prophilosophy

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Adam Smith, Romney, and Ryan

John Paul Rollert (law and business, Chicago) talks about the Republicans’ use of “the invisible hand”.

…the system yields an outcome that is salutary and humane, but one that stands at odds with the selfish interests of participants. The wealthy, says Smith, spend their days establishing an “economy of greatness,” one founded on “luxury and caprice” and fueled by “the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires.” Any broader benefit that accrues from their striving is not the consequence of foresight or benevolence, but “in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity.” They don’t do good, they are led to it.

The moral paradox of the invisible hand often seems lost on those who speak loudest in its favor. Take the stubborn rhetoric of the “jobs creators.” Insofar as it portrays a conspicuous group of people who act with conscious moral purpose, it bears no resemblance to the phenomenon Smith describes. We might as well call this vision of development the “visible hand” of capitalism, for it has the original theory backward. The merchants of Smith’s world busy themselves seeking profit, while the idle rich build monuments to their own self-importance. We can debate the worthiness of either pursuit, but neither activity has the common good as its aim nor, for Smith, does it merit moral acclamation. Wisdom and virtue, he says, are the qualities of the person who is “at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest.” Putting our own interests before and above others is nothing special. It is merely being human.

 

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