October 22, 2013 essays

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The Other Adam Smith, Part 5

George Smith discusses Adam Smith’s views on a standing army and his arguments for competition in education.

After spending six years at Oxford (1740-46), a young Adam Smith (1723-90) returned to Scotland not long after the disastrous defeat of Scottish Highlanders in the Battle of Culloden (16 April 1746). The revenge exacted by the victorious Duke of Cumberland against this Scottish uprising—an effort to restore the House of Stuart to the British throne—earned Cumberland the sobriquet “Butcher Cumberland.”

Smith, like most Lowlanders, had no sympathy for the Jacobite cause, and he was distressed by the ease with which the Jacobite army had overtaken the Scottish Lowlands, including the capital city of Edinburgh. As Smith noted in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1766):

In the year 1745 four or five thousand naked unarmed Highlanders took possession of the improved parts of this country without any opposition from the unwarlike inhabitants. They penetrated into England and alarmed the whole nation, and had they not been opposed by a standing army they would have seized the throne with little difficulty.

Smith’s observation that “commerce…sinks the courage of mankind, and tends to extinguish the martial spirit” would be elaborated upon a decade later in the Wealth of Nations. The failure of Scottish militia to put up even a nominal fight against the Highlanders during “The Forty-Five” undoubtedly influenced Smith’s argument that militias could not adequately defend a commercial society in which people lack the martial spirit and necessary training. An age in which specialization and technology had produced sophisticated weaponry required a disciplined, professional army for self-defense; bands of amateur citizen-soldiers would be unable to do the job. Thus did Adam Smith dissent from the many Radical Whigs who opposed standing armies. The tremendous influence of the Wealth of Nations pretty much put the standing army controversy to rest as a serious topic of debate among classical liberals.

It is not difficult to see how other personal experiences influenced Smith’s thinking about various topics. A good example is education. “In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” This assessment, which was based on Smith’s six years as a student at Oxford (Balliol College), was echoed by the historian Edward Gibbon, who spent fourteen months at Oxford (Magdalen College). Gibbon said that those months “proved…the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life.” After quoting Smith’s remark that Oxford professors have for these many years given up altogether even the pretence of teaching,” Gibbon continued:

Incredible as the fact may appear, I must rest my belief on the positive and impartial evidence of a master of moral and political wisdom, who had himself resided at Oxford. Dr. Adam Smith assigns as the cause of their indolence, that, instead of being paid by voluntary contributions, which would urge them to increase the number, and to deserve the gratitude of their pupils, the Oxford professors are secure in the enjoyment of a fixed stipend, without the necessity of labour, or the apprehension of controul.

Smith’s critique of Oxford is part of his case for competition in education. Oxford professors received fixed salaries regardless of the quality of their work or the number of students they attracted. And despite their lofty pretensions, professors and other teachers, like other mortals, are greatly influenced by economic incentives.

In every profession, the exertion of the greater part of those who exercise it, is always in proportion to the necessity they are under of making that exertion. This necessity is greatest with those to whom the emoluments of their profession are the only source from which they expect their fortune, or even their ordinary revenue and subsistence. In order to acquire this fortune, or even to get this subsistence, they must, in the course of a year, execute a certain quality of work of known value; and where the competition is free, the rivalship of competitors, who are all endeavouring to justle one another out of employment, obliges every man to endeavour to execute his work with a certain degree of exactness.

Smith concedes that some people will do their best work from a love of their profession, but those people are exceptions to the general rule. Moreover, “Rivalship and emulation render excellency, even in mean professions, an object of ambition, and frequently occasion the very greatest exertions.”

Smith experienced educational competition in two different venues. The first (1748-51) was when he gave private lectures in Edinburgh on rhetoric and belles-lettres. Smith’s stint as a freelance intellectual was apparently successful. Despite competition from Edinburgh University, Smith’s lectures probably attracted around 100 persons who paid one guinea each. Much of this success was owing to Smith’s dislike of the conventional university curriculum, which he criticized as a holdover from the medieval training of clerics and the system of apprenticeship. Most of the universities in Smith’s day were frozen in the dogmas of a bygone age.

The improvements which, in modern times, have been made in several different branches of philosophy have not, the greater part of them, been made in universities, though some no doubt have. The greater part of universities have not even been very forward to adopt those improvements after they were made; and several of those learned societies have chosen to remain, for a long time, the sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection long after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world.

Scotland was becoming an advanced commercial society, and many Scots were smarting from the disadvantages of speaking in a heavy Scottish brogue. Smith, who spoke excellent English (though his accent was said to be peculiar), designed his private course for the benefit of businessmen and others outside academia who wished to avoid the prejudice against Scots that was rampant in England.

Smith’s second encounter with educational competition began in 1751, when he became Professor of Logic and Rhetoric at Glasgow University. (In the following year he became Professor of Moral Philosophy.) Unlike the professors in English universities, Scottish professors derived a significant part of their income from the fees of students who chose to attend their lectures—and this practice contributed substantially to the fame of Scottish universities as the best in Europe.

Smith had no patience with professors who, lacking any financial incentive, bored their students to tears. Nor did he approve of hindering students from dropping a class upon learning that their teacher is a dud.

If the teacher happens to be a man of sense, it must be an unpleasant thing to him to be conscious, while he is lecturing his students, that he is either speaking or reading nonsense, or what is very little better than nonsense. It must too be unpleasant to him to observe that the greater part of his students desert his lecture; or perhaps attend upon them with plain enough marks of neglect, contempt and derision.

The indolence and incompetence of a professor is encouraged by those universities that “force all his pupils to the most regular attendance upon this sham-lecture, and to maintain the most decent and respectful behaviour during the whole time of his performance.” Adam Smith did not mince words:

The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability….No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending….

Smith attributes the excellence of ancient education (in Greece and Rome) to its largely free-market characteristics, and he argues that the students of universities and other schools of his day would benefit tremendously if those institutions found it necessary to compete. State endowed and certified schools render competition very difficult.

In modern times, the diligence of public teachers is more or less corrupted by the circumstances, which render them more or less independent of their success and reputation in their particular professions. Their salaries too put the private teacher, who would pretend to come into competition with them, in the same state with a merchant who attempts to trade without a bounty, in competition with those who trade with a considerable one. If he sells his goods at nearly the same price, he cannot have the same profit, and poverty and beggary at least, if not bankruptcy and ruin will infallibly be his lot. If he attempts to sell them much dearer, he is likely to have so few customers that his circumstances will not be much mended. The privileges of graduation, besides, are in many countries necessary, or at least extremely convenient to most men of learned professions; that is, to the far greater of those who have occasion for a learned education. But those privileges can be obtained only by attending the lectures of the public teachers. The most careful attendance upon the ablest instructions of any private teacher, cannot always give any title to demand them. It is from these different causes that the private teacher of any of the sciences which are commonly taught in universities is in modern times are generally considered as in the very lowest order of men of letters. A man of real abilities can scarce find out a more humiliating or a more unprofitable employment to turn them to. The endowments of schools and colleges have, in this manner, not only corrupted the diligence of public teachers, but have rendered it almost impossible to have any good private ones.

I have only touched upon Smith’s treatment of education. A blend of economic realism and astute psychology, Smith’s advocacy of competitive education remains unmatched to this day. This is just one more reason among many why even libertarians with no interest in technical economics should take a close look at the other Adam Smith.

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