Adam Smith on Compassion-What Free Marketeers Don’t Tell You

Adam Smith Misquoted
Adam Smith Misquoted

Adam Smith, is known as the “Father of Modern Economics” because of his 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations. He is quoted as stating that everyone acting in his own self-interest will result in the good of all in the long run. The theory is that in a free market, people will choose what to buy and what price they are willing to pay for it, so the butcher will sell his goods at the best price so he can make money and everyone will benefit.

Somehow Smith’s idea has morphed into the maxim that “Greed is good,” something which goes against the human universal value that generosity is admirable and greed is deplorable. Did Smith really say that greed is good? Was Smith a cold-hearted capitalist? Or have cold-hearted capitalists twisted what Smith said for their own purposes? A quote of Smith’s that turbo-capitalists avoid is:

All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. (Wealth of Nations, Book III, Chapter IV, p. 448)

Smith wrote an earlier book which confuses some Turbo Capitalists called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. If Smith was in favor of greed, how could he write so extensively on human empathy? Perhaps he was lying because it was in his self-interest? Turbo capitalists can understand that as a motivation.

What they cannot seem to understand is that Smith NEVER extolled selfishness as a virtue and would spin in his grave if he heard how his words have been twisted by the masters of mankind. Smith, like most of us, thought other people were like him self, guided by conscience and moral sentiments which would ultimately check destructive selfishness. (Note: Since we think others are like our selves, beware those who claim it is just “human nature” to lie, cheat, steal and kill.)

How could he say self-interest leads to the common good in one case and also say about human compassion: “hence it is, that to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.”

However imperfectly humans have implemented the concept, it has consistently been held as an ideal, back to hunter-gatherer days. Smith acknowledged that humans tend to act in their own self-interest and this is not necessarily bad; it is a tool of survival. It can become bad, however, when other people are left out of the equation. Empathy would restrain selfishness, Smith believed.

In chapter one of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith says, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” In a way, it is in our own self-interest to desire the happiness of others, because it gives us pleasure.

Smith describes how human imagination allows us to participate in the sufferings of others by putting our selves in their place. How would I feel if my father died? Or my child was suffering from a disease? In this way humans have the hard-wiring to feel compassion for others and to desire to relieve the sufferings of others, as well as to enjoy their good fortune. In Smith’s view, all humans possess this quality from birth, they cannot escape it even if they wanted to. Furthermore, they don’t want to, because it is the source of much of the richness human life.

Smith thought that greedy people would see that is not in their self-interest to be greedy, since they would lose out on the benefits of participating with others socially; the pleasure of being fully human. Contrary to claiming that a pitiless pursuit of profits was laudable, Smith said, “how disagreeable does he appear to be, whose hard and obdurate heart feels for himself only, but is altogether insensible to the happiness or misery of others!”

Smith’s optimistic view of humanity-that empathy would naturally restrain greed, may not have always been borne out through history. The Greedy have misquoted Smith; they have even misquoted Jesus in their fruitless search for the moral high ground.

Free Marketeers and Turbo capitalists>Ayn Rand is your spokesperson. At least be honest enough to stick with her toxic philosophy.

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