Sunday, May 22, 2005

Oh no he didn't say that

Letter to Mr Tierney, OP ED columnist for the New York Times, in response to his interesting article drawing conclusions about some themes in the new Star Wars film, which he relates to Adam Smith's alleged philosophy. My letter is a response to his representation of Adam Smith and not to the merits of the film.

Dear Mr Tierney

You have misunderstood Adam Smith and have not quite understood altruism as it was/is practised by humans (and other primates).

Altruism was/is conditional in practice. Members of a small clan do not practice unconditional altruism. It is reciprocated, or it does not happen for long. Free riders are punished, starting with avoidance and leading all the way to exclusion from the clan. If this was not so, a clan with non-altruists among them would quickly disintegrate ("if you do not work, neither shall you eat"). Only the young and the sick receive assistance without reciprocation and , then, only while the clan as surplus food to go round all.

Punishment of non-reciprocating members is mandatory. It can be seen in modern chimpanzee groups - individual chimps groom other chimps that groom them and do not groom chimps that have not reciprocated earlier (unless compelled by the Alpha males). Modern humans are no different, as a moment's introspection will testify (people outside the family who do not return proportionate favours when you need them are avoided - the gift/favour exchange cycle terminates).

Adam Smith did not advocate selfishness as a principle of human interaction. He regarded 'self love' as insufficient. The dependence of modern humans on each other is now total. Millions of anonymous people work to bring you and the rest of us everything we depend upon to live on. He showed this on a smaller scale in his description of the division of labour in Book I of " Wealth of Nations" (chapter 2) in respect of the common labourer's rough coat. The dependence on the efforts of anonymous strangers characterises society, more so today than ever, because our 'needs' have expanded exponentially.

Nobody in a lifetime could possibly know everybody needed to provide them with the food, clothing, shelter, consumer goods and the extras that they need to have anything resembling an acceptable living. Hence, relying on the altruistic exchanges in a family group would soon reduce your living standards to poverty levels. It was this that Adam Smith drew attention to. His conclusion was not that the alternative was selfishness (a complete misreading of "Moral Sentiments" and "Wealth of Nations", a not uncommon feature of what has happened to Smith's intellectual legacy). Reciprocal exchanges developed in what he called markets to generalise the needs of societies consistingf of many clans, families and strangers (the majority).

Look again at his advice not to rely on benevolence when you want to secure your dinner from the "Butcher, the Brewer and the Baker" ("Wealth of Nations"). He advises you to seek to appeal to their 'self interest', not your own! You do this by persuading them to conclude a "bargain" - "give me what I want and I will give you what you want". This is the conditional proposition. Markets enable billions to conduct their reciprocal exchanges peacefully and harmoniously. You think you work for the New York Times for your own self-interest? Not so. You work to serve the interests of others by receiving the means (wages) to supply the multitude of others whose output you wish/need to consume. They do likewise for you.

Indeed, Adam Smith's message is the exact opposite of the way you portray it. You serve your own interests best by serving the interests of others. If you withdraw from society your living standards would soon collapse with the same certainty as your ancestors would have experienced had they withdrawn from collaborating and reciprocating with their fellow clan members. If they had done so early enough in their lives, before they had lived long enough to breed, the unbroken chain of life from them to you would have terminated.

I discuss this central theme of Adam Smith's philosophy and economics in my book, "Adam Smith's Lost Legacy" (Palgrave Macmillan, March 2005).


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