Thursday, March 15, 2012

More Misleading Utopianism

An advocate of “Sustainability” asks: “Is Adam Smith the Founding Father of Sustainability?

GreenAdamSmith on 13 March HERE

We examine sustainability through the lens of Adam Smith’s seminal work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), where he writes, “they are lead by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life…and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.” We will examine how the three forms of capital (natural, human and financial) are put into a new economic equation: Natural capital + Human capital = Financial capital.”

If we assume that the author of the above paragraph understands the whole original paragraph from which he/she selectively quotes, and we must assume he/she realises the limited context to which Adam Smith refers in his Moral Sentiments (1759). How much of that understanding is shared by readers of GreenAdamSmith? I expect very little.

Given that Smith refers to the entire history of farming in human society – from whence “Providence”, as he puts it rhetorically, first divided some of the landmass in parts of south- eastern Europe , roughly from 11,000 years ago, if not before, that is a large vista, indeed. Such a lengthy period covers the earliest humans emerging from hunter gathering when some of them (a handful?) began settling in relatively fixed abodes.

The rhetorical proposition was Smith’s means to make an assertion to illustrate why the owners of land did not, could not, exclude those left out of the monumental step to private property. Those who owned no land were employed in working the private land of those who owned it. In return, so Smith’s Parable goes, they received their share of the “necessaries of life”, by which Smith exactly that: sufficient to keep them alive and working.

What was considered as sufficient for life was decided by the owners, or more correctly, decided by their overseers, recruited from those who also had no land, but who were slightly more privileged, who distributed to the landless labourers what they considered to be “necessaries”. Their success in this work was conditioned by the millennia-long practices of being protective of their master’s fortunes and not the humanitarian standards of Smith’s 18th-century readers (think of the ‘humanitarian’ outlooks of Egyptian, Chinese, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, barbarian, and feudal ‘lords’, and the great landlords of post-feudal agriculture). Place outright slave labour into this mix and judge the likely non-opulence of their living standards.

And thus, the 9 millennia of farming did mean that the landowners, in the main, did what they did without intending it, without knowing it, to advance the interest of the society.

The nature of the exchange required an e xchange transaction that broadly worked. Landlords distributed to their labourers – slaves or free - sufficient to keep them and their families alive, for without food no work could be sustained no matter how badly they were treated; and without the labour of the landless (including the overseers), no “necessaries” would be received (no labour, no food; no food, no labout)

Smith’s proposition is matter of fact: the landless labourers, slaves or ‘free’, received enough necessaries to survive and to procreate future generations. Of the other elements of annual output – the “conveniences and amusements of life” – these were not accessible by landless labourers. Both landed and landless were in a mutually dependent relationship.

Some sustainability! Is that what awaits a modern ‘green’ utopia?

For the landless, once they had left off hunting and gathering, they were not much better off, in terms of sustenance and their daily consumption, than those they left behind in the first aged of humankind, so to speak. Some of their descendants, after the 18th century and through to the 21st century, entered, not a utopia, but certainly an era, still with us, of higher per capita consumption on a comparatively unimaginable scale in the market economy, an opulence not even experienced by the richest segments of the landowning populations of all the purely agricultural ages.

The richest kings, the most powerful emperors, never experienced access to the average “annual output of the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life” of the average earning labouring employees of the modern market economies today.

That GreenAdamSmith passes over these historical facts, and selectively quotes from Adam Smith, misleading its readers in the process, is a commentary on its candour. It is also a misleading comment on Adam Smith’s philosophy.



Blogger airth10 said...

Smith could be considered a Founding Father of Sustainability. He was a major player. The proof is in the pudding.

Smith supported and encouraged open societies and capitalist principles. The Western world was intuitive enough to adopt those principles. Others jurisdictions instead choose the communist, socialist way, eliminating competitiveness, free markets and private property. Thus, those jurisdictions did not develop the human capital, initiative or self-interest that made the West so vibrant and dynamic, and sustainable. With that lack of vibrancy the socialist economies were eventually overwhelmed and collapsed because they hadn't developed the systems or networks to maintain and sustain, like capitalist nations had.

Sustainability is about the imperative of renewal, something communist countries were inherently incapable of because they wouldn't adopt the open society and capitalist principles of Adam Smith or his kind.

The "invisible hand" has really been about sustainability. I think Smith would agree.

12:55 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi airth
Thank you for your comment. I agree with your distinction between market societies and socialism, though I would not use language that implied that 'societies" chose this or that.

In the case of markets, they were not chosen on a society-wide scale. They gradually evolved at the micro-level as individuals in concert with others (customer participants) engaged in mutual exchanges that benefitted those involved. These habits spread over centuries, with relapses (the fall of Rome from 5th century to 15th CE). On recovery in warlord feudalism, combined with geographically unique social circumstances - limited liberties, innovations, and local successes - major centres of trade emerged (mainly Britain and The Netherlands).

There was no "choice" made - such political freedoms did not exist. Smith reported what he observed and some people read it, but he did not "cause" what followed, nor did "societies" exhibit "intuitive" reactions to Smith's Works. History shows he was largely unread and "societies" at the elite level carried on as normal with mercantile (non-Smithian) policies.

Similarly, with socialism. This was imposed by small revolutionary elites on a passive majority. They endured what followed (not quite what Marx envisaged).

I shall ignore your remarks about the IH metaphor and sustainability. We do not agree!


8:05 am  
Blogger airth10 said...


I guess we will always disagree about the IH metaphor. I was wondering, though, are the externals and unintended consequences of the IH metaphor also metaphors?

You are right about my usage of 'choice'. Nevertheless that too is a metaphor. Evolution is not really a matter of choice. But evolution has directed societies to choices or some kind of fork in the road. The way people evolve enables them or presents them with decisions on how to proceed.

11:40 am  

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