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An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson

Two Models of Society

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My purpose here is to compare two models of society, the first of which is rather well-known, the latter of which is known to a lesser degree. Although each model is embedded in a larger work, I will treat each here as a “stand-alone” item—recognizing the possibility thereby of misinterpretation.

Two qualifications:

  • Each model has a different orientation. They are, however, capable of being compared, and in comparing them I will make note of their different orientations.

  • The second model was not intended as a model of society, but lends itself to such an interpretation, and I will so interpret it, while noting its original intention.

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First Model

The first model is extracted from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776)—two parts of Book Four, Chapter 2:.

IV.2.4: Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society.

IV.2.9: By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

From these two passages we can deduce the following model, stated as an argument:

  1. The individual members of a society are aware of what their interests are.

  1. In being so aware, they do actually pursue “their own interests.” (In the first passage Smith refers to one’s doing so in choosing a type of employment, but one can assume here that he intended to say that one will pursue one’s interests in other realms of one’s life as well—e.g., in one’s consumption decisions.)

  1. The individuals who comprise a society are also similar—it’s tacitly assumed here—in that they have similar levels of ability. (Presumably, individuals vary in what they are interested in, though, which “fact” helps explain why individuals enter different occupations. However, Smith seems to assume that each individual in a given occupation performs the work involved with that occupation “well.”)

  1. A given society is associated with a certain geographical area, but is a “society” in the sense only of being a simple collection of individuals (organized into families, one can assume). That is, an atomistic concept of “society” is assumed by the model.

  1. Given that fact, the nature of the society within which one lives—i.e., the fact that it is not a “real” unit—has no influence on an individual’s behavior. More broadly, contextual variables play no role in affecting individual behavior.

  1. The actions engaged in by individuals as they pursue their interests will also be affected by some sort of invisible force (an “invisible hand”), and these two factors operating simultaneously will “frequently” result in the “public good” being served.

This model has serious problems, and to identify them I will comment on each of the above six points:

  1. So far as “interests” are concerned:
    • a. The model is ambiguous regarding the meaning of “interests”: Does one “naturally” tend to pursue money? Influence? Well-being?

    • b. The assumption that one knows what is to one’s interests is unrealistic, as often individuals make decisions on the basis, e.g., of an ideology that “possesses” them—economic, religious, political, etc.
  1. Because “interests” is ambiguous in meaning, and people often don’t know their interests, how is one to even know that they pursue their “interests”?!

  1. Not only do individuals differ in how they define “interests,” and in knowing their “interests,” they differ in that in which they are interested, in intelligence, in education, physical skills, etc. All of which factors play a role in real-world behavior.

  2. Societies are not, it’s true, “real” in the sense that individuals, buildings, automobiles, etc., are—i.e., societies are not tangible units. They are, nonetheless, “real.” We know this using our ability to engage in inferential reasoning.

  1. Because they are “real,” a variety of factors do, in fact, influence one’s behavior—the nature of one’s upbringing, one’s parents (e.g., their social class), the friends that one makes and others with whom one associates, the environment within which one grows up (e.g., urban, rural), one’s life experiences, the level of technological development of the society within which one lives, the sort of government of that society, etc. In short, the nature of the society within which one is brought up, and within which one lives, is a factor that influences one’s behavior, along with various other factors.

  2. The assumption that two, and only (?) two, factors operate in a society—individuals acting to further their “interests” and an “invisible hand”—and that jointly their operation will “frequently” (but not always!) result in a society within which the “public good” will be served is problematic for a variety of reasons:

    a. The nature of the “invisible hand” is ambiguous. (By the way, this concept was not invented by Smith, but has a long history.)

    1.Was this “invisible hand” gravity—or at least something analogous to gravity?

    2. If it was something analogous to gravity, was it of the Newtonian or Aristotelian variety?

    3. Was “invisible hand” merely a metaphor for Smith?

    4. Was the “hand” that of God, rather?

b. The nature of the “public good” referred to by Smith is ambiguous in the extreme. From what Smith says, one is unable to gain clear “picture” of what this “good” society looks like. One is given, by Smith, an abstraction only!

c. It asserts that the “public good” will be served by the two factors identified under point 6 above, but as no empirical evidence is offered in support of that claim, the model must be labeled a “faith-based” one!

d. The assumptions used by the model (identified above) all lack in realism.

Gavin Kennedy has said regarding the “invisible hand,” for example:

No such physical laws have yet been shown in regard of ‘an invisible hand’. In fact, there has not been shown to be a term for the “invisible hand” in any equation in economics, purporting to explain its presence. Nor can there be–it does not exist.

And this:

The reference to the alleged similarity, even an analogous property, between gravity and market forces is so often quoted that I find it incredible that obviously literate and numerate senior economists can find grounds to argue about it. There is no gravitational force analogously operating in markets.

Jonathan Schlefer has written this:

One of the best-kept secrets in economics is that there is no case for the invisible hand. After more than a century trying to prove the opposite, economic theorists investigating the matter finally concluded in the 1970s that there is no reason to believe markets are led, as if by an invisible hand, to an optimal equilibrium—or any equilibrium at all. But the message never got through to their supposedly practical colleagues who so eagerly push advice about almost anything. Most never even heard what the theorists said, or else resolutely ignored it.

And as has been said by Robyn J. Morrison:

"An underlying belief in the invisible hand of the market as the protector of the common good has been a dominant force in economic thought. Capitalists have, and continue to, promote free markets as a modern day absolute or god."

Note especially the “continue to” in this last quotation: If we lived in a rational society, one might not expect this!

Also, regarding the “invisible hand” concept, one might argue, on the one hand, that it was not an important concept for Smith, because: “The invisible hand appears once, several hundred pages into the work [i.e., The Wealth of Nations] during a discussion of trade policy. On the other hand, however, the term may have been placed in the middle of the book precisely because Smith regarded the concept of extreme importance!

e. Were realistic assumptions “plugged into” the model, it’s uncertain what the model would “predict;” however, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that that prediction would be one where the “public good” was served well!

Given the above, although Smith may not have intended this model to be ideological, the facts that (a) it has been embraced over the years (by economists especially), and (b) is based on unrealistic assumptions, has made it ideological. That is, rather than actually describing the world “as it (supposedly) works,” it describes a (a) non-existent world, and does so in a fashion that, as an ideology, (b) serves the interests of some relative to others.

Kavous Ardalan has written this:

According to the "invisible hand," the individuals' selfish interest automatically results in the improvement for society as a whole. The "invisible hand," therefore, focuses on individual behavior and recommends abstraction from the social consequences of individual behavior. This atomistic view, together with its attendant abstraction from society as a whole, constitutes the foundation of the ideological character of the "invisible hand." This is because it conceals the actual social consequences of what it supports.

Given the problems with the concept of an “invisible hand” in particular—including the fact that it is a virtually vacuous concept!—in a rational world it would have been abandoned long ago. Yet, “Capitalists have, and continue to, promote free markets [and the invisible hand that supposedly operates in them] as a modern day absolute or god.” Why is it still “alive”?:

a. It has enabled economists to create a discipline that looks, to those not “in the know,” like a “real” science.

b. Economists have been unable to come up with anything better (!).

c. It has proved useful for ideological purposes—for, that is, serving the interests of the elite.

A point that should be kept in mind about The Wealth of Nations is that it presumably was not written as an “objective” treatise (although Smith might have so perceived it) but, rather, as a (a) treatise intended for leaders of his time and (b) written in reaction to the Mercantilism of his time. Once one recognizes both of these strong possibilities, one will reasonably conclude—on the basis of these two facts alone—that Smith’s model should have been abandoned 250 years ago!

Although Smith’s primary focus in Wealth was on economic matters, Smith recognized the obvious fact that societies had governments, and went on to specify the role that government should play:

  1. The first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, can be performed only by means of a military force.”

  2. The second duty of the sovereign, that of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice, . . .”

  3. The third and last duty of the sovereign or commonwealth, is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature, that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual, or small number of individuals; and which it, therefore, cannot be expected that any individual, or small number of individuals, should erect or maintain.”

So far as “the market” was concerned, the third point above seemingly suggests that Smith believed that governments should basically “let it alone” (the meaning of laissez-faire). 1 However, this article provides evidence to the effect that Smith did see an important role for government in the economy beyond the above three points.

How should we assess the Smith societal model? As a societal model it is rather strange in that its focus is on the means for achieving the “good society”—individuals pursuing their interests, combined with an “invisible hand—but neither of those factors actually operates in the real world! In making assumptions about the real world it assumes that both factors not only exist, but are good—the latter being a tacit assumption. Thus, the model is simultaneously descriptive and prescriptive. From the standpoint of the end supposedly achieved by the operation of the two causative factors, it is not descriptive, however, but prescriptive: However, one is presented with no clear “picture” of what this end would look like in its specifics.

A point of importance that I feel obligated to add here is that Smith in advocating (in effect) that individuals act on the basis of their interests was not, thereby, advocating selfishness—as this passage might seem to suggest:

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 self 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.

What must be kept in mind here is that Smith was (a) a moral philosopher, not an economist; that (b) earlier (1759) he had written The Theory of Moral Sentiments; and (c) that Smith did not abandon the ideas presented in that book when he wrote his The Wealth of Nations later.

Despite the fact that Smith was not himself an economist, his The Wealth of Nations came to be embraced—unsurprisingly—especially by those for whom Economics (rather than philosophy—moral or otherwise) was their profession. Given that fact, is it surprising that it was the prescriptive feature of Smith’s model that has especially been “taken to heart”—the claim that it is desirable for individuals to pursue their interests?

Frankly, I’m not sure if it is or is not. But it has been the case that economists have tended to follow Smith in building their models on a foundation of unrealistic assumptions; and insofar as that’s been the case, and those models have provided a basis for decision-making in this society, they have played an important role in creating the (rotten!) society of which we are now “inmates”!

Not only that; as Naomi Klein has argued recently, the fact that we have a (quasi-) capitalistic society goes a long way in explaining why we currently have a global warming problem—a problem that may very well “do our species in.” For as Arctic climate scientist John B. Davies wrote, in 2013: “The world is probably at the start of a runaway Greenhouse Event which will end most human life on Earth before 2040.”

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Second Model

If the Smith societal model is a descriptive-prescriptive one, the societal model presented by Paul of Tarsus centuries earlier is just prescriptive in nature. In addition, it gives no attention whatsoever to means.

Here is what I’m referring to now, these passages from I Corinthians 12:

27: Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

20: . . . the body is not made up of one part but of many.

21: The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

(Note that I placed verse 27 before verses 20 – 26—because I perceive it as logically a verse that precedes the other verses. Also, to make this relevant as a societal model, for “body of Christ” here, read “society.”)

Read as such, what we have here is a description of a society as it should be; that is, we have here a normative model of society, based on an analogy with something that is definitely tangible (which “society” is not.) Smith’s model was prescriptive as well, but Smith’s “good society” was:

  • The logical conclusion, supposedly, from a set of assumptions (all of which lacked sadly in realism!).

  • That “conclusion” being by no means clear, as to its content—except that it was said to be a society within which the “public good” was realized.

As to the features that Paul associated with his “good society” (interpreting it as a societal model, that is):

  • No member of the society perceives oneself as being superior to any other member of the society.

  • All members of the society perceive each other member as being of equal importance to oneself.

  • All members of the society have an interest in, and concern for, the well-being of all other members of the society. Because of the fact that all members of the society act accordingly, all members of the society have at least an “adequate” level of well-being.

  • The members of the society are perceived as connected one to another; i.e., society is not atomistic. (Of course, Smith recognized that the members of a society were connected, but just in terms of their economic relationships.)

  • Not only connected, but connected of necessity. That is, by comparing society to a human body—an entity whose parts are integrally connected, such all (or at least most) of those parts must be present, and functioning, for the body to survive—Paul was in effect asserting that unless the individuals in a society are (a) connected, and (b) connected in a harmonious (and cooperative) manner, the society will collapse. Perhaps not “immediately,” as with a human body, but at some time in the future—of necessity.

  • Members of the society perceive themselves as cooperators with, rather than competitors against, one another. 2

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If it’s clear that our society, as we know it today, is largely the product of decisions stemming from the Smithian model of society, it’s also clear that contemporary society resembles Paul’s “good society” to but a slight degree! Cooperative behavior is not, it’s true, absent from our society, 3 but is found primarily at the “lower” levels of the society: Those who dominate our society, it seems evident, are guided primarily by the Smithian model. 4

Over the centuries “pictures” of the “good society” have been developed, ones with more detail than what was offered by Paul, these usually presented as “utopias” (see pp. 38 – 39 in my What Are Churches For?), but these “utopian pictures” have typically avoided the matter of “how to get there.” However, my Explanations: Useless and Otherwise gives some attention to this matter.

Needless to say, it’s unfortunate that the Smithian societal model—assuming that it warrants such a designation!—has been our guide the past 250 years instead, e.g., of the societal model provided by Paul of Tarsus. If a Paulian sort of model had been our guide instead over that period of time, it’s unlikely that our species would now face the prospect of extinction within a matter of decades, if not years. (Regarding the latter, Guy McPherson, e.g., wrote, in 2012: “As I pointed out in this space a few years ago, I concluded in 2002 that we had set into motion climate-change processes likely to cause our own extinction by 2030.”)

As I noted earlier, the Smithian model became an ideology; in becoming such, given that ideologies per se are out of touch with Reality, actions based on them are likely to lead to disaster—and this seems to be the case today, given the strong possibility that our species will “soon” go the way of the dinosaurs, but for a different set of reasons.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. With the growth of large corporations, corporate leaders (such as the Koch brothers) have gained more control over the national government (in particular), and become “welfare” recipients!
  2. What’s interesting about this normative assumption is that cooperative behavior is actually natural for us humans! The reason that cooperative behavior is not the norm in this society is that the sort of society that has developed under the “reign” of the Smithian model conduces competitive, at the expense of cooperative, behavior. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that following the Smithian model has made our society terribly “out of whack”! The tragedy of this fact is that so many “inmates” of our society have become so acclimatized to the society that they are simply unable to comprehend (a) the “out of whackness” of our society, (b) which fact does not bode well for our future as a species! Although, e.g., Naomi Klein, in her This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014) holds out some hope for the human future, I see little reason for hope.
  3. It is, for example, in the form of “cooperatives.”
  4. I would like to think that this is not true for their family lives, however.

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Original posting: 2015-JUL-12
Latest update : 2015-JUL-12
Alton C. Thompson
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