“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt: 19:24)
“Don’t give me that dogoody good bullshit” Pink Floyd, “Money”.
Despite my Liberal inclinations and my Leftist fantacies, I am painfully aware of this one thing: THE UNITED STATES IS A CAPITALIST COUNTRY. No, really, I get it. It is. We love money here. And one of the great things about being here is the fact that there are opportunities to make money. Lots of money. Oprah money.
Although I took econ in high school, and I remember something about the objective in our culture is to “make money”, I don’t remember learning very much beyond that point, nor do I remember learning much about the creator of capitalism, the Scottish economist, Adam Smith.
Honestly, I didn’t read Smith until I got to college — in a philosophy class.
I also know that I am not the only American who has had this experience.
What I had learned in school is that being a capitalist means that, if I made a shitload of money and other people didn’t, that the appropriate response to their misfortune is “sucks to be you!”. I had plenty of teachers on this kind of capitalism, mind you. I learned from the media that “greed is good”, and that if I made a whole lot of money that I could get on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous ( I guess it’s getting on something like Real Housewives now). I learned that pursuing one’s interests above all is not only the key to success, but the only truly American way to do it.
Funny how sometimes you learn that you didn’t know what you thought you knew when you actually read something.
Like the American Founders, Smith was a product of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment emphasized science and reason, which was meant to counter the prevailing belief in stuff like superstition and the diving right of kings — stuff that told people that wherever they found themselves was their lot in life, and that if you were born poor, you were consigned by God to be poor. The Enlightenment threw all those old ideas out and relpaced them with new ideas like, any one can be as rich as a king (and if you really know how to play the game, even richer). The idea was that man could improve on himself. He could be inventive and that by using the skills of an entrepreneur, he could make himself rich. This sounds ok so far. But here’s the deal…
The Enlightenment stressed reason as it’s primary motivator. That is, reason was vaulted as paramount among the virtues. So far so good. But, this thinking led to the idea that there are some people who just can’t ( for some reason or another) reason like other people. And if this is so, there must be some sort of explanation. This of course led to the idea that some people were naturally inclined to think better, and since thinking was a virtue and virtues are a sign of excellence, people who were better thinkers were not only better thinkers, but better people. This notion got a big help from Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which was, by way of the likes of folks like Herbert Spencer, turned from the natural world, to the social world. So, societies that were better thinkers were better societies. Those better societies were superior to other less-thinking societies. So, if you couldn’t think, using Darwin’s theory (as applied to people) you had inherited a set of bad genes. Not just you, mind you, but your entire culture had done so. And people who are stupid don’t succeed, and if you don’t succeed, you can’t get rich. So, if you’re poor, your biology made you poor. You’re not “fit” as Spencer would say.
This ethic was best expressed by Dicken’s Ebeneezer Scrooge. When Scrooge is asked if he will give to charity, he says he is not in the business of making idle people merry and that the poor will have to do with what they have . When Scrooge is told that thre poor will die if they do not get help, he says (rather famously) that they had better get to it and “decrease the surplus population”. Scrooge is merely repeating the capitalism-meets-Darwinism vibe of the latter half of the 19th century. He believes that not only are the poor to blame for their condition, but that they are taking up room and worse yet, sponging off of hard working capitalists like himself.
It’s by no mistake that we are supposed to be outraged by Scrooge’s comment. What he says isn’t only cruel, it’s not capitalist philosophy, either.
Although Smith wrote that self-interest is the prime motivator for acting in the market, he believed that men would automatically also benefit the whole. Men, Smith believed, had an intuitive sense to work toward the common good. In benefitting ourselves, we also benefit society as a whole. Smith writes that no society can flourish if a part of its people are poor and miserable. Smith writes that with the improvement of the “lower ranks” of society, the entire society is likewise improved. He says that we should not think of tis as troublesome but as an advantage. The pursuit of capital is not a free-for-all, nor should wealth be gained while the greater population suffers. Business, Smith observes, is not to go unregulated. Smith wrote that business should be conducted as if all transactions were conducted under the watch of an “impartial spectator”. Smith wrote that the spectator is, in reality, the watchful eye of the individual over his own actions (this is tied to the oft mentioned idea of the “invisible hand”. The supposedly invisible market forces that influence the behavior of capitalists and capitalism). However, Smith recognized that actual government regulation of markets is necessary to ensure that business is conducted in a manner that does not harm the greater society.
Smith knew that, given the ability to collect large sums of personal wealth, greed can impede one’s ability to regulate what one consumes. That is, Smith recognized the fact that rich people tend to be greedy and will consume more than their fair share of resources. We need regulation to ” restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections…”. Smith wrote that we need regulation to make” nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among its inhabitants”. For Smith, unlike what we hear in the popular discourse, being a capitalist didn’t mean that we should, or even that we have the right to allow others to fall by the wayside while others clearly make and consume more than they will ever need.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that Smith was nearer to Socialism than he is to the “capitalism” that we practice here in the U.S. I don’t think he’d be a fan of any sort of socialistic distribution of wealth scheme. What I think that Smith is saying is that when we value money over other people, we are bound to get into trouble. That trouble, unfortunately, tends to affect more than just the handfull of greedy people who may have thought that they can, or should get more than everyone else.
You don’t have to watch TV for long to see that unobstructed greed isn’t just wrong in some sort of abstract, moral sense. It’s wrong in that people die and nations are brought to the brink of collapse when we think of capitalism as a “take what you can when you can” (that’s a line from The Secret Of NIHM) way of running markets. Adam Smith wanted us to have the opportunity to get rich, but he wanted us to be cautious about what we may put on the line in our pursuit as well.
I’ll end here with another Smith quote,
“People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”.
Gee, it’s not like that’s happened recently.