Adam Smith’s Bulldozer
I had just begun at the economics college at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The first few weeks were festive with class trips, parties and welcome pranks. The classes were great and the subjects were much more interesting than what any of us had ever had in results oriented “cursinhos” that prepared us for the entry exams.
The teacher of Introduction to Economics was in charge of making us feel at home and was the one who took us out on the outings. He was supposedly cool, had participated in the student uprisings in the sixties and gossip went that he had been tortured, although some people said he had spilled the beans and given away people.
The first test was exciting, I had read my first texts in economics theory and was eager to express my opinions. I do not recall exactly what the dissertation was about, but I began it with a sentence (in Portuguese of course) that went something like this:
“Economics is based on the false assumption the people possess things…”
To my surprise the “open-minded” teacher hated this sentence and gave me a low grade and perhaps because of this I lost interest in the course, even though I ended up scraping through my years at the UFRJ and graduating.
It was not until a week ago when I saw the documentary Zeitgeist that I recuperated of my intellectual self-esteem. One of the commentators validated my sentence as he exposed how John Locke opened the doors to considering private property inherent to the human beings, something that Adam Smith, the father of the economics science, has as a basis for his theory. Basically Locke said that holding back the heavenly given surplus is part of the Holy design; Smith took his statement a step further in saying that we are a surplus keeping species and that the Almighty creates an economic equilibrium out of our selfishness by optimizing production and bringing the well being to everyone. In other words everyone’s selfishness ends up making up for a better world due to an “invisible hand”.
This is the intellectual basis of a world that produces the economic disparities that no one needs to go too far to encounter. Of course there are theories that counter this way of thinking and in the days of plenty no one really cares to think much about it, but this way of thinking is the throne on which the fat bankers sit their fat backsides.
Well.. Let’s go to the central question: is selfishness our true nature? Are there proofs that selfishness has been in the center of every society the humans have constructed? I would say that the evidence points to a huge no.
I’ll speak about the Brazilian natives that Adam Smith’s bulldozer almost decimated:
It turns out that the so-called savages have a lot to teach us. Contrary to what my ex-“revolutionary” professor tried to take out of existence, they do not recognize private property. Actually they do not grasp how anyone can consider something their own’s: everything belongs to nature, or to God depending on how you see it. All the objects in a tribe belong to the community, so there is no possibility of theft or quarreling over possessions.
After this important lesson there are more; the natives consider themselves as guardians of their forests. They see themselves as part of their environment, the forests provide them with everything they need so they pay back by veneering their source of livelihood and making sure it will be there to provide them with their needs.
There is more: they have chiefs, who outweigh the others in intelligence and agility but no one in any tribe would ever expect to obey their leader blindly and do things that would go against the interest of their community. A chief is like a captain in a football, or soccer, team: he toils with everyone else but speaks for them when required.
I could go on and on about the superior quality of life that they have when compared to the ninety-nine percent of the people hostages of a way of thinking that is taken as immutable truth.
Years later I am proud to have been scorned upon by someone who took upon himself to teach a pernicious way of thinking. It is a shame that natives do not have their own universities to teach us how to do things. Actually, they don’t need them; their teachings are so obvious that it is hard to believe how people could argue against them. Sometimes simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve…