Efficiency and Niceness

A thoughtful essay in 2012 by Adam Gopnik , "Barack, Mitt, and Adam Smith", muses about Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and observes that to be healthy a society must address:

... questions of what we can only call the common emotional tone that lets prosperity happen. As Emma Rothschild writes in "Economic Sentiments," her matchless 2001 study of Smith's thought, it depends on what might be called niceness: Smith's "faith ... is in the mildness and thoughtfulness of most individual men and women. He is induced thereby to believe that they will usually not pursue their interests in grossly oppressive ways, and that they will usually wish to live in a society in which other people are not grossly oppressed or deprived." Even if more money can be made by the producer by enclosing the land the peasant's animals grazed on or by hiring child labor—or by looting someone's pension funds—a decent concern for the opinions of mankind will stop the wise producer from doing these things, because he will know that they will break the bonds of common sympathy, the sense that we're all in this together, on which the producers—or the equity manager's—well-being ultimately depends.

It's always easy, Smith knew, to provoke a cycle of exploitation, rage, and revolution; that's what most of history has been. What's hard is to replace it with one of "mildness"—of public decency, progressive reform, and shared prosperity. You couldn't have a free market unless you had all the institutions of trust in place that only a sovereign state can guarantee. (If you want to know what capitalism looks like without those institutions, think of words like "Russia," "oligarchs," and "kleptocracy.") Everything we mean by a free market depends on a functioning, sympathetic state—a state rooted not in selfish individualism but in a social sympathy so broadly articulated and institutionalized that every man is confident that he can make an honest deal with his fellow man. ...

(cf. Upheavals of Thought (2002-06-29), Tools to Make the Tools to Make (2005-03-26), ...) - ^z - 2018-02-28