The immortal Adam Smith

Libertad y Progreso

LA NACIÓN – He deserves the laurels attached to his memory. This man lived and created his main works before the French Revolution. It is important to recognize his prophetic vision in confusing and fiery times. His discoveries on decisive aspects of human behavior had a notable impact that lasted centuries. His biographical data is surprising, revealing a tangled personality that traps diverse information which he submits to a careful critical analysis.

He was born in Scotland and linked to personalities who contributed to enriching his courageous humanistic vision. He became embedded in that morality and philosophy, which he investigated and on which he left remarkable pages which became his main legacy. But, provided with humility, he did not notice that he surpassed that level and became the father of modern economics. His observations surpassed the outdated utopias of his time and some of times that would succeed him, such as Marxism and other theories of tragic consequences, as well as the lies of populism that have generated misery, hatred and mental decay.

The transcendental work of this genius was The Wealth of Nations. He did not limit himself to elaborating it for years, deciding to write it with the greatest objectivity and edit it. He continued to subject it to harsh adjustments with each reissue, as if he were correcting the papers of a mediocre student. This additional research, reflections, tests and counter-tests kept the interest of his ideas alive. His friends noticed that his serene face hid a machine in constant activity. They often found him lost, far from home, thinking. They worried about his health. They invited him to eat and drink at social gatherings. Some made fun of him, believing him to be “sad as a dog.” But he wasn’t sad. He was sailing in the waters of an ocean full of routes that he had to explore. He moved the mug of beer, asked for a recent question to be repeated, forgot his coat, knowing he was unsocial he tried to greet people with affection, without remembering precisely who he was greeting. Many times someone accompanied him home and helped him prepare food or wash clothes.

Leaving his multiple humanistic concerns on the side, he persevered in the matters that would give him originality and made him the father of modern economics. He showed that the free market – which many ignored or did not understand – was the engine of progress. The word “market” was associated, and is still associated by some, with sales and purchases. It is not like that: it even includes culture. No one person has invented it, it is a product of human groupings that grew gradually since prehistory. The engine of its development is trade, which is not limited to material goods, but also to those from the spirit such as art and everything that human beings exchange. Its operation produced a wonderful division of labor. Without knowing it, all members of society – be they sellers, thinkers, buyers or producers – contribute to this machine working and making the whole move forward, with less or more benefit for each sector or individual. Where this machine works best is where that progress is most energetic. On the other hand, where that machine is blocked, the delay is greater for all, except for the few individuals who benefit from that block. Beware: there are always individuals that disturb the general benefit; They lie when they claim otherwise.

Another interesting fact –and one that continues to be questioned even now– is that of private property. It would make Adam Smith laugh, and it makes anyone who stops to think laugh. It seems incredible that many societies that call themselves Christian are unaware of its cardinal importance. I point this out because already in the Ten Commandments the seventh commands: “You shall not steal.” If theft is condemned, it is obviously forbidden to appropriate something that belongs to another. If it “belongs” to someone, there is ownership. This has been discovered since the remotest antiquity.

Adam Smith puzzled his contemporaries with something even more scandalous: he showed that progress is not due to charity, but to selfishness. He said verbatim: “We do not get food because of the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, but because of the concern they have for their own interest, their needs, their ambitions.” We are not addressing their humanitarian sentiments, but rather their selfishness, when we claim these objectives, because otherwise they will not produce or take care of displaying their products and selling them. It happens that the word selfishness has been loaded with a negative color, without understanding its functionality. Selfishness should not be exercised against others, but to care for oneself without harming the other. And the other must behave in the same way. The world does not function on the basis of mercy.

Using other words, it can be said that people always acts according to their own desires or interests. Or at least that’s how it typically goes. Efforts made to increase solidarity and the good of large communities obscure the engine that works from the bottom of the unconscious. A wise man strives to point out the virtuous paths and a criminal, to carry out a successful crime. But each operates on the basis of an impulse that comes from his dark depths. What the criminal usually does is horrible, but he operates according to his desire, not other’s.

Adam Smith adds that “The property that each man obtains from his own labor is sacred and must be inviolable, since it is the basis of all other benefits.” Successful farmers hate collective farming, because it only offers them a tiny profit for additional work. The same goes for the most productive workers in a factory, who lose interest in being more productive if their efforts are not rewarded. Discontent springs up everywhere when attempts are made to compel obedience in everything, even in thinking. Then, human beings go down to the basement of slavery.

His voluminous book calls for a careful reading, because it solves many conflicts that are still relevant today. He would probably be cancelled by people who suppose that they respond to the highest morality, without realizing that this morality is reactionary.

It is no coincidence that this lucid thinker was an obsessive investigator of ethics. Nor is it by chance that talents nurtured by the force of an iridescent culture such as those of Mario Vargas Llosa and Alberto Benegas Lynch (h.) have paid homage to him for a long time, by making his ideas and those of his successors more understandable.