I’d rather think about other things–or go fishing, maybe.

David Gordon June 18, 2006 at 9:36 am

Gene Berman’s account of footnote 72 of Rothbard’s “The Myth of Neutral Taxation” is puzzling. He says that the case against Rothbard is “airtight” because he “does not relate” that Mises said that in the market economy, as opposed to the ERE, a neutral tax was unrealizable. But the second sentence of Rothbard’s footnote says of Mises, “While conceding the impossibility of a neutral tax in the real world. . .”

Geoffrey Allan Plauche June 18, 2006 at 9:47 am

Mr. Berman,

It still seems to me that you are resting an awfully strong accusation on a single case that could as easily be attributed to error. All scholars make mistakes, even mistakes from haste. Time is scarce after all. What exactly did Rothbard have to gain from characterizing Mises as you say he did? It seems to me that he, the Austrian School, and libertarianism would all benefit from Mises arguing in print that neutral taxation is a myth. With all due respect, it seems to me that you had a pre-existing bias against Rothbard before reading the Myth of Neutral Taxation and seized upon a passage where he deviates from the gospel of Mises as evidence of his unscrupulousness and duplicity.

Looking at the footnote in question, it doesn’t seem to support such an extreme interpretation:

“Thus Ludwig von Mises, by far the most thoughtful and systematic of free-market economists, devotes only a few unsatisfactory paragraphs to the subject of a neutral tax, or indeed to taxation in general While conceding the impossibility of a neutral tax in the real world, he maintains without demonstration that it would be possible in a world of general equilibrium. And, despite its conceded impossibility, he seems to advocate pursuing the neutral tax as an ideal. (He also does not explain why everyone’s income would be equal in general equilibrium.) Apart from this, Mises maintains that taxes, despite “directly curtail[ing] the taxpayer’s satisfaction,” are “the price he pays for the services which government renders to…each of its members.” He warns that taxes should remain “low,” but the only criterion offered for this lowness is that they “do not exceed the amount required for securing the smooth operation of the government apparatus”; in that case, “they are necessary costs and repay themselves.” We may here reiterate all the questions we’ve discussed above, emphasizing such problems as: How much service? To which members? How about pacifists? Who pays the necessary costs and who gets repaid and then some? And what exactly is the “smooth operation of the government apparatus,” and [why] should that be the overriding desideratium? Mises, Human Action. Pp. 730-31, 733-34, 738.”

Notice that his complaint is that Mises only devotes a few unsatisfactory paragraphs to the subject and that he recognizes that Mises conceded the impossibility of the neutral tax in the real world. It is also not unimportant that Rothbard’s purpose in this paper is to completely discredit the neutral tax, including as a possible feature of general equilibrium. Considering his mainstream economist opponents, who would use the possibility of a neutral tax in general equilibrium as an ideal to be strived for, this is perfecetly reasonable. I also don’t see anything in the footnote above to indicate that Rothbard thought that Mises thought that income inequality was an essential or core feature of the ERE. Rothbard’s statement about it above merely questions why the assumption should even be made at all, even for the limited purposes to which Mises puts it. Why assume income equality in the ERE just to prove that neutral taxation would be possible in it with it? It serves no useful purpose and unnecessarily concedes a point to those in favor of taxation. In the final analysis, I see nothing untoward in the footnote in question. Rothbard’s critique of Mises seems here to be apropos and not the least bit unscholarly, vindictive, or duplicitous.

David Gordon June 18, 2006 at 10:29 am

Geoffrey Plauche’s excellent point can be slightly strengthened. Rothbard is doing more than saying that there is no useful purpose to assume income equality in order to show that neutral taxation is possible in the ERE. He is best read as questioning the success of Mises’s argument that a neutral tax is possible in the ERE.

Unless income equality is itself consistent with the conditions of the ERE, it does not follow from (1) A neutral tax is consistent with the ERE + income equality that (2) A neutral tax is consistent with the ERE. For a rigorous proof, Mises needs to demonstrate the consistency of income equality with the ERE: he can’t simply assume it. (I’m of course ignoring as irrelevant problems about what “follows” from a contradictory premise.)

Vincent Cook June 18, 2006 at 9:31 pm

Concerning Rothbard, David Friedman wrote:

My complaint about Rothbard, here and elsewhere, isn’t primarily that his conclusions were wrong—after all, we agreed about a lot of things. It is that he was willing to make dishonest arguments for conclusions he believed, at least sometimes correctly, to be true.

Rothbard’s treatment of Smith did not, at least with respect to Rothbard’s main points, involve any intentional distortion by omission. I believe David is failing to take into account how Rothbard qualified his arguments in light of what Smith wrote (some examples of which Dr. Gordon noted in his article), and how Rothbard was judging Smith’s ideas (rather harshly to be sure) from an Austrian and a hard-core state-hating perspective rather than from David’s own perspective.

Regarding Smith, David wrote:

Finally, Vincent argues that I was wrong to claim that Smith’s maximand was the welfare of the people, on the grounds that Smith described political economy as having two objectives—first benefitting the people and second supplying the state “with a revenue sufficient for the public services.” I don’t see the error. Smith obviously believed that some level of public services was necessary for the welfare of the people, and hence that the second objective was needed for the first.

A more interesting point is raised by the final sentence Vincent quotes: “It proposes to enrich both the people and the sovereign.” That points at what I suspect may have been an element of dishonesty in Smith’s writing, although I’m not sure how deliberate. I think it is clear that one of his objectives was to persuade those with political power that the policies he thought were good for the population as a whole were also good for them, in order to get them to support those policies.

I think we have to take Smith at his word that he wanted to enrich both the people and the Sovereign. Smith didn’t offer anything more specific as a moral principle for judging public policies, and one can find a number of counter-examples to Smith’s proto-Benthamite tendencies. All in all, The Wealth of Nations represents an intellectual muddle very much like what conservatives spout today.

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