Some thoughts on Adam Smith — April 19, 2013

Some thoughts on Adam Smith

My memory of [book: The Major Transitions in Evolution] is a little hazy, but I believe the thesis is that there have been several important jumps in the history of life on earth, wherein life took a jump from a simpler form to a complex form in such a way that a movement back to the simpler form was impossible. (Synopsis on the wiki.) I seem to recall, for instance, a story going like this: a single-celled organism one day became parasitic on another, until they fused into a multicellular organism, and from that day forward the two organisms could only function in the presence of the other. Each of these transitions, as I recall the story going, involved a new mode of information transmission, which made the transition stick. (This synopsis is likely wrong. My knowledge of biology is even weaker than my knowledge of, well, everything else. “Symbiosis” is the keyword here; it’s associated with the late Lynn Margulis.)

I wonder whether complex market economies are a new transition, in the sense that we have simply ceased being able to function without a division of labor. None of us in Western capitalist democracies could even consider living as economic hermits, tending our solitary farms or whatnot, because all the components necessary to *even start* that farm presuppose so much from the society around us: a government to maintain the roads that bring our products to market; a state with a monopoly on violence so that we don’t need to pay off the Mafia every time we want to *get on* those roads; industrial corporations to manufacture the steel tools that we use to plow the land; miners to dig up the iron that the corporations convert into steel; other corporations to build the pickaxes that even primitive miners would use to extract the iron ore from the ground; and so forth.

All of which is just to say: Boston is shut down right now, and I’m out of food, and the restaurants are closed, and I’d really like to eat dinner. Thanks.