The Worldly Philosophers


I’m reading The Worldly Philosophers in which Robert L. Heilbroner analyzes the lives, times, and ideas of the great economic thinkers: Adam Smith, Parson Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and John Maynard Keynes among them. In Chapter I (the introduction), Heilbroner writes: “Their common denominator was something else: a common curiosity. They were all fascinated by the world about them, by its complexity and its seeming disorder, by the cruelty which it so often masked in sanctimony and the successes of which it was so often unaware. They were all of them absorbed in the behavior of their fellow man, first as he created material wealth, and then as he trod on the toes of his neighbor to gain a share of it.”

In Chapter II, which deals with the economic revolution leading to the birth of the market system and the ideas of Adam Smith, he observes: “Man is not an ant, conveniently equipped with an inborn pattern of social instincts. On the contrary, he seems to be stubbornly endowed with a fiercely self-centered nature. If his relatively weak physique forces him to seek cooperation, his untamed inner drives constantly threaten to disrupt his social working partnerships.”

“In primitive society, the struggle between aggression and cooperation is taken care of by the environment; when the specter of starvation looks a community in the face every day––as with the Eskimos or the African hunting tribes––the pure need for self-preservation pushes society to the cooperative completion of its daily tasks. But in an advanced community, this tangible pressure of the environment is lacking. When men no longer work shoulder to shoulder in tasks directly related to survival–indeed when half or more of the population never touches the earth, enters the mines, builds with its hands, or even enters a factory––the perpetuation of the human animal becomes a remarkable social feat.”

For centuries, man had organized society around tradition or central authoritarian command to ensure survival. But the introduction of transactions and gain as a powerful motive force led to the “development of an astonishing game in which society assured its own continuance by allowing each individual to do exactly as he saw fit–provided he followed a central guiding rule. The game was called the ‘market system,’ and the rule was deceptively simple: each should do what was to his best monetary advantage. In the market system the lure of gain, not the pull of tradition or the whip of authority, steered each man to his task. And yet, although he was free to go wherever his aquisitive nose directed him, the interplay of one man against another resulted in the necessary tasks of society getting done.”


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  1. Greed at Gagosian « artlovesmoney

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