The Walrus on its Way to Extinction?

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published February 11, 2009

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!

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By adrian (registered) | Posted February 11, 2009 at 10:02:28

I haven't read that particular article yet, but I really don't like their new typefaces.

I found the article on Stephen Harper kind of shallow as well.

The article on the tortoises, however, was absolutely fascinating. Very well written, poignant, and thought-provoking.

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By Con black (anonymous) | Posted February 11, 2009 at 16:07:03

Whoa there, calm down a little. I too was disappointed in the article, mostly because it is lightweight and too short to be anything more than a cursory reminder of Smith.

What's annoying is the article, or the editing, leaves it difficult to know whether Foster is trying to channel Smith ideologically, or making weak arguments for what he might say, or siding with him. So you can criticize Foster for imprecision, but who knows what he was thinking so I wouldn't go beyond that.

Like the Bible, it's folly to take anything Smith said in a concrete way, because so much is so different today that it can only serve as useful in isolated economic conditions: minimal global trade, little public infrastructure, little mechanization, minimal attention to human health and environmental pollution, and lack of cheap fuel that Smith grew up with.

The rest of the magazine is pretty good including the Harper piece which was far more balanced than I expected, and I think much better than several previous issues.

The Walrus' extinction is far more likely based on esoteric snooty literary content, free online publication, or the middling tastes of Canadians rather than one poor article.

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By reuben (registered) - website | Posted February 11, 2009 at 22:33:31

the walrus is an online publication? while i am capable of using google, it might be good for a link referencing the original article to be provided for articles like this.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 12, 2009 at 00:27:36

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