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Michael Hiltzik: Adam Smith Foundation, meet Adam Smith

August 14, 2010 | 10:54 am

In the Woody Allen movie "Hannah and her Sisters," the dour character played by Max von Sydow remarks, "If Jesus Christ ever came back and saw what was going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

You could easily drop Adam Smith's name into that line. As my Sunday column observes, the latest outfit to appropriate the name of the 18th century Scottish philosopher is the Adam Smith Foundation, a front group for right-wingers operating out of Missouri. 

Smith's landmark work, "The Wealth of Nations," is a beacon for conservative activists, especially those who haven’t read it. They think of Smith’s economics as beginning and ending with the laissez-faire tenet that all government interference in the market, like taxation, is bad. But as the conservative intellectual Garry Wills has written, that merely confines Smith in “the prison of his popular reputation as the rationalizer of greed.”

Why did the promoters of the foundation choose Smith as their mascot? "He's the person who's viewed as the founder of capitalism," its president, John Elliott, told me, "and most of our efforts are about the free market and supply-side economics." Its founder, James Harris, told me he and his chums were kicking around possible names, and he remembered that he had acquired an Adam Smith tie at some conservative/libertarian event. 

The historical Smith -- not the cartoon Smith of Elliott and Harris -- emerged from the mainstream of Enlightenment philosophy, and "The Wealth of Nations" is part of a vast intellectual undertaking that strove to encompass all of human nature. It's too easy to forget that his first major work was "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," an examination of fellow-feeling and the spirit of cooperativeness.

You won’t find any of Smith’s words on the foundation’s website, as far as I can tell, except for a single anti-tax quote taken out of context from "The Wealth of Nations": "There is no art which one government sooner learns of another than that of draining money from the pockets of other people.” It's unsurprising that you won't find this other quote, found in the same section of the same book: "The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities."

Oh, Adam Smith, the mischief done in your name!

The column begins below.

Since last spring, the outstanding riddle of the campaign for Proposition 23 has involved one of its leading donors, the mysterious Adam Smith Foundation of Jefferson City, Mo.

Proposition 23 is the November ballot initiative aimed at overthrowing AB 32, the state's pioneering regulation of emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Most of the money pushing the initiative has come from the oil industry, the primary target of AB 32.

And most of those donors are out in the open, appearing by name in campaign disclosures — they include Tesoro Corp. ($525,000), Valero Energy Corp. (more than $4 million so far) and Occidental Petroleum Corp. ($300,000).

One can't say the same about the backers of the Adam Smith Foundation, which contributed $498,000 to the Yes on 23 folks back in April. You might think this signified that the foundation had a pantload of cash to throw around, but no. On Dec. 31, four months before making the contribution, it had $109 in its bank account.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik