Lila in Dialogue – Part 3

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I found myself thinking about other philosophers and what they had to say about everything Robert Pirsig was claiming in Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. It’s funny how Pirsig recommends doing your own creative thinking first before consulting the philosophers and seeing who agrees with that point of view. In my mind, there were a number of thinkers who stood out to converse with Pirsig over the centuries – and there will likely be many more to come.

Madness & Civilization

I’ve read the first couple chapters of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization. I feel like his findings might throw some light on Pirsig’s musings about the concepts of sanity and insanity.

Pirsig struggled with mental illness and ideas about insanity in the book. For him, the Metaphysics of Quality allowed him to come to grips with that dark period of his life. He noted insanity is culturally defined – what is considered an insane act in one culture may not be considered the same in another.

Pirsig notes: “Anthropologists found that schizophrenia is strongest among those whose ties with the cultural traditions are weakest” (p.381). This sort of explains why most inventors, scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, etc. with that genius strain typically stroll the line of sanity and insanity. They are pushing the boundaries of reality, spinning the world view around in multiple Copernican revolutions. When you destroy your static cultural values with statements like “God is Dead” and “Quality precedes Subject and Object”, it’s very easy to lapse into depression because no one else knows what you know. When you rip out of the foundations of your knowledge and reality, you are left with nothing until you can re-create the world with your enlightened facts (values). Insanity is for those who lost their way to that new foundational reality. I suppose this is why Pirsig hates the anti-foundationalist and cultural relativism schools of post-modern thought.

Human Action

It is also important to note that my musings are coloured by my readings of Human Action by Ludwig Von Mises, since I was reading bits and pieces of the book at the same time.

Mises also found it necessary to deal with metaphysics before proceeding with the study of human action and economic activity in the first chapter of his book. Given that metaphysical disputes can be interminable, he adopts a dualist approach to the study of human action out of “pragmatism”. He utterly rejects the positivist school because human action is motivated by values. You cannot study economics without understanding the fundamental fact that humans attach value to goods and services – and it is not governments or societies or gods who (should) attach value to such things.

Further to my earliest writings on Pirsig’s perception of education and my own interpretation, I found this pertinent quote while reading Mises: “Education, whatever benefits it may confer, is transmission of traditional doctrines and valuations; it is by necessity conservative. It produces imitation and routine, not improvement and progress” (p. 311). It echoes Pirsig’s sentiments about philosophology versus philosophy.

Nicomachean Ethics

Pirsig ends his book that morality is simply the Good, a noun rather than an adjective. While he is a fierce critic of Aristotle, I found myself thinking about Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where he characterizes the Good in terms of virtue – striving towards the virtuous life. Aristotle thought it was important for a person to become good through a life’s work of striving towards excellence versus knowing the good. However, excellence through habits, decisions and actions can be misunderstood as static moral values.

Aristotle also speaks of virtue in terms of learning moderation – but I wonder if he was grasping more at the Dynamic good and static good conundrum. Aristotle also believed that complete virtue involved intellectual virtue in addition to social virtue, which seems to echo Pirsig’s sentiments about the intellectual and social moral orders.

Concluding thoughts

All this time, I felt myself searching for the Truth – singular, fixed and unchanging. After reading these two books, I find myself at the end of one long road and beginning a new one. Pirsig’s philosophy contains everything I hoped for in terms of finding “Truth” now known as “Quality”. Enlightened by the Metaphysics of Quality, I am inclined to plow ahead and see this new world. After all, the Metaphysics of Quality is only the tip of the iceberg. What new and strange things will we find with this new conception of our reality?

Applications of Lila – Part 2

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Throughout Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, Robert Pirsig finds concrete examples to showcase how his Metaphysics of Quality can provide a foundation for other fields of study. Given my profession and background, I was predominantly fascinated by what he had to say about the social sciences & humanities. Here are some of my observations and thoughts. 

Economics

I found myself thinking about the questions “Does capitalism have Quality? Does socialism have Quality?” He places political organization under the intellectual moral order and I believe economics would fall under the social moral order since it is not a philosophy, but a realm of human action. However, the science and philosophy concerning economics is primarily political, and therefore, intellectual. It is an important distinction to make that Pirsig does not seem to make. He would probably have termed the two: economics and economology.

Pirsig answers the original questions by saying that “from a static point of view socialism is more moral than capitalism” (p.253) since it proposes a way for intellectual morals to guide society. However, capitalism includes the free market, “a Dynamic institution”, since it allows people to attach value to what they buy and sell. Socialism closes the door on Dynamic Quality, while capitalism effectively responds to Dynamic Quality.

What I believe Pirsig takes issue with in the capitalist system is when the rich appropriate the language of the free market to suit their own interests and contrive to manipulate the market towards artificial (read static) ends (i.e. mercantilism, crony capitalism). As soon as the market ceases to be organic and complex in its parallel patterns of value, it can no longer be labeled as “free”. I think this sufficiently addresses Pirsig’s concerns, since a truly free market disperses benefits to both the poor and the rich. 

Politics

Pirsig posits that the ultimate goal for the intellectual order is “to obtain static and Dynamic Quality simultaneously”. As a concrete example, we can see why modern day democracies are the best examples of both at work: a constitution or monarch to preserve static Quality; and a parliament or congress to act as a Dynamic force – both as a creator of Dynamic Quality and destroyer of static Quality in the making of laws – what Pirsig calls a “Dynamic eraser”. According to Pirsig, such a system prohibits degeneracy from destroying the evolutionary gains made by a Dynamic institution or law or force of progress.

Imperialism

Instead of blaming capitalism for the evils of colonialism, Pirsig blames the static set of value patterns perpetuated by the Victorian social order. As such, “inferior societies” were a threat to such patterns. Justification for the slaughter and exploitation of aboriginal peoples was made on moral grounds, not necessarily on economic ones. Under the social moral order, one society can find justification for destroying or exploiting another to preserve itself. 

The free market is also part of the social moral order, but arguably stands on a higher moral ground than the morals espoused by colonialism. The free market seeks to benefit both sides because both sides attach value to the seller & the buyer, what is bought and what is sold – and therefore there is mutual respect between the two parties for the preservation of exchange to achieve mutual benefits. Where unfair trades are made, the free market ceases to exist because both parties have engaged in an unfair exchange and the reason for the breakage can be attributed to inferior social moral values (i.e. imperialism; racism; sexism). Voluntary labour is higher on the scale of the social moral order than slavery because the individual freely chooses and finds dignity in work, whereas slavery strips the individual of the dignity and benefits of work. 

What of the exchange of European alcohol for aboriginal goods? Was this capitalist enterprise not harmful to aboriginal societies? Again, this is a conflict between the social and the intellectual moral orders. The aboriginals only attached value to mass amounts of alcohol because they were losing everything in the inferior social order of colonialism, the subjugation of one society to another. Such subjugation would have happened with or without alcohol, but alcohol certainly made the subjugation of aboriginal groups easier. The intellectual moral order condemns subjugation, but can make no comment on the sale of alcohol – only the social moral can and in its eyes, the act of the sale of alcohol is not morally wrong in and of itself. It is more pertinent to examine the reasons why aboriginal groups felt the need to turn to drink. To ask any question about the capitalist enterprise misses the fundamental point of examining the inferior set of social morals that is imperialism.

There are whole lists of moral dilemmas that can be questioned here, but one has only to think of them in the context of Pirsig’s hierarchy of moral orders to make sense of them. It is sufficient to say that the colonialist enterprise was not guided by intellectual patterns of value and required Dynamic Quality to overthrow its static social patterns of value.

Education

Pirsig makes an important distinct between philosophy, the act of thinking, and “philosophology”, the study of philosophers. According to him, the “best way to examine the contents of various [philosophers] is first to figure out what you believe and then see what philosophers agree with you (p. 372). In this way, you’ve already done your creative thinking and are not limited by any “dead-ends” in the philosopher’s thought. You are able to critically assess what the value of the philosopher’s words means to you and your world view.

He goes on to add that “real science and real philosophy are not guided by preconceptions of what subjects are important to consider” (p.375). As humans, we each attach value to the study of different subjects and objects as we please. When you think about it, it’s the only way that the study has any meaning and why progress in all fields is driven forward by individuals passionate about the subject, no matter how objective they say they are. We study philosophers because we care about philosophy, we care about having correct (for lack of a better word) perceptions of knowledge, reality and morality. We philosophize because we care about getting this body of knowledge straight before pursuing all the other forms of thought and fields of study.

That is perhaps the fundamental thing left out of education, after years of seeing fellow students not care about reading Plato or Aristotle or Machiavelli or Hobbes. Students have failed to find their world view in these particular philosophers. I have read these philosophers because I care about being cultured, about expanding my mind with their ideas and perhaps to find the perfect system of socio-political organization for the human race. Where other people may find him tiresome, I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s books because I see a reflection of what the world could be like, irrespective of the physical differences between my world and Middle Earth. If you do not attach care to what you are learning, how can you be expected to learn anything at all? How can you expect to be enlightened?

Western society is so hell-bent on making sure our students are creative independent thinkers. Yet the education system, so static and cumbersome, does anything but foster that creativity. We are shown how to copy equations and they say we are “doing arithmetic”, we are told to copy chemical experiments and they tell us we are “scientists”, we are told what books to read and then told we are “cultured” and “literate”. What absurdity!

However, I do think there is one limitation on Pirsig’s view because sometimes you need to teach someone the basics before they can start delving into the complexities of quantum physics or what have you. But I do understand how you can pursue “education” so far and then get mired into the same dead-ends as your predecessors and get nowhere with the theories and problems of the day.

2014 Reading Challenge

I have promised myself to read 20 books this year. I read 15 last year and thought it might be reasonable to push myself to read a bit more this week, now that I am no longer in school. Here are some of the books on my shelf waiting for my 2014 self to start and/or finish them:

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
  2. Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
  3. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  4. Reflections on the French Revolution by Edmund Burke
  5. Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. Margaret Thatcher: The Autobiography
  8. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeter
  9. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  10. Every Nation For Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World by Ian Bremmer
  11. The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper, 2006 – by Paul Wells
  12. Human Action by Ludwig Von Mises
  13. The Tamuli  by David Eddings
  14. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  15. The Elenium by David Eddings
  16. Fearful Symmetry: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Founding Values by Brian Lee Crowley
  17. Return of the Native by Thomas Harding
  18. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  19. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  20. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

A Precedent to Peace

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As onlookers on the deterioration of the Arab Spring, one cannot help but question the premise that democracy is a precondition for peace. Can democracy really be the remedy to centuries of warfare? Has the Arab Spring failed as we see more uprisings now under supposedly “democratic” governments than we did last year?

In Fareed Zakaria’s book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, he outlines a brief history of liberty in the first chapter. Very unique and specific circumstances led to the creation of modern democracy, a complex amalgam of feudalist heritage, enlightenment philosophy and capitalism. Freedom and a variety of situations, property rights, the rule of law, the separation of church and state, checks and balances and a whole other host of prerequisites – yet not one single aspect alone can make a successful modern democracy.

Is order then a prerequisite for the alleged democratic peace? If so, there is some hope for the secular apparatuses ingrained in some Middle Eastern countries which supposedly combat Islamist extremism. For instance, in Turkey and Egypt, it is the secular military which feels some preordained duty to restore order after uprisings and protests in the leadership, whenever the religion creeps back into politics. The Asian tigers are also interesting case studies when examining evidence that proves authoritarian order, much like feudalism, can give birth to free societies.

Now when we speak of order, the image of dictatorial rule troubles the Western mind and such a prescription for the world peace seems a hard price to pay. This author thinks it a far cry to praise any sort of oppressive regime. However, we must find a way to describe this perplexing trade-off of religious freedom for political freedom in Middle Eastern countries (which may in some cases, not even guarantee freedom at all!). While modern democracy is certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution, freedom is freedom irrespective of state structure or oversight. The dilemma for these countries is that they have not yet understood how to check and balance one set of freedoms against another. And so, the revolution marches on and the national army continues to intervene to restore some measure of order until the people decide what they want.

In this respect, there might be some hope for these countries. Foreign policy aside, there will always be some measure of order in these Arab Spring countries and there will always be some sort of resistance to that order for the sake of change – whether productive or not.

As Mises points out, it would be naive to think that the world progresses independent of human action in the Hegelian or Fukuyaman sense. A man’s interests are rarely identical with his class, however much the Marxists wish it so. What is useful for us to know is Fukuyama’s admittance that little intellectual or emotional appeal can be found in Islamic fundamentalism by the majority of Muslims. They will have to learn on their own how to preserve their private beliefs, while building progressive state institutions  which embrace democratic values – independent of foreign intervention (with the exception of extreme cases where crimes against humanity are committed). Their modern states are young, so they will need more time to develop.

In the meantime, what should the onlookers do to soften order’s blow? As in the case of European and Asian countries, the government must be amenable to democratic change. The United Nations has done a poor job of fostering a culture of liberty within its mandate. Particularly in the last few years, we have seen every attempt by this body to cater to the whims and wishes of dictatorial countries in order to make them “feel more included”, with the reasoning that their inclusion is more important than changing their hearts and minds.

This borders oxymoronic, since the institution was originally created to combat such atrocities as were seen in the World Wars from ever happening again. It is why the human rights regime was developed. It is why international tribunals were called to order. It is why the UN Security Council was formed: To combat those tyrannies in the world which impinged on the sanctity of human life, dignity, and liberty. Such a cosmopolitan culture has fallen by the wayside into abuse and disuse. Until our League of Nations 2.0 can return to such values in a meaningful way, then we cannot hope for peace in the Middle East, nor anywhere where the chains of oppression turn our fellow man into cattle.

Summer Reading

A new look. A new start. Perhaps some new perspectives to add to these dormant pages.

While I conjure up some more verbose reflections on the meaning of life and the pursuit of happiness, perhaps my summer reading list will give you some sense of what’s distilling the cobwebs of my mind.

  1. Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt
  2. The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson
  3. Human Action, Ludwig Von Mises
  4. Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means For the World, Dambisa Moyo
  5. Fearful Symmetry: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Founding Values, Brian Lee Crowley
  6. Margaret Thatcher: The Autobiography
  7. The Origins of the Political Order, Francis Fukuyama
  8. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  9. The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
  10. A Room With A View, E.M. Forster

Reflections on the 2008 Financial Crisis

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***excerpt from a paper on the causes and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis***

This paper has tried to demonstrate that government intervention and politics have had equally important roles in magnifying the devastating impact of the banking crisis in the United States and around the world, not just the alleged free market ideology and capitalist greed pervading private banking institutions at the time. Peter Schiff (2007) explains the outcomes quite succinctly when he observes:

“Economists today view the apparent overinvestment occurring during booms as mistakes made by businesses, but they don’t examine why those mistakes were made. As [Austrian School economist Ludwig von] Mises saw it, businesses were not recklessly overinvesting, but were simply responding to false economic signals being sent as a result of inflation.” (88)

Governments can send false signals to investors and commercial banks when they promise a safety net of capital relief in a crisis and take on the function of creditors to income brackets of the population that have already been labelled by the market as risky debtors. While it is important to help those less fortunate, at what point should social programs be considered more harmful than helpful in lifting people out of poverty and then teaching them to live beyond their means?

The problem with Keynesian thinking is its assumption that the U.S. government must be the “lender of last resort” to bail out investment banks with taxpayer dollars rather than to allow free market mechanisms to reward financial risk management and punish risky transactions. Bailouts lump taxpayers and shareholders into the same boat of punishment, paying for the consequences of massive private sector failures in order to save jobs. Unfortunately, bailouts can also reward executive officers and managers for terrible performance, damaging minority shareholder and consumer protections. Another Keynesian approach to solving the liquidity crisis might have considered re-distributing those billion-dollar bailouts to individual Americans or rewarding businesses who had prudently stayed away from risky financial behaviour. However, there is something to be said for the Austrian School’s acceptance of the inevitability of economic shocks and building resilience into existing systems.

***

Schiff, Peter. (2007). Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Social Myth and the Transnational Élite Class

Graz – Review of WEF

This article has inspired me to look more into the work of George Sorel. The following quote from his work is absolutely fascinating:

“According to Sorel, much as primitive Christianity held to the myth of the second coming as the driving force of its struggle against the Roman empire, the general [workers’] strike can be viewed as a social myth fostering class consciousness among workers and reinforcing their revolutionary fervour.” (325)

Sorel would essentially spin Marxism on its head, as well as the ideological struggles of the 20th century. Revolutionary struggles rely heavily on social myths!

Graz argues that there are limits on the global power of transnational corporations, which are often loosely networked and diffuse – so unlike the caricature painted by global civil society that corporations have undue influence in the global system. At the same time that corporations want to expand globally through economic forums like at Davos, they must keep their forums closeted, secured and limited so as not to attract undue attention from global civil society actors. Such forums lack an institutional basis which is the necessary engine to the global power of other organizations like the UN or NATO. The club cannot be exclusive if its actors wish to engage with governments and IOs and therein lies the limits to its power.

Graz goes further to say that international political economy may not be the be-all-and-end-all in the investigation of global systemic changes, but that his findings may point to the necessity of adopting critical investigation of the historical structures of these forums. Foucault would probably call it “the archaeology of global hegemonic structures”. Who wields the true power and influence at successful economic forums?

Forums can divorce transnational business from global societal power and influence. However, there is little distinction between private and public authority, especially where these forums create the delegation of public tasks to private experts and corporate leaders who are not accountable to domestic constituencies.

 

 

Solitude

Taken from a journal entry dated August 3, 2010:

In the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt speaks of the differences between solitude, isolation, and loneliness. Solitude is the dialogue with the self, who has had sufficient experience with the world to conduct such a dialogue which is better known as philosophizing. In solitude, one is never really alone because you are conducting a discourse with your experienced self. It is by choice and Arendt attaches a positive connotation to being alone as opposed to being lonely.

Isolation is other-imposed on the self, in most cases by the sovereign. Isolation is often punitive in this sense, but Arendt elaborates another type of isolation which provides the illusion of unity (i.e. nationalism, communism) with the masses and fellow man. However, as Kierkegaard notes, men lose their individuality in the herd mentality. Some are even excluded. This isolation-by-exclusion goes hand-in-hand with isolation-by-illusion. Insiders in the sovereign state may be treated like outsiders (Schmitt’s state of exception or Agamben’s camp) and outsiders are defined in binaries (us versus them, being with us or against us). That is, a suspension of the individual’s moral conscience and ability to reason in joining the herd mentality, thus exiled from his basic humanity and self.

Loneliness occurs as a result of this purposeful isolation. It is against the will of the individual (where isolation in the herd may be consented to through ideological brainwashing). Man is cut off from the human race. He may be in the company of his fellow man, but none choose to recognize his individual existence or everyone chooses to recognize his identity as conglomerated with the masses (communism, fascism). The lonely individual is denied thymos. He is lonely not alone.

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Quotes from Frédéric Bastiat’s “The Law”

*I love his critique of Rousseau. I have never read anything quite like it. I thoroughly enjoy French philosophers of every century because they are so debonair and critical, melancholy and fierce in their love of wisdom.

In a country where no law may be voted and no tax may be levied save with the consent of those whom the law is to govern and upon whom the tax is to fall, the public can be robbed only if it is first deceived. Our ignorance is the raw material of every extortion that is practiced upon us, and we may be certain beforehand that every sophism is the precursor of an act of plunder. My friends, when you detect a sophism in a petition, get a good grip on your wallet, for you may be sure that this is what the petitioners are aiming at. 

Shall I speak of the corrupting immorality that seeps into the veins of the whole body politic when, in principle, the law puts itself at the service of every spoliative impulse? Attend a meeting of the National Assembly when bonuses, subsidies, bounties, restrictions are on the agenda. See with what shameless rapacity everyone tries to make sure of his share of the plunder – plunder to which he would blush to stoop as a private individual.

The state too is subject to the Malthusian law. It tends to expand in proportion to its means of existence and to live beyond its means, and these are, in the last analysis, nothing but the substance of the people. 

How is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing to a crime.

The purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning. In fact, it is injustice, instead of justice, that has an existence of its own. Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent.

We assure the socialists that we repudiate only forced organization, not natural organization. We repudiate the forms of association that are forced upon us, not free association…We repudiate the artificial unity that does nothing more than deprive persons of individual responsibility.

Adam Smith: The Most Misquoted Economist of Our Time

Note: I was discussing with a colleague how frustrated I was when socialists took Adam Smith quotes out of context. He replied that the right had equally used Smith to support its dogmas. To be clear, Smith was not a dogmatist, but a pragmatist. I wish to clarify the context in which he said all these things.

Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all. – Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter I, Part II On the Expence of Justice

Smith was talking about the origins of civil government here and how no effective institutions for the regulation of property were put in place without significant corruption. Further in the chapter, Smith elaborates on the necessity of a separation of powers to ensure fair judgment of the Rule of Law to promote egalitarian treatment. A fair justice system will ensure that both the rich and the poor have property rights.

“The rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” – Adam Smith, Book V, Chapter II, Article I: Taxes upon the Rent of House

Note that Adam Smith is talking about house rents here. Smith points out earlier in the chapter: “Every tax ought to be so contrived as both to take out and to keep out of the pockets of the people as little as possible over and above what it brings into the public treasury of the state”. So why does Smith think that house rents are the best means of taxing people? “In every country the greatest number of rich competitors is in the capital, and it is there accordingly that the highest ground-rents are always to be found. As the wealth of those competitors would in no respect be increased by a tax upon ground-rents, they would not probably be disposed to pay more for the use of the ground.” In other words, the rich will be paying more for property in the urban capital anyway according to the market, such that a tax would not inconvenience them. Poorer people will find more affordable land which will not be taxed so high. The inequality in types of properties has already predetermined what the rich and poor can afford, such that levying a tax can be done more fairly.

A final note on taxes: Smith thinks that taxes on labour wages are the worst form of taxation, simply because wages are more inelastic when the tax burden falls on them. Taxes should instead fall upon the rent of the land and on commodities themselves. He writes: “In all cases, a direct tax upon the wages of labour must, in the long run, occasion both a greater reduction in the rent of land, and a greater rise in the price of manufactured goods, than would have followed from a proper assessment of a sum equal to the produce of the tax, [levied] partly upon the rent of land, and partly upon consumable comodities.”

“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life… But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” – Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter 1, Part III On the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth

Here, Marxists have argued that Smith presents an alternate division of labour and indicates government responsibility for the welfare of its people. However, the improvement of human capital is still consistent with Smith’s first presentation of the division of labour as an increase in productivity as individuals specialize. Furthermore, Smith lays out some very specific instances of government intervention: namely, military training and the education of the youth (and women!).  Adam Smith gives the government the role of providing a very basic level of education in the interest of improving each individual’s “invention” and labour competitiveness, arguably setting down a base set of skills that are still superior to those of barbarous societies.

I personally have never subscribed to this idea that nations are “barbarous”; however, I do subscribe to the Ricardian idea (or even the Diamondian Guns, Germs, and Steel hypothesis) that some countries have higher skill sets than others, which will contribute to continual inequality. At the same time, it would be foolish to say that low skilled nations have somehow fallen behind in terms of civilization, since they are better off now (thanks to globalization – access to markets of modern goods and services) than they were ten, twenty, or fifty years ago.

As for the quote itself, it misses a significant chunk of the paragraph, which follows: “Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues.” Smith is not arguing for an alternate division of labour in an economic sense, but he is making a philosophical argument of holism, where the individual must not allow labour to take up his whole life. It is interesting to see that Smith sees the poor individual primarily as a source of military recruitment, which is really what the Marxists should have highlighted in this quote and not solely identifying the responsibility of the government to make the individual “holistic”, in the sense of education and military training.