Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Adam Smith, Muhammed Yunus and Osama Bin Laden

I read an Egyptian Blog called the ‘Big Pharaoh’ daily and for a commentary of the usual stormy and violent world of the Middle East it is magnificent. I do not know who writes it but he is a voice of sanity in what is a depressing region with depressing conflicts.

Today Big Pharaoh (
http://www.bigpharaoh.com/2006/10/24/muhammed-yunus-vs-osama-bin-laden/#comments) posted a two-paragraph piece that contrasts Muhammed Yunus and Osama Bin Laden, two representatives of Islam, each with a different mission.

“"There is a difference between an investor and a destroyer, a bomber and a constructor, between those who respect human rights and preserve human integrity, and those who kill innocent people cold-bloodedly, spreading fear, panic and poverty among human beings, causing people to lose sleep, and destroying their lands. I thought about these dissimilarities when the Bangladeshi Muslim Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is the founder of the Grameen Bank, established to help the poor, in an effort to bring civilizations, religions and human beings closer to one another, so that they can live in peace.

"At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is what Osama bin Laden does. He is still hiding from one cave to another, planning how to blow up, destroy and kill; he has introduced the idea of suicide bombers, has founded a terrorist organization, and he does not differentiate between killing a child, a widow, or an elderly.”

These are the two choices humanity has faced for millennia. Smith wrote about them too. Violence can distribute the bounties of nature and the fruits of labour but it never creates either. 'Plunder or trade?' (an original Prisoner’s Dilemma) were the knife-edge choices for every human and proto-human group that came in contact with another. For hundreds of millennia the choice was fragile, eased somewhat because the habitable world was vast and the hominid or human populations were tiny, and making contact was intermittent among different groups. Mostly, the ground you walked on was within your whole life-time boundaries and close to the only people you would ever know.

When Smith lectured at Glasgow College during1751-64, he identified as fundamental the propensity for humans to ‘truck, barter and exchange’. He speculated, in line with his social-evolutionary approach, that this propensity was ‘slow and gradual’ in leading towards ‘opulence’, and was ‘probably the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech’ and the ‘principle to persuade’. With these thoughts he opened ‘Wealth of Nations’ (WN I.ii.).

Modern research has fleshed out much of what his ‘conjectural history’ asserted. If you have time only for one book to read, I recommend Steve Mithen, ‘After the Ice: a global human history, 20,000-5,000 BC’, 2003, Weidenfeld & Nicholson. This provides a running account of hundreds of human societies across the globe over a common period. If you have time for two books, I recommend Chris Stringer, ‘Homo Britannicus: the incredible story of human life in Britain’, Allen Lane, 2006. This traces, inter alia, trading links across Europe with its north-western peninsular before it became an island.

Any economist without any knowledge of how humans in their societies organized their subsistence from the end of the last Ice Age and who derives his or her assertions about human behaviour based on the assumption of ‘selfishness’ pureed into mathematical functions is, in my humble view, seriously deficient. Either or both these books written by two of Britain’s eminent social scientists are a good place to start, or, of course, their equivalents where you live. Then go back to your copies of Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence, Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments (all from Liberty Fund) before you next assume anything about human motivations.
The short report by Big Pharaoh from the pan-Arab daily, Al-Hayat, says much about human choices, which no doubt in my mind, could have been said at every step of the long road from the first contacts between long separated small hominid and human groups a million or more years ago.

Congratulations to ‘Big Pharaoh’, whoever you are.


Post a Comment

<< Home