The Worldly Philosophers

In The Worldly Philosophers, Robert Heilbroner writes that “until a very few centuries ago, men were not at all sure that the market system was not to be viewed with suspicion, distaste, and distrust. The world had gotten along for centuries in the comfortable rut of tradition and command” (19), with “tradition and command” being the only two alternatives Heilbroner here seems to see to the market. As much as I admire Heilbroner’s consistent brilliance, insight, and eloquence (The Worldly Philosophers, like all of his writing, is a joy to read, stylistically speaking), I think this oversimplifies matters: as J. K. Gibson-Graham has detailed repeatedly, there is an abundance of economic activity in every society that is not market-based, and that does not depend on “tradition and command”, with blind altruism being only one example. Of course, some will say that my contention depends on definitions of altruism and tradition, and I’ll respond that we can quibble over the definition of “economic”, as well.

Heilbroner’s perspective here is historical, and useful. He suggests that “the idea of gain is a relatively modern one; we are schooled to believe that man is essentially an acquisitive creature and that left to himself he will behave as any self-respecting businessman would” (22). This is not the case: “The profit motive as we know it is only as old as ‘modern man.’ Even today the notion of gain for gain’s sake is foreign to a large portion of the world’s population, and it has been conspicuous by its absence over most of recorded history” (22). I might suggest that republican and imperial Rome stand as prominent counterexamples to Heilbroner’s argument — recall Cicero’s speeches mocking the fish-ponds of the wealthy, his attacks on Verres, and his own acquisitiveness — but I imagine it’s also relatively obvious that I really want to agree with Heilbroner. The profit motive is not absolute or universal, but merely contingent, a learned behavior, and one that might be unlearned.

A while back, I was reading something Torill had written, and was startled to see her declare that poverty really wasn’t a problem in Norway. (By the way: if I’m not mistaken, yesterday was Torill’s birthday, and I’m a little chagrined to have let it slide by. Happy belated birthday, Torill.) “That can’t be true,” I told myself. “Poverty is everywhere. Misery and wretchedness are universal. You have the poor always with you.” As it happens, though, Torill’s right, and I should not have doubted her: according to U.S. government publications, none of the population of Norway is below the poverty line, Norway has the highest standard of living in the world, and Norway has an incredibly low Gini index of 27 for the inequality of the distribution of income. Furthermore, fully 100% of the Norwegian population is literate, and they have a per capita GDP of $33,000.

Compare this to the United States, which “has the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world”. While the US has a per capita GDP of $37,600, the population lags behind Norway in literacy — 97% — and, more alarmingly, the Gini index for the inequality of distribution of income is 40.8. (Basically, the Gini index is a scale from 0 to 100, with 0 as incomes being completely equal, and 100 as incomes being completely unequal.) Finally and worst, 12.7% of the US population is below the poverty line. Twelve point seven percent, in the most prosperous nation in the world. In other words: although the US has a significantly larger per capita GDP than Norway — in other words, per citizen, people in the United States make more money — the US also has a much, much larger proportion of people living in poverty.

Perhaps the profit motive is what’s given the US “the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world”. And in my dissertation, I’m working on an understanding of how technology fits into considerations of economy and literacy. But the profit motive is also what drives inequality.

It’s enough to make me want to move to Norway. Unfortunately, to hear Torill tell it, the universities there don’t have much use for academics who study first-year writing instruction in English.

Damn.

One thought on “The Worldly Philosophers

  1. Curtiss Leung

    Maybe it’s not that Heilbroner is wrong, but that he overstates the case. On the pile of books that I’ll likely never finish is Fernand Braudel’s The Wheels of Commerce (along with the other two volumes in that series) Of what I did manage to get through, I remember being struck by the degree to which profit-making was circumscribed or forbidden in the historical markets he described.

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