The Rich, The Poor, Hello Kitty, and Leonidas
A Tribute to Adam Smith
[This article was originally published here.]
After writing an article about the controversial Karl Marx, it only feels right to balance the scales and talk about the ‘Father of Economics’ or more commonly, the ‘Father of Capitalism,’ Adam Smith.
Just as Marx is associated with many people using his ideas for their own malicious agendas, Smith’s baby of political economics, capitalism, has also gotten a bad rap. Yet, what Smith hoped to accomplish through his ideas could still be a model to the current capitalist dilemma of our time: to create a more gentle and purposeful economy.
A Good Lad That Was Kidnapped by Gypsies
Smith was born in a small town outside of Edinburgh in 1723. There isn’t much known about his childhood, but he was said to be close to his mother, kidnapped by gypsies at 3 years old, and toured France before going to the University of Glasgow (Scotland) at 14 years old. It was here he found his passion for liberty, reason, and free speech.
He was a Classical Liberal, or in modern times, a Libertarian. He was hard-working towards his own goals and sympathetic to those of others. He gave lectures on the importance of logic and the arts. And to complete his well-roundedness, he was said to be charming and a little messy.
What we know Smith for, however, is his contribution to economics. The reason he was so influential with his ideas was that he didn’t just believe in the numbers of the economy. He understood that money was a system that has a tremendous effect on the happiness of people and the nations they inhabit.
In the 18th century, those that wanted to focus on the well-being of the people would take the more religious or political approach. The intellectuals of his time argued about the role of church and state rather than the financial aspects of their countries.
Smith was a revolutionary in the sense that he thought we should see the economy as a philosophical debate to better understand:
- How is that we make money?
- How do we spend our money?
- How much should be paid for services and goods?
There are two elements of our way of work today that stand out beyond the rest.
- We create an amazing amount of wealth (particularly for the elite).
- Most people are bored out of their minds and find their work without personal meaning.
Sadly, these two seemed to be interwoven with one another. Is it possible to have both a wealth and a true sense of meaning in life? Can money buy happiness? Is this why monks of every religion renounce wealth?
Smith wanted to believe that wealth could bring happiness to all people of the world while maintaining that the individual could still find meaning in his work.
In the end, Smith had 4 concepts that defined his capitalism.
Smith saw that by dividing the labor of one job into many special roles shared among many people, a lot more could be produced in the same amount of time with the same amount of labor force. If entire nations started applying this idea, their economies would boom relative to how specialized their workforce became.
It seems obvious to us now, but during his time, the average Joe still grew his own food, built his own house, and educated his own children. They were long, tiring days with little to show for it in the sense of wealth. By Smith pointing out the idea of expertise and then trading said expertise, he really gave nations a chance to create wealth.
One of the more humorous, yet poignant, aspects that Smith predicted if his ideas succeeded was how specialized we would become. So specialized that we could meet a stranger, ask them what they did for a living, and have no idea what the hell they did on the title alone.
- Zoological Culinary Quality Control Operative — Pet food taster
- Reproductive Organ Re-Stimulator — Fluffer
- Ablutionary FMCG Distributor — Nightclub toilet attendant
- Physical Communication Distribution Executive — Postman
- Automotive Topographical Solutions Consultant — Taxi driver
- Domestic Equipment Maintenance Engineer — Dishwasher
These titles have become so overtly fancy because they are created for the idea of giving these specializations meaning. Capitalism created greater material wealth for humanity as a whole, but it came at the cost of the individual’s emotional and psychological health.
It is because of this, the simple idea of just ‘redistributing the wealth’ isn’t going to solve the depression of the average worker. No amount of material wealth, however evenly distributed will replace the lack of meaning people feel in doing the work they do.
The more we divide the jobs into parts, the less we see ourselves in the work we do. If we didn’t have a craving for meaning in life, this wouldn’t be a problem. But we do. We are human and we want to believe our lives mean something. We want to see our contribution to the world in a real way.
When we work for ourselves or for small mom-and-pop shops, we are involved in much more of what we offer to the world. Even something that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference or create much wealth in the grand scheme of things such as carpentry can give someone a feeling of purpose if he’s involved in all aspects of his work.
A carpenter gets to meet his clients, hear their desires, then turn something that was nothing into something that he sees put a smile on someone’s face. He is directly involved in the happiness of other humans, and he creates wealth through skills that he can actually see in his work.
But if this same carpenter is thrown into an industrial environment where he never meets the clients and is only asked to cut the same-sized boards over and over, all day, for identical cabinets that don’t leave any mark or character or uniqueness than the other thousand he helped create, he can’t help but to feel meaningless in the process.
Sure, from a management perspective, we can see this tiny cog of a man as vital to the overall importance of the machine. But this overall view is usually lost on the average worker. A large corporation with thousands of employees stretched across the globe creating something that takes years to make will have a hard time seeing how they are really involved in anything meaningful.
Yes, it is absolutely amazing our capability to share all this wealth at such a low cost to the consumer, but the individuals involved will likely not see the cohesion and magic as part of their own doing.
So if the problem is a lack of meaning, is Communism the answer? Definitely not if you want to feel meaning as the individual soul you are. Everyone would feel even less unique and special in that system, even if you had the same TV and car (or lack thereof) as the Smith family next door.
Perhaps we should go back to a more artisanal economy then? Well, this was the idea of many of the philosophers of the 19th century.
Yet, Smith predicted this lack of meaning. He really was out for the betterment of humanity. It was perhaps naive of him in this theoretical capitalism he imagined, but he saw a capitalism that helped nations grow financially for all their citizens. All the while maintaining the personal satisfaction of seeing their work have its effect. What the workers needed was a story. They needed to see their role in the play.
To do this, Smith believed that bosses of these future giant corporations should take on the responsibility of involving their workers more in the meaning and culture of their work. They should remind them of the purpose they serve and the virtue of their work, which is to help others and serve the greater community.
When capitalism started to take effect, goods that used to be considered luxuries were becoming more and more available for an ever-growing middle class. This lead to even more consumption of:
And well, you get the idea.
Obviously, this disgusted many people. They said we should return to a simpler way of life. They even went as far as to say that we should ban luxuries.
Now, I live a Spartan lifestyle, but to tell people what they can and can’t do as some sort of dictator is crossing a line in my rulebook. Yet, it is the way of the world to assume you know what is best for others.
‘Looks like we won’t be getting the new fashions this year. Leonidas just kicked another merchant down the hole.’
‘Did he yell ‘Sparta’ again?’
‘With the whole philosophers being gay, child molesters remark?’
‘Ha. Yeah. As if he wasn’t compensating for something.’
‘What a douche-bag. No wonder the world hates us.’
‘I just wanted a new dress. I’ve been wearing the same damn thing since we got married. Seriously, this is my wedding dress. I heard the Egyptians are really doing something stunning this year for the summer season too.’
‘No… This is Sparta.’
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a special fan of ancient Sparta. He believed in the ‘noble savage’ and said we should mimic their austere and martial lifestyle. I fancy myself a noble savage and I’m quite the fan of Rousseau and his philosophy (and writing). But once again, just because I’m a noble savage, doesn’t mean you have to be.
Smith didn’t disagree that consumerism could be trivial in an individual sense but still wanted to point out to Rousseau that it still played a very earnest role in a healthy society. All the excessive spending on luxuries provided wealth for a nation that could, in turn, be used to help the weaker members of society.
It was a bit of an emotional argument on Smith’s side, but he conceded that societies that appealed to consumers may not be the most morally rigorous, but they did keep children, the elderly, and invalids from starving. It also helped them get affordable healthcare, which was quite rare in his time.
Kind of funny the ‘Father of Capitalism’ was inspired to create his economic model with the intentions of helping the unfortunate, no?
‘So, no,’ Smith said. ‘We don’t need fancy tablecloths, magazines for style, or cakes shaped like Bugs Bunny, but all of this nonsense encourages trade, which creates employment and greater wealth.’ [This is an actual quote… Just kidding, please don’t believe this is an actual quote.]
Now, if Smith would have left the argument there, as many of us still unfortunately do today, we would have to choose between two horrible and opposite extremes:
- The ridiculousness of consumer capitalism, or
- The repressive severity of Sparta… North Korea
Smith didn’t stop there though. He wasn’t short-sighted and had great hopes for the future. Just because we encourage consumption, didn’t mean we had to encourage stupid consumption.
There are things we could focus our capitalist machine on that supplies our ‘higher’ needs. Things that are very practical and worthy:
- The desire to learn — be it in a classroom or self-taught
- Self-development — pilgrimages or books or mentors
- Beautiful architecture — stand-alone castles or lovely cities
- Satisfying social lives — Yay, wine!
Today, we are still running circles around the same things Smith and Rousseau argued about. Yet, we should hope that the future won’t be a continuation of everyone trying to make money off of each other by demeaning or frivolous consumerism. I mean, do we really need the same pair of shoes in a different color?
My hope is that we are still in a very infantile stage of capitalism. Much like discovering the internet for the first time, we spend countless hours looking at nonsense just because we are amazed we can. Yet after a few years, our browser history could probably be summed up on one page.
In the future, we should hope to see capitalism turned towards industries that improve us on an individual level and global community. Perhaps we are in that direction with all of the ‘self-help’ books out now. Let’s just hope the free market will naturally select the best there.
‘But the rich don’t share!’
‘The 1% is responsible for all our life problems!’
Yes. Yes. I hear you, angry mob. I’m getting there.
It’s true, a great question today and always has been, ‘How do we get the upper-class to treat us common folk a bit better?’
Well, the Christian solution is guilt. Show them the suffering of others and hope they have a conscience. Guilt is a decent motivator, but it doesn’t last long and usually backfires.
So the radical left screams to raise their taxes. Coercion and intimidation isn’t a much better solution and has an even worse backlash.
[France has suffered the worst from their socialist aggression towards the rich.]
Smith predicted the outcomes of both of these techniques.
- The rich would become cold-hearted
- They would flee the country
[Why don’t we read more to prevent these things? My goodness, the time we would save.]
So what was his solution, you ask? I’m glad you did. It’s going to feel obvious when you read it. Don’t feel too bad though. We are about to start our manipulation of the rich here.
Smith had a theory about what the rich really wanted. Despite the surface-level conclusion that all the rich care about is money, Smith believed that the rich weren’t mining wealth out of the working class due to material greed, but something deeper. They were, in fact, emotionally needy.
The rich want honor and respect. They want to be liked and approved of.
This sort of vanity should be easy for governments to manipulate. Don’t bully them, they’re powerful. Outsmart them. (Perhaps this is obvious for any of us boys who grew up small and got our asses kicked a lot in school for trying to fight the big boys on muscle alone.)
In other words, don’t legally steal their money. Instead, manipulate them into giving it away as if it was their own idea.
Give them honor and status as leading members of society. Tell these narcissists all the good things they want to hear. Thank them for their contributions to society and they will contribute to society.
- Schools will have the money for more teachers
- Hospitals will have more money to take patients without insurance
- Workers will receive higher wages
Once a few start getting the praise of being heroes of society, the others will follow suit for their own ego-boost and emotional-hole filling. The capitalist competition principle could be applied to their egos and then we can just sit back and watch the grass grow as they take care of all of us.
‘The great secret of education is to direct vanity to proper objects.’
― Adam Smith
Right, we really should’ve listened to Adam Smith. Now, speaking of education…
A Wiser Consumer
The big bad wolf of our times are the major corporations. Sure they bring us coke at a fair price and provide us with gas to visit family and friends, but they are evil and natural targets to blame for all of our worldly problems:
- Ecological abuse
- Harmful ingredients
Yet, once again Smith was a strong observer and philosopher of our species. Rather than always putting the blame on someone else for life problems; we should look in the mirror. These consequences of bad corporations are to be expected. Whether we like it or not, we are responsible for the ills of our society. Blame Coca-Cola on your taste.
‘Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.’
― Anna Lappe
We choose to buy what we buy, be it for convenience, excitement, or whatever. It isn’t the companies that are evil for responding to what we say we want. They are merely serving our unrelenting appetites. It is the very basics of economics, if there is a demand, there will be a supply. Once we accept this hard truth, we can start to grow and make a change.
Education is the key. No doubt, something you may tire of me saying, but I truly believe that strict controls on people don’t prevent bad things from happening. Education does. Whether we are speaking of the economy, sex, or violence.
We need to understand and want quality over quantity. We should become more aware of what is a fair price to pay to reflect the efforts of the workers and the environment.
The right kind of capitalism wouldn’t just offer choices, but would also put time into educating its consumers as to how to make the right choices. We should save the framework of capitalism for its obvious and outstanding benefits, but like most reformations, it needs to be done through education, not intimidation, guilt, or quite simply, fear. This type of natural education would come full cycle with consumers educating the industries in what types of products and services they are willing to pay for.
Let’s Wrap This Up
The economy is always an issue in today’s politics and rightly so. It plays a major role in our lives, both obvious and obscure. Rather than being intimidated by the complexity of it and breaking down into hopelessness and apathy, we should take note of some of the great minds who can guide us with a bit of assurance and promise.
Smith gave us literature filled with ideas about how we can combine our necessary human values with our obligations to business. He wrote his ideas in a time when the world was changing and played a major role in that change. Though he was unable to see all of the ideas accomplished in his lifetime, we shouldn’t give up on what he was trying to teach us and offer us.
What he wanted for the world 300 years ago is still just as relevant today as it was then. An economy that is both prosperous and enlightened.