Friday, October 07, 2011

Empty 'Big Box' Thinking

Sara Pax, president of Bluehorse Associates, a developer of environmental sustainability metrics solutions specialized in the food and beverages industry that includes the web-based, lifecycle assessment and product carbon footprinting tool Carbonostics ( writes in Environmental Leader (HERE):

The Food Crisis & Big Box Thinking”

Adam Smith wrote in his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, about the “invisible hand” that is particularly relevant to this article. Consumption is not the end game of free markets, it is merely a function. Smith’s thinking embraced a philosophy of sharing the “necessaries of life” as the first order of commerce.”

“Here is the “invisible hand” as many of you have never seen expressed before:

They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.“

Imagine how different the world would be if this was the focus of Adam Smith’s influence on commerce.

Sara Pax does not seem to realize exactly what she is talking about, and may have to revise her account of the ‘sustainability’ of the ‘invisible hand’ as she interprets it.

She quotes from Smith’s account of the ‘proud and unfeeling landlord’ as if it its refers to a time of roses and maypole dancing and she assumes that the ‘necessaries of life’ were a virtual cornucopia of the blessings of the land. In fact, this was the distribution of amount of the basic necessities as regarded by the landlords from the output of the landlord’s fields, which was solely the product of the toil of the peasants, which the landlord distributed from the bounty of their land, mostly appropriated by violence, in amounts regarded by him, or more likely, his overseers, whips in hand, as sufficient for the families of those who toiled for him, long hours all season, and then huddled together in their hovels all winter, until they were set to work next spring to repeat the cycle again and again.

Now the landlords were forced by necessity, not their generousity, to supply their dependent serfs, slaves, and peasants, because without such necessities of life, his peasants would starve, and in death would be immune to the whip. No food, no toil; no toil, no landlord’s proud ‘greatness’. There was no escape from this drudgery.

Smith's use of the metaphor of the invisible hand referred to the hidden necessity for the landlords to feed their peasants. That is the role of a metaphor – it does not exist itself; it is not a proper noun. All metaphors refer to their objects and are used to describe ‘in a more striking and interesting manner’ their objects, said Adam Smith in his ‘Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’ [1763] 1983, p 29.

Led by an invisible hand’ is certainly 'a more striking and interesting manner’ of expressing the mutual dependence on the landlord and the peasants upon each other than plain, old mutual ‘necessity’, (‘no food, no labour’; ‘no labour, no food’). Yet out of a simple metaphor, a veritable mountain of meaning has been constructed to suit a purely modern invention of Smith’s deeper meaning.

In short, Smith’s use of the IH metaphor is, like all metaphors, not a theory, a principle, a concept, or a paradigm. It was in wide use long before Adam Smith from classical times, through to the 17th-18th centuries. Theologians used it in texts and sermons (see Harrison, 2010, Journal of the History of Ideas), and dramatists and novelists used it for literary effect (see Shakespeare, Macbeth; see Defoe, Moll Flanders).

I am not sure what Sara Pax means by ‘Consumption is not the end game of free markets, it is merely a function’. I do know that Smith regarded consumption as the sole purpose of production and there was nothing ‘mere’ about it. Toil is the foundation of life. For 180,000 years of the 200,000 years of the history of the unique human species that evolved from the hominine line, all the primitive bands relied on the forest and gathering and hunting for sustenance.

With the discovery and innovation of property in agriculture, supported by shepherding, humans moved to ever more complex new forms of sustenance. Once established in the near east and parts of Europe, humanity was locked-in to property and dependence, which spread gradually to create the modern world.

For over 10,000 years, consumption was restrained to something like $3 a day equivalent for the overwhelming majority of people, with occasional increases of a few dollars as populations rose and fell (see McCloskey, 2010, Bourgeois Dignity: why economics cannot explain the modern world, Chicago; highly recommended by Lost Legacy) in the ‘Malthusian trap’. The so-called industrial revolution – actually an innovation-driven commercialism, now often called ‘capitalism’ – occurred first in Britain and the Netherlands, then worldwide for the capitalist (private and state) economies. Per capita consumption rose from history’s norm of $3 equivalent a day by c.1,500 per cent by the 20th century.

Adam Smith’s singular use of the IH metaphor in Moral Sentiments (1759) had absolutely nothing to do with the emergence of commercial societies in the 18th-19th-20th and 21st centuries. Sara Pax does not appreciate that fact, making her speculation about Smith’s use of the invisible hand metaphor somewhat off-track and not ‘particularly relevant’ in any sense for the 21st-century debate on environmental policy.

I am not sure that the behaviour of 'proud and unfeeling' feudal landlords, a despicable bunch of human beings by any standards, would be much of a guide to 'how different the world would be if this was the focus of Adam Smith’s influence on commerce' as presented by Sara Pax. She does not appear to understand what she is actually saying when she seems to praise the distribution of what passed for the very unequal 'necessities of life' under landlordism to the 18th century in Britain and across much of the world thereafter.

Any return to landlordism - and its population levels - at $3 a day, would require a near mass extinction of the majority of the 6 billion world population, and a not inconsiderable necessary degree of violent tyranny.

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