Beyond The Facts
“Let me make something very clear. Greed is not bad. In order to succeed both individually and as a society, we need to be stimulated. Due to this, we have urges. Without them I doubt if humanity would have advanced at all – and greed is one of those urges.
The problem comes in the level of greed we display. Be too greedy and we hurt both ourselves and society, so it’s a matter of balance. Sadly, though, in today’s capitalism we have a glorification of greed, with it getting out of control. This was not how capitalism was meant to be, originally devised by Adam Smith as a
philosophy to go alongside thrift. We seem to have turned something noble into a feeding trough.”
“Greed is one of those urges” but is it predominant? Is everybody greedy for everything all of the time? I don’t think so. Life would be pretty grim if it was.
Bernard Mandeville, author of “The Fable of the Bees” (1724), developed a whole philosophy on the basis that greed predominated and he gave it his blessing (“Private Vice, Public Virtue”).
Ayn Rand modernised the idea that selfishness was a virtue and created a school for her philosophy (“Objectivism”) which found popularity undergraduates philosophy classes. (You can find some of her lectures on U-Tube, with wide-eyed students listening in awe).
However, greed and selfishness were never popular with Adam Smith. He called Mandeville’s philosophy “licentious” but plausible in parts as an observation of an aspect of human nature in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).
Anthony asserts that “in today’s capitalism we have a glorification of greed, with it getting out of control.” Well, is a point of view, though you can read 18th-cxentury sermons in the same tone, and I doubt whether you will find examples throughout history where similar sentiments have not been expressed by someone about their contemporaries.
But Anthony also asserts “This was not how capitalism was meant to be, originally devised by Adam Smith as a philosophy to go alongside thrift.” Where does Anthony get the mishmash of erroneous ideas to compose such a sentence?
There is no such way in which ‘capitalism was meant to be’. Social systems are not ‘designed’ by anyone. The appear in various forms and experience different histories according to how individuals react to circumstances.
Hayek, and others, refer to this as a ‘spontaneous’, or ‘emergent’ order, unintentionally arising by the independent actions of people. That, if I may say so, is their strength. No single person could undertake the myriad of actions that would enable an economy to establish itself, for good or ill.
Which makes the second part of his paragraph, “originally devised by Adam Smith as a philosophy to go alongside thrift”, a misreading of both the emergence of what we call now call capitalism and a misattribution to Adam Smith of that which he had no conscious part.
For a start, Smith neither knew the word, nor the phenomenon of ‘capitalism’. The word itself was first used in English (Oxford English Dictionary) in 1854 by Makepeace Thackeray in his novel, The Newcomes. Smith died in 1790. He couldn’t devise that which did not yet exist, and couldn’t devise a complex economic system even if he had wanted to. In fact, he warned against ‘men of system’ who, ‘wise in their conceit’, force their designs upon others.
Adam Smith was a moral philosopher and saw his scholarly duty as ‘doing nothing, but observing everything’. He analysed how commercial societies functioned in 18th-century Britain – already a major trading economy and major political player in Europe – and wrote in his Wealth Of Nations a devastating critique of mercantile political economy, as practised in Europe.
The players in commercial society dispersed in their private lives did not conform to a master plan for commerce or government. Depending on their history and circumstances their commercial societies grew ‘slowly and gradually’ (some of which struggled because state interventions held back their natural courses and all were affected by the usual ‘jealousies of trade’, petty wars of dynastic succession, legislated anti-competitive tariffs, protections and prohibitions, and the vagaries of different personalities.
To see history as a journey from a sort of ‘ideal’ design towards “a feeding trough” is quite inadequate. Anthony North should re-think his assessments, perhaps read a bit more Adam Smith, and reflect on his current opinions.