[Robert L. Heilbroner] The Worldly Philosophers

  • Title: The Worldly Philosophers
  • Author: Robert L. Heilbroner
  • Published: 1953
  • Publisher: Touchstone; New York
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-684-86214-9

The First Economic Revolution

It is the era (15th – 17th centuries) before economics and economists but laid the foundation of them. The word ‘revolution’ implies the concept of freedom or liberation from old customs and injustices. Written from the perspective of capitalism economics, the choice of the word ‘revolution’ seems quite natural. I agree that the changes in the 15th – 17th centuries have historical importance. It laid the cornerstone of the current capitalist societies. In addition to acknowledging the economic revolution, we need to look at the other side of the stories; the lives of the working-class people, the exploitation by industrialists (as explorations and adventures depicted in the book), and the psychological alienation of our daily life and work.

The economic (commercial) revolution is not a short and sudden accidental event. It had happened for a couple of centuries. It comes with granular changes in political and social lives.

The first point of the revolution is the emergence of the idea of gain. ‘Each working person constantly strives for the material gain.’ It is natural to accept the idea nowadays, and it is also thought that the idea has been existed for a long time and based on human instinct. However, we have accepted this idea only recently. To desire what we need for our existence is natural, but we do not pursue the material gains without limits. Once the basic needs are met, we might seek other pleasures such as leisure or cognitive adventures. Early industrialists recognized that a wage was not directly proportional to the desire to work more. Instead, once a wage reached a certain point, workers started to reduce the working hours. These early capitalists were adapted to the situation. The idea of material wealth was spread, and at the same time, capitalists wanted workers to remain poor and sought a new source of cheap labor. It is not easy to directly manipulate the general population (aka mass), but the surplus made in the capitalist industries affected the general view of the material gain. Also, with the weakened religious power and doctrines, the negative attitude towards the wealth had been shifted. We live in the 21st century that being wealthy is a virtue or even a goal of life. The idea that is taken for granted now is the product of the economic revolution.

The most important reason for these changes is the political changes. It was the time of transition from feudalism to centralize monarchy, which encouraged foreign exploration (exploitation). In the medieval era, everything was pretty much localized. Three big economic factors – land, labor, and capital – are fixed in the local manorial system. There was no surplus of products or labor. Here came another blow: the scientific and technological improvements. Apart from the general understanding, the guilds were not promoting technical advances. They stuck to the old skills and ways of producing. They did not like challenges. However, change was inevitable. With a surplus of products and better transportations, traders found a way to move goods around the world and accumulated wealth. With the surplus of labor, industrialists found a way to use them to produce much more. Now we are seeing the emergence of new classes: industrialists, traders, and financiers – bourgeois.

Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations

As an icon of free trade, a.k.a. the invisible hand, Adam Smith has been regarded as the father of economics. It is worthwhile to recognize how and why he came up with the idea of a free market.

He was a moral-philosophy professor, and his early book ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ showed that he believed that human beings can behave morally (by looking at situations objectively and with sympathy) even though the self-interest is the main drive.

At his time (the late 18th century), economic activities were not regarded as a separate sector. Adam Smith believed that the market system can work autonomously without the guidance of political policies. Also, he was deeply influenced by the ideas of physiocracy that challenged the prevailing mercantilism. Physiocracy insisted that wealth can only be produced from agricultural activities – such as only plants can produce the energy from the Sun -. Other activities are merely transferring wealth. Adam Smith expanded the idea of Physiocracy and proclaimed that other economic activities such as labor in factories or trades could also produce wealth. It was a significant shift in the point of view of how wealth is produced and influenced future economists.

Two main ideas of Adam Smith’s economics are the Law of Accumulation of Wealth and the Law of Population. Wealth (Opulence) is accumulated and is reinvested back to industrial production. It is the positive feedback and the key point to sustain the ever-growing capital. In terms of population, it is a little bit controversial. Just like the supply and demand, wealth and population will continuously find the optimal point to maintain both. With accumulated wealth, more labor is required to support more production, which leads the population growth. At some point, when wealth cannot keep up with the wage increase, the population will decrease. It looks simple, but it is a mistake to regard human beings as a simple variable in a model, which is still prevalent in modern economics and sociology. Thomas Malthus later pointed out that when population growth and the supporting system collide, the result can be disastrous. The decline of the population is not just a number. It is the lives of human beings.

Adam Smith’s idea of a free market is simple and powerful. Also, it has proven its success (at least in a limited way). In the 21st century, we lived in a society that is more affluent than before in a general sense. Wealth has been accumulated and even supported the huge population growth. There are still many problems indeed. The biggest one is the distribution of wealth, – vertically in a nation or society and horizontally (regionally) in the world -. Also, the current wealth and general prosperity are not from the free-market and industrialist. It is the result of the development of a new political system – democracy – and the struggles and the achievements of many revolutionary actions before us, such as labor and equality (race, gender) movements.

Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo – Dismal Science

After Adam Smith, the positive economic prospects were the norm among intellectuals. However, the distinct negative opinions shook the naive positive mood.

From the late 18th to the early 19th century, the increasing power of new industrialists and traders collided with the existing powers. With the population growth, the price of food increased, and the big landowners profited a lot from this. Traders and industrialists tried to import cheap grains for big gains. Landowners fired back and pushed the parliament to pass the notorious ‘Corn Law’ to make the grain import impractical.

Malthus, an academic, looked at the situation when the food supply could not support the population growth. It would cause the misery of a whole country. For him, the important thing is the self-sustainability of the economic system, especially food. It explained why he supported the duty tax system of landowners.

Meanwhile, Ricardo, a businessman and stock investor, explained the economic situation in an abstract sense based on his experience of finance and business. He agreed with the basic idea of a free market but pointed out its naive assumptions – competition. Ricardo pointed out that competition cannot be fair. The starting point is different, and once one climbs to the next level, he kicks the ladder to prevent others from climbing. The distribution of wealth is not fair either. Wealth will be accumulated to a few. Even though a free market has its shortcomings, Ricardo insisted that a revised free market is the way to go with some intervention of state powers. Relative strength is a good example.

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