Thursday, April 27, 2006

Opulence, like Poverty, has a Price

The strangest contexts bring out false assertions about Adam Smith, often of the least relevance to both what he wrote and the needs of the story. Here is one of many examples from Barry Lille’s article, “Weekend work puts a strain on non-custodial parents” in Waterloo Record, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. On 27 April:

Proponents would suggest that this decision is an economic necessity or the inevitable requirement of consumerism and capitalism working as Adam Smith intended. Mandatory Sunday or weekend work for full-time staff is the outcome of this new marketplace and if it recklessly plays havoc with family life in our community, that is simply an unfortunate result.”

Adam Smith did not ‘intend’ anything about the future. He was an observer not a missionary. The notion of ‘consumerism and capitalism’ meant nothing; he wasn’t looking forward like that, he was not a ‘man of system’ and he laid down no ‘requirements’. He remained scepitcal that society would change just because he suggested it might grow faster and pull, more people out of dreadful poverty then all too common in Scotland. Moreover, even where the consequences of changes, such as free trade, were identifiable he always resorted to considering, from the viewpoint of ‘common humanity’, how any negative effects might be negated by longish transition periods to allow people time to adjust their circumstances. He cared about the effects of monopoly on consumers and one-sided laws against workers ‘combining’ to better their wages and resist arbitrary wage cuts.

In this case, noted by Barry Lille, fathers of children who have separated from their wives are disadvantaged when it comes to compulsory week-end working when they have succeeded in getting week-end access rights to their children. The common sense argument should be to make their access rights more flexible since week-end working today is widespread in retail, leisure and entertainment.

But this has nothing to do with the details in Adam Smith’s books, written in the mid-18th century, when weekends were arranged differently and Sundays were regarded as Holy days. Times change and work-leisure arrangements change with them. That a political point is made that is all ‘an economic necessity or the inevitable requirement of consumerism and capitalism’ does not hide the fact that it is a very narrow point. For ‘consumerism’ read Smithian ‘opulence’ – our living standards – and contemplate whether we are better or worse-off than our grandparents and the people in the 18th century. How many would vote for a political movement that promised to return Waterloo, Ontario to the living standards of 18th century Canada?

I suspect that Barry Lille does not want to return to the living standards of the 18th century but he does want to legislate(?) against compulsory week-end working. Fine. That is a valid proposal and is subject to the consent of others (liberty is not divisible). He can also call on Adam Smith in defence of his right to freely propose such ideas and to argue for them in public fora. But he should not implicate Smith as an accessory to whatever ‘consumerism’ or ‘capitalism’ is implicated in causing; they certainly are not doing it because of anything Smith said two hundred years ago in books addressed to his contemporaries.

[Read Barry Lille’s article at:



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