Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Wealth of Nations

I've been reading The Wealth of Nations and I would not recommend it. I'm about 160 pages in, which is, unbelievably enough, only around 10 percent of the whole book, so there is still time to turn things around, but I'm not holding out much hope.

Whenever you read a famous book of idea from the past, the author tends to come across looking like a bit of an idiot. The intelligent things they had to say have largely been incorporated into culture already, so they don't strike you as insightful. The stupid things they have to say, on the other hand, jump off the page at you. While talking about how division of labour benefits is, a diversion into how division of labour doesn't serve the same function in the animal world using as examples dogs that we bred into their current forms for our own purposes was about as stupid a thing as I've ever read.

So often the purpose of reading these books is to understand history, rather than to get any actual good ideas. It can also be enlightening to see what a thinker actually said since it is usually not quite what people say that the thinker said.

In Adam Smith's case, what is interesting about the book is that he is essentially laying out a strong case against capitalism for anyone who cares to actually read what he is saying. Marx observed that capitalism was self-dooming; eventually the people who were oppressed by the system would decide they didn't like it anymore. It turns out that this is only a very minor leap from what Adam Smith wrote.

The Wealth of Nations, ten percent of the way in, has already recognized that those with money and power tend to have exactly opposite interests to those that they employ. They prefer times when things are difficult for their employees and in lean times they are first at the trough, leaving everyone else to suffer. What allows this state to persist is that laws protect the well to-do from those they employ. He uses examples to illustrate all of this.

But Adam Smith was merely observing the way that things are, not passing judgment on it or even drawing an conclusions. It simply is the case that a powerful few benefit from the misery of the masses and thus have every reason to engineer and perpetuate misery if they can. So far it appears he was not imaginative enough to think of any alternative to the reality he saw in front of him, we'll see if that continues.

I'm going to continue to make myself read this garbage for at least a while longer. If I can get through the whole thing it will be a testament to my endurance.

Reading is just so boring.

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