Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Taking on Adam Smith


"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 chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens."

"From a regard to his own interest, therefore, the making of bows and arrows grows to be his chief business, and he becomes a sort of armourer. Another excels in making the frames and covers of their little huts or moveable houses. He is accustomed to be of use in this way to his neighbours, who reward him in the same manner with cattle and with venison, till at last he finds it his interest to dedicate himself entirely to this employment, and to become a sort of house-carpenter. "

Not completely. Although this is taken as gospel, one thing that Smith is forgetting is that 'self interest' doesn't necessarily mean money. In societies other than our own, particularly ones that are less centralized and where a sort of community still exists, Recognition, with a big 'R', and respect are valuable commodities. By Recognition I mean the recognition that a person is skilled in whatever it is that they do and by respect I mean the respect that comes from the community in consequence of that Recognition. To be recognized as someone who has great skills in whatever they do and is a good worker is something important in and of itself, but the necessary consequence is that people who are Recognized as such are able to charge more for their skills than other people in the same field. So more money does come from it but getting more money isn't the point. The point is doing good work and contributing to your community through it. I would say that there's a fundamental difference in the sort of motivation between someone who thinks primarily of doing their job just to get money, to feed their self interest, and someone who does their job in order to do a good job and who expects that as part of doing a good job they'll get compensated for it. Using the example of the butcher, you can think of one butcher who's motivated by money making who puts up flashy graphics in his store and runs gimmicks to get people in, but who does a poor job, and of another who's more modest about how he (or she) presents himself, is less ostentatious, but does an excellent job. My guess is that many people would look at the first butcher as being sort of cheap. The spirit of capitalism leads people to lower themselves to the least common denominator and to pander to the worst in human nature in order to make a buck. The least common denominator, an interesting idea, is something that's created rather than given by nature. There are always people out there, in all classes and in all ages, who don't really care about life but just sort of get by on a superficial level. Capitalism promotes this and elevates being like this to one of the most desirable states there is.

A socialist society, by the way, does not necessarily imply that everyone doing the same thing will get exactly the same compensation. It just implies that compensation will be controlled and not become unlimited or out of proportion to the work actually performed.

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