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Smith's "Mutiny on the Bounty": The Perils of Polemic

Listed author(s):
  • Glenn Hueckel

    (Pomona College)

One does not read very far into Smith's work without encountering apparent inconsistencies. Perhaps the most troubling arise in the discussion of the corn trade, where, contrary to his well-known principle that trade protection and subsidies draw to the favored industry "a greater share of the capital of the society than what would naturally go to it," Smith insisted that the bounty on grain export produced no stimulus to domestic output, a conclusion that reflected his principle that the corn price "regulates that of all other home-made commodities." Smith's attack on the corn bounty prompted vigorous rebuttals from two influential countrymen, and his principle that the bounty produces no more than a proportionate rise in all prices would later bedevil Ricardo and his contemporaries. Yet these interpretive difficulties fall away when we place Smith's argument within the context of his larger theory of economic growth. Viewed in that context, the peculiar inability of the corn bounty to stimulate production can at least be excused as consistent with the demands of that larger theory, though the principle is so narrowly constrained by ceteris paribus conditions as to be analytically uninteresting. Here as at other points in his attack on the bounty, Smith pressed his argument beyond its limits and thereby diminished its polemical force. Yet his contemporary critics were unable to capitalize on his errors. For all its flaws, Smith's argument exhibits an analytical subtlety far beyond the clumsy justifications advanced by the bounty's apologists.

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Paper provided by Claremont Colleges in its series Claremont Colleges Working Papers with number 2002-13.

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Date of creation:
Handle: RePEc:clm:clmeco:2002-13
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  1. Peach,Terry, 1993. "Interpreting Ricardo," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521260862, December.
  2. Brewer, Anthony, 1995. "Rent and Profit in the Wealth of Nations," Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Scottish Economic Society, vol. 42(2), pages 183-200, May.
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