Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What did Adam Smith think of externalities associated with the efforts of individuals to improve their relative position?

bookjacketI have enjoyed reading Robert Frank’s new book, ‘The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition and the Common Good’, more than I thought I would. This may be because I felt that the book had been written for people like me - the author seems to want people who have a strong regard for individual liberty to give serious consideration to his views.

I had expected Frank to argue that competition for positional goods involves a negative externality because those who are most successful are envied by many of those who are less successful. However, the view he presents of the nature of externalities associated with competition for positional goods is more subtle and less easily dismissed.

The starting point of Frank’s analysis is the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, which Adam Smith had suggested in ‘Wealth of Nations’ leads self-interested individuals to promote the greater good of society, without intending to do so. Frank describes Smith’s invisible hand as ‘a genuinely groundbreaking insight’, even though, as Smith recognized, the invisible hand ‘breaks down’ to some extent in the presence of externalities, public goods, and so forth. The particular negative externality that Frank is most concerned about in this book is associated with circumstances where individual rewards depend on relative performance and result from the strivings of individuals to improve their relative position. He contrasts this striving to improve relative position (which he describes as Darwinian competition) with the benign competitive forces associated with Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

Frank’s discussion of the different views of competition that he attributes to Darwin and Smith reminded me that Adam Smith had actually written about the strivings of individuals to improve their relative positions in ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ (TMS). Smith suggested in TMS that what people hope to achieve by bettering their condition is not ‘ease’ or ‘pleasure’ but ‘to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency and approbation’ (p 50-51, Liberty Fund edition, 1982). Later in the book, Smith suggests, however, that ‘the poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition’ imagines that if he attained wealth and greatness ‘he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation’. According to the story, this ambitious man endures a great deal of misery striving to better his position. By the time he achieves his goal, however, he is near the end of his life ‘his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments …’. At this point he begins to think that ‘wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility’ offering little ‘ease of body or tranquillity of mind’ (p 181).

In my view, Smith’s story understates the benefits that people obtain from wealth because it doesn’t take account of the greater autonomy wealth enables them to enjoy. (I have discussed the link between wealth and autonomy previously on this blog.)

Smith was suggesting that people tend to make cognitive errors of the kind discussed by Daniel Gilbert in his book, ‘Stumbling on Happiness’. This view of strivings to improve relative position differs from that of Robert Frank, who does not rely on departures from the individual rationality assumptions normally used in neo-classical economics.

The similarity between the views of Adam Smith and Robert Frank in relation to strivings to improve relative position lies in the fact that both seem to see this as more or less a zero sum game, with externalities involved. Adam Smith wrote as follows about the externalities associated with the strivings of individuals to better their condition:
‘The pleasures of wealth and greatness … strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are apt to bestow upon it.
And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which arouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and the arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth’ (p 183).

These days many people would be less inclined to count as a benefit some of the ways in which the face of the globe is being changed by the motion of industry. But Smith’s insight that strivings of individuals to improve relative position can encourage technological progress is still relevant. If such strivings also result in negative externalities, those need to be balanced against the positive externalities that Adam Smith identified.
I promise to write about Robert Frank’s views in my next post.


Lori said...

It's all very reminiscent of the deadpan humor of Garrison Keillor, who reminds us that in Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average.

Of course it's a zero-sum game. Duh!

Winton Bates said...

Yes Lori, and it isn't just in Lake Wobegon that most people think they are above average. But if most people think they are above average now, that seems to me to indicate widespread complacency about relative position and to count against the view that everyone is scrambling to get higher in the pecking order.

By the way, I think that life has become much more of a positive sum game since Adam Smith's time (and partly as a result of his influence). There are now greater opportunities for people to get ahead through engaging in economic activities that increase the opportunities available to others, rather than rent seeking, which reduces the opportunities available to others.

Rajeev Upadhyay said...

In the times the financial crises across the world, everyone is now questioning all the fundamental and modern theories in economics and trying to review and suggest what they feel. And this book I think is on the same line as your post suggests.
Competition is something that was there in Darwin's theory and also in Smith's theories. Sometimes in name of natural selection and sometimes invisible hands..........