The parliamentary committee that charged NewsCorp with wilful blindness over phone-hacking should cast its gaze afield.

Wilful blindness is not only practised by busy press barons. Academics do it too. They do it when they teach books they have not read, which is forgivable when you think how much is expected of them. There are not a dozen living scholars on earth, it is said, that have read Plato’s Laws all through in the original, and the remainder are easily forgiven. ‘Professor’ used to mean hypocrite, but Alexander Pope saw the point when he wrote that ‘index-learning turns no student pale/But takes the eel of science by the tail’, and Samuel Johnson openly derided those who read books all the way through. Nor is the point lost in French academe, where the preferred mode of literary study is the morceau choisi.

On the other hand it can take you into dangerous places. Sir Mervyn King reminded the City recently, as governor of the Bank of England, that it was a Labour government that had freed private bankers in 1997 to lend at will, in a move promptly welcomed by Michael Howard, opposition spokesman for the Treasury. It led, over a dozen years, to a boom that turned into a bust.

Some of it came from reading books. By the end of the millennium Adam Smith had replaced Karl Marx as the name to drop, but we were given short notice. Margaret Thatcher is said to have read The Wealth of Nations (1776) as leader of the opposition while recovering from flu, and rolling back the state was suddenly Tory policy. It belied party tradition, which was statist and protectionist. Adam Smith, a Scottish Whig, had never supposed there was anything conservative about his ideas. Nor did anyone else, and to this day no one can name a single effect of competition that is likely to be conservative. Conservatives who are asked to name one promptly change the subject and talk excitedly about growth and selling to the Chinese.


But then there is a good deal of wilful blindness about reading (or not reading) Adam Smith, who wrote a book that is more praised than read. After all, it is very long. He believed government had three functions: defence, the protection of individual liberties and

erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual. (V.1)

Smith did not merely tolerate state enterprise. He demanded it. Who remembers that? A century after the book appeared Gladstone applauded him in a centennial tribute not for enriching the rich but for helping the poor – ‘mitigating the lot of those … in hard and biting circumstances’. Lionel Robbins echoed the point in The Theory of Economic Policy (1952), a book little read or even remembered. Like David Ricardo after him, Smith was not a prophet of laissez-faire (Robbins argued) but a believer in a mixed economy. Nobody took any notice.

The difficulty of getting people to read books was dramatically underlined a few years later in 1960, at the trial of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when a jury was locked in a room and forced to read the novel. The ruling was thought by some to infringe their rights as free citizens, but anyone who teaches literature in a university must feel envious. In an age where even Dickens is televised, how do you get people to read books?

It is doubly hard if people do not want to know. A lot of people do not want to know that the first welfare state on earth was founded by a conservative called Count Bismarck in 1883 against socialist opposition, or that when H. H. Asquith founded the British welfare state after 1908 Labour MPs showed no interest. In his memoir, Power and Influence (1953), William Beveridge bitterly recorded the derision of Labour leaders over his plans for national health and told how Labour was the last of the three parties to accept his report.

Such a world is highly unlikely to want to be told that two centuries ago and more the classical economists believed the state should found and maintain enterprises that do not pay. Who wants to hear about what Adam Smith once called the Great Society? Many people would sooner die than think, Bertrand Russell used to say, ‘and in fact they do’. A lot of people would die rather than accept that public enterprise might support and enhance a free market, or that a welfare state needs a free market to create a tax-base big enough to sustain pensions and health care.

In October 1906 a young MP called Winston Churchill told a Glasgow audience that most human activities are in their nature individual: ‘We do not make love collectively.’ We might build homes and railways collectively, however, even if they lose money. Adam Smith would not have minded. He might even have smiled. The Great Society goes a lot further than the Big Society, after all, which is apparently about being nice to people you know. Great is more than big. It is about justice which, as Shakespeare put it, is when you pity those you do not know. It is about us all.

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