Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Adam Smith and Karl Marx

On Quora (a social website), sent to me by a Lost Legacy reader: HERE
“Was there something fundamentally different between 1776 and 1867 in the world that led to Adam Smith's and Karl Marx's books being so different?”

‘I'm asking about Wealth of Nations and Kapital”:

To which question, Lawrence Kurnarsky, director, writer - doctorscreenplay.com, contributes an answer:

Adam Smith foresaw a world that was very much in harmony. He envisioned, as did most of the intellectual founders of the American experiment, humanity bathed in light, arguably divine light. Smith believed that freedom was the natural condition of man and envisioned a society modeled on a natural ecology. If allowed, that society based on farming and village life, with a few shining cities on the hill, would keep itself in balance perpetuating a world in which natural forces acted beneficently on human beings so that they would be happy and thrive. If society was properly ordered, with merit, good will, mutuality, fair play, and free competition, the good life would usher forth like cordial rains. As in Jefferson's beloved garden, the societal garden, well tended, would be bountiful. Adam Smith argued well for his vision but Marx argued better for his.

Marx saw a world that was very much in disharmony. He did not believe that nature was beneficent but neither did he believe it was malevolent, Similarly, he did not believe that the basic nature of human beings was good. He believed that Nature was nature, and that human nature was plastic and molded by the forces acting upon it. Karl Marx saw the mills and smoke belching factories in which men and woman were mercilessly worked to death. He saw the workhouses in which entire families languished for generations. All of this was so that a small number of greedy, unscrupulous, wealthy men could become wealthier.

Marx saw exploitation and class war as the way of the world, yet, he too, was no pessimist. Marx shared with Smith the vision of a better world. Like Smith, Marx believed in progress and human liberty. Like Smith, Marx was well intentioned. You could call both men humanitarians. But Marx believed that for the potential of humanity to blossom, more than rational discourse was necessary. The class war needed to be fought and won by what he viewed was the most progressive of social classes, the class of people who did not live by exploitation.”


Comment
Adam Smith was not given to predicting the future. He seldom commented on anything but the 18th-century present and the past. Associating him with ‘harmony” misreads his moral philosophy and political economy.

I do not recognize Adam Smith in the assertions:

that society based on farming and village life, with a few shining cities on the hill, would keep itself in balance perpetuating a world in which natural forces acted beneficently on human beings so that they would be happy and thrive. If society was properly ordered, with merit, good will, mutuality, fair play, and free competition, the good life would usher forth like cordial rains”.

Sounds more like a campaign speech by an aspirant US President (or Hollywood scriptwriter).

The only specific prediction that Smith made appears to be his comment in Wealth Of Nations that the (about-to-be former) British colonies in North America in about a hundred years time would be more significant economically than Great Britain (WN IV.vii.e: 625).

He added, over the page, when discussing the “discovery of America”, and the “passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope”, as "the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind”, his approach to predictions of the future:

What benefits or what misfortunes to mankind may hereafter result from those great events no human wisdom can foresee” (WN IV.vii.e: 626).

And that was his approach to the future.

As I understand of Karl Marx’s biography, it is doubtful if he ever visited any actual “mills of smoke belching factories”. We know that Engels did – he owned one.

Karl Marx saw the mills and smoke belching factories in which men and woman were mercilessly worked to death.”

Yes, there was mass deprivation and dreadful conditions in factories and mines. For perspective consider the records of Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese Emperors and Kings, feudal landlords, and slave-masters (Arab and American) which were not much different in spreading 'shortgevity' and misery among those under their control.

A founding member of what was eventually to become Heriot-Watt University, Leonard Horner, became the first UK appointed Factory Inspector and fought valiant battles to bring such practices to an end. Legislation and common practice was eventually successful, paid for by the highest living standards the world had, and still has, ever experienced.

But through all this misery, per capita living standards gradually rose at historically impressive rates from 1800 until they reached today’s unprecedented levels (see Deirdre McCloskey’s ‘Bourgeois Dignity: why economics can’t explain the modern world’, 2010, Chicago). And these increases in real incomes have never gone back to pre-1800 rates, or anything like the rates common across the world since the Age of Hunting commenced about 200 millennia ago, or the Ages of Shepherding and Farming, about 11 millennia ago. No wonder that even Marx lauded the achievements of the commercial and, later, the capitalist century. It was not all doom and gloom.

There was a fundamental difference between Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Smith saw the role of the philosopher to “do nothing and observe everything”; Marx saw the philosopher’s role as not to “understand but to change” the world. Be careful for what you wish for!

In their different approaches, we see the roots of the inevitable tragedy bound up with what Smith described as the fallacy of the view of people regarded like wooden pieces on a chessboard, as easily moved by “men of system”, “wise in their own conceit” when in fact ever single man has a “principle of motion of their own”, which, if recognized, society would “go on harmoniously” and not “miserably” and would avoid the ‘highest degree of disorder” (TMS VI.ii,2.17 234).

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