Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Spreading the Word 3

My Blog letter to John Tierney has been published in full by the Intellectual Conservatives web site: in Arizona, US. This is one of several blog sites and journalists around the world I am in correspondence with. Each exchange spreads the word that there is a real Adam Smith legacy which has little to do with the one purveyed in academe and popular politics (Left and Right).

You can help by forwarding this and other messages, with the URL: Thanks for all who do.


Star Wars, Altruism, and Adam Smith
by Gavin Kennedy07 June 2005

John Tierney argues that the Star Wars script borrows from Adam Smith in portraying selfishness as the alternative to altruism -- a thorough misreading of Smith.

In his review of the new Star Wars film, John Tierney asserts that the script writers had used Adam Smith's philosophy to generate the plot lines. He claims that Adam Smith noted that you could rely upon your family -- but not the wider world of strangers -- to be altruistic. He asserts that in prehistoric times humans lived in small clans and each member was altruistic in order to survive; they helped each other when times were tough. But modern society has changed all that, and nobody can rely on others now. Additionally, Tierney writes that Smith's economics led to selfishness being the dominant relationship mode, as evidenced in what made capitalism work.

Of course, none of these assertions are true. Tierney does not understand the nature of 'altruism' in small clan societies, and does not understand Adam Smith's moral philosophy or his economics of bargaining in markets. Smith's criticism of benevolence ("the supreme virtue of the Deity") was that it could never be enough to deliver to each of us what we need just to maintain a basic living because we depend on millions of anonymous strangers. That is why markets evolved: to deliver what we all need on the basis of free harmonious exchange."

Altruism was/is conditional in practice. Members of a small clan did not practice unconditional altruism. It is reciprocated, or it does not happen for long. Free riders are punished, starting with avoidance, and leading all the way to exclusion from the clan. If this was not so, a clan with non-altruists among them would quickly disintegrate ("if you do not work, neither shall you eat"). Only the young and the sick receive assistance without reciprocation and, then, only while the clan has surplus food to go around.

Punishment of non-reciprocating members is mandatory. It can be seen in modern chimpanzee groups -- individual chimps groom other chimps that groom them, and do not groom chimps that have not reciprocated to earlier grooming sessions (unless compelled by the Alpha males).

Modern humans are no different, as a moment's introspection will testify (people outside the family who do not return proportionate favors when you need them are avoided and become the focus of furious family rows, and the gift/favor exchange cycle terminates).

Adam Smith did not advocate selfishness as a principle of human interaction. He regarded 'self love' as insufficient. The dependence of modern humans on each other is now total. Millions of anonymous people work to bring you and the rest of us everything we depend upon to live moderately well. He showed this on a smaller scale in his description of the division of labour in Book I of Wealth of Nations (chapter 2) in respect of the common laborer's rough coat.

The dependence on the efforts of anonymous strangers characterizes human society, more so today than ever, because our 'needs' have expanded exponentially.Nobody in a lifetime could possibly know what everybody needed to provide them with the food, clothing, shelter, consumer goods and the extras that they require to have anything resembling an acceptable living. Hence, relying on the altruistic exchanges in a family group would soon reduce your living standards to poverty levels. It was this that Adam Smith drew attention to.

His conclusion was not that the alternative was selfishness (a complete misreading of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, a not uncommon feature of what has happened to Smith's intellectual legacy). Reciprocal exchanges developed in what he called markets to generalize the needs of societies consisting of many clans, families and strangers (the majority).

Look again at his advice not to rely on benevolence when you want to secure your dinner from the "Butcher, the Brewer and the Baker." Smith advises you appeal to their 'self interest,' not your own! You do this by persuading them to conclude a "bargain" -- "give me what I want and I will give you what you want." This is the conditional proposition. Markets enable billions to conduct their reciprocal exchanges peacefully and harmoniously.

Tierney may believe that he works for the New York Times for himself and his own self-interest. Not so. Instead, he works to serve the interests of others by receiving the means (wages) to supply the multitude of others whose output he wishes/needs to consume. And the multitudes do likewise for Tierney.

Indeed, Adam Smith's message is the exact opposite of the way Tierney portrays it. You serve your own interests best by serving the interests of others. If you withdraw from society, your living standards would soon collapse with the same certainty as your ancestors would have experienced, had they withdrawn from collaborating and reciprocating with their fellow clan members. If they had done so early enough in their lives, before they had lived long enough to breed, the unbroken chain of life from them to us would have terminated.

I discuss this central theme of Adam Smith's philosophy and economics in my book, Adam Smith's Lost Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, March 2005).


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