Gordon Brown's 'Adam Smith Problem'

By Watson, Matthew | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Gordon Brown's 'Adam Smith Problem'


Watson, Matthew, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


Introduction

Gordon Brown has described Adam Smith as his 'hero of the Scottish Enlightenment' for providing a conception of the just economy. On another occasion he identified Smith as the most important figure in the development of social liberalism, the 'golden thread which runs through British history' - in Brown's depiction, from the intellectual life of eighteenthcentury Scotland to the governing strategies of New Labour. He has also spoken positively of the vision of national renewal he takes from reading Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments alongside his more famous Wealth of Nations. This is a vision 'of competitive markets and social improvement underpinned by a desire for betterment and empathy, economic efficiency and social justice advancing together' (Brown, 2006b; 2005a; 2002).

Attempting to demonstrate the practical relevance of Adam Smith for contemporary politics, lain McLean provides substantive support for Brown's efforts to reclaim Smith for the British left. McLean's case emphasises three themes that resonate repeatedly within Smith's work:

(1) the fact that he argued for the institutionalisation of commercial society specifically on the grounds of its politically progressive effects in civilising individuals, their leaders and their nations;

(2) the fact that he linked the health of commercial society to its establishment within a political order founded on the principles of moral egalitarianism; and

(3) the fact that he envisaged an active role for the state in ensuring the provision of the public goods that guarantee the sustainability of the commercial society.

The image of Smith that emerges is very different to the intellectual poster child of 1 980sstyle Thatcherism. McLean goes as far as to assert that a social democratic reading of his work reveals 'the truest Adam Smith' (McLean, 2006, 1 38).

McLean arrives at his conclusion on the recognition that Smith is both an economic and a social liberal. There is nothing in the least inappropriate in this characterisation, but it can be shown to pose something of a problem for Brown once it is investigated further. What it means to be an economic liberal in Britain today is inflected with the connotations of an altogether different political settlement to that of what it means to be a social liberal. Despite eleven years of Labour government, the ideology of British economic liberalism continues to contain the imprint of the idealised individual that came to prominence in the politics of Thatcherism. This is a ruggedly independent person who believes in self-help via upward social mobility and who pushes thoughts of social responsibilities very firmly to the background. Directly against such an image, the ideology of British social liberalism continues to be based on the notion of equal individual rights associated with the social responsibilities underpinning the post-war welfare state.

These two distinct articulations of liberalism are clearly difficult to reconcile. For evidence we need look no further than Brown's continual struggle to convince Labour Party supporters that he can successfully balance the dual demands of (economic) efficiency and (social) fairness. One potential reason why they are so difficult to bring together in a coherent programme for government arises - somewhat ironically perhaps - from Smith's own work. Adam Smith returned time and again to the question of the type of individual we all have to become if we are to thrive in the context of market life. At that level, it is possible to identify in Smith's writing a generic tension between the behavioural habits required for a dynamic market economy, and the behavioural habits required for a selfsustaining market society.

Brown's model citizen

Gordon Brown has striven to outline a conception of the model citizen most suited to his programme of British renewal. His is an idealised image of autonomous individuals who support themselves on most matters of everyday life, but who can be sure that the state will guarantee the robust provision of public goods necessary to protect that autonomy. …

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