Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
Adam Smith didn't invent capitalism. I know this, not because I've read The Wealth of Nations, but because I had PJ O'Rourke read it to me. And I fell asleep. A lot. Because PJ's voice, while very like the punctuated drone of a band saw suffering sporadic power outages in a thunderstorm, cloaked me in its jaggedness, like thunder in a thunderstorm, and soothed me just because I knew it was there, like a stern God, whether I was paying attention or not.
Scottish philosophers fall into two camps: those who shag sheep, and those who don't. Adam Smith was by all accounts a non-sheep-shagging Scotsman. It doesn't seem like he shagged anything or anybody. No judgment there. If I were a homosexual Scottish philosopher in the 18th Century I would probably keep it to myself, or even keep it from myself. I'm not saying Smith was gay, I'm saying if I were a gay 18th-century Scottish philosopher, I mean, if I were in his shoes – those shiny black slippers with the silver buckles and those saucy white knee-socks – I wouldn't confront my sexuality at all. I'd just hang out with my mother a lot.
Mr. Smith had a utopian project: to examine a world in which a great deal was cruel and wrong and describe it as a world in which everything was on course to be as it should. Smith did not invent capitalism, but rather described an ideal version of it. That's my take-away, and remember, I'm notorious for maliciously misunderstanding the work of those of superior mentality, which includes everyone of any consequence. This essay will be no exception. It's already too late for this essay to be an exception.
In the century before Smith wrote his magnum opus, Rene Descartes, a fancy-pants Frenchman who wore big shirt-collars that extended down to his tits, took on the project of doubting everything. I judge Descartes harshly on one point, and that is when he abdicated his doubt for an invented God. He didn't invent God, he just used an old one someone else had invented to bridge the gap between godless mystery and the fact that existence itself exists. He was so close to discovering the meaninglessness of existence, but just as he was about to dig it up, he put the shovel down and said, "Well, somebody made all this dirt I'm digging around in. Let's just leave it at that."
A similar abdication is where I judge Smith (as if I have any business judging so superior a mind, but these are the licentious times we live in). Smith was friends with David Hume, who abdicated nothing. I don't say this because Hume was an atheist, but because when he found he couldn't connect the dots from his thought process to some kind of final certainty, he didn't say, "Well, there's probably a line that goes from here to here, let's draw it in non-photo blue pencil for now." Hume was a plump man who liked to dress up and pose for portraits. Smith was skinny and didn't like to pose for portraits. Again, no judgment there.
Where Smith needs to be judged, especially in the light of all that has happened since 1776, when An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was published, is where his thinking becomes magical. His thinking is anything but magical as he describes the ideal conditions under which small clumps of self-interested actors create wealth out of less valuable raw materials and vie to provide goods to a fragmented but interconnected public market, and how such a system would supplant the mercantilism of his time. He seems real good at that. Prophetic, even.
The magical thinking part comes in his idea that somehow, through each actor in the drama seeking only selfish gain (under a just government, which is in turn supported in its justness by the population's steadily growing wealth), a kind of equilibrium of wealth distribution would be achieved, as the economy steadily expanded. 242 years later, which is ample time to test any theory, we've yet to see a just government appear, let alone steadily growing wealth enjoyed by all self-interested agents. If you don't think poor people have enough self-interest, you haven't been around poor people.
It's appealing to imagine that, solely by trying to better your own lot, or that of your immediate family, or that of your company, you are somehow making everything better for everyone. It turns out, it's good to intend to help people. Altruism, generosity, empathetic behavior – these are necessary parts of the equation, if equation is even the word. They are necessary ingredients for a society in which ripping people off isn't the dominant activity. Theoretically, at any rate.
Very often – I would suggest, the majority of the time – in order to do good, to help others, you have to set out to do good, and keep it in mind as your goal. Selfishness is the easy part. We are organisms and seek to persist in this world, and the easier we can make it for ourselves, the better. That's kind of our default setting. Codifying selfishness as our primary way of managing material resources was probably overkill.
It's like an alcoholic telling himself, "Drinking is good. It helps me get the important stuff done. As long as I keep my alcohol level up, I'll be kind to children, I'll create beauty, I'll ennoble humanity." No you won't, drunk guy. Eventually everything that stands between you and the bottle is going to go by the wayside. The rest of us non-drunk people will have to take care of the mess you leave in your wake.
Capitalism is an alcoholic civilization dominated by smaller alcoholic systems, each of them trying to stay drunk enough to operate, sometimes raiding each other's liquor cabinets, sometimes hoarding booze out of fear of running out someday. And any goal outside the pursuit and consumption of alcohol is considered an irrelevant distraction at best, at worst an obstacle to be violently dealt with.
Smith posited a capitalism cooperating with a just state. If your utopian system can only exist within a just state, it's fair to accuse you of making a circular argument. Anyone can invent a utopia with a pre-existing utopia watching over it. Smith had other conditions under which this delicate ideal capitalism would work, such as transparent availability of information and limits on one party's ability to dominate a market, but the main one was that self-interest would stop at the invisible boundary between minding one's private business and the desire to coerce the state. Once self-interest is unleashed, it turns out 242 years later, those boundaries that don't serve the self-interest of capitalists have all but dissolved.
How would Smith have gone about weaving altruism and social welfare more assertively into his formula? As we know, when we try to do good, especially on a larger, collective scale, we often initiate unintended consequences that aren't so good. But it's become rather clear that the accumulation of control over resources dominates our collective will now, and is standing in the way of efforts to save the species from catastrophe. Allowing those who've accumulated control of the most resources to seize control of our collective agenda has put our individual and collective survival in jeopardy in ways too numerous to list.
Adam Smith really wanted things to work out much better than they have. Sadly, in many ways, he ended up giving philosophical permission for us to excuse our worst instincts and behavior.
True, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but the road to Heaven is definitely not paved with bad ones.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!