Friday, November 25, 2005

When this Remedy is Worse than the Problem

George Matafonov, of, writes a most interesting piece in OhmyNews, an English language edition published on line in South Korea, entitled: “Superbrats: offspring of the market, the implications of the market becoming the central institution of society” (25 November).

His thesis is that the ‘market’ has come to dominate all aspects of social life and this manifests itself in declining discipline among children, who become ‘brats’ in the process, and in manners generally. You can read the article at: and follow his argument more closely than I can articulate it.

My attention is drawn, however, by George Matafonov’s centring much of his argument on Adam Smith and how, the ‘father of economics’ never intended this to happen:

The roots of market morality in its current format go back to Adam Smith, the father of economics. But the extension of the market morality outside the market was not what Adam Smith intended. In fact, he would be probably turn over in his grave if learned that his homily about the butcher, the brewer and the baker is forming the basis of a new morality surpassing the significance and impact of even the golden rule of the great prophets of the past. In the Wealth of Nations he wrote:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.

This is probably the most famous statement of the efficacy of self-interest where Smith concludes that since humans always act out pure out of self-interest, we should always appeal to their self-interest first and foremost. To do otherwise, is the province of unscrupulous beggars. But Smith was not promoting unfettered self-interest and not even rational self-interest, after all he was a moral philosopher, but he was promoting self-interest providing it was within the confines of the market where it would be subject to competitive forces which he likened to the invisible hand of God. Smith, however, never envisaged the morality of the market based on self-interest and competition would start to erode and replace the traditional morality of society based on selflessness and humility. He failed to see this consequence because he also never envisaged that belief in God and the influence of the Church would give way to the modern secular society. And because traditional morality was so strongly linked with idea of God and the Church that it too waned and created a climate of moral relativity.”

We must be grateful that George Matafonov recognizes that the connection he draws between Adam Smith and what he considers to be happening around him was not something that Adam Smith encouraged or carelessly did not think about. That much is common ground between him and ‘Lost Legacy’. What is not common ground is his travesty of Smith’s political economy, his only partial appreciation of Smith’s “Moral Philosophy” and, well, his selective version of society’s defects as if they have just appeared in the 21st century. Even a slight acquaintance with history, including Asian, would inform him that the characteristics he attributes to market forces entering into the domain of non-market relationships have a long history in almost all known societies, long before our dinners came from butchers, brewers and bakers.

Human behaviours are universal in all peoples and in all past-societies. Greed, selfishness, bad manners, appalling disrespect for revered behaviours in and around the family and neighbours has a long history. Reaction to the behaviours of the young are often an ‘age thing’; each generation looks back on social changes with abhorrence, forgetting that for every example of good manners and mutual respect they remember so fondly, there were levels of crime and barbarity ever bit as prevalent as now. Smith noted in “Moral Sentiments” (V.2.15: page 210) that in the high civilization of ancient Greece it was a common practice, not commented on negatively, for infanticide to be practiced, a greater barbarism Smith could not imagine. He also noted (III.3.13, page 142) that “we are commanded to honour our fathers and mothers” but “no mention is made of the lover of our children”, drawing the observation that “nature has prepared us for this latter duty”.

Smith’s observation of market relationships is quite the reverse to the common interpretation of the famous passage about the “butcher, the brewer and the baker”. The passage is not praising the triumph of ‘self-interest’ or advocating of ‘selfishness’ and greed. The plain fact is that due to scarcity, no man had sufficient material goods to distribute to others out of benevolence even should he be inclined to do so. Man lives in scarcity not abundance, because all goods require labour to create them for distribution, and no man has the time nor the means to create for himself all the goods and services he needs, even at a low level of subsistence and without any covetous inclinations. All men thereby are inter-dependent on the labour of each other, whether they lived in a primitive low-technology society or in modern-day high-technology societies, such as in South Korea.

Smith’s point about markets (remembering that he envisaged commercial societies fairly primitive in the scope of their products and their divisions of labour) was that markets were successful distributors of the bounties of nature and the fruits of labour compared to those that had preceded them (and, by implication might be conceived to follow them, a task Smith never tried to undertake). His analysis of how markets work was sufficient for the purposes on mid-18th century Britain.

The alternative to market creation and distribution was the age-old choice between plunder or trade, and all systems short of trade through the ‘butcher, the brewer and the baker’ were likely to be, and history showed them to be, tyrannical. The feudal lords distributed subsistence to their armed retainers out of the surplus their serfs produced under the ever present tyranny of those over them and their families. If George Matafonov believes he has a problem with the ‘indiscipline’ of modern ‘brats’ he can contemplate his chances of enjoying life subject to the discipline of dictators and their retainers.

The decline in behavioural standards in any particular period is a mirage. “Moral Sentiments” is about how society socializes the young within families, schools and work. Moral sentiments, says Smith, have their roots in the all sections of society, even “the greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it” (TMS, I.1.1, page 9). From the inter-linked social circles of individuals and their family, friends, acquaintances and the, far greater, body of strangers, societal cohesion is possible (and preferable to indignant campaigns to force people of all ages into conforming with a particular set of behaviours that call for the disciplining of children, which really means the disciplining of parents too).

Those who would seek to achieve these ends are misguided. I have long expressed the view that everybody knows how to bring up other people’s children, know how all other people should behave and know how the world would be better if only everybody behaved like the persons who hold these views. I do not know the age of George Metafonov, but he might gain some insight into the implications of what he advocate by taking a longer view of, and a closer look at, history than he appears to have done. Markets have not changed human nature; it was far bloodier and licentious in ancient Rome, far more horrible in mid-19th century Britain and unspeakably awful in mid-20th century Russia and China.

Some children have spats with their parents (and their parents with their parents) and with each other; fortunately most grow out of it (around 25). Age wins as youth age. Smith was relaxed about this and so should we.


Post a Comment

<< Home