September 22, 2015 2 Comments
I’m no scholar of Adam Smith, as much as I admire his work. That’s true even though I’ve read both of the linked works several times, there is a fair amount of nuance in Smith, as well as some pretty dry going. I sometimes have trouble reconciling Wealth of Nations with Theory of Moral Sentiments, as well. I think, judging by David Conway’s report that Jack Russell Weinstein, of the University of North Dakota, does an admirable job.
Here’s a bit of it:
Most importantly, if it turns out that, as Weinstein rightly claims was Smith’s view, free societies depend for their viability on the rationality of their members, and their rationality depends on the preparedness of their societies to ensure that they become such through provision of suitable schooling for all, then those in favor of free societies must also be prepared to countenance, as indeed was Smith, the public provision of schooling to ensure all societal members can and do develop the requisite degree of rationality. As Weinstein carefully explains in what are, perhaps, the most original and valuable chapters of his book:
It is Smith’s argument that education . . . is the security that ensures that students remain virtuous: an inadequate education results in the deprivation of moral capabilities . . . Smith is making the point that a child’s education benefits everyone . . . that education is one of the preconditions for the successful functioning of the invisible hand . . . Thus, Smith argues, the sovereign must . . . subsidize public education to help those who . . . cannot help themselves . . . For him, education provides a benefit to the state for little cost and, therefore, funding of public educational institutions for the young is a well-regarded trade-off.
The sovereign must ensure that all people have access to at least a minimum schooling. Education, is, for Smith, a basic good—a necessity of human life . . . Differing classes are entitled to equal minimal education but not to identical experiences. In this respect Smith’s commitment . . . is like Rawls’ maximin principle: the goal is to raise the bottom rung, not to create an equality of result . . . . Smith’s philosophy of education is both a theory of pluralism and a means to cultivate rationality. It argues that the more one develops rational abilities, the more one can create unity in the face of difference.
To say that Smith favored public provision of education is not to say that he would have condoned, let alone applauded, the present systems of public provision in western liberal democracies where whole populations are subject to effective monopoly supply without any choice or benefits of competition that only effective consumer sovereignty brings.