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Posts Tagged ‘social philosophy

“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”*…

The story of how Adam Smith, a Scottish moral philosopher, pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, and humanist, came to be the avatar of unrestrained capitalism…

How is it that Adam Smith in America wound up as the poster child for the “stark utopia” of the free-market order? How is it that he is the guy who is taken to have said that a good society is one in which all of the social power you exercise to command the work and attention of others is mediated through the market? A market society is one in which all the social power one exerts to attempt to command the aims of the work of society is deployed through your effective demand—and so is equal to your wealth times your personal intensity of desire that some commodity be made for your personal use. This is a fine thing to do, but only if the only end of society is to produce commodities for its individuals’ personal utilization, and only if the societal value placed on the happiness of an individual is proportional to his wealth.

But that is simply not the case…

Brad DeLong (@delong) considers (his one-time student) Glory Liu‘s (@miss_glory) Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism: “The Adam Smith Americans Have Imagined.”

See also: “The misunderstood Adam Smith gets both credit and blame for modern capitalism” (source of the image above)

* “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.” – Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations


As we read more closely, we might recall that it was on this date in 1996 that a critic of the industrialization rationalized in part by the revisionist understanding of Adam Smith’s thought, Theodore John (“Ted”) Kaczynski was apprehended. From 1978 to 1995, he had killed three people and injured 23 others in a nationwide bombing campaign against people he believed to be advancing modern technology and the destruction of the environment.

A math prodigy, Kaczynski had begun a career as a professor of mathematics at Berkeley– but abruptly resigned and retreated to rural Montana… from whence he waged his domestic terror campaign and where he wrote his manifesto, the essay Industrial Society and Its Future.

Kaczynski was the subject of the longest and most expensive investigation in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation up to that point. The FBI used the case identifier UNABOM (University and Airline Bomber) to refer to his case before his identity was known, which the media turned into the “Unabomber.” In 1995, Kaczynski sent a letter to The New York Times and promised to “desist from terrorism” if the Times or The Washington Post published his manifesto. At the urging of Attorney General Janet Reno, the Post did. Kaczynski’s brother David recognized the prose style and reported his suspicions to the FBI, which led to Kacynski’s arrest.

Kaczynski—maintaining that he was sane—tried and failed to dismiss his court-appointed lawyers because they wanted him to plead insanity to avoid the death penalty. In 1998 he struck a plea bargain under which he pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to eight consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole.


“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America”*…



The evolution of capitalism (“the capital AI machine”) as a series of levels that were unlocked by new “learning” APIs to humans


Consider capitalism as a highly efficient objective function (or “AI”) with its parameters optimized for the satisfaction of our short term desires rather than our long term interests.

Paranoia about runaway feedback loops – in consumer capitalism, artificial intelligence, mass media, ‘Wrestlemania politics,’ etc – ultimately stems from the inscrutability of the emergent behavior of these complex systems to the individual actors and observers operating within them.

Rather than responding with Luddite / anarchist nihilism, we should remember that technological and social systems like these have dramatically reduced our exposure to the unpredictability of the natural world and greatly improved living conditions on a number of dimensions over the past few centuries.

At the same time, we should not ignore warning signs of a dystopian future, nor should we hope that a ‘personnel change’ of institutional leaders will solve our problems.

Because the problems at hand are complex systems problems – where the root causes are not the actors themselves, but the ill-designed structures and incentives that dictate their actions – we should think about redesigning the rules and incentives of social, political, and economic systems as the path forward…

Andrew Kortina explains modern capitalism as a system– one that, for all of its all-too-manifest faults, should be saved; then he starts the conversation about how to do that salvaging: “History of the Capital AI & Market Failures in the Attention Economy.”  Mildly geeky, but richly provocative– which is to say, useful, whether one buys his suggested solutions or not– it’s eminently worthy of a read.

* “Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.  – Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater


As we wonder about the water in which we swim, we might recall that it  was on this date in 1933 that the Agricultural Adjustment Act came into force.  A central piece of New Deal legislation, the AAA aimed to aid farmers devastated by reduced demand for their crops by creating price supports via a series of government purchases (of crops and livestock) and subsidies (essentially payments not to plant/grow).

The program was controversial in its time– it made previously independent farmers dependent on the government– but it worked; average farm income rose 50% from 1932 to 1935.  It’s elements– government purchase and subsidy– survive to this day, evolved into (many of) the provisions of the Farm Bill, passed by Congress every five years or so… even though the constituency of small farmers the Act was intended to serve has largely given way to an agricultural landscape dominated by a handful of gigantic corporate players.


A Roosevelt County New Mexico farmer and a County Agricultural Conservation Committee representative review the provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) farm program to determine how it can best be applied on that particular acreage



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