Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Markets Are Neutral, It's People Who Can Be Brutal, But they Don't Need to Be So

Mark and Louise Zwick in Aequitas et Libertas (here) write: ‘Roots of the Catholic Worker Movement: Distributism: Ownership of the Means of Production and Alternative to the Brutal Global Market’ (08 Aug 2007) and their article has this in it:

Adam Smith vs. Centesimus Annus”:

The Catholic tradition has always taught the importance of working toward the common good. Adam Smith, in opposition to this teaching, advocated self-interest as the motivation for one’s life. He added the adjective, “enlightened,” to the phrase, (whatever that means). Unfortunately, economic developments which today take place on the global level in the name of Adam Smith’s philosophy have excluded any idea of “enlightened.” Peter Maurin, by contrast, “talked about Christ’s technique, of working from the bottom and with the few, of self-discipline and self-organization, of sacrifice rather than enlightened self-interest….”.

This is a questionable statement by Mark and Louise Zwick about Adam Smith. They may have picked it up second- or third-hand from other sources, but not from Adam Smith’s writings, in which case they correct their statements quietly.

Smith did not ‘advocate’ that people ‘should’ act in their self interest - he observed that they did so and tried to understood why they did. This behaviour could have positive or negative affects on society; positive when they identified the self-interests of others and mediated their differences in ‘conversation’, ‘persuasion’, ‘bargaining’ and ‘in humanity’.

He analysed people’s behaviour and noted from a study of history, ancient literature, and contemporary observation that human behaviours were constant and generally unchanging, though he noted that the acquisition of manners and regard for others (‘in the great school of self command’) and obedience to the impartial spectator’s judgements, made for harmonious relationships.

He asserted that while mutual love was helpful towards harmony, it was still possible in the inter-dependence of people on each other that they could still live harmoniously when they made a ‘mercenary exchanges of good offices’ towards each other, without feelings of love.

Smith did not add the word ‘enlightened’ to ‘self interest’. If I am wrong in this assertion, though I do not think I am, I would, of course submit to better information should either Mark and Louise Zwick, or anybody else, refer me to the appropriate reference in Smith’s works. The word ‘enlightened’ has been inserted as a qualifier by others unknown (though I would be grateful is anybody can point to when, and by whom, it was added).

While I would acknowledge the some, but by no means all, religious people do exhibit the qualities of ‘Christ’s technique, of working from the bottom and with the few, of self-discipline and self-organization, of sacrifice’, this is not the norm and there is no less wickedness in human behaviour than there was two thousand (and probably a hundred thousand) years ago.

I attended last week a Requiem Mass for ‘Father Tom’, a longstanding and dear friend, a lowly priest, officiated by his Bishop. I reflected on Tom’s humble life and his quiet demeanour, and his human qualities as a Benedictine-educated priest.

We shared many a glass of port together over the years (more recently he switched to gin and tonic and I became teetotal) and we agreed long ago to disagree on the existence of God and many other subjects, during which, he never raised his voice in anger, nor did he utter a word of criticism about anybody. He understood to a high degree the duties of obedience to his impartial spectator.


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