The two poles of contemporary political life
In the West, ideas about politics basically come down to a stark contrast between the dreamers who look forward to a world of peace, love and social harmony, and those who see themselves as realists, who accept that society is, and always will be, made up of individuals who are out for what they can get. These two camps are well represented, on the one hand, by John Lennon, with his song “Imagine”, and, on the other hand, by Adam Smith – a world famous realist – with his book “The Wealth of Nations.”
In his song, Lennon admits:
“You may say I’m a dreamer,”
And then adds:
"But I'm not the only one.
I hope someday you will join us ,
And the world will live as one.”"
This is the big dream: unity, harmony and world peace. One of the biggest philosophers of the Enlightenment (Kant, writing in German over 300 years ago) also thought that every rational person shared the objective of world peace as something to struggle towards. Lots of people (but not everyone) agreed. The tricky question was how to achieve that peace. Lennon had some ideas about this. We had to scrap private property. No possessions,” he sang – and we had to stop getting so worked up about religion, and start imagining a world with,
"No hell below us,
Above us only sky.”"
If you ignore property, religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual preference, musical taste, hair colour and all the other things that identify us with certain groups and not with others, it’s possible to say: “Hey, we’re all basically the same. We'’re all just people. Why don’t we just live in peace?”
This is altruism. You forget about yourself and your little local faction, and you identify with humanity itself.
Cynics will raise a question about Lennon'’s sincerity. Didn’'t his deeds contadict ever so slightly the words of the song? It was his song, he wanted the copyright, and he signed a contract to make sure he got his share of the profits from it. Does this matter? Perhaps not, but it does help to show – (if help were needed) – that Lennon’'s dream is just a bit too far removed from reality. Of course, we need dreams, and dreams are part of reality, but the dreams we need are those that lead us towards something we can really achieve, otherwise we are “just dreamers.”
Before leaving the dream, it is worth remembering how important a very similar dream was for one of the most powerful movements on the left wing of politics: communism. Marxists were aiming for something similar to Lennon: universal harmony with no possessions (or at least no private ownership of the means of production), no religion and no divisive nationalities or racial and sexual prejudices. But whereas Lennon thought we could just drop everything and love each other, the communists thought there would have to be a big fight before world peace could be achieved.
Question: who would fight for this ideal world? Answer: people who had nothing to gain from the present world. Back in the nineteenth century the growing working class seemed to fit the bill. Marxists looked closely at the economy and made some predictions: factories and mines were going to get bigger, the bosses were going to get richer, wages were never going to rise, and millions and millions of workers would still be working in appalling conditions for at least ten hours a day and living in grotty little rented houses with outside toilets. Hence the slogan:
"“Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”"
For some reason, the nineteenth century social theorists failed to predict that the workers of the First World, at least, would end up with their own houses (complete with indoor toilets, hot and cold running water, central heating, air conditioning and double glazing), cars, satellite dishes, DVDs, home computers, microwave ovens and TV dinners. As a consequence of this, lots of workers started to think that all that stuff about chains was a lot of old hat and as they set about planning the repayments of their various loans and credit deals, they quickly forgot the old rallies and the calls for world unity.
The other side of the Western political spectrum is one that would like to think of itself as being the most realistic. Instead of dreams and songs and slogans and people hugging each other in the streets, we have a cold, hard, scientific look at everyday economic reality - at least that is what it was supposed to be. Adam Smith was one of the first to develop a science of economic life, and over 300 years later his ideas are still hugely influential.
According to Smith, no one does anything for purely altruistic reasons. There’s always some self-interest there. At root, we are selfish creatures. Other people had seen this and had drawn some very pessimistic conclusions. Smith was more optimistic and developed a theory about the way a market economy that relied on private self-interest to drive economic development would be the best for everyone in the long run.
A quotation from his book "The Wealth of Nations" (published in 1776):
"“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.”"
In other words, if individuals are free to start businesses and sell things, their interest in their personal profit will motivate them to produce the goods that people want to buy. The promise of profits inspires people to be creative and take initiatives, looking for new markets or looking for more efficient and profitable ways of making goods that already exist. There is no need for huge, expensive and often corrupt systems of central control to ensure that producers produce the type and the quantity of things that consumers need. And there is no need for altruism. Selfishness works just as well. Conclusion: the best way of achieving the public good is by giving free rein to private self-interest.
Up to a point, Smith just has to be right about selfishness. Even altruistic guys like Lennon are interested in themselves. Surely fame and fortune were at least part of the reason he set out to become a popstar. And lots of altruistic people want to have their own house and their own car. Lennon had his flat in New York, and they don'’t come cheap. There’'s something quite natural about wanting to buy things like this and say they'’re yours. People certainly seem more interested in looking after their own things than in looking after things they can use but cannot call their own.
There is also a certain selfishness in everything we do. That'’s to be expected, and there’'s nothing wrong with it. It is pure pie in the sky to expect mere mortals to pay no attention whatsoever to the way they might be rewarded for the good things they do on earth. Even supposedly altruistic Christians believe in the Day of Judgement when the Good will rise again and enjoy the fruits of the New Jerusalem. It’'s part of what it means for an action to make sense that there is something in it for you.
However, there is a problem with Smith’'s ideas, and it’s the same problem as the one with Lennon’s dream. They are both abstractions. Smith gives pride of place to self-interest and considers talk of benevolence as so much hot air, whereas Lennon wants pure altruism and seems to put self-interest in the same category as the desire for world domination and Aryan supremacy. Both of these abstract from a social reality that, at its best, combines both self-interest and altruism. There is an element of self-interest in everything we do, but people who care about being civilised and not slipping back into barbarism have broader horizons. The popularity of songs like Lennon’s illustrates that many people want to work towards a world in which they can look around and say: “This is good. This is the way it ought to be.” They are not just butchers, brewers and bakers interested in selling as many goods as possible.
Take your own house, for example. Almost everyone wants to be able to own their own homes, which could be utterly self-interested and Smithian. But people also want to live in a lovely neighbourhood. That requires that people don’t just build what they want and do what they want with their property. They have to accept planning controls and respect the environment, and volunteer to help out in various neighbourhood projects. The strange thing is that people are willing to do this. They want to do it. This is a small way in which people demonstrate that they can combine self-interest with a concern for the public good.
People want to be able to have their own things and enjoy themselves. To that extent Smith is justified, – but people concerned about civilisation also want to feel that while working to pay off the mortgage they are also contributing to a social order that they can approve of. Call it a desire for meaning. People want to feel good about what they are doing, and it is not enough to see the money coming in and the bills being paid. Smith pays no attention to this, but it is a need as deep and as legitimate as the self-interest he bases his theory on.