Adam Smith, America, & the Failure of Contempt
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Eli Siegel’s lecture of August 23, 1972—with its important understanding of a famous economist and of the purpose people and economics need to have. In Good Will Is in Poetry, Mr. Siegel shows the relation, unseen before, among three things: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations of 1776; Smith’s earlier, so different, work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments; and the writings of the poet Shelley. All three, Mr. Siegel makes clear, are about the need for good will. And good will is no soupy, greeting card affair, but the most practical, tough, critical purpose one can have. It’s “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”
In The Wealth of Nations there are some passages about ill will. But Mr. Siegel shows that as Smith describes the functioning of economics as such, he is describing good will. It is what Mr. Siegel calls “mechanical” good will; it is an underlying good will: for instance, the fact that one person produces what’s needed by and can strengthen another; the fact that a nation, through what it exports, does good to the receiving nation and is in turn strengthened by products it imports from that second nation.
Meanwhile, as the economics of the world has taken place, people have not been true to that underlying good will. They have had a motive contrary to it: the motive of contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the source of all the injustice in human history, from a girl’s humiliating another girl in the schoolyard; to racism; to the exploitation of one’s fellow humans in the field of jobs, wages, buying and selling.
In his Goodbye Profit System lectures, begun in 1970, Mr. Siegel showed that contempt is the motive that made for and pervades the profit system. When you look at someone in terms of profit—how you can make as much money from him as possible—your desire is not that this person fare well. Your desire is that he be in a position of weakness, desperation—so he’ll accept a much lower wage than he wants, work for painfully long hours, and be afraid to complain that the work conditions are dangerous.
The profit motive is contempt. It has had bosses, who presented themselves as good family men, hire little children to work in factories and mines, or to use their small fingers manufacturing rugs—because more profit could be made from a child than from someone older. Contempt-as-the-profit-motive had a businessman adulterate bread with sawdust and hope people were too stupid to notice. Contempt-as-the-profit-motive is what has made the persons running tobacco companies promote cigarettes while hiding their knowledge that cigarettes cause cancer.
And it was in those Goodbye Profit System lectures that Mr. Siegel showed: after thousands of years, economics motivated by contempt no longer works! Making profits from the work of others has become harder and harder. He said: “In May 1970, the conduct of industry on the basis of ill will has been shown to be inefficient.” And he explained that this failure would never change: there would be no recovery until economics was conducted on the basis of good will. “I wish I could call it something else,” he said, “—good will and ill will are such pale words; but that is what it’s about.”
Debt in America
Today—with people working longer hours for less pay, with pensions being lost, with American jobs now being done in Guatemala or Indonesia or India—life is replete with instances of the profit system’s failure. But I’ll comment a little on a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, because in itself it is enough to show that Mr. Siegel was right: though a lot has happened since 1970, and the stock market has risen and fallen many times, and we have wonderful technology and cyberspace, the profit system has not recovered. The New York Times Magazine of June 11 is given entirely to articles on the subject of debt—the debt of Americans and America herself.
In an article titled “Reasons to Worry,” writer Niall Ferguson tells us that the national debt of the United States is 5.6 trillion dollars, and that “the United States has become the world’s biggest debtor.” Also—more and more, American assets are becoming owned by foreigners. Non-Americans own much more of America than Americans own assets of other countries. Ferguson says:
There has been an immense rise in foreign ownership of American securities of all kinds, but especially government bonds....What this means is that foreigners are accumulating large claims on the future output of the United States.
An America in massive and growing debt, and increasingly owned by non-Americans, does indicate that a way of economics in this nation is in much trouble. The deep reason is in a quiet statement from another article.
Disgusted by Ill Will
Mr. Siegel explained that ethics and efficiency are inseparable: economics based on using people contemptuously has failed because it is unethical. In an article titled “My Debt, Their Asset,” we see some of the true American revulsion at this bad ethics. The author, Walter Kirn, tells about taking out a mortgage at a local bank he saw as friendly—then finding that the bank sold his mortgage to a company in another state. He writes: “To me it came as a thunderous revelation: my debts were other people’s assets! I couldn’t stop pondering this unnerving concept.”
What unnerved Mr. Kirn was a sudden sight of the basis of the profit system. “My debts were other people’s assets” is a form of: my weakness is someone else’s strength; my loss is someone else’s gain; that guy wants me to be in difficulty so he can make profit from me. This is the basis of a way of economics, and when a person sees it clearly, when it’s not hidden under euphemisms and decorations and panoply, the person finds it very ugly.
Why Are They Borrowing?
Then, there is the huge fact told of in these sentences by Niall Ferguson:
Ordinary American households have...gone on prodigious borrowing sprees....Not only do Americans borrow as never before; they also save remarkably little. The impressive resilience of American consumer spending in the past 15 years has been based partly on a collapse in the personal savings rate from around 7.5 percent of income to below zero.
People don’t save, and go into debt, for various reasons. They may simply not earn enough money to meet their needs; there are millions of Americans in that horrible situation. Another reason is: a person can feel, There are things I want—not necessities, but things I want—and I should have them, whether I can afford them or not. That way of mind of course can be criticized. It’s likely careless and may be grabby. But we have to see what more may be behind it.
I think that those “prodigious borrowing sprees” of American households are a gigantic unarticulated objection to the economics now present in America. Mr. Siegel spoke in the 1970s about a feeling in people of “protest against the way jobs were had and profits were made.” A big form today of that unarticulated protest is the fact that Americans simply are not willing to live poorly. They feel there are things they deserve, and they will have them, and use credit cards for that purpose.
The big matter in all this spending is: “I deserve that car, those clothes, that entertainment system, that college education for my children. My wife and I are both working hard and we don’t earn enough to pay for those things. But i don't accept that situation! Other people have such things, and we’re as good as they are—we should have them too. The good things of this world should be ours as much as anybody’s. I may seem to accept the job I have at the salary I’m paid—but I really don’t accept it. I don’t accept the idea that my work is being used to make somebody else rich, and I have to deprive myself. I won’t do it!”
Much, then, of American consumer spending on borrowed money has large anger in it, and is really a saying, “We don’t like the ill will in American economics!” Going into debt, of course, is not the most useful way to say that. But Americans, whether they’re in debt or not, are looking for good will. They’re looking for it in their personal lives, but also in the field of jobs, how they’re seen in the workplace, how they’re valued and paid. Good will is a beautiful thing to look for—but it’s also the only efficient thing. And Americans, being human and patriotic, won’t be satisfied until they get it.