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Adam Smith & Inequality: Inequality Generated Outside the Market

Summary:
2.5) Adam Smith & Inequality: 2.5.1. Inequality Generated Outside the Market: Smith’s first way of minimizing the importance of inequality—or at least minimizing the responsibility of the market and of the economy for fighting inequality—is to argue that inequality springs from politics and sociology rather than from market economics. Inequality arises from the role that hierarchy and command-and-control play in the mixed-up processes that are human society. The society of England becomes more unequal because William the Bastard from Normandy and his thugs with spears—300 families, plus their retainers—kill King Harold Godwinson, and declare that everyone in England owes him and his retainers 1/3 of their crop. The society of England becomes more unequal because Queen Elizabeth I

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2.5) Adam Smith & Inequality: 2.5.1. Inequality Generated Outside the Market: Smith’s first way of minimizing the importance of inequality—or at least minimizing the responsibility of the market and of the economy for fighting inequality—is to argue that inequality springs from politics and sociology rather than from market economics. Inequality arises from the role that hierarchy and command-and-control play in the mixed-up processes that are human society. The society of England becomes more unequal because William the Bastard from Normandy and his thugs with spears—300 families, plus their retainers—kill King Harold Godwinson, and declare that everyone in England owes him and his retainers 1/3 of their crop. The society of England becomes more unequal because Queen Elizabeth I Tudor grants a monopoly over trade with America to Sir Walter Raleigh. Why? Because he had successfully flirted with her. These are not economic processes. These are not closely connected with the “system of natural liberty” than is the market economy.

Indeed, the system of natural liberty is only one way you can organize society. Societies can be organized as ones of feudal lords and peasants, as priests and worshippers, robbers bands and their victims. But these ways of organizing society are impoverishing and, Smith claims in his very naming of his system the “System of Natural Liberty”—unnatural. Dugald Stewart quotes from one of Smith’s lectures that, at least in the lecture hall at Glasgow in 1749, Smith was blunt:

Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of affluence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things…

I believe that the later Adam Smith would note that “tolerable administration of justice” covers a lot of ground: the later books of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations are very long indeed: Book III on how the historical development of Europe has let it to deviate from the System of Natural Liberty is 43 pages, Book IV on errors being made in 1776 by the governments of Europe is 273 pages, and Book V on what governments should and should not do is 276 pages—a total of 592 pages on what governments should, should not, and have unfortunately done, with only a total of 346 pages laying out Smith’s analytical system and its conclusions, among them that:

All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel, or which endeavor to arrest the progress of society at a particular point, are unnatural, and, to support themselves, are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical…

As Heilbroner puts it:

The great enemy to Adam Smith's system is not so much government per se as monopoly—in any form. “People… meet[ing] together… [and] the conversation ends in… some diversion to raise prices.”… If the working of the market is trusted… anything that interferes… lowers social welfare. If, as in Smith’s time, no master hatter anywhere in England could employ more than two apprentices or no master cutler in Sheffield more than one, the market system cannot possibly yield its full benefits…. If, as in Smith's time, great companies are given monopolies of foreign trade, the public cannot realize the full benefits of cheaper foreign produce. Hence, says Smith, all these impediments must go…

Bradford DeLong
J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

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