By James Kwak
“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.”
—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
This is the most famous line from the most famous justification of market capitalism. Smith’s point is that it is individual self-interest that drives the economy. In the next paragraph, he goes on to describe how gains from trade explain the division of labor in a modern economy:
“The certainty of being able to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he may have occasion for, encourages every man to apply himself to a particular occupation, and to cultivate and bring to perfection whatever talent or genius he may possess for that particular species of business.”
As I’ve said before, “whenever the butcher, the brewer, the baker, or the invisible hand is invoked, the reader should hear alarm bells going off.” The COVID-19 pandemic provides a particularly stark demonstration of the problems with Smith’s comforting fable and how it is used in contemporary politics.
Market capitalism depends on the happy assumption that everyone has some marketable skills: something that person can do that can be exchanged for money, with which she can then exchange for everything else that she needs to survive. If you believe that premise, then you can criticize poor or unemployed people as lazy good-for-nothings and destroy the social safety net with a clean conscience. This was the philosophical justification behind welfare reform, for example, which placed created work requirements for and imposed lifetime benefit caps on recipients, assuming that all they needed was sufficient incentive to find a job and get to work. Indeed, it is the philosophical justification behind the modern conservative economic platform.
But think about what is happening right now. At this moment, to a reasonable approximation, the only people with any marketable skills are those in health care, manufacturing of drugs and medical supplies, and food production and distribution, and certain critical infrastructure functions (electricity, gasoline, communications, etc.). That’s why tens of millions of people could suddenly be out of work, through no fault of their own.
So what do we do? We help those people. The Federal Housing Finance Agency suspends foreclosures and evictions for homeowners with federally-backed mortgages. States expand and accelerate unemployment benefits. Even the Trump administration proposes sending cash to every person in the country to help them pay the bills. (They also want to create a giant slush fund to help business owners, which I don’t agree with, but that’s not the point here.) We do what we can to make sure that people can stay in their homes, get enough food, and take care of their families.
At any moment in the past decade, there were millions of Americans who couldn’t find work, or couldn’t get enough hours to make ends meet—through no fault of their own. They came from broken households, or poor neighborhoods without good schools, or countries torn apart by war. Or they were disabled fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, or they suffer chronic medical conditions that limit their ability to work. Or they held full-time jobs that suddenly vanished one day because people in other countries could do those jobs more cheaply. The prevailing attitude to these people—at least judging by the economic policies put in place by the politicians who were popularly elected—was: screw them.
But what happened to them is no different from what happened to most of us in the past week. The only real difference, as far as I can see, is that they were a small enough minority that most people could pretend they didn’t exist, or that their problems were their own fault. Now there are so many of us in the same bucket that we can’t—or don’t want to—say the same thing about ourselves. Sure, I could have become a doctor, which would give me a marketable skill right now, but I don’t think it’s a moral failing that I didn’t.
So the lesson I think we should all take away from this crisis is this: If someone cannot provide for herself and her family in a market capitalist economy, that is not a moral failing on her part. There are always people who struggle to get by, through no fault of their own. Indeed, I strongly suspect that there will be more and more of them in the future, as robots and artificial intelligence get better and better at doing things that were once the sole province of humans. As a society, our duty is to care for the welfare of all of our members—and, yes, that requires action by the government, just as tens of millions of people will soon be relying on government checks.
The problems of market capitalism are always there to see, though many people choose not to look. Perhaps this crisis will open our eyes.