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Smith Needs To Brush Up on Wealth of Nations

Letters to the Editors

By Joshua Haas

To the editors:

In his comment “Self-Righteous Liberals at 19” (Oct. 14), Luke Smith ’04 defends future CEOs by ridiculing liberal students who “choose [self-interest] as a target for their indignation,” especially “considering Adam Smith’s philosophy in the Wealth of Nations—that self-interest best serves society.”

So, let’s consider it. Adam Smith based this claim on the logic that if everyone strives to better themselves, competition will insure that quality rises to the top. Smith recognized, however, that for the best to win out, everyone needs to start on an equal playing field; he lectured that “there is no point more difficult to account for than the right we conceive men to have to dispose of their goods after death.” In other words, Smith would have nations abolish inheritance in order to ensure that everyone, regardless of the wealth of their parents, starts at an equal level, a detail conveniently overlooked by many of the conservatives who dogmatically cite Smith’s conclusions.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where inheritance does exist and where wealth equals power. Competition only produces quality when everyone plays with the same hand of cards, but, ironically, the very self-interest that drives competition encourages the wealthy to stack the deck—and in American society, they have the power to do it. We would need truly radical social change before Smith’s analysis could be applied meaningfully to the real world.

Joshua Haas ’07

Oct. 14, 2003

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