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Not From Benevolence...

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the moral philosophy or economic theories of Adam Smith, it is difficult to deny that he is eminently quotable. Being eminently quotable, he is frequently quoted. Hence the familiarity of the following words:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own interest.”

As a student of philosophy I tend to find “simple” questions more perplexing than “complex” problems. The allegedly “obvious” and “everyday” realities of our existence lead me to wonder. More often than not, I find the so-called problems obsessing the erudite to be little more than hair-splitting exercises in self-indulgence.

Hence a simple, perhaps simplistic, question. Why does Adam Smith see fit to insist that the labors of the butcher, the brewer, and the baker are not born of benevolence? Why not assert that they are not motivated by sadism or by boredom or by a rollicking sense of humor?

Answers to simple questions tend to be no less simple. “Why assert what is obvious? No one would suggest that the butcher, the brewer, or the baker are so motivated.” That simple answer interests me. It suggests that an observer of the behavior of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker might conclude that they were motivated by benevolence.

E.T., rejuvenated after “going home,” returns to earth. He watches the behavior of the owner of my local newsstand and how that behavior impacts upon me. From 4:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. that newsstand is open, and during those hours I can procure a copy of the newspaper of my choice. I browse for a few minutes at the stand, seeking for a somewhat obscure magazine. It is not in stock. The owner undertakes to procure a copy for me. When I leave, the owner smiles and says, “Have a nice day.”

E.T. starts preparing his report. “The owners of newsstands are nice people. Specifically, the owner of the newsstand patronized by John Williams is most anxious to promote the contentment of said John Williams. That seems to be the raison d’etre of the newsstand’s owner. Benevolence is the well-spring of his behavior and, it would seem, gives his life meaning and purpose.“

Adam Smith, learning of E.T.’s report, gets into the act. “Dear whoever you might be, I am not so sure. Maybe the newsstand owner is an utterly self-centered, anything-but-benevolent monster. I know little about his motives. I know even less as to how I might change his motives for the better. I think I can so arrange matters that economic forces will compel the newsstand owner to behave as though he cared for – what was his name? – oh yes, John Williams.”

So it is along the line. The owners of capital – resources, machinery, and tools – are, in an authentic free-market economy, “forced” to use their capital most efficiently (equals least wastefully) to satisfy the desires of consumers. They must act as though the happiness of consumers mattered to them. The only alternative is to forge an alliance with government, secure special privileges, and “close” the market.

A student of Immanuel Kant penned a volume in which he doubted the philosophical conclusions of his mentor. He was not sure that space and time were human categories brought to and imposed upon reality rather than being derived from reality. Yet he argued that it was illuminating for fallible mortals to think of space and time “as if” they characterized not the limits of reality but the limits of the human mind to perceive reality.

“As if.” The newsstand owner wishes only, let us pretend, to increase his income. He lives for nothing more. If truth be told, he loathes John Williams. Yet the economic structures within which he operates have so been arranged that he is in a sense forced, if he is to increase his income, to behave as though the happiness of John Williams mattered to him. “Old MacDonald” who owns the farm likewise has been “forced” to act in ways at variance with his inner motives. He lives for nothing else than “big bucks.” Yet should he increase his annual income by jeopardizing the long-term profitability of his farm, he loses. The market values his farm in terms of its future earning capacity. Salinate the soil, and that future earning capacity falls as does the market price for his farm. Self-interest dictates that he acts “as if” future generations matter to him.

As a preacher, I have given up attempts to manipulate the innermost motives of my fellow human beings and thereby change their outward behavior. Indeed, that entire enterprise was an exercise in arrogance and pride. The depths of the human soul where motives dwell are beyond my capacity to reach. I today simply focus upon behavior. That I can, given listeners free to accept or reject my advice, affect. Act kindly. Then see if kindness burns into life within you. Be compassionate. Then see if compassion becomes for you an inner reality and your fellow pilgrims upon earth take on a new value. Set aside some time to be still and think of the wonder of being alive. Then see if wonder and thankfulness lead you to “do” what people call “praying” and that prayer leads you into the presence of the One of whom we cannot speak but can only adore.

I move from the perhaps sublime to the commonplace. Sergie Berinski is a candidature student of Economics at Moscow State University. He, unlike most of his peers, has visited the West. I asked him what he valued most in the West. “Shops.” “Because the shelves were laden?” “No. Shop-people were nice to me. Not like here where they are so sulky and bored.”

From benevolence? Maybe or maybe not. Maybe pure self-interest led to the “shop-people” being “nice” to my friend Sergie.

Yet so what? B. F. Skinner and his fellow behaviorists were wrong on the big questions but “spot on” on one issue. When inner motive and outer behavior are in conflict, outer behavior tends to win. The caring behavior erodes even the most self-centered of originating motives. The person forced to act “as if” he or she cares for the well-being of fellow human beings awakens one morning to discover that well-being actually is important.

Which goes to show something, but I know not quite what. Maybe that God holds the final trump card and intends to win, transforming even human selfishness into a hymn of fellow-feeling and praise.