Sunday, January 07, 2007

First Chapter: On "The Wealth of Nations"

THE WEALTH OF NATIONS IS, without doubt, a book that changed the world. But it has been taking its time. Two hundred thirty-one years after publication, Adam Smith's practical truths are only beginning to be absorbed in full. And where practical truths are most important-amid counsels of the European Union, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, British Parliament, and American Congress-the lessons of Adam Smith end up as often sunk as sinking in.

Adam Smith's Simple Principles. Smith illuminated the mystery of economics in one flash: "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production." There is no mystery. Smith took the meta out of the physics. Economics is our livelihood and just that.

The Wealth of Nations argues three basic principles and, by plain thinking and plentiful examples, proves them. Even intellectuals should have no trouble understanding Smith's ideas. Economic progress depends upon a trinity of individual prerogatives: pursuit of self-interest, division of labor, and freedom of trade.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the pursuit of self-interest. That was Smith's best insight. To a twenty-first-century reader this hardly sounds like news. Or, rather, it sounds like everything that's in the news. These days, altruism itself is proclaimed at the top of the altruist's lungs. Certainly it's of interest to the self to be a celebrity. Bob Geldof has found a way to remain one. But for most of history, wisdom, beliefs, and mores demanded subjugation of ego, bridling of aspiration, and sacrifice of self (and, per Abraham with Isaac, of family members, if you could catch them).

This meekness, like Adam Smith's production, had an end and purpose. Most people enjoyed no control over their material circumstances or even-if they were slaves or serfs-their material persons. In the doghouse of ancient and medieval existence, asceticism made us feel less like dogs.

But Adam Smith lived in a place and time when ordinary individuals were beginning to have some power to pursue their self-interest. In the chapter "Of the Wages of Labour," in book 1 of The Wealth of Nations, Smith remarked in a tone approaching modern irony, "Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society?"

If, in the eighteenth century, prosperity was not yet considered a self-evidently good thing for the lower ranks of people, it was because nobody had bothered to ask them. In many places nobody has bothered to ask them yet. But it is never a question of folly, sacrilege, or vulgarity to better our circumstances. The question is how to do it.

The answer is division of labor. It was an obvious answer-except to most of the scholars who had theorized about economics prior to Adam Smith. Division of labor has existed since mankind has. When the original Adam delved and his Eve span, the division of labor may be said to have been painfully obvious. Women endured the agonies of childbirth while men fiddled around in the garden.

The Adam under present consideration was not the first philosopher to notice specialization or to see that divisions are as innate as labors. But Smith was arguably the first to understand the manifold implications of the division of labor. In fact he seems to have invented the term.

The little fellow with the big ideas chips the spear points. The courageous oaf spears the mammoth. And the artistic type does a lovely cave painting of it all. One person makes a thing, and another person makes another thing, and everyone wants everything.

Hence trade. Trade may be theoretically good, or self-sufficiency may be theoretically better, but to even think about such theories is a waste of that intermittently useful specialization, thought. Trade is a fact.

Adam Smith saw that all trades, when freely conducted, are mutually beneficial by definition. A person with this got that, which he wanted more, from a person who wanted this more than that. It may have been a stupid trade. Viewing a cave painting cannot be worth three hundred pounds of mammoth ham. The mutuality may be lopsided. A starving artist gorges himself for months while a courageous oaf of a new art patron stands bemused in the Grotte de Lascaux. And what about that wily spear point chipper? He doubtless took his mammoth slice. But they didn't ask us. It's none of our business.

Continue here (The New York Times, dated 7 January 2007)