Notes on Some Classical Thinking

(Part 3 of 10 Part Series) Economic Sanity and Alternative Economic Systems

Notice the “notes” in the title. Part 3 is no textbook. Part 3 is a miniscule “Cliff Notes.” Notice, too, that the title reads “classical” thinking, not “early” thinking. There’s a difference. Since I regard human transactions as the bedrock of any economy and economic system, were I to choose the latter over the former qualifier I would have a lot of ground to cover, namely, that of early humans and their thinking as deduced from artifacts. An impossible task for me.

It’s not at all impossible for me, however, to skim the thinking of three classicists, Aristotle (384-322 BC), Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Karl Marx (1813-1883). Of the three, Marx came the closest to being a quasi-economist. He wrote about his vision of socialism 19 years before he wrote his Das Kapital, yet he began his career as a radical journalist that got him expelled by the governments of three countries. The same experience might have befallen me had I not kept my mouth mostly shut during my career.

Aristotle’s Thinking

Aristotle (384-322 BC) may just be the premium thinker of all time. And he thought a lot about the economies of his era. It behooves me, therefore, to “consult” with him through his writings and their interpretations since great minds (his, certainly not mine) live on.

In his day the Greek word for economy meant “household management” within the context of the community. Today in the USA economy means banksters and Wall Street.

Economic activity in his view consisted of individuals doing things necessary for survival and for the good life, which to him meant a moral life of virtue that leads to happiness. He criticized money-making as a way of gaining wealth, thought it was unnatural for people to use money to make more money — the essence of capitalism-and considered usury, or predatory lending, to be the most immoral form of economic activity. Seeking wealth is justifiable, Aristotle thought, only if it amounted to no more than an accumulation of material goods sufficient for the household.

While there were banks in his day, there is a running debate by scholars over whether or the extent to which lending was done productively, that is, with the intent of making money from the loans. I can’t imagine, though, any banking business done then as criminally as it is done today.

It’s interesting to note that a totally free market was not the custom in ancient Greece. For instance, public officials monitored measurements, levied taxes on various transactions, and even fixed retail prices! Ancient Greece survived without a free market, America’s corpocracy couldn’t survive with it! Ancient Greece had a fair market. America has an unfair market.

I feel a special bonding with Aristotle. Why? To him human action was the fulcrum of an economy. That is precisely my thinking! Please recall that in Part 1 I wrote this: “Economics, any economy, and any economic system such as capitalism are not what orthodox thinkers in general and economists particularly think they are. They are first and foremost human inventions and human actions—.”1 And, if I may be so smug, I thought of it before doing some additional reading on Aristotle where I read that: “Aristotle then goes on to derive a number of economic ideas from axiomatic concepts including the necessity of human action (emphasis mine).2  And, if I may be so smug one more time, my pal Aristotle and I are unorthodox thinkers (actually, throughout my career I was regarded as an “iconoclastic” organizational psychologist)!

Adam Smith’s Thinking

Dialogue from the Netherworld

Democracy requires unfettered capitalism.
— Milton Friedman (1912-2006)

No, it’s your corpocracy that requires it.
— Adam Smith (1723–1790)

I begin this by imagining a dialogue “overheard” from somewhere between the putative father of capitalism, Adam Smith, and the Nobel laureate in economics and guru of free-market capitalism, Milton Friedman. The views of the two gentlemen have little in common, and I can imagine a lively debate.

Adam Smith’s espousal of a free market has been far overblown. He made only a passing reference to “the invisible hand” in his Wealth of Nations and never once in it used the term “capitalism.”3 He would have recoiled at today’s corpocracy and its capitalism, for he thought the emerging corporations of his time posed threats emanating from their unlimited life span; unlimited size; unlimited power; and unlimited license. Look familiar, don’t they? He foresaw corpocratic capitalism. I foreswore it.4

But Smith and I part company when it comes to his view of the human nature underlying capitalism.  It is, in my opinion, an immoral view even though, ironically, he is known as a moral philosopher.

Read this passage of his and see if you agree with me:

[M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, . . . 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. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.5

Since self-love and selfish behavior are at odds with what I know to be the universal moral values found (usually more in words than deeds) throughout time and place, I am leaving Smith quickly to move to the next classical thinker.6

Karl Marx

I have never been, or will I ever be a communist or a socialist because of their downsides, such as centralized or state planning and the diminution of individualism. But I feel a special affinity to Karl Marx and would place him far above Adam Smith in my pantheon of brilliant, radical and humane thinkers. I feel this way about him because his primary objective in life was “to integrate extensive knowledge of the past and present with a moral imperative in order to provide a goad and a guide for contemporary action to create a more humane and equitable culture—he had the dream of people making their own history as individuals creating a community.”7 Marx, in other words, was heads and shoulders above Smith when it comes to propounding economic and political ideas that if implemented would lead to a more humane way of life.

In at least one respect, Marx is like all other human beings. What he thought and wrote was influenced by events of his era, with the most significant being the industrial revolution that was enslaving workers in dehumanizing factories with deplorable working conditions and paltry wages. The industrial revolution had a significant impact on his thinking and writing.

I will give you here my succinct interpretation of his magnum opus, Das Kapital. I will zero in on just two of his ideas, the nature of the worker and the work day, because his ideas vibrate within my very being.

The worker, like any human being, has needs to be met as best as possible; security needs, social needs, leisure needs, etc. Given capitalism, to Marx (and to me) the worker becomes an entity, not a human being, commodified by the capitalist.

As for the work day, if the worker takes some time off to attend his mother’s funeral, the capitalist sees it as the worker stealing value from the capitalist, and Marx and I see it as a thieving capitalist. I am reminded of a major war contractor giving a 10-year employee a layoff notice the very day the employee returned from bereavement leave following the death of the employee’s young son.8

In Closing

Three classical thinkers all thinking on the same topic, economies and economic systems. Of the three, one will mostly be cast aside as we continue through this series, Adam Smith.

As you can probably tell, I’m a Marxist without being a communist or a socialist. If Marx were alive today and read my writings he surely would agree with all of them and might not mind being called a “Brumbackist” if he could forgive my shunning communism and socialism. Maybe he could even accept a theme of this series, namely, that there’s bad capitalism everywhere, but there could also be good capitalism.

Read Part 1 here; Part 2 here;

  1. Brumback, GB. “Economic Sanity and Alternative Economic Systems”, Part 1. Introduction to the Series. OpEdNews, May 16; Dissident Voice, May 17, 2018. []
  2. Younkin, EW. “Aristotle and Economics”, quebecoislibre.org, September 15, 2005 paper number 158. []
  3. Smith, A. The Wealth of Nations, 1776. []
  4. See my books, The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave it in the Lurch; and Corporate Reckoning Ahead. []
  5. Smith, A. Op. Cit., p. 638. []
  6. See Josephson, M. Teaching Ethical Decision Making and Principled Reasoning. Ethics: Easier Said than Done. 1988, 1, pp. 27-33. []
  7. Williams, AW. “The Legacy of Karl Marx: Or, the Inheritance We Dare Not Squander”, A talk presented at a symposium marking the one-hundredth anniversary of Marx’s death, Oregon State University, 1983. []
  8. Brumback, GB. America’s Oldest Professions: Warring and Spying, 2015, p. 117. []
Gary Brumback, PhD, is a retired psychologist and Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. He is the author of The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch; and America’s Oldest Professions: Warring and Spying. His most recent book is Corporate Reckoning Ahead. Read other articles by Gary, or visit Gary's website.