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Adam Smith Resolved the Identity-Distribution Debate—Why Is it Forgotten?

Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy

by Samuel Fleischacker

University of Chicago Press, 216 pp.,

It’s a summer afternoon in Manhattan, and Vivian Gornick is trying to fasten a spray attachment to the faucet of her sink. She can get the attachment inside the faucet, but it won’t stay in place. Her super says that the attachment’s threads are worn. Gornick detaches the faucet and heads to the hardware store to buy a new attachment, anxious that she won’t be able to get what she needs. The man behind the counter tells her the problem is not the threads; it’s the washer, which is plastic. He drops a metal washer into place inside the attachment and screws it into the faucet. Gornick is ecstatic. “You’ve done it!” she cries. He charges her $2.15, which she happily pays: “It is such a pleasure to have small anxieties easily corrected. Now you’ve freed me for large anxieties.” “What you just said,” he replies. “That’s a true thing.” Later that night her friend Leonard tells her she paid too much.

Like many of Gornick’s set pieces, this one, from Approaching Eye Level (1996), is a memoir of attachments—our delight upon their achievement, our distress over their failure. What sets this story apart from her others is that the attachment happens through an exchange of money for parts and labor. Most stories of connection are like Howards End, in which money and property hinder the intimacy of two souls. So heavy is the weight of that tradition that even Gornick, the most self-reflective of writers, doesn’t note the economics of her tale. The market is the setting for that shared wisdom across the counter; her needs are recognized and met through an act of exchange.

The idea of the market as a communion of souls was once the lingua franca of European culture, helping to midwife the birth of economics from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries. Commerce was seen as a source of sociability, pulling solitary selves out of isolation, drawing far-flung communities into contact with each other. God wishes “human friendships to be engendered by mutual needs and resources,” wrote the Dutch political philosopher Hugo Grotius, “lest individuals deeming themselves entirely sufficient unto themselves should for that very reason be rendered unsociable.” According to Kant, it was through the trade in salt and iron that people first “achieved mutual understanding” with one another and “the most distant of their fellows.” The multiplication of needs and the expansion of markets bring increase—not just of products but also of perspective, conversation, and views. The more developed the economy, wrote David Hume, “the more sociable men become.” So many and so various are the goods being exchanged in any one transaction that “commerce” came to be defined, in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, as “interchange of any thing.”

It’s no accident that Adam Smith was the first great economist as well as our most acute psychologist of the enlarged form of “fellow feeling” that went, in the eighteenth century, by the name of sympathy. Once upon a time, economics and sympathy were one and the same. Yet something got lost on the way to the market. Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) opens with pleasant stories of workers cooperating in a pin factory and quick-witted boys scrambling over steam engines, inventing labor-saving devices for pistons and boilers, so they can leave the machines unattended and rush off to play with their mates. It closes with scenes of stunted and stupefied laborers, colonial slavers, premonitions of violent revolt from indigenous peoples dispossessed of their lands, and a monstrous and modern form of sovereignty called the East India Company. Sympathy is nowhere to be found; profit occludes all.

If one terminus of commercial society was the blinding of the self to the other, a second was the engulfment of the self by the other. An isolate on a desert island, Smith observes, thinks clearly about the contribution of material goods to his enjoyment and ease. Lacking the mirror of society, in which a bauble is reflected back to us as a useful good, the castaway is less likely to forsake the convenience of a toothpick or a nail clipper for the prize of wealth. Only in society do riches take on value and become an object of our labors—not because they bring us greater material satisfaction but because “they more effectually gratify that love of distinction so natural to man.”

That pendulum swing, between the pathologies of insufficient and excessive feeling for the other, haunts modern economics. Too little feeling gives rise to dispossession. Too much feeling warps the self’s relationship to material goods. Smith and John Maynard Keynes are the great theorists of this dynamic. Karl Marx, W.E.B. Du Bois, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Thorstein Veblen wrote about it, too. But Smith and Keynes are unique. Conscious of the pathologies of sympathy, they still retain the ideal of the market as a sphere of sociability. That lends their work a special poignancy today, when we are again asking the question that once agitated so many: What is the purpose of the economy, and to what extent does it reflect our social selves?

Read entire article at New York Review of Books