I am finally all caught up in the Great Books of the Western World reading project! My goal now is to stay on time with the reading and post twice each month with updates. Thank you for your patience to all who have been following this project. The first year is now nearly complete and it has been tremendously fruitful so far. I am looking forward to the rest of this year’s readings, none of which I have read in the past, and beginning a 2016 that, I hope, will be at least as fruitful as this year has been.
Marx, whose Communist Manifesto is our most recent read for the project, is another thinker who, along with Smith and others, I have had the opportunity to spend a great amount of time with during my PhD seminar on Wealth as a Great Idea this semester. Our readings for the seminar were all from the much longer and more in depth Das Kapital, so it was a delight to read this Manifesto, which is essentially a simplified and abbreviated treatment of Marx’s philosophy. So far as I can tell, Marx’s point in the Manifesto was to present his philosophy to a popular audience in a way that any fairly educated person could understand. If this was indeed his goal, as it seems to me to have been, I think he did a great deal to accomplish it, though I think he might have spared us some of the rhetoric.
Like Smith, I believe Marx is another great economic thinker who is frequently misunderstood and so unappreciated. When reading and interpreting Marx, we tend to view him through the lens of the atrocities committed in his name in the 20th century. While it is beyond the scope of this blog post to offer an assessment of whether those atrocities were the inevitable result of Marx’s philosophy, I am willing to aver that Marx himself would not have approved of a Stalin, a Mao, or Pol Pot, nor probably even of a Lenin. Ultimately, what motivates Marx’s philosophy, however different it may be from Smith’s, is identical to what motivated Adam Smith, namely, a concern for the suffering of the poor. If viewed in this light, I think it is possible to have an authentic appreciation for Marx and for his ideas, no matter how much one might disagree with him.
With that said, one of the things that strikes me most when reading Marx is his lack of originality. While Marx’s is a unique formulation of the ideas to which he subscribes, remarkably few of Marx’s ideas are original to him. The only idea that I am able to identify in Marx’s philosophy which is, as far as I know, unique to Marx is the idea of the alienation produced by industrial society. It is notable that I also find this idea the most interesting, compelling, and accurately descriptive in Marx’s works.
As I finally catch up on the Great Books of the Western World reading project, I come now, somewhat out of order, to Smith. The introduction and first nine chapters of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations technically follow the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers in the Great Books of the Western World reading list, but I have been reading October’s readings side-by-side and finished Smith first. I have actually had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time reading, contemplating, and discussing Smith over the past few months as I have been engaged in a PhD seminar on “Wealth” as one of the great ideas.
One of the aspects of Smith’s thought that strikes me most each time I read him is what it is that is motivating him. One frequently hears the name of Smith abused in contemporary debates about economic systems. He is often referred to, by those who no doubt have never actually read his work but only seen him mentioned in textbooks, as the father of cold, hard laissez-faire capitalism. He seems most commonly to be seen as a sort of Ayn Rand figure who believed in the virtue of greed.
The reality, as we see in this selection from his most important work, however, is that Smith was motivated essentially by his compassion for the poor. Smith believed that through economic freedom a superabundance of goods and luxuries could be produced which would make a society richer in a general sense, thereby raising the standard of living for even the poorest members of that society. And while Smith may have erred in some of the details of his ideas, the wealth of those nations that have more or less followed his road map today is sufficient evidence in favor of the soundness of his thesis. With but few exceptions, even the poorest Americans and Western Europeans enjoy a lifestyle that far surpasses that of the poor in many other places in the world and that surpasses by a long shot nearly all of the poor anywhere in the world before the modern era. Smith is certainly a thinker with whom we should be more familiar and whose ideas deserve more respect and consideration than they currently receive.
In his “Plutus,” or “Wealth,” the Greek playwright Aristophanes presents the possibility of catastrophic consequences resulting from actions otherwise expected to be universally beneficial. In so writing, Aristophanes raises questions not only about the specific subject of the play, wealth, but also wider questions about relationship of want to need.
The play begins with Chremylus and his slave Cario in a chance encounter with the eponymous god of wealth. Discovering that wealth is a blind dotard, they determine to bring him to the temple of the god Asclepius for healing. Chremylus describes this plan as an “honest and god-fearing plan, a plan which is good and full of virtue, a plan which will serve the whole of humanity!” He explains, “If the god of Wealth regains his eyesight, he won’t be wandering aimlessly and blindly about like he does now and he’ll be able to see who’s honest and who’s not and so he’ll go to the good folk and shun all the godless crooks and all the bastards. The result? Everyone will become good and god-fearing … and rich!”
Chremylus and Cairo have concocted a scheme which they believe will result in the establishment of a utopia. Wealth, freed of his blindness and able to move about with youthful freedom and swiftness, can now bring his gifts to all good people.. As a result, good people will be rewarded for their goodness. All people, then, desiring to partake of the bounties of Wealth, will become good.
After his healing at the temple, Wealth begins to fulfill this plan, going about to reward the good for their goodness. The result of this munificence, however, is not entirely what was expected. Rather than creating a utopian society, the abundance of wealth begins to cause the destruction of society.
Chremylus had desired that “that the good folk, the god-fearing folk, the folk who do an honest day’s work” would be those to benefit from his plan because, he says, they “should be the ones who deserve to be rich, not the dishonest, godless crooks!” Visited by the goddess Poverty, Chremylus is warned, however, that should his plan come to fruition no one will be “do[ing] an honest day’s work.” “If Wealth were to get his sight back and if he spread himself around to everyone,” Poverty warns, “who’d be doing any of the work then or even any of the thinking?” All of the workmen, including the “smiths and . . . the ship builders, . . . the tailors, the cartwheel makers, the cobblers, the brick makers, the launderers, the tanners” and those who “till the soil with the ploughs and then reap” will choose instead to “sit around idly all day, doing nothing and caring about nothing.” Without the threat of poverty, no one will exert themselves or risk their health to do work. “It is I who forces them to do all that work,” says Poverty. “Yes, me, Poverty, whom they all want to avoid and earn themselves a livelihood, it is I who’ll be making them do all that work for you!”
Once Chremylus goes through with his plan, he finds that more dire consequences follow as a result of his actions. Just after returning from the healing of Wealth, he encounters an old woman whose young lover has left her because he no longer relied upon her for her wealth. Within this single broken relationship is encapsulated the two primary relationships that uphold and perpetuate any society, the love relationship between man and woman and the relationship of respect and dependence between the young and the old. With wealth gone, there is no need for anyone to depend upon another for sustenance. The result is that lovers separate from each other and the young, no longer in need of the inheritance passed on by the old, no longer respect the elderly.
The final calamity to result from the new profusion of wealth is revealed to Chremylus by the god Hermes, who comes to inform him that Zeus is “angry [with him] because from the moment you gave Wealth his sight back, we gods received nothing from you mortals! Not a single sacrifice, not a whiff of incense, not a single leaf of bay, not a single barley cake, not one victim, nothing! Absolutely nothing!” Because there are no more wants among men, piety has abated. Men no longer rely upon, and so no longer worship, the gods.
Through his effort toward creating a utopia, Chremylus has caused the dissolution of the primary institutions necessary to the continued stability of society: work, family, and religion. Through his exploration of these unexpected consequences of Chemylus’s attempt to eradicate poverty, Aristophanes also points to the often wide chasm between human want and human need, between what people believe is best and what is really best.
In his treatment “Of Property” in the fifth chapter of his Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, John Locke evinces the various ways in which he has been significant influenced by the thought of Aristotle on the subjects of wealth and property ownership. He also, however, departs from and makes meaningful additions to the theories of Aristotle on key points, thereby forging a theory of his own from the foundation provided by Aristotle.
Both Aristotle and Locke begin their exploration of the origins of property with the notion of an original human family which held all property in common. Aristotle asserts that “the first community . . . which is the family . . . originally had all things in common.” Locke, adding to this the biblical names of Adam and Noah as the forefathers of the collective human family, similarly states that God granted the entire world to “Adam, and to Noah, and his sons,” from which “it is very clear, that God . . . has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.”
From this original collective ownership of the earth, both Aristotle and Locke explain, there was a departure in favor of private ownership, from which, in turn, resulted the development of exchange and, later still, the use of money. It is in the reasons they provide for this departure from a primitive collectivism that Aristotle and Locke begin to depart from each other in their respective theories. Aristotle puts forward the notion that the development of private ownership out of the early collective economy of the primeval human family was the result of the growth of the population. “Later, when the family divided into parts,” says Aristotle, “the parts shared in many things, and different parts in different things.” The division of property among private owners, then, is the result of the limitation of one’s purview to those things that are of direct concern to one.
Locke, however, offers a theory that, while not in conflict with Aristotle’s ideas, provides an alternative explanation for the development of private property out of early common ownership. Locke sees this development as a natural extension of the private ownership each person naturally possesses over his or her own body. “Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men,” says Locke, “yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.” Because of this natural ownership over one’s own body, it is also the case that anything one uses one’s body to produce is also one’s own. “The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his,” according to Locke.
While Locke’s theory of the origin of private property does not stand in opposition to the theory of Aristotle on the same subject, and the two are even potentially complementary, there is a clear difference in their perspectives on this point. After this brief departure from another another, however, Locke returns again to an agreement with Aristotle in his theories of the origins of exchange and money, adding to Aristotle while relying upon Aristotle’s earlier assessments.
Commenting on the origins of an exchange economy, Aristotle states that “the art of exchange extends . . . arises at first from what is natural, from the circumstance that some have too little, others too much” of certain goods. As a result, an individual exchanges that which he has too much of for that which he has too little of with another individual who finds himself in the inverse situation. The use of money developed, continues Aristotle, because the “various necessaries of life are not easily carried about, and hence men agreed to employ in their dealings with each other something which was intrinsically useful and easily applicable to the purposes of life, for example, iron, silver, and the like.”
While holding to a nearly identical theory regarding the development of an exchange economy and the use of money, Locke adds to Aristotle’s idea the observation that those goods which are necessary to life are generally perishable goods. “And thus came in the use of money,” writes Locke, “some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life.”
While departing slightly in some places and proposing slightly divergent alternative theories in others, Locke largely relies upon Aristotle’s account regarding the origins of private property, the exchange economy, and the use of money. Given the clear reliance of Locke upon Aristotle’s ideas, it is perhaps useful to view Locke’s writing on the subject as a commentary upon the earlier work of Aristotle upon the same.
In Book II, Chapter III of his The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith states and explains the distinction he makes between the categories of “productive and unproductive labour.” According to Smith, “there is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed,” namely productive labor, and “there is another which has no such effect,” namely unproductive labor. In addition, Smith holds that the productive laborer makes a greater contribution to a society than the unproductive laborer due to the former’s role in “the growth of public opulence.”
The former, productive, class of labor he identifies specifically with the manufacturing class which produces “some particular subject or vendible commodity.” These laborers, in other words, produce some tangible item which contributes to an indubitable increase in the total material wealth of a society. Smith envisions a society in which, through the profuse production of commodities by the manufacturing class and the consumption of these commodities “in adorning his house or his country villa, in useful or ornamental buildings, in useful or ornamental furniture, in collecting books, statues, pictures; or in things more frivolous, jewels, baubles, ingenious trinkets of different kinds; or, what is most trifling of all, in amassing a great wardrobe of fine clothes,” on the part of the wealthy, greater material wealth is made available to all. Because of the insatiable appetite of the wealthy for new commodities, they will eventually “grow weary” of the items they have purchased previously. As a result, “the houses, the furniture, the clothing of the rich, in a little time, become useful to the inferior and middling ranks of people.” The greater the number of commodities produced, the more available all commodities become to all people. The profusion of material wealth creates a trickle-down economy which increases the material wealth of all in a society. What is necessary to create such a system, Smith holds, is a great number of productive laborers of the manufacturing class working to produce said commodities.
Smith contrasts those whom he terms the “unproductive hands” with this productive group of laborers. Among the unproductive in a society Smith classes “the sovereign . . . with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him” as well as “the whole army and navy.” In addition, “in this same class,” says Smith, “must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.” While these are certainly not without value to a society, Smith classes all of these together as “unproductive” because they do not produce any lasting tangible items, or commodities. “Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician,” says Smith, “the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.”
The distinction that Smith draws between productive and unproductive laborers is quite compelling and insightful, yet fraught with danger for a society which takes it too seriously. On the one hand, Smith admirably rescues the manufacturer and the artisan from the belittlement of the nature of their vocations which had been a mainstay of Western thought since antiquity. Aristotle, who exerted a substantial influence on the Western mind during and following the High Middle Ages, for instance, claimed that “all paid employments . . . absorb and degrade the mind.” To this condemnation, Smith offers a corrective in the form of a reminder of the necessity of these “paid employments” to the material wealth of a society.
It is this material wealth, in turn, which creates the environment which allows the “unproductive hands” of artists, musicians, and men of letters to flourish. A society which continues to exist at a mere subsistence level cannot develop a distinguishable class of priests and storytellers because all hands must be employed in the cultivation and production necessary to the maintenance of biological life. Only with a class of productive laborers of some size and which is capable of meeting and even producing superfluity beyond the basic needs of a society, such as the slave class of Aristotle’s ancient Greece or the manufacturing class of Smith’s 18th century Scotland, does a class of the “unproductive” become possible.
It is not be overlooked, however, that it is this class of the “unproductive” which leads a society beyond mere animal existence. While Smith is right to place great value upon the manufacturing class, it would be a mistake for a society to lean too far in this direction and so devalue the creative and intellectual element. A poverty of thought is as detrimental to human existence as a poverty of the goods necessary to material well-being, a fact Smith would have done well to note.