Three Great Books to Have Read—But Not Nefessarily to Read
Adam Smith: From Human Nature to Human Society

Adam Smith's View of Human Nature

2) Economic Sides of Adam Smith’s Philosophy: 2.1. Starting Points in Human Nature: Adam Smith starts with the observation that humans are largely but not exclusively self-interested creatures: we are, largely but not exclusively greedy. Yet we have a complex and sophisticated societal division of labor. And that division of labor is essential to our prosperity. Indeed, it is essential to our survival: drop one or two of us into the Sierra Nevada, even in summer, and we will quite likely die. Drop 100 of us, and we will quite likely survive, and even flourish.

How can animals that are by nature greedy nevertheless cooperate on a large scale? That is the deep moral-philosophical question that we can see both of Smith’s big books—his The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations—as aimed at. As Robert Heilbroner puts it in his The Worldly Philosophers, Smith:

is interested in laying bare the mechanism by which society hangs together. How is it possible for a community in which everyone is busily following his self-interest not to fly apart from sheer centrifugal force? What is it which guides each individual’s private business so that it conforms to the needs of the group? With no central planning authority and no steadying influence of age old tradition, how does society manage to get those tasks done which are necessary for survival?...

Adam Smith says that our ability to create and maintain a complicated societal division of labor that is so productive rests on three facets of human nature:

  1. language, that makes us an anthology intelligence—what one of us knows or learns, pretty quickly all of us within and many of us without earshot will quickly learn;

  2. hierarchy, in that we tend to form and respect weak dominance hierarchies in which we can command and obey;

  3. gift exchange: we bind ourselves by forming gift-exchange relationships, what Adam Smith called our “natural propensity to truck and barter“. We firmly expect to be and are very happy when I we trade favors with each other, and we are uneasy when we feel as though we are always giving or always receiving, for we want the exchange of gifts and favors to be reciprocal, and roughly balanced.

Back in our environment of evolutionary adaptation, we could form gift-exchange relationships only with a few: our close neighbors, our good friends, and our near kin. Trust, you see, is necessary for a long-term gift-exchange relationship, and short-term such relationships are rare because each has to have and be willing to give up something the other wants or needs right now. And since we are largely self interested, trust is hard to generate and maintain without other binding social ties.

Here the full files are—unfinished:

And the course slides:

#books #highlighted #history #historyofeconomicthought #moralphilosophy #politicaleconomy #2019-11-19