The UK government's Taylor Review on Modern Working Practices identified six indicators of quality work which may be interpreted thusly for discerning readers:
One striking thing about these indicators is how personal and individualised they are. This is not a problem if you are simply setting out to be the author of your own life, because it's pretty easy to resolve some of these things for yourself. For example, if wage satisfaction is determined by whether we feel that we earn a similar amount to our neighbours, you can fix that by choosing the right neighbourhood.
But this diversity of individual expectations becomes a huge problem if you're trying to legislate to cover all these points comprehensively.
If you're a legislator, how do you fashion an identikit set of rules that will make everyone better off without needlessly hurting anybody's interests? How would you know what type of 'quality work' will appeal to everyone?
The implication there is that for any given gig, students earning fun-money will account for those expressing work satisfaction, while grown-ups who need the money for serious purposes will account for those who report feelings of exploitation due to poor work quality.
This explains why firms like Uber and Amazon, constantly in the news on charges of worker exploitation, have workers who report being perfectly happy. Obviously, if 100% of the workers were unhappy it would be quite easy to just shut down the firm and solve the exploitation problem that way. But you can't easily justify shutting down a firm that has 20% unhappy workers and 80% who are happy. With that split, how should we evaluate whether these firms offer quality work?
Once again, at the individual level you can resolve the problem of poor quality work by quitting and moving on to happier climes. Leaving your job without suffering the old penalties of being flogged, imprisoned or strung up has been possible for over a hundred years now, following the abolition of slavery and indentured servitude. This is a situation known in the jargon as 'individual liberty'.
But liberty doesn't lend itself to legislative solutions. For the legislator, the meaning of quality work remains elusive, because human beings stubbornly resist conformity and uniformity of their goals and desires.
When ideas become established as 'orthodox', that is ideas that almost everyone agrees with, two things follow:
Now, we live in an age where it is accepted that being selfish is very very bad. Everyone should care about other people in society. You should put your neighbour's interests before your own. You should love your neighbour enough to lay down your life for them.
What then should we do about Adam Smith's ideas about self-interest? It's not really possible to argue that he was just thick, so that leaves option two as the only avenue to get rid of the embarrassing nexus between self-interest and selfishness. This is why a huge amount of effort is expended by admirers of Adam Smith's philosophy in trying to explain that actually, he wasn't at all a selfish man and did not spend his entire life trying to persuade other people to be as selfish as possible.
Perhaps this effort is worthwhile, given that the 'invisible hand' metaphor has acquired a life greater than that of its author, and like all cliches it is open to misinterpretation. Presumably, without all the modern caveats about Mr Smith not being a selfish man, people would assume that the whole point of his 'invisible hand' idea is to say 'each man for himself and devil take the hindmost'. Throw the poor and hungry into the open market with no safeguards, and let them eat cake. In other words, it will be assumed that Smith's main lesson in the Wealth of Nations is: be as selfish as possible, look out for your own interests, and stab your neighbour in the back if it helps you to advance yourself.
That would admittedly be a rather nasty way to see the world, and so it is understandable that Mr Smith's admirers are so anxious to explain that really, this is not what the Wealth of Nations is about. Smith was actually quite a smart man, we are told, and a philosopher rather than a philistine. Moreover, it's not as if he was a New Yorker or from some other big city where it's ok to have a grasping personality; he was from Kirkcaldy. This proves that he must have been actually a very humane and likeable sort of person, quite humble, and not at all given to encouraging people to be vicious to one another. And so on it goes.
In writing about Adam Smith today it is therefore customary to begin by saying how personable and indeed admirable he was:
The only problem with the 'Mr Smith was actually a really nice man' modern expositions is that it falls right in with the modern phenomenon known as 'virtue signalling'. This entails making public statements about concern for the wellbeing of others, and loudly voicing noble and worthy sentiments, as a proxy for one's political views. So people who want to champion various social causes are very pleased to hear how nice Adam Smith was, because obviously this means he would have supported their social causes. This is why we are now informed that actually, Adam Smith was a Rawlsian, a progressive and indeed a Marxist.
There's a certain logic to this perspective: if that much energy is expended explaining that Smith wasn't selfish, he cared about the poor, he hated inequality, etc, then yes, he does begin to sound exactly like a Social Justice Warrior:
From this you can reassure yourself that Smith wasn't one of those neoliberals who oppose regulation just because they value freedom - it seems that Smith would be very happy to have more and more regulation, even if it ultimately strangled the market, as long as that regulation was intended to help the poor and was not intended to favour rich conglomerates [editor: with regulation, it's the intentions, not the outcomes, that matter most]. Wow, this is not what you thought the Wealth of Nations was about, is it. Luckily, it has been reinterpreted for you to make Smith's ideas more in keeping with modern tastes. In the modern era, nobody actually reads books, we just read summaries about them off the internet. So this kind of reinterpretation is surprisingly significant.
Thus, to the disappointment of those who would like to see Smithian economics more widely understood, free market principles are now increasingly buried in the homilies about how nice Adam Smith really was and how he didn't really support free markets even though it sounded like he did and he didn't really promote self-interest even though he wrote an entire book about the role self-interest in economics.
The Wealth of Nations, we are assured, is really a study on how wealth can be redistributed so that it's equal and fair for everyone. The point about redistribution through the market is completely lost in the fulsome joy of discovering that Adam Smith favoured wealth redistribution, just like any self-respecting Marxist. After all, if he favoured redistribution of wealth then surely he'd be happy that we finally figured out a whole raft of tax laws and other punitive measures designed to redistribute the wealth quite nicely? He surely wouldn't be too bothered about the methods involved, as long as the poor were intended to end up on top. In that way his ideas have been interpreted to give a meaning exactly opposite from what he wrote.
It's easy to see why Ayn Rand was keen to avoid that fate. She dealt decisively with the risk of being accused of selfishness by writing a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. Of course, she had to begin by defining selfishness, and it could be said that what she described as 'selfishness' is nothing more than Smith's notion of self-interest.
We all want to be concerned with our own interests. After all, you can't follow the biblical edict to love your neighbour as you love yourself, if you don't bother loving yourself in the first place.
So the notion of self-interest is not really controversial. It all depends on what you're being self-interested about, and what outcomes your self-interest leads to. Self-interest in working hard to improve your material conditions, yes. Self-interest in stabbing your neighbour so you can steal his stuff and thereby improve your material conditions, no.
If benevolence is close to being an unqualified good in the general perception, then selfishness is close to being an unqualified evil in the sense that most people would not like to be thought of as selfish. So, for the avoidance of doubt, why didn't Ayn Rand just call her book 'The Virtue of Self-Interest'? She would have had less chance of problems that way, specifically less chance of being accused of being an evil witch.
From witnessing the fate that befell Mr Smith - nobody is thinking about his ideas, they are just debating whether he was for or against selfishness - you can see that if Ms Rand had spoken of self-interest she would have had to spend the rest of her life explaining how self-interest is not really the same thing as selfishness, in order to mollify those who are deathly afraid of being found to have traces of selfishness within their virtuous souls.
So by using the word 'selfishness' she achieved a situation where you can either read her work or not, but either way you wouldn't waste your time accusing her of promoting selfishness because she obviously didn't care if people called her selfish. Ooooh, brave lady.
Since she already grabbed that old 'selfishness' bull by the horns, the only thing left to do is read what she said about why being rational is better than being irrational. So you won't find anybody trying to argue that really she was a closet progressive and a rather nice lady when you get to understand her better and not selfish at all. She shifted the debate away from whether she's a nice lady or not, to a debate about the meaning of rationality. Love her or loathe her, but is what she said true? That should be the question.
It seems therefore that arguing about the selfishness of Adam Smith is nothing more than an entertaining modern past-time, in an age when we are more obsessed with classifying people into ideological and political boxes than with the pursuit of truth.
But the only way to know what the Wealth of Nations is trying to say is to...well, read the Wealth of Nations. And remember that truth is what it is, regardless of whether it fits in nicely with what the majority of sheeple profess.
The platform economy is built upon new forms of work relationships created through apps and online platforms. This economy has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for those who were excluded from traditional labour markets. The internet is truly the great equalizer.
Adam Smith, being a classical liberal, had a theory of justice that seems sketchy and anaemic to modern eyes. It is often described as 'thin' because it included only three rules of justice that must be guaranteed by law:
“What about inequality and social justice?!” the people cry. In this age of Affluence and Consumerism, surely any theory of justice must ensure that we all have an equal amount of stuff and equal access to all the good things in life, so that it’s fair?
These days it seems that most people align themselves with either the political left or the political right. This rigid and simplistic dichotomy creates a lot of confusion as people try to dig up all the philosophers from ages past with the aim of classifying them as either left or right within the modern political lexicon. Hence the epic battle for Adam Smith’s legacy. If Adam Smith still walked the earth, would he be a left-leaning liberal or a right-leaning liberal?
Measuring executive pay ratios is an enormous waste of time and effort, especially when you consider that we could, instead, decide to measure something much more enlightening such as corporate productivity. Then at least our metrics would give us something to celebrate. Instead, the equality industry expends a huge amount of energy measuring the multiple by which CEOs earn more than the average worker so that they can regale us with shocking reports about how much other people earn.
There are two kinds of equality – formal equality and substantive equality. The idea that all men are born equal expresses formal equality, and everybody agrees with that. No problems there. But the idea that everybody should have the same amount of wealth expresses substantive equality, and not everybody agrees with that. Why should people be equal in relation to the amount of stuff they have? Why is it unfair for someone else to have more stuff than you?
Basic human liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom to acquire and hold private property are more important than economic prosperity in an abstract sense.
Early last year one of my academic colleagues emailed me with an update about conditions in the UK today being worse than the Black Death which killed up to 60% of Europe’s population. Because inequality. This was in the aftermath of news headlines announcing the advent of tough times ahead: ‘UK workers set for worst pay growth decade since the Napoleonic Wars.’
One of the most interesting features of the inequality debates is that one side puts forward rational arguments while the other side puts forward emotional arguments. Saying that you already have a lot of stuff but you feel bad that someone else has much more stuff than you is an emotional argument, and it cannot be met with rational replies. Appeals to ‘fairness’ in this context are just a way of expressing feelings (feeling very angry about all the unfairness) – if people feel that something is unfair there is no rational argument on earth that will make them stop feeling that it’s unfair.
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