Adam Smith on enlightened self interest

17 Oct

Bloggers like me are prone to self doubt. Not, I hasten to add, in respect of what we say of the state we’re in, summarised in my open letter on China. There’s too much evidence for there to be any doubt on that score.

No, the doubt with which socialists – like anarchists, environmentalists, pacifists and all who hold out for a Better Way for Humanity – are periodically beset is that we’re trying to make silk purses out of pigs’ ears, square circles, herd cats, make wine from bilge-water or in other ways embrace heartache in the shape of the quixotically futile.

I’m happy to engage any of capitalism’s specific apologists: Chicago Schoolers for example, or self appointed scourges of the Left like Jordan Peterson 1 and New Optimist Stephen Pinker. In the arenas these pundits have chosen, facts and reason hold sway. And facts and reason (not to be confused with intellectual endorsement inside the Overton Window) are not on their side.

But not everything can be resolved through facts and reason. 2 This is where axioms come in. Beneath any school of thought, propping up the whole shebang as it were, lies an act of faith or axiom. The axiom most fundamental to the natural sciences is that information gathered by our senses is in principle capable of delivering accurate representations of a real world; “out there”, and subject to laws of motion independent of our ideas about it.

Mathematics, I’m told, has several axioms – such as that two parallel lines can never meet.

In Israel: a beachhead in the middle eastreviewed here – Stephen Gowans speaks of Right and Left as divided by views of humanity which, because they are axiomatic, cannot be resolved crisply by evidence and reason. His narrow context is Zionism and anti-semitism but he links to a wider point that, for the Right, life is a bleakly Hobbesian struggle, made so by our immutably amoral natures. The best we can realistically aspire to is the rule of law underwritten by force: a Pax Romanica or, more contentiously, Pax Americana. 3

While socialists though not anarchists would agree with the rule of law part (I fear we take it for granted, and worry for its future) they are inclined less to biological fundamentalism, more – this being a strand of the Nature/Nurture debate – to stressing the role of social engineering. In short, the Right has a more pessimistic view of human possibility than the Left does.

At levels so fundamental, whether pessimism or optimism is more correct is not a question we can resolve by reason and evidence. While Pinker’s Getting-Better-All-The-Time thesis has been debunked on rational as well as evidential grounds, I could never prove to my dad, a steel worker who’d lived through the Depression and WW2, that socialism could overcome what he saw as man’s irreducible selfishness.

Nor, were he to return from the grave for an hour or two to revisit the question, could I prove it now, though my knowledge and debating skills have improved since his passing. On some of the specifics I have other arguments, and good ones, but this matter really is one of opinion. Or perhaps I should say, of weltenschauung.

But now I find tangential support from an unexpected quarter. Long before writing The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith – not to be confused with the neoliberal Adam Smith Institute – wrote his 1759 treatise, A Theory of Moral Sentiments. 4  It contains this passage:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it. 5

So that’s a weight off my mind. Now I can get back to my next post, on Bill Gates and his altogether different incarnation of enlightened self interest …

* * *

  1. Peterson’s ‘Left’ is unrecognisable to me as such. It’s true, some of his criticisms of identity politics and political correctness overlap with mine. But while it’s a basic duty of socialists to side with the victims of identity oppression, identity politics are not left-wing per se: a truth easily ascertained from the numbers of black and/or openly gay members of right wing parties in the West.
  2. Not everything can be resolved by facts and reason but it frequently suits power in its modern forms to put it about that matters of fact are in reality matters of opinion. That all Western ‘democracies’ have a ruling class is a truth easily demonstrated empirically, but my using the term marks me out as holder of an Extreme Opinion.
  3. My core objection to Pax Americana is not that it is unfair – so was Pax Romanica – but that, like capitalism itself in its modern forms, it is chaotically destructive: indeed, that it poses an existential threat.
  4. Credit where it’s due. I got the Smith quote from Friday’s blog post by MMT advocate Richard Murphy, who got it himself from fellow economist Danny Blanchflower, the latter having used it in a lecture the day before.
  5. Our “deriving sorrow from the sorrow of others” takes us to another difference too fundamental for resolution by killer argument. Homo sapiens sapiens has a dual nature as both social animal and individuated being. Where the Right tends to favour Robinson Crusoe models of man, the Left says we are more like ants than tigers – ill equipped for solo survival. Given our dual nature, according primacy to either aspect does not lend itself to empirical or rational falsification.

2 Replies to “Adam Smith on enlightened self interest

  1. Some more from Mr Smith:

    “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, atleast, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition, … is, … the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

    Adam Smith – The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759

    “To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.”

    “Resentment seems to have been given us by nature for a defense, and for a defense only! It is the safeguard of justice and the security of innocence.”

    “Labor was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things.”

    Adam Smith

    • A fine fellow – what a disservice the Adam Smith Institute did his memory by taking his name in vain.

      His labour theory of value, and David Ricardo’s improved model, were both flawed – how could they not have been at so early a stage, with industrial capitalism not yet fully formed? – but had the respect of Marx. These were the last true economic scientists, he declared, before bourgeois economics degenerated into apologetics and replaced the scientifically descriptive with the power-serving normative. That it has been consistently crap at the latter, witness its abject failure to foresee 2008, flows from its ideologically driven inability to see the truth, so self evident to Smith he barely thought to elaborate on it, that what informs a commodity’s value (which he failed to distinguish from price) and hence profit is the human labour embedded in it.

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