Fraser Forum

William Watson: Was antagonism to markets literally bred into us?

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There really is no such thing as a free lunch: Even if you don’t pay, you have a moral obligation to stay and at least feign listening to the speaker. Likewise, there’s no such thing as a free book. Either you buy it yourself or if a friend gives it to you, you have a moral obligation to read it, which was the case recently when Peter Foster, my longtime stable-mate on the Financial Post’s FP Comment page, presented me with a copy of his latest book. Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism, his ninth book, is published by Pleasaunce Press and available, as you might expect, at, among other places.

The gift was especially kind of him as he’d already just done me the favour of sitting through a Fraser Institute lunch talk I delivered recently in Toronto about my own new book, which to avoid the infamous double-plug, I won’t actually name (though it’s available via the same universal vendor).

Moral obligation is never the best motive for reading a book. So I’m both happy and relieved to report that, only a few pages into Why We Bite the Invisible Hand, obligation receded and the force of the narrative, which proceeds in Peter’s lively, fact-rich, often funny prose, took independent hold. Obligation receded so far in fact that I neglected my weekend chores in favour of the book.

Peter addresses probably the biggest but least-noticed conundrum of our age. There are billions more of us humans than there used to be and most of us are living far better than our species has ever lived. This is a new development and it coincides with the advent of a new social system: free-market capitalism. You’d think people would be at least mildly appreciative for the historically unprecedented well-being this system has given them (or, strictly, they have given themselves by making use of it). But they aren’t. More often they bite the system that feeds them so spectacularly. Who in Canada ever says anything nice about free markets? Republicans in the United States do—albeit somewhat disingenuously, since many propose subsidies and rules that would reduce capitalist competition—but everywhere else in the world, Republicans are grist for sarcasm, satire and caricature.

So why is it that we bite the invisible hand?

Peter explores this question via both literal and literary trips to different places in the world and to different authors—many different authors—who have written on this and corollary questions. At the heart of the book are his visits to Marx’s gravesite in London’s Highgate Cemetery and to Adam Smith’s in Canongate Kirkyard in Edinburgh. A deep irony is that although you have to pay (£4) to visit Marx’ grave, which is very well-tended as a result, a bolshy Scottish local council has let Smith’s memorial fall into disrepair. Some council folk Peter interviews express (ahem) grave reservations about Smith’s economics, which they associate with the Great Sataness Margaret Thatcher.

When I made my own pilgrimage to the kirkyard in the 1980s, the display was so underwhelming I couldn’t actually find the Smith site. Marx’ site, by contrast, attracted a steady stream of visitors. Or so it seemed. Perhaps they were actually heading to the gravesite of Herbert Spencer, the Victorian social Darwinist, whose memorial is just across the path. (No, just kidding. They were visiting Marx. If you’d like to make your own solemn visits, this list of great economists’ memorials is indispensable.)

So how come we bite the invisible hand that has fed us so well?

Peter turns to evolutionary psychology for an explanation. By far the longest part of our evolution, excluding those eras when we were just amoebas and blobs, was spent hunting and gathering. Our moral instincts, as you might call them, were formed in that environment “when we lived in small, closely related tribal groups, whose existence revolved around hunting, food gathering, sex, fighting and ‘local politics’.” What kinds of moral decisions do hunter-gatherers face? Things like: who gets what share of a hunted carcass; how gathered berries get divided up; who does which chores. It’s all small-group dynamics, hunter-gatherer communities having generally consisted of 150 or fewer people. Division of labour was not unknown: men and women very likely specialized in different tasks. But the scope for exchange was limited. And though life was unbelievably difficult, it wasn’t fantastically complex. And much of it, unlike modern markets, was zero-sum.

But now most of us do live in fantastically complex societies. Smith described in the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations how, to provide a common labourer with a simple woolen coat, the number of people who must be involved, even in the 1770s, when he was writing, “exceeds all computation.” Leonard Reed, in his 1958 classic, “I, Pencil,” did the same with respect to the production of that mundane writing instrument (though the example is becoming less effective with the years as new generations lose familiarity with lead-based character-replicators).

As an intellectual matter, many of us do understand how the most basic and important elements of our historically advanced existence depend on the contributions of literally millions of anonymous co-operators—how what sometimes looks like anarchy works wonderfully well. Even so, we continue to react to many economic dilemmas as if we were still back on the Serengeti trekking after game.

While wending its way along this main thoroughfare, Peter’s book offers dozens of interesting detours and side trips. Fans of the Fraser Institute will find it provides truckfuls of very enjoyable “confirmation bias,” as it’s called by behavioural economists (who get a skeptical chapter of their own from Peter, titled “Homer Economicus,” after, you guessed it, Homer Simpson).  


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