Smith Gets Snarky, Stoic, and Cynical: Snarkism: Adam Smith’s third way of minimizing the importance of economic inequality is to snark. The aim of wealth is to make you happy. Smith thinks that what wealthy women wish they could buy is beauty, and what wealthy men wish they could buy is strength. But who are the beautiful and strong in England? Adam Smith tells us in an aside on nutrition on the good qualities of the potato:
The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root [the potato]…
The rich aren’t doing a terribly good job of using their wealth to promote human flourishing, are they? And there is the implication that the rich are none too happy. We see Smith, and what he is doing here, I think.
Stoicism: Adam Smith’s fourth way of minimizing the importance of economic inequality is to assume the philosophical pose of the stoic. One works hard. One sacrifices one’s peace and leisure in order to get rich. And what does that get you as you age? Adam Smith writes that to the aging, looking back at a life in which they have sacrificed their ease and their happiness in order to gain wealth:
Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more, exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death…
Who then benefits from all the industry and toil of the upwardly-mobile? Adam Smith argues that it was, somewhat paradoxically, the poor. The rich sacrifice their true happiness to set in motion enterprises. And the commodities produced by those enterprises are principally consumed by the poor:
The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants…. The proud and unfeeling landlord…. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of… all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice…
Cynicism: Fifth and last, Adam Smith minimizes the importance of economic inequality by claiming that there is little or nothing to be done about it. Human nature is such that people will seek to create, and then to obey, those whom they will call their superiors. It is the view expressed by Calvera in the movie The Magnificent Seven. Chico asks Calvera:
And the people of the village? What about them?
I leave that to you. Can men of our profession worry about that? If God did not want them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep!
As Adam Smith puts it in his Theory of Moral Sentiments:
A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them, would be apt to imagine, that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than they are to those of meaner stations.
Upon this disposition… is founded the distinction of ranks, and the order of society. Our obsequiousness to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their goodwill…. We desire to serve them for their own sake, without any recompense but the vanity or the honour of obliging them…
To attempt to eliminate inequality is, for Smith in his cynical mode, like trying to bail out the sea: make society equal, and people will find somebody to look up to, and then figure out a way to give their money away to the rich.
So that is Adam Smith: worry about prosperity and wealth, yes; worry about poverty and want, yes; worry about inequality, not so much.
Needless to say, Karl Marx did not agree that income inequality is not worth a great deal of concern. He saw inequality as a necessary product of the market economy, a necessary product that poisoned all of its fruits, and one that made hopes of eliminating or even reducing poverty and dire poverty vain.