Streetwise Professor

March 6, 2012

Popular Terrors and Fears: Adam Smith on Speculation as Witchcraft

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,History,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 10:45 pm

In a post earlier this evening, I said that anti-speculation frenzies dated from the 19th century.  But they in fact date back much further. In Book IV, Ch. 5 of Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith analyzed the irrational attacks on commodity speculation:

The popular fear of engrossing and forestalling [types of speculative activity outlawed in England] may be compared to the popular terrors and suspicions of witchcraft. The unfortunate wretches accused of this latter crime were not more innocent of the misfortunes imputed to them than those who have been accused of the former. The law which put an end to all prosecutions against witchcraft, which put it out of any man’s power to gratify his own malice by accusing his neighbour of that imaginary crime, seems effectually to have put an end to those fears and suspicions by taking away the great cause which encouraged and supported them. The law which should restore entire freedom to the inland trade of corn would probably prove as effectual to put an end to the popular fears of engrossing and forestalling.

Sadly, I think that Smith’s belief that legalizing speculation would end attacks against it is quaint, but wrong.  Indeed, it appears that the reverse is true: popular terrors and fears-stoked by opportunistic politicians eager to divert blame for high prices to others-lead to attempts to restrict speculation.

But Smith’s analysis of the counterproductive effects of these restrictions does stand the test of time.  It is worth a read.

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  1. […] – On whether speculation is witchcraft. […]

    Pingback by FT Alphaville » Further reading — March 7, 2012 @ 2:28 am

  2. The issue really is the benefit that the witch hunters gain.

    1. The blame game – i.e. misdirection of blame via ad hominem attacks. If the term “speculator” doesn’t work, these dolts try “Jew” – the two have been synonymous in the most disgusting periods of western history, and still work today in some leftist lowbrow circles, and that bizarre Territory where the so called extreme right and extreme left converge (national socialist is to international socialist as flammable is to inflammable).

    2. The power grab game – in the words of our illustrious and genius type President and his COS “never let a crisis go to waste”

    3. Self defense – speculation, so called can represent a challenge to the existing order of things – in this case it is the power re-grab game

    Blaming speculators as a knee jerk reaction has the same result as thoughtless ad hominem attacks – they do nothing but muddy the water and ultimately strip legitimacy from the attackers, even when they may have a bit of truth on their side.

    Comment by sotos — March 7, 2012 @ 7:24 am

  3. Hnmmm…popular terrors. Shouldn’t you be blogging about this:

    Comment by Mr. X — March 7, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

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