Thursday, February 05, 2009

Adam Smith On Selfishness and Public Spirit

Roland Patrick lets go on Let’s Fly Under the Bridge HERE: with at The Kansan (Thomas Frank: author of ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’) with “What's the Matter with Frank?” in a warm debate between them both on the ‘crumbling US infrastructure’ (roads, bridges, and highways).

Roland Patrick states in his piece:

Well over two centuries ago Adam Smith explained, in Wealth of Nations, how the public got what they needed, and it wasn't usually through 'public service'. It was by appealing to the selfish interests of producers of food, clothing and shelter. i.e., by offering money in return.”

If your are going to quote from Adam Smith (or, indeed, anybody) you ought to get the quotation correct. Slipping in the word ‘selfish’ before interests is, er, naughty. There is quite a lot of difference between ‘self interest’ and ‘selfish interest’.

You may be selfish as your fancy takes you, but that’s no way to engaged with other people. Selfishness begets selfishness. But in exchange transactions, especially when bargaining for something, Adam Smith made it clear exactly what is involved:

But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.’ (WN I.ii.2: p 26-7)

You get what you need, not be being selfish but by interesting their [NOT your] self-love in his [NOT your] favour, and show them that it is for their [NOT your] own advantage to do for him [You] what he [You] requires of them [Him].

It’s a two-way, not a one-way, street. It’s his self-interest you address, not your own. And you do this by using a conditional proposition, ‘If you..Then I’:

Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want

The important element of bargaining is to convince the other party how and why she benefits from the transaction. You have to be ‘other-centred’, not selfishly self-centred.

Nobody selling you a television would be successful if he told you that you should buy because he, the seller, will be able to afford a new car. The buyer wants to hear what benefits she gets from the deal, not what the seller gets, and the seller should tell her why it is beneficial to her not him for her to agree a purchase.

I am amazed how so many people, supposedly living in the most capitalist market place in the world, never seem to think about the numerous buying and selling transactions they must get involved in and how and why some went better than others. Even supposedly well-trained sales people remain ignorant of the basic principle of sales – link your product to the needs of the buyer, not your needs as a seller.

Adam Smith never recommended selfishness – in fact he criticises selfishness in his earlier book, Moral Sentiments, and repeats his anti-selfish message in the passage quoted above from Wealth Of Nations. And, by the way, contrary to common perceptions, Smith also had some positive things to say about ‘publicly-spirited men’:

The same principle, the same love of system, the same regard to the beauty of order, of art and contrivance, frequently serves to recommend those institutions which tend to promote the public welfare. When a patriot exerts himself for the improvement of any part of the public police, his conduct does not always arise from pure sympathy with the happiness of those who are to reap the benefit of it. It is not commonly from a fellow-feeling with carriers and waggoners that a public-spirited man encourages the mending of high roads. When the legislature establishes premiums and other encouragements to advance the linen or woollen manufactures, its conduct seldom proceeds from pure sympathy with the wearer of cheap or fine cloth, and much less from that with the manufacturer or merchant. The perfection of police, the extension of trade and manufactures, are noble and magnificent objects. The contemplation of them pleases us, and we are interested in whatever can tend to advance them. They make part of the great system of government, and the wheels of the political machine seem to move with more harmony and ease by means of them. We take pleasure in beholding the perfection of so beautiful and grand a system, and we are uneasy till we remove any obstruction that can in the least disturb or encumber the regularity of its motions. All constitutions of government, however, are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end.

From a certain spirit of system, however, from a certain love of art and contrivance, we sometimes seem to value the means more than the end, and to be eager to promote the happiness of our fellow-creatures, rather from a view to perfect and improve a certain beautiful and orderly system, than from any immediate sense or feeling of what they either suffer or enjoy. There have been men of the greatest public spirit, who have shown themselves in other respects not very sensible to the feelings of humanity. And on the contrary, there have been men of the greatest humanity, who seem to have been entirely devoid of public spirit. Every man may find in the circle of his acquaintance instances both of the one kind and the other. ….
In the same manner, if you would implant public virtue in the breast of him who seems heedless of the interest of his country, it will often be to no purpose to tell him, what superior advantages the subjects of a well-governed state enjoy; that they are better lodged, that they are better clothed, that they are better fed. These considerations will commonly make no great impression. You will be more likely to persuade, if you describe the great system of public police which procures these advantages, if you explain the connexions and dependencies of its several parts, their mutual subordination to one another, and their general subserviency to the happiness of the society; if you show how this system might be introduced into his own country, what it is that hinders it from taking place there at present, how those obstructions might be removed, and all the several wheels of the machine of government be made to move with more harmony and smoothness, without grating upon one another, or mutually retarding one another's motions. It is scarce possible that a man should listen to a discourse of this kind, and not feel himself animated to some degree of public spirit. He will, at least for the moment, feel some desire to remove those obstructions, and to put into motion so beautiful and so orderly a machine. Nothing tends so much to promote public spirit as the study of politics, of the several systems of civil government, their advantages and disadvantages, of the constitution of our own country, its situation, and interest with regard to foreign nations, its commerce, its defence, the disadvantages it labours under, the dangers to which it may be exposed, how to remove the one, and how to guard against the other. Upon this account political disquisitions, if just, and reasonable, and practicable, are of all the works of speculation the most useful. Even the weakest and the worst of them are not altogether without their utility. They serve at least to animate the public passions of men, and rouse them to seek out the means of promoting the happiness of the society
.” (TMS IV.i.11: pp185-6)

This suggests to me that Adam Smith saw some advantages in certain public acts by men of ‘public spirit’ through their drive and enthusiasm for making where they reside a better place than living with a ‘crumbling infrastructure’ and accepting the failings of governments – not markets – with a helplessness born of unsocial and inhumanity for those who have to accept it because they know of no other way of life.

People accept rubbish strewn streets, they are resigned to them; yet the same people could be mobilized by enthusiasm to start cleaning it up and keeping it clean.

In Smith’s time this civic duty was called ‘police’ (not the law and order kind - a later emaning - but cleaning up the streets), and a place was judged clean by the absence of rubbish and sewerage in its streets. Edinburgh’s Old Town was a filthy mess for many years, until some public spirited citizens demanded that the City Officers kept clean what the local people had cleaned up.

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