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The benevolent butcher - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
The benevolent butcher

Mr Barbieri has favoured us with his views on Adam Smith.

Mr Barbieri is always interesting. He is also, upon this occasion as not infrequently, wrong. That is to say, he has written at considerable length and with great plangency an essay that rests entirely upon a false foundation, a truly perverse and really breathtaking misreading of Adam Smith.

It is Mr Barbieri’s thesis that Adam Smith is but a crabbed, desiccatedly academic acolyte of Hobbes, who, in writing that ‘[i]t is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’, fathered all the ills of our time. You may read his reasoning for yourself.

The problem is with Mr Barbieri’s first premiss. He has wholly misread his source.

As anyone familiar – as Mr Barbieri must surely be – with Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (for Adam Smith was a political economist only as a sideline to his vocation as an ethicist and moral philosopher), it cannot be credited that the ‘self-interest’ of which Smith spoke could be that caricature that Mr Barbieri advances. A decade before Kant made a canting ass of himself over the issue, Smith demolished the notion that ‘even a regard to the pleasure of self-approbation, to the comfortable applause of our own consciences … diminished the merit of a benevolent action’, and that ‘[s]elf-love was a principle which could never be virtuous in any degree or in any direction. It was vicious whenever it obstructed the general good. When it had no other effect than to make the individual take care of his own happiness, it was merely innocent, and though it deserved no praise, neither ought it to incur any blame’:

Benevolence may, perhaps, be the sole principle of action in the Deity, and there are several, not improbable, arguments which tend to persuade us that it is so. It is not easy to conceive what other motive an independent and all-perfect Being, who stands in need of nothing external, and whose happiness is complete in himself, can act from. But whatever may be the case with the Deity, so imperfect a creature as man, the support of whose existence requires so many things external to him, must often act from many other motives. The condition of human nature were peculiarly hard, if those affections, which, by the very nature of our being, ought frequently to influence our conduct, could upon no occasion appear virtuous, or deserve esteem and commendation from any body.

It might almost be Madison writing – and of course, in many ways, it was the source of the American Founders’ great constitutional experiment in liberty.

Adam Smith, the ethicist and moral philosopher, was concerned above all things with human liberty and with human potential: human capital. None of the pleasures of trade: the satisfaction of knowing that one bakes good bread or brews the best bitter, the pride in one’s work, all the emotive things that Mr Barbieri prays in aid and alleges that Smith denigrated: none of these is alien to or not a part of the ‘interest’ and ‘self-love’ – indeed, the self-respect – that Smith commends. To the contrary. In fact, none of the good that Mr Barbieri urges can occur without the do ut des of economic exchange that is encapsulated in what Smith actually says (as opposed to what Mr Barbieri perversely takes him as saying). Look at what Smith actually wrote:

Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that. When an animal wants to obtain something either of a man or of another animal, it has no other means of persuasion but to gain the favour of those whose service it requires. A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavours by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master who is at dinner, when it wants to be fed by him. Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren, and when he has no other means of engaging them to act according to his inclinations, endeavours by every servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will. He has not time, however, to do this upon every occasion. In civilised society he stands at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons. In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is intirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens. Even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely. The charity of well-disposed people, indeed, supplies him with the whole fund of his subsistence. But though this principle ultimately provides him with all the necessaries of life which he has occasion for, it neither does nor can provide him with them as he has occasion for them. The greater part of his occasional wants are supplied in the same manner as those of other people, by treaty, by barter, and by purchase. With the money which one man gives him he purchases food. The old cloaths which another bestows upon him he exchanges for other old cloaths which suit him better, or for lodging, or for food, or for money, with which he can buy either food, cloaths, or lodging, as he has occasion.

As it is by treaty, by barter, and by purchase, that we obtain from one another the greater part of those mutual good offices which we stand in need of, so it is this same trucking disposition which originally gives occasion to the division of labour. In a tribe of hunters or shepherds a particular person makes bows and arrows, for example, with more readiness and dexterity than any other. He frequently exchanges them for cattle or for venison with his companions; and he finds at last that he can in this manner get more cattle and venison, than if he himself went to the field to catch them. From a regard to his own interest, therefore, the making of bows and arrows grows to be his chief business, and he becomes a sort of armourer. Another excels in making the frames and covers of their little huts or moveable houses. He is accustomed to be of use in this way to his neighbours, who reward him in the same manner with cattle and with venison, till at last he finds it his interest to dedicate himself entirely to this employment, and to become a sort of house–carpenter. In the same manner a third becomes a smith or a brazier, a fourth a tanner or dresser of hides or skins, the principal part of the clothing of savages. And thus the certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he may have occasion for, encourages every man to apply himself to a particular occupation, and to cultivate and bring to perfection whatever talent or genius he may possess for that particular species of business.

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.

As it is this disposition which forms that difference of talents, so remarkable among men of different professions, so it is this same disposition which renders that difference useful. Many tribes of animals acknowledged to be all of the same species, derive from nature a much more remarkable distinction of genius, than what, antecedent to custom and education, appears to take place among men. By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd’s dog. Those different tribes of animals, however, though all of the same species, are of scarce any use to one another. The strength of the mastiff is not, in the least, supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd’s dog. The effects of those different geniuses and talents, for want of the power or disposition to barter and exchange, cannot be brought into a common stock, and do not in the least contribute to the better accommodation and conveniency of the species. Each animal is still obliged to support and defend itself, separately and independently, and derives no sort of advantage from that variety of talents with which nature has distinguished its fellows. Among men, on the contrary, the most dissimilar geniuses are of use to one another; the different produces of their respective talents, by the general disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, being brought, as it were, into a common stock, where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of other men’s talents he has occasion for.

Now consider, please, what this means. It means that human dignity inheres in free exchange and not in mendicancy or the fawning of the courtier upon a patron. It was The Philosopher who pointed out, long ago, that money and power are functionally interchangeable, which has been perfectly summarised by Jack Lewis in noting, ‘As Aristotle remarked, men do not become dictators in order to keep warm. If a ruling class has some other source of strength, why need it bother about money? Most of what it wants will be pressed upon it by emulous flatterers, the rest can be taken by force.’


It means also that the specialisation that derives from the division of labour – which in turn rests upon free exchange in which both parties to the transaction derive a benefit – is what permits the whole of a society and its individual members to attain to dignity, freedom, the realisation of their particular talents, and indeed an existence that rises above the Hobbesian horizon of a life solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, one in which ‘[a]ll must have ... the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there [can be] no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.’

Free men and free markets do go together – city air makes one free – for a reason far deeper than mere coincidence. For the legacy of Adam Smith and his philosophy of ethics as of political economy is not, in fact, pace Mr Barbieri, that he is ‘is the father of Marx and the grandfather of Lenin and Stalin’; not at all.

From a technical standpoint, the worst bêtise that Mr Barbieri commits is this, the idea that

a jeweller and a baker can put the same amount of work and price it very differently. Indeed, the baker himself can price his own work very differently according to the quality of the bread, even though the amount of work is largely the same.

The labour theory of value is the inevitable child of Adam Smith’s immature, cynical, adolescent incapacity of appreciating value as it is, an inevitably subjective reaction given objective form. The ‘Enlightenment’ obsession with being ‘rational’, that is[,] with excluding from reasoning all that human beings really live on, leads to a theory that is not only emotionally unlovable but flatly wrong and disastrous in its results. When Karl Marx elaborated his theory of plus-value, he was moving straight from Adam Smith; if monetary value is only bestowed by labour – disregarding quality and desirability, for instance – then the person who does not contribute labour is a thief, and anything that adds price without corresponding labour is theft. From this one could have predicted, right from the start, the collapse of the Soviet Union: a society that does not understand quality and value is never going to be able to function properly. People will always do as little work as is in their ‘self-interest’, and standards will remain damagingly bad.

To elide Marx and Smith is really quite shoddy, or a patently obvious sleight of hand. Mr Barbieri can of course if he likes bang on about ‘gratitude’ and the glow of satisfaction in shopkeeper and customer alike in a shop that wishes one, Americanly, a ‘nice day’ and All That, but of course what dictates price and quality is precisely what exists in a free market and is impermissible in an economy deadened by the idiocies of Marx: competition. Only if the jeweller or the baker has a monopoly can he price his work above its value to the buyer and ‘do as little work’ as Mr Barbieri thinks; without a monopoly, the baker and the jeweller in his own self-interest must sell commodities of a standard acceptable to the buyer. It is for the buyer to decide whether friendly chaff in the shop outweighs the amount of chaff in the Coburg loaf –as he very well may, just another very well shan’t, and take his custom elsewhere.

That is an elementary error on Mr Barbieri’s part. But the error of seeing Smith – or, rather, the Guy Fawkes figure of Smith Mr Barbieri creates in his own mind, out of whole cloth – leads to a far worse bêtise, this notion that Smith ‘is the father of Marx and the grandfather of Lenin and Stalin’ rather than the advocate of free men and free markets.

It is Smith who wrote,

Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society? The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain. Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.

It was Smith who wrote, of the American colonies whose cause he supported,

Labour is there so well rewarded that a numerous family of children, instead of being a burthen is a source of opulence and prosperity to the parents. The labour of each child, before it can leave their house, is computed to be worth a hundred pounds clear gain to them. A young widow with four or five young children, who, among the middling or inferior ranks of people in Europe, would have so little chance for a second husband, is there frequently courted as a sort of fortune. The value of children is the greatest of all encouragements to marriage. We cannot, therefore, wonder that the people in North America should generally marry very young.

It was Smith who warned the planners and the supporters of hierarchy that,

... in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

And it was Smith’s principle that humans are trading beings, and that beings who can trade are human, that inspired Whately, Mill, and their allies to root out slavery and oppose racism (you really must all of you read Peart and Levy on this, I’ve adverted you to it often enough).

It is not for me to say why Mr Barbieri struggles with these matters. To his great credit, he is a devout member of his communion, which has much to boast of, but which has never quite, I fear, understood certain principles regarding free men, free markets, and the defence of freedom, on matters ranging from warfare to economics (nor is it alone in this, as witness that utter moral idiot, the current Archdruid of Canterbury). Perhaps it is that that hobbles his otherwise admirable wits, or perhaps he simply wants to re-read his Smith more attentively. The fact remains: what Smith clearly said and clearly meant is almost grotesquely different to what Mr Barbieri takes him as having said and meant. And that is regrettable.

I don’t at all mean to be unkind. It’s been an odd week, and my temper is not perhaps of the best after having listened to the quite reckless lies of Labour spokesmen (and, still more, of Labour spokeswomen) and of the yoghurt-knitting wing of the Liberal Democrats; I have, merely in the last four-and-twenty hours, seen perfectly intelligent people say the most puerile things about American and British politics – and the C of E, but that’s a lost cause – (invariably, of course, from the Leftwards perspective), and, now, confronted the unedifying and embarrassing spectacle of an intelligent man making a complete fool of himself over classical economics. Although I sometimes sympathise with my American publishing partner’s declared intention of someday bringing out The Big Book of Horseshit to address all the follies current in these disciplines, I don’t myself wish to be quite so pugnacious (I may add that my partner is a Texan of a Southern family, educated in Virginia, and is therefore choleric by nature even by American standards). But truth is important, and even personal considerations must yield to it. And, with, I don’t doubt, the best motives in the world, Mr Barbieri is talking rot, and one must say so, as politely as possible.

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fpb From: fpb Date: May 6th, 2011 05:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know whether you meant or not to be unkind, but what you meant is not relevant to what you were. The slur upon my Church, coming from the body of Henry VIII, is best left to lie in the gutter where it belongs. And I would like to know where I mentioned Hume (whom I loathe, and whose continued prominence I regard as a disgrace) or any of the other panoply of figures you drag across the trail. Trailing extraneous matter across the trail is not a wise tactic.

As you might have told from my opening remarks, my attack on that specific sentence of Smith's (and it was an attack on that specific sentence of Smith's, plus his labour theory of value - which practically every modern economist rejects) is the prelude to an intended cannonade against the whole concept of the "Enlightenment" and against many - but not all - of its features and protagonists. Whatever else he may have said, Smith said that; he said it in those terms; and no other passage of his is remotely as well quoted. And I speak as a former shop worker, magazine deistributor and member of a sales group offering building materials in America, when I say that it is as relevant to the realities of selling as Marxism.

Nor do you make a very good defence of the concept in question. I deny that man is "a trading animal"; I deny that man makes things only to trade them. An individual lost on an island would still carbe bits of wood, sing, or carry on similar non-survival activities. He might make up stories for himself, even if he never thinks anyone will ever hear them. Man is not a trading animal, he is a MAKING animal - homo faber - and the need to make things is as natural to him as the need to breathe. Millions of individuals have died alone before anyone even realized that they had spent their time carving, painting, scribbling, composing.

You also miss the point that the primary part of trade as far as I am concerned is the PAYMENT. The person who receives the object shows his valuation of it by giving something of value in exchange. That means that the producer makes whatever he makes pretty much in the dark; and that being the case, the primary impulse cannot be to trade. In fact, it is not. We are surrounded by people who make things - beginning with blogs and fics - for which they weill never get one penny, and who do them anyway. Trade is secondary, and it arises from a motion of what is ultimately, a sense of gratitude and indebtedness.

Now wait till I get to Voltaire and to France.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: May 6th, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC) (Link)

My dear fellow.

If I had meant to be unkind, I should have done so quite unmistakeably, and with adequate ammunition.

I don't say that man is only a trading animal, any more than he is only a political animal; I do say that it is a quality peculiar to man that he engages in commerce, and that that recognition has done more to liberate men from slavery and racism than anything save Christian ethics. I recognise, of course, and it is greatly to your credit, that you are not a 'cafeteria Catholic' and accept the magisterium in toto, which is definitional to yr identity as such and shows you to be intellectually honest; I also recognise, however painful it may be to you, that RC teaching on several secular subjects is simply wrong. On that, doubtless, we shall never agree.

I accept of course that it was yr intention, as you now make clear, to build yr edifice upon one sentence of Smith's, taken out of context and utterly misconstrued; it is not a method of argument I think much of, but that's your pigeon, not mine.

I might also add that neoclassical value theory - indeed, marginalism - is implicit and indeed in places explicit in the fuller quotations from Smith and throughout his work. Without going so far as to agree w Dr Johnson that no man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money, I do deny yr contention that there is no exchange, no trade, in the instances you adduce: firstly, there is an accounting of opportunity cost made by anyone who chooses to write a sonnet rather than stitch one more shoe, and secondly, that the exchange that ensues when a blogger proffers a post may not be monetary, but does exist as an exchange. Not all payment is in banknotes.

I regret that this displeased you, but my cut-tag was chosen with care. It is unlikely that I shall ever bring you to recognise that you were and are wrong, but the record deserves correction whether anyone profits by it or not. It does it in any way mar my regard for yr undoubted abilities and honest intentions.

fpb From: fpb Date: May 6th, 2011 06:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: My dear fellow.

You haven't answered two central points: first, that a shipwrecked sailor on an island would still do things for his own pleasure, and second, that the central element of trade is the PAYMENT, the reward, call it as you will. That is what makes it trade, and that is not inherent in the original act of making.

One anecdote. Years ago, there was an elderly, unemployed black man in, I think, Atlanta, who started, for his own pleasure, a curious hobby of carving Biblical passages into walking canes. He did that entirely for his own pleasure, until some local people heard about him and started buying them from him. Eventually word of this unusual folk artist reached the then President, Bush II, who just then had a minor but apparently insoluble problem - what to give the man who has everything (the Pope) during a diplomatic visit. The President bought a supply of carved canes with suitable texts and gave them to the Pope; they were reportedly very well received; the Press got hold of the story; and suddenly the old man had more orders than he could fill.

You see the point? The primary act was the carving. It was done with no thought of selling or trading, indeed, if I am right, he only started because, being unemployed and with no hope of employment, he had plenty of time to kill. It was entirely interest from the other side - from the buyers - who made an oddball hobby into a business with the added extra chrism of being a folk artist. It was not his initiative; had it depended on him, he would have remained an oddball.

Some French author, I forget who, said one thing that is more correct than anything involved in this debate: it is not work that needs hands to perform it, it is the hands that need the work and seek it out. Or something like that. If men have nothing to do, they make work for themselves. Then they may perhaps find that they profit from it, but that is not by any means necessary. They do it for the sake of their own mental health.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: May 6th, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC) (Link)

My good Fabio....

The central element of trade is payment or reward, yes: or better stated, exchange. Why do you persist in monetising it?

Let's leave aside the marooned mariner (or marined marooner) for a moment, as his is a special case. Everything else you have said is a simple case of the influence of opportunity cost. To work or to decline overtime hours, to rise early or to sleep late, to save or to spend, all of these involve an exchange; to spend less time at the mill and instead paint folk art paintings; each is a choice that exchanges one benefit for another. Even in a temporarily closed system, the choice to save one's sanity by whittling rather than to build a raft, is that.

And of course, for an elderly unemployed man, the choices are more complex still: to choose to carve and to accept benefits, rather than to (a) steal, (b) beg, (c) find a job sweeping gutters, is an economic choice that is dependent upon and enmeshed with trade and commerce. That a purely contingent event did or did not happen to allow a FURTHER participation in exchange with the fruits of that hobby's labours doesn't alter that.

More broadly put, all choices, given the principle of opportunity cost, are, at bottom, economic choices (unless, perhaps, one is Alexander Selkirk, and even then...). And payment comes and is taken in other forms than the crude exchange of 99p plus VAT for a model of HMS Victory built of matchsticks. The peace of not being bothered, or of not working for another, is one benefit exchanged, quite often. And as Smith put it,

Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens. Even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely. The charity of well-disposed people, indeed, supplies him with the whole fund of his subsistence. But though this principle ultimately provides him with all the necessaries of life which he has occasion for, it neither does nor can provide him with them as he has occasion for them. The greater part of his occasional wants are supplied in the same manner as those of other people, by treaty, by barter, and by purchase. With the money which one man gives him he purchases food. The old cloaths which another bestows upon him he exchanges for other old cloaths which suit him better, or for lodging, or for food, or for money, with which he can buy either food, cloaths, or lodging, as he has occasion.
fpb From: fpb Date: May 6th, 2011 07:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: My good Fabio....

I don't think we will ever understand each other. You take trade as primary and making things as a minor feature of it. I call that nonsense. Sorry and all, but trade is something that people may or may not do (since you find the Catholic Church a villainous institution, perhaps you never bothered to think about the case of a Trappist monastery growing all its own needs and, far from seeking outside interest, strictly limiting contact with the outer world) but making things is something they cannot avoid. End of story.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: May 6th, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC) (Link)

Come, come.

I don't at all think the Roman communion a 'villainous institution': I quite admire it, and in some ways think more highly of it than I do of the National Apostasy Verging On National Heresy that is the current C of E. I'm not an RC because I cannot in the exercise of right reason and good conscience accept all its claims, and like you, I am I hope sufficiently intellectually honest to realise that one either accepts those claims or not, but one cannot honestly claim to be a member of that communion whilst rejecting its claims. Tony Blair I am not.

I think, by the way, that your monastic example is another instance of opportunity cost. And even then, limited contact is not no contact, and all branches of the Cistercian order have traditionally been involved in commerce (the English wool trade is in many ways their monument). And the last time I looked, the Trappists were selling some quite decent beer....
From: lectorpoemarum Date: May 9th, 2011 07:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: My dear fellow.

I am curious what secular subjects you suggest the Church is wrong about? It generally tries to stay out of matters other than religion and morals.

I do have a vague memory that some (especially 19th century) Popes said some questionable things about democracy and economics, but not in a dogmatic way that could really correlate to the teaching of 'the Church' (and even then I'm not so sure they were wrong about the situation obtaining *at that time* - the current economic situation is radically different from even Leo XIII's day). But in the teaching of the Church -- e.g. what could be found in the Catechism -- I'd be interested to know.

(This isn't a challenge; I'm honestly curious...)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: May 10th, 2011 12:50 pm (UTC) (Link)

Perfectly sound question.

And deserves an answer that must wait upon the weekend.
From: lectorpoemarum Date: May 12th, 2011 10:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Perfectly sound question.

OK, thank you.
pcornelius From: pcornelius Date: April 26th, 2012 06:19 am (UTC) (Link)

I dare say you have committed a redundancy

Viz, with the phrase "for Adam Smith was a political economist only as a sideline to his vocation as an ethicist and moral philosopher", given that politics & economics both are subsets of moral philosophy, the study of how men relate to one another in society. That is, of course, the fact most denied in our modern society ; the teaching is universal that "the purpose of a business is to make money" (as much of a solecism as to say that the purpose of human life is to consume more Calories than one expends), & is universally extended to the principle that "whatever makes money is good business", never mind questions such as "for whom?", "with what other results?", or even "for how long?"

Smith's economics, I make so bold as to say, is a creature of its time & place every bit as much as Wesley's religion — he actually says that nobody but a fool would borrow, nor a bigger fool lend, to pay for daily necessities. Someone inform Messrs Barclay! And the whole structure of classical economics so-called is a sort of crystalline idealization, just as is any other 'system' of human relations, considering that we are not only squishy organic beings, notoriously hard to pin down & often behaving in ways not at all to be reconciled with a priori models, but agents possessing the faculties of judgment & free choice. In situations where its premises are fulfilled to a reasonable approximation, which they sometimes can be in reality, its conclusions can be of great practical value, which at least distinguishes it from the theory of Marx, but to treat anything about it as a matter of immutable law or Revealed Truth is at best to wear blinkers.

I for one would not like to try to bring Hobbes into any argument on my side ; like all the Enlightenment political philosophers, he begins with the figure of "Man in a state of nature", or more particularly, solitary Man, who, as the Philosopher justly assures us, cannot exist. Man is a social animal from his beginnings, not by any means of the order of the Hymenoptera, but nevertheless an inveterate & obligate dweller in groups, who lives by his interactions with his fellows, indeed will go mad & at last die if cut off from them, & has done so since before he knew himself to be Man. As a result, there are many forms of group behaviour, some of them well below the conscious level, which work on every man, often more strongly than anything reducible to reason. Kropotkin is especially good on this, little though any of us may like his friends.

Why have I spent so many words in restating things which, as I make certain, from your writing, you well know? Perhaps because I am tiresome beyond the dreams of the small-minded. Perhaps because I myself tire of seeing perfectly sound men yield to the ingrained assumption that there are in reality, not merely in the diseased minds of the Jacobins, such positions as "Left" & "Right", that certain groups of ideas invariably flock together, & that political questions must invariably fall out in a binary manner. Perhaps because I do not at all think that there is a single best way in which the world should run, & all types of systematic thinking tend inevitably toward that end, which at the last (if not before) puts them in conflict with one maxim of Kant which is not utter rubbish, that human beings are ends not means.

Edited at 2012-04-26 06:22 am (UTC)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: April 27th, 2012 02:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

The Stagyrite notwithstanding -

- and men outwith the polis being gods or beasts being taken as read - I hold, typically, no brief for continental-style approaches and Procrustean systematisations. Nevertheless, whilst Smith's early insights have been considerably supplemented (Ricardo, Bastiat, Mises, Coase, Tullock, Buchanan, Hayek, and Friedman being at the end of the day the only major thinkers of worth to have done so), I do think he's on to something. Wherefore, well, 'what I have written, I have written', to quote a harassed colonial administrator in an unimportant province many years ago.
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