The editorial of the March issue of The Walrus proudly introduces a new and improved Walrus, chirpily describing attractive new fonts and shorter, easier to read articles. However, if Peter Foster's article, "What would Smith say?" is any indication, the real change has been in the quality of writing.
Given the title and normally high standards of this magazine, I was expecting a critical analysis of the way Adam Smith's name is evoked to support various approaches to the economy, or perhaps a robust defense of capitalism in the wake of its apparent failure. However, it quickly became clear that Foster's article is a cranky ideological rant devoid of analysis and argument.
As the title suggests, Smith's name is evoked as prophet whose pronouncements (selectively chosen) are to be accepted without question.
We are treated to a succession of highly questionable statements, presented as axioms or commandments: that free market capitalism is not only the best possible way of allocating resources and maximizing production, but also produces the best possible society. That any form of goverment regulation is misguided, since a true capitalist system would not exploit workers, consumers or the environment. That the present economic crisis was "surely" caused by government intervention in the free market.
Foster feels unconstrained by the need to justify any of these statements. He appears blissfully innocent of social and economic history, or, indeed of economics since about 1790. Of course, axioms (or religious beliefs) require no justification.
Ironically, Foster resorts to a defense favoured by communists when faced with the failings of the Soviet Union. Any problems in capitalist countries are due to government interference, while pure libertarian capitalism can take all the credit for the increases in quality of life.
The fact that similar increases in the quality of life have occurred in countries with widely differing economic systems (e.g. USA, France, Germany, UK, Canada, Sweden, China, Korea) is ignored. Similarly, the fact that a true capitalist society (as defined by Foster) has never existed is similarly glossed over.
However, we have to wait until the end of the article for the most breathtaking example of cranky anti-intellectualism. Adam Smith is invoked as the original climate change skeptic.
But it gets worse. We are invited to ignore the whole of science as a basis for understanding the world, because Smith warned us that it looks only for "simple explanations" and the knowledge it provides is merely "provisional"! Provisional knowledge unlike, for example, that provided by economic theory?
If this article is a sign of things to come, the Walrus is well on its way to extinction, whether or not we "believe" in climate change!
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