Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Religion and the Poverty of Politics

The politics of poverty is a regular subject around the world. Among the discussants are members of the religious denominations, who bring their beliefs, ordained by their version of the God they worship, to the subject. They are no more unified on the issues and the solutions than anybody else. In the United States we have the self-described ‘religious Christian Left and Right’. Every night on our tv screens we see the often murderous divisions between Sunni and Shia Moslems, and in Israel there are wide policy differences between Orthodox and Reform Jews. Perhaps Hindus and Buddists are different, but I doubt it.

Yesterday, I came across the following in an article published by ‘RS Red State’ ) Maclean, Virginia: “The Politics of Poverty” by Dignan, after the religious response of left and modertate Christians to poverty had been discussed:

“One thing that many proponents of capitalism often forget is the origins of capitalism. It is often forgotten that the father of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, was a moral philosopher who wrote almost as much regarding ethics as he did on economics. Smith conceived of free-market economics taking place in an environment filled with exhortations and expectations of morality.

While "The Wealth of Nations" is a much better known work today, Adam Smith's "The Theory of the Moral Sentiments" is what made his career. In this book, Smith argued that ethics didn't derive from law or rational thought, but that people were born naturally with a moral sense. It was this moral sense that acted as a restraint upon the baser impulses of man to exploit others in an economic system.

Unfortunately, many proponents of capitalism, especially libertarians, have forgotten these origins of the system. Too often capitalism is presented as simply the working out of people's self-interest. This ultra-individualistic approach is doomed to fail

I cannot comment on the quality of the religious doctrines in the article, but the representation of Adam Smith’s views in this case are spectacularly wrong. If they represent the true views of Libertarians (which has its own ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings, even a ‘socialist/ anarchist’ tendency, within its, if I may say so, very broad ‘church’) then they too espouse incorrect views they attribute to Smith.

Smith was not the ‘father of modern capitalism’ – he knew nothing about modern capitalism which developed in the mid-19th-century in a unprecedented scale of capital accumulation, with no precedents in history. He analysed a developing form of commercial society that gradually re-appeared in Western Europe about a thousand years after the fall of Rome (476).

While I agree that Moral Sentiments is an important work by Smith (and not read widely today by those who quote him from Wealth of Nations), it is not true that he argued that “that people were born naturally with a moral sense.” That was a view of his teacher, Professor Francis Hutcheson (A System of Moral Philosophy, 1755, posthumous), and not one that Smith agreed with at all. Smith’s ‘Moral Sentiments’ is about how humans in society develop their moral sentiments from their contact with others, as they grow up as children and when they are adults from their transactions with others in society’s ‘mirror’ (another metaphor of Smioth’s, which fortunately did not become distorted like his other metaphor of an invisible hand) of which behaviours are approved or disapproved of by others, as mediated by their ‘impartial spectator’.

People are motivated by self-interest (but not greed, that was an idea of Mandeville's, Fable of the Bees, 1724), but they mediate their self-interest in transactions with others by lowering their demands or expectations of their wants and raising their offers to the level of what the other parties, with whom they transact, can go along with. This idea is in both Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.

That the ‘ultra-individualistic approach is doomed to fail’ is an assertion with which I agree (for other philosophical reasons), but the main point is that such an idea had absolutely nothing to do neither with Smith’s philosophy nor economics. Humans have always lived in societies (a society of one is a lifetime limited life – reproduction requires a minimum of two) and as society grew economically it did so through the increasing dependence, not interdependence, of each person on others; today it is incomparably dependent, not individualistic, because of markets, which can only operate through co-operation (not necessarily love) and not violence, cheating, or rip-offs.

One last sentence at the end of the article caught my eye, and made me think about its implications:

"It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds"- Samuel Adams.

Oh, dear! Does Dignan really mean this to be encouraging?

Samuel Adams describes a phenomenon that could apply to Jesus and his 12 disciples, fine. But it could as easily apply to an ‘irate, tireless minority’ led by a Stalin, Mao or Hitler, all three of which exhibited an ‘irate’ and ‘tireless' energy as they mobilised their minorities to their violent seizure of power. Better to stick with requiring 'majorities to prevail.'


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