… is from page 177 of Deirdre McCloskey’s and Art Carden’s splendid new (2020) book, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World (all but the first bracketed entry original to McCloskey and Carden; emphasis added):
True, [Adam] Smith in a famous but routinely misunderstood passage in 1776 spoke of appealing to the self-love of others, rather than appealing to their lordly charity or their slavish obedience: “It is not from the benevolence [or the compelled obedience] of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner [and from your mother, dear Adam, with whom you lived, and who cooked it], but from their regard [as free people] to their own interest.” He is saying that you should be properly democratic in the theater of the marketplace – not expecting by lordly right to take without recompense, or by a beggarly lack of dignity to receive without recompense. You and the baker and butcher are equal in Smith’s view. To pay your way is to respect their equal dignity.
DBx: McCloskey’s and Carden’s explanation of the true meaning of this famous passage from Smith’s Wealth of Nations is spot-on. Anyone who reads Smith and comes away with the conclusion that Smith was an apologist for narrow, grasping, materialist greed has a serious problem with reading comprehension.
Yet notice also that this quotation from Smith is contrary to a frequent, mistaken rendition of it. Often it is rendered as this: “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.”
Smith did not, in this passage, prefix “interest” with “self.” While he would not have denied that part of the the baker’s interest is the material care and comfort of himself and his immediate family, Smith understood that the typical person in commercial society has also as part of his interest concerns that extend beyond the narrow, material “self.”
The baker, perhaps, is a devoted parishioner to his church; part of the income he earns from selling bread and muffins he donates weekly to the Providence Presbyterian Church. The baker also is a patron of the arts and contributes annually to his town’s community children’s theater. And the baker serves as a volunteer firefighter – using time that he could not afford to spend in this way were he unable to make a good living baking bread and desserts for paying customers. In addition, the baker sends a generous sum of money each year to his sister to help with the medical care of his nephew who was crippled as a young child in a playground accident.
Oh – let’s observe one other use of the baker’s profits: He uses a portion of these to expand and improve the operation of his bakery, thus improving consumers’ access to delicious baked goods.
These uses of the baker’s profits are, of course, all in his interest, as the agent who chooses to put a portion of the profits toward each of these uses is indeed him. But not all of these uses are narrowly self interested, at least not in the manner in which the term “self-interest” is commonly understood.
While the baker would commit no ethical or legal offense against anyone if he used every cent of his profits, voluntarily earned, merely to gratify his own material and sensual cravings, I submit – as did Adam Smith, and as do McCloskey and Carden – that such a baker would be an oddity. Such a baker would not remotely be representative of the typical person in commercial society. And such a person would be pathetic. Such a person would fail to be fully human – he would fail to engage with full satisfaction with others, including strangers. His life would be unhappy, and he’d die unfulfilled regardless of how many gleaming new Mercedeses he has parked in the garages of his many houses.
Almost all real-world bakers in commercial society – as with almost all butchers, brewers, barbers, bricklayers, bus drivers, and bankers – each has an interest that, necessarily, is his or her own. (How could it possibly be otherwise?) But these real-world producers in commercial society, in pursuing their own interests, do so not only in ways that promote the interests of those with whom they engage commercially, but promote also the interests of many others with whom they engage, not commercially, but with love, compassion, concern, care, friendship, and fellow-feeling.
On this Thanksgiving Day I am thankful for open, commercial society that alone gives to each of us the ability to attend well – and with dignity for all – not only to our own narrow interests, but to interests beyond our narrow selfs.