Thursday, July 17, 2008

Adam Smith 'chill out'?

From ‘Steve’ of Aquacentric (‘family, friends & foolihness’) HERE, a Blog devoted to its author’s hedonistic ‘chill out’ lifestyle (and good luck to him).

I note on his sidebar, his happiness is served well by Radion broadcasts, Rhythm and Blues recordings, the Oxford English Dictionary, numerous other recordings and closeness to a beach to surf upon in the proper gear and with the proper surf board, and all presented in the tranquillity of the Internet, and depend on electricity and manufacturing activity, plus transport and infrastructure. This 'dude' is truly switched on, not jsut to Buddah, but to the high-tech society a long way from the garden of Eden.

I can’t help thinking that all of these interests are products of modern society and its technologies, the rule of law and the general peace of living in peaceable societies. He may have struck a balance between the pressures of commercial society, but it is a balance and not all one way. If modern society had never developed, which Adam Smith wrote candidly about, he might have found hunter-gathering a somewhat less romantic notion than it appears in television documentaries. In the rich societies, you can ‘opt out’, survive and feel smug about it; you can’t as easily ‘opt in’ and stay in the rain forest.

Steve writes and quotes:

“Father of Economics Says: "Just Chill."

“Adam Smith : "don't worry- be happy!"
He was one laid back in-the-moment dude. Maybe a closet Buddhist. OK, I haven't been reading Adam Smith in my spare time as I should, but I happened to run into the following unlikely quote while reading a transcript of a radio interview of Pankaj Mishra, author of "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World."

Here is the quote:

"The poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, admires the condition of the rich. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself forever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. Through the whole of his life, he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose, which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age, he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. Power and riches appear, then, to be what they are, enormous machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labor of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which, while they stand, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death."

From: "Theory of Moral Sentiments" by Adam Smith 1759.

Comment
Adam Smith quotes get passed around and are picked up by Blog readers, often in amazement. If only they would read his books through for themselves they would find themes and gems all through them.

The quotation above is truncated, so I give it in full below. You will find it on Moral Sentiments in Book IV.1.8, pp 181-83:

The poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a-foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble. He thinks if he had attained all these“, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. To obtain the conveniencies which these afford, he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. He studies to distinguish himself in some laborious profession. With the most unrelenting industry he labours night and day to acquire talents superior to all his competitors. He endeavours next to bring those talents into public view, and with equal assiduity solicits every opportunity of employment. For this purpose he makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends, that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquillity of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys; and like them too, more troublesome to the person who carries them about with him than all the advantages they can afford him are commodious. There is no other real difference between them, except that the conveniencies of the one are somewhat more observable than those of the other. The palaces, the gardens, the equipage, the retinue of the great, are objects of which the obvious conveniency strikes every body. They do not require that their masters should point out to us wherein consists their utility. Of our own accord we readily enter into it, and by sympathy enjoy and thereby applaud the satisfaction which they are fitted to afford him. But the curiosity of a tooth-pick, of an ear-picker, of a machine for cutting the nails, or of any other trinket of the same kind, is not so obvious. Their conveniency may perhaps be equally great, but it is not so striking, and we do not so readily enter into the satisfaction of the man who possesses them. They are therefore less reasonable subjects of vanity than the magnificence of wealth and greatness; and in this consists the sole advantage of these last. They more effectually gratify that love of distinction so natural to man. To one who was to live alone in a desolate island it might be a matter of doubt, perhaps, whether a palace, or a collection of such small conveniencies as are commonly contained in a tweezer-case, would contribute most to his happiness and enjoyment. If he is to live in society, indeed, there can be no comparison, because in this, as in all other cases, we constantly pay more regard to the sentiments of the spectator, than to those of the person principally concerned, and consider rather how his situation will appear to other people, than how it will appear to himself. If we examine, however, why the spectator distinguishes with such admiration the condition of the rich and the great, we shall find that it is not so much upon account of the superior ease or pleasure which they are supposed to enjoy, as of the numberless artificial and elegant contrivances for promoting this ease or pleasure. He does not even imagine that they are really happier than other people: but he imagines that they possess more means of happiness. And it is the ingenious and artful adjustment of those means to the end for which they were intended, that is the principal source of his admiration. But in the languor of disease and the weariness of old age, the pleasures of the vain and empty distinctions of greatness disappear. To one, in this situation, they are no longer capable of recommending those toilsome pursuits in which they had formerly engaged him. In his heart he curses ambition, and vainly regrets the ease and the indolence of youth, pleasures which are fled for ever, and which he has foolishly sacrificed for what, when he has got it, can afford him no real satisfaction. In this miserable aspect does greatness appear to every man when reduced either by spleen or disease to observe with attention his own situation, and to consider what it is that is really wanting to his happiness. Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death. But though this splenetic philosophy, which in time of sickness or low spirits is familiar to every man, thus entirely depreciates those great objects of human desire, when in better health and in better humour, we never fail to regard them under a more agreeable aspect. Our imagination, which in pain and sorrow seems to be confined and cooped up within our own persons, in times of ease and prosperity expands itself to every thing around us. We are then charmed with the beauty of that accommodation which reigns in the palaces and oeconomy of the great; and admire how every thing is adapted to promote their ease, to prevent their wants, to gratify their wishes, and to amuse and entertain their most frivolous desires. If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording, by itself and separated from the beauty of that arrangement which is fitted to promote it, it will always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling. But we rarely view it in this abstract and philosophical light. We naturally confound it in our imagination with the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system, the machine or oeconomy by means of which it is produced. The pleasures of wealth and greatness, when considered in this complex view, strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it.

[Note Adam Smith’s conclusion:]

And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants
”.

Comment
Smith then goes on to discuss the rich landlord and the maintenance of the ‘thousands’ employed on his fields, which goes on to use the metaphor of the invisible hand.

It is from reading Adam Smith’s works through and not just selected quotations from them that we appreciate his genius and his thinking.

Selected and truncated quotations only give you a view of Smith that often reflect the politics or the prejudices of the person who selects the quotation.

3 Comments:

Blogger alex said...

Prof,

"Selected and truncated quotations only give you a view of Smith that often reflect the politics or the prejudices of the person who selects the quotation."

Exactly!

6:16 am  
Blogger Simon Halliday said...

How though, if one is writing a paper and believes that Adam Smith has made a point well, are we to understand whether the reader see a short quote and thinks that it could just be frippery or actually something meaningful. I am reading 'The Moral Sentiments' at the moment and I find gems regularly, but does this mean that I must quote an entire page in order to convey some meaning? Surely not.

I understand and sympathise with your point though. Too often great thinkers are quoted briefly, their ideas misread and misunderstood as a consequence.

5:02 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Simon
Good point. It is part of the scholarly process that you make judgements as to the relevance, completeness, and possible meaning of what you read.

Of course, the more familiar you become with an author, such as Adam Smith, the more your judgement will improve and the greater your capacity for seeing any ‘gems’ connectedness with his work and intentions.

That you are reading Moral Sentiments is a great start – you are not just reading somebody else’s selection of ‘gems’, of which you cannot judge from their selected few lines whether the passage has the likely meaning they attribute to, or claim for, it.

The classic case, I suppose, is the ‘Chinese earthquake’ passage (TMS III.3.4: pp 136-37 ‘Of Duty’[Glasgow Edition, Oxford University Press]) which many (most?) quotations and comments are confined to the ‘man of humanity’s first reaction to sleeping soundly after the news, but fail to continue to his later reaction in Smith’s ‘thought experiment’ of preferring to lose his precious little finger if it would avert the catastrophe in China.

You do not need to quote an entire page, but you do need to read the whole paragraph and the page(s) before you extract a small quote. Scholars would expect nothing less (a point I learned from Sandra Peart, Dean at Jepson School of Leadership and current President of the History of Economics Society).

Should you have any queries about these matters in specific instances you may contact me [(gavin[AT]negweb DOT com]) and I may be able to comment.

Gavin

6:02 am  

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