Prudence, Adam Smith style

Observations on Gordon Brown

In Gordon Brown's pre-Budget report, which you are likely to have heard about by the time this NS issue reaches you, the Chancellor will almost certainly refer to his prudence. And, of late, Brown has been fostering his reputation as an intellectual, historian and moral entrepreneur by campaigning to "reclaim Adam Smith from the Adam Smith Society". He is recasting the 18th-century laissez-faire author of the Wealth of Nations as something more than the founder of the "invisible hand" gang. In Brown's phrase, he is the conceptual inventor of "the helping hand", a spiritual forebear of Brown Labour. It's the Theory of Moral Sentiments you need to read - or not read - to come to this surprising conclusion.

Does this re-invention work? The "helping hand" phrase doesn't feature at all in the oeuvre. Smith was also silent on the Working Families Tax Credit and 18 years of Tory boom and bust. But he was not quiet on prudence.

According to Smith, the prudent way to improve life has a great deal to do with "frugality, and even some degree of parsimony in all our expenses". It's as Scotch as sporrans, isn't it? Does Brown agree? We hear a good deal about value for money and a war on waste - but then he also splashed out fantastic sums on failed and dodgy projects, concealed £35bn in off-balance sheet liabilities and continually boasts about multibillion increases in the NHS. No, with public spending up by 50 per cent, public debt spiralling and personal debt north of £1 trillion, we can't characterise the seven Brown years as ones of frugality, exactly, or parsimony.

"The prudent man," says Smith, ". . . is not a meddler in other people's affairs." Not a meddler! But what about Treasury-written public service agreements that departments have to conform to? What about targets? What about the intricate adjustments to the tax system that have made it all but incomprehensible to anyone but a £1,000-an-hour tax lawyer? And those 500,000 extra public servants Brown has hired to assess and co-ordinate the strategic administration of best practice values to autonomous agencies? What are they doing if not meddling?

Smith's prudent man "has no taste for that foolish importance which many people wish to derive from appearing to have some influence in the management of other people". That sentiment doesn't appear in the Treasury's mission statement this year. The prudent man is also "averse to enter into any party disputes, hates faction, and is not always very forward to listen to the voice even of noble and great ambition". So how do prudent men ever get to be prime minister? "The insolence and brutality of anger . . . when we indulge its fury without check or restraint, is, of all objects, the most detestable." Ah, yes. We'd better move smartly on.