Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Adam Smith, we hardly knew ye...

Right wing "free marketers" love to quote Adam Smith, early 18th century father of economics, in praise of self interest as the god of prosperity and in defense of an end to government intervention and regulation of markets, including mitigation of unfair exploitation of labor. But in truth, and those who have studied the History of Economic Thought (no longer taught in many universities, according to my former economics professor – "no demand" he said) know this is a fallacy. Smith was well aware of the cruelty of unregulated capitalism. His comments below are predictive of the current state of the US population, poorly educated, obese, a nation of couch and screen potatoes, resistant to fact, and willing to believe anything that lets them, as citizens, off the hook when it comes to making a serious effort to understand and change their society for the better.

His description of what happens to an industrial (it's just as applicable to so called "white collar" office workers) labor force mercilessly indebted and exploited by the power brokers is timely, and thank the gods there are still reputable economists out there writing about this today. Will anyone notice?

"The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations . . . has no occasion to exert his understanding. . . . He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging; and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind. . . . It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance, in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it."

Adam Smith. Read the whole article at Economonitor today.

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