Imitative Aspirations Can 'ennoble and embellish human life" (Adam Smith, Moral Sentiments)
This contribution intrudes, without permission, on an interesting aspect of a debate between Kevin Vallier of the excellent Blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians HERE and Corey Robin, of the occasionally interesting Crooked Timber Blog, which posted an article of Robins from The Nation HERE .
Now I confess I do not know either of these two scholars and I also confess that I have nothing fundamental to say on the philosophical substance of their argument over the views of the Austrians (Mises, Rothbard, etc.,), Friedrich Hayek, the latter of which towards whom I am generally most sympathetic, and the ideas of Adam Smith, towards whom I am even more sympathetic and knowledgeable , warts and all (a metaphor). However, I do have something to say about one of the almost en passant general issues raised in this debate that stirred some thoughts I had years ago when reading Smith.
Robin is quoted by Vallier as saying:
“In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek developed this notion into a full-blown theory of the wealthy and the well-born as an avant-garde of taste, as makers of new horizons of value from which the rest of humanity took its bearings. Instead of the market of consumers dictating the actions of capital, it would be capital that would determine the market of consumption—and beyond that, the deepest beliefs and aspirations of a people.”
I consider this part of their argument interesting despite its unexamined quality. The detailed examination of Robin v Vallier is less important (that is, whether Hayek can be dismissively described as “elitist”, as Robin claims, which Vallier defensively demonstrates otherwise (follow the link) than the thoughts this argument provoked in my mind. I recognised the germs of similar ideas of the imitative quality of the superior lifestyles of the wealthy for “the rest of humanity”, alluded to by Adam Smith in both of his major Works, and I shall discuss them below because they may be of interest to Smithian scholars and beginners, and as far as I can recall I have not seen them discussed elsewhere before, but then, perhaps, I now lead a too sheltered life since I stopped getting out like I used to, and meet with, listen to, or speak formally and informally with enough Smithian colleagues, especially on the US circuit frequented by leading historians of economic thought.
[As always I shall be delighted to be corrected by any reader who knows differently about other scholar’s work in this area, because scholars given new information are always enlightened and, of course, correct their errors immediately.]
I think that these debates generally tend to attract ideological protagonists, in whose stances I have no interest. Whether Hayek is abused as an “elitist”, or whether Smith also was a “servant of the rising bourgeoisie’’ and a 'long existing ruling class” are ridiculous ‘schoolboy’ attributions. So let me examine the idea and see what it shows to us about its substance and significance.
First, I refer to Smith’s Moral Sentiments, 1759, and his parable (metaphor) of the ‘poor man’s son’. This is about a young son whose ambitions to join the life-styles of the rich landlords provokes Smith’s into a bout of full-flight (metaphoric) moralistic contempt. He was after all lecturing to a class of impressionable young teenagers (14-16 years olds) from 7 am in the morning and through a long-day and his feigned pulpit-like tone (a simile) was appropriate to hold their attention while he developed his philosophical punch-line (I am sure many of them would have heard similar dramatic tones from their local Presbyterian preachers on Sundays; and I am also sure many lecturers among today’s Lost legacy readers will have used similar mimicking techniques when (purely secularly) addressing large Economics 101 classes – I certainly did in my first-year lectures to my classes of c250+ at Strathclyde University in the 70s, when explaining neoclassical ‘Max U’ ideas (Deirdre McCloskey) using two utility maximising farmers, “Smith” and “Jones”, exchanged different goods that they both valued differently, and in consequence they each could become better off in some ways because voluntary bargaining predominantly results in a positive, not a negative, sum exchange (Smith WN.I.ii.2). Otherwise they would desist and prefer a monotonous diets.
So, what was Smith’s account of the substance of the “poor man’s son’s” ambition?
“He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a–foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble. He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness” (TMS IV.1.8: 181).
I considered this passage from Smith’s TMS a clear endorsement of Hayek’s assertion quoted above from Robin outlining a “notion [0f] a full-blown theory of the wealthy and the well-born as an avant-garde of taste, as makers of new horizons of value from which the rest of humanity took its bearings.”
“To obtain the conveniencies which these afford, he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. He studies to distinguish himself in some laborious profession. With the most unrelenting industry he labours night and day to acquire talents superior to all his competitors. He endeavours next to bring those talents into public view, and with equal assiduity solicits every opportunity of employment. For this purpose he makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends, that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquillity of mind than the tweezer–cases of the lover of toys; and like them too, more troublesome to the person who carries them about with him than all the advantages they can afford him are commodious. There is no other real difference between them, except that the conveniencies of the one are somewhat more observable than those of the other. The palaces, the gardens, the equipage, the retinue of the great, are objects of which the obvious conveniency strikes every body. They do not require that their masters should point out to us wherein consists their utility. Of our own accord we readily enter into it, and by sympathy enjoy and thereby applaud the satisfaction which they are fitted to afford him. But the curiosity of a tooth–pick, of an ear–picker, of a machine for cutting the nails, or of any other trinket of the same kind, is not so obvious. Their conveniency may perhaps be equally great, but it is not so striking, and we do not so readily enter into the satisfaction of the man who possesses them. They are therefore less reasonable subjects of vanity than the magnificence of wealth and greatness; and in this consists the sole advantage of these last. They more effectually gratify that love of distinction so natural to man. To one who was to live alone in a desolate island it might be a matter of doubt, perhaps, whether a palace, or a collection of such small conveniencies as are commonly contained in a tweezer–case, would contribute most to his happiness and enjoyment. If he is to live in society, indeed, there can be no comparison, because in this, as in all other cases, we constantly pay more regard to the sentiments of the spectator, than to those of the person principally concerned, and consider rather how his situation will appear to other people, than how it will appear to himself. If we examine, however, why the spectator distinguishes with such admiration the condition of the rich and the great, we shall find that it is not so much upon account of the superior ease or pleasure which they are supposed to enjoy, as of the numberless artificial and elegant contrivances for promoting this ease or pleasure. He does not even imagine that they are really happier than other people: but he imagines that they possess more means of happiness. And it is the ingenious and artful adjustment of those means to the end for which they were intended, that is the principal source of his admiration. But in the languor of disease and the weariness of old age, the pleasures of the vain and empty distinctions of greatness disappear. To one, in this situation, they are no longer capable of recommending those toilsome pursuits in which they had formerly engaged him. In his heart he curses ambition, and vainly regrets the ease and the indolence of youth, pleasures which are fled for ever, and which he has foolishly sacrificed for what, when he has got it, can afford him no real satisfaction. In this miserable aspect does greatness appear to every man when reduced either by spleen or disease to observe with attention his own situation, and to consider what it is that is really wanting to his happiness. Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death (TMS IV.1.8: 181]”
This extensive quotation underlines the point that clearly, Smith, playing the part of the preacher, hits the poor man’s son hard with the doom-laden personal consequences of his vain ambitions. Smith the historically-minded, moral philosopher and political economist steps in by taking the broad sweep of history into account to peer behind the passing and deceptive motivations of impressionable young listeners:
“And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants” (TMS IV.1.10: 183)”.
All human actions can have unintended consequences, some “good” and some “bad”, in various mixes, senses and guises for either the individuals or their societies, or both.
Dramatically, Smith, even if en passant, focusses, without elaborating, on the ultimately important role provoked by admiration of the very rich and their life styles an status “as makers of new horizons of value from which the rest of humanity took its bearings.” Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, hence various layers of rich and more junior imitators not yet joined to the authentic ‘stinking rich’, and more importantly, even in its simplest, crudest versions, imitation of something like its original manifestations by those poorer imitators is aimed not at the rich and wealthy who wouldn’t notice as they do not mix with the hoi polloi, at are their perceived inferiors. Fashionable young ‘trendiest’ exponents of the young exhibitionists distinguish at a glance between their ‘in-group’ and other ‘out groups’, such as ‘teddy boys and girls’, later ‘mods and rockers’, and today’s ‘A-list’ through to ‘Z-list’ celelbrities.
[I might add I was ever an observer of these distinctive youth ‘cultures’; we couldn’t afford to be participants! – leading me to assert that how imitation and defiant counter-cultures today are high grossing industries, as their forebears in the early emerging markets were in the mid-to late feudal times, and in classical times before then.]
Consider the followers of the passing flames enjoying celebrity status in today’s world of media gossip watchers and, most important, how millions aim at mimicking their dress (even undress), public appearances, behaviours, new slang, trivial pursuits, and as regularly switch their attention from those considered to be ‘past it’ through to new headliners on their way ‘up’ and becoming noticed.
However, I am not drawing any moral conclusions from my observations. They may help to show that some few or even many, people at the lower end, or, if you prefer a less deferential expression for it at the opposite end, of the wealth distribution spectrum do aspire to mimic the rich and powerful elites, that it is not something alien to the human experience through the millennia, neither is it alien to scholarship to recognise this undoubted historical and persistent fact in human life in societies. It is also mandatory!
Moreover, it is not in any way an indication of some ideological impurity on Hayek’s, or a desire to credit the phenomenon as a positive benefit of the bourgeoisie by Hayek, Smith, and today’s Libertarians, which no self-respecting Leftist ideologue could ever admit to.
Incidentally, Corey Roberts is somewhat at variance with some passages in Karl Marx on this topic. He recognized the revolutionary (his words) role of the bourgeoisie in creating the possibility of the modern world of his times, and we can observe just how much further there is to go even yet.
So I sum up, referring to Adam Smith, the positive aspect of the lifestyles that produced “tweezers” and more accurate time pieces also created demonstrable demand for them first among those who could afford them and later those who could not afford them in their current circumstances to aspire to find means of doing so. Some turned to criminal enterprises, others to new careers in the expanding industries. Not everybody who worked in dreadful conditions in the new manufacturing ‘satanic mills’ was appallingly exploited; careers as supervisors, gang leaders, technically-skilled engineers, clerks, machine repairers created new aspiring classes in their thousands in the 19th and 20th centuries.
My own Heriot-Watt University was originally founded in 1822 as the first ‘mechanics and arts school’ in Scotland, teaching boys, and later girls, basic sciences for employment in what became known as the “industrial revolution”. As they say, the rest was history.
Spreading aspirations to access the consumption of ‘necessaries, conveniences, and amusements” of those considered in each generation of the “well born” was and remains a powerful driving force for markets to supply them. Hayek was right on this debating point and Valliers too. Robin needs to think again.
I see no reason to be defensive about facing such a charge by Robin; by its nature history is about the dispersed dynamics of a constantly small but ever changing minority who see the wealthy as enjoyers of living standards to which they aspire to mimic by admiring their supposed good tastes and want to share them too. To see such aspirations and the alleged despicable actions that follow as a corruption of ‘working class solidarity’ is utter tosh.