Thursday, October 23, 2008

More Comment on Daily Kos Quotes

Part 2: ‘wipeltz’ writes in Daily Kos, (‘the state of the nation’) 22 October, HERE:

"Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniencies, and amusements of human life. But after the division of labour has once thoroughly taken place, it is but a very small part of these with which a man's own labour can supply him. The far greater part of them he must derive from the labour of other people, and he must be rich or poor according to the quantity of that labour which he can command, or which he can afford to purchase."

This is part of Adam Smith’s explanations for the long-term and general effects of the division of labour, which went a long way beyond the famous pin factory example showing the increase in productivity from the way process work may be separated among several labourers.

The substantive point of Adam Smith’s focus on the division of labour was both historical – it raised the living standards of the meanest paid labourer well above the living standards of the hunter-gatherer and also began the long road to extending the life spans once the ‘Mathusian trap’ was breached from the 18th century onwards.

Totally independent hunter-gatherers could meet their basic needs in a few hours work per day, but while the ‘propensity to truck, barter, and exchange' remained relatively undeveloped – they had little surplus output to exchange among their small bands – nobody produced a surplus of items that they could exchange, except only occasionally, for the small surplus output of others, until the leap from personal independence to dependence took place. With shepherding, farming, and commerce, that leap was accomplished.

For their incomes from specialized work, labourers earn the means to exchange multiple selected items produced by others. Yanomamö tribes on the Amazon have access to scores of items; New Yorker tribes on the Hudson have access to billions them. How many they can access at any one time depends on their relative incomes, which is Smith’s point. The rich can acquire more.

"This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise, or at least neglect persons of poor and mean conditions, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments." [Moral Sentiments, I.iii.3.1: p 61]

This comes from the opening chapters of Moral Sentiments, 'Of Propriety', and they are well worth reading.

Nowadays, the mob worships celebrity, some of whom have dubious merits for which they are celebrated. In Smith’s day they were ‘rich and famous’ and were found in monarchies and governments all over Europe and, er, the British colonies.

Smith has much to say about them and about the mob who worshipped them or gained vicarious pleasure from learning of their extravagant foibles, triumphs and tragedies. Where would literature be without the classic tales of the phenomena of the rich and powerful (and before anybody gets smug, cast your mind back to the Camelot Kennedy family – no relation)?

Here is another paragraph along the same lines:

“Of such mighty importance does it appear to be, in the imaginations of men, to stand in that situation which sets them most in the view of general sympathy and attention. And thus, place, that great object which divides the wives of aldermen, is the end of half the labours of human life; and is the cause of all the tumult and bustle, all the rapine and injustice, which avarice and ambition have introduced into this world.” [TMS I.iii.2.7: p 57)

How true! How relevant! Read Adam Smith for yourself; don’t rely on a few quotes, especially those tossed about to stiffen somebody’s otherwise weak and partial arguments.

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Blogger Brother Billy said...

'wpeltz' here: As a retiree from Anthropology as well as from several other trades, I like your mention of the short working hours of hunter-gatherers. Some would go so far as to say that the invention of agriculture was the worst mistake that humans ever made. Long before Jared Diamond's article, "The worst mistake in the history of the human race", cultural anthropologist of the cultural materialist persuasion often pointed out that hunter-gatherers who lived in a productive environment (like the Pacific Northwest or the Great Plains) had easy and healthy lives. As an example, in the 19th century, military enlistment records show that the tallest, fittest, and healthiest recruits were Cheyenne Indians.

I often quote Adam Smith, but from a vastly smaller knowledge base than yours, in order to illustrate the hollowness of free market fundamentalism and Ayn Rand/Alan Greenspan Objectivism.

If my satire fell flat, you should read my rant against anti-capitalists who rejoice at the each downward slide of the Dow Jones Average. One of my good friends was puzzled as to why I, an anti-corporate activist, was taking "some of my anti-corporatist brethren to task".

See "Dow Jones Schadenfreude" at One of my colleagues there was puzzled, too.

In my defense, I'll mention that, at first, many took Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal amiss. And I'm no Jonathan Swift.

7:02 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

brother billy

The history of the hunter-gatherers is necessarily unknown though anthropologists are uncovering more insights almost monthly.

I do not suggest that they were starving, but remember, as John Locke pointed out, 'all the world was America' (he used the North American 'Indians' as his model) and that up to 8,000 years ago, before farming, etc., all the European tribes followed the same mode of subsistence.

The abundant bounties of nature of the North-West tribes are well documents; the last ice-age cut Neanderthal and Human populations quite dramtically.

Jared Diamond's work is quite good but somewhat limited. Farming, for example, had long-product cycles' of clear ground, plant, tend, harvest, and store. Learning these techniques for many hunters must have meant many starving or near starving people.

But slow and steady population growth which accompanied farming over several millennia is well documented and while per capita consumption remained meagre, more people survived to found the great stone civilisations.

I shall follow up your referalls tomorow (its after 10 pm) and get back to you.


9:16 pm  

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