How Adam Smith And Charles Darwin Were Hijacked

How Adam Smith And Charles Darwin Were Hijacked

By Hazel Henderson
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Hazel Henderson, D.Sc.Hon., FRSA, founder of Ethical Markets Media

Friday, March 6, 2015 - 12:30pm


US Congress Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at aconference at the Brookings Institution lectured her audience of policy wonks. She chided slavish followers of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations(1776) who had never bothered to read his other book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) which covers the rest of his description of human behavior: our altruistic impulses to help each other and our communities.  Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren take note!

How did Adam Smith’s earlier book get deep-sixed while his focus on competitive human behavior in markets became capitalism’s gospel of individual profit-maximizing? Clearly Smith’sWealth of Nations appealed to the animal spirits and ego needs of budding businesses, early swashbuckling stock markets, traders and merchant venturers exploring new lands for resources. Smith’s iconic image of an “invisible hand” convinced these early capitalists that their self-interest and gains also benefited society. Politicians and newspapers fell under this powerful imagery, since it seemed consistent with the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton and his clockwork universe. Capital accumulation and great wealth became the sign of moral virtue as Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930).  Francis Bacon, Newton and other scientists laid the groundwork for the triumph of Rene Descartes’ individualism and instrumental rationality. Materialism, reductionism and technological determinism won the day, as I explored inThe Politics of the Solar Age (1981, 1988).

Fast forward to today’s testosterone-fueled traders, confirmed in cheek swabs by John Coates inThe Hour Between Dog and Wolf (2012) and by Wall Street’s “market –makers” who thus justify their bets against their own clients. Seemingly, markets based on individual competitive accumulation now impose their logic over even the most democratically elected governments.  Since 2008’s financial crises, logic ascribed to Adam Smith won out over social concerns in the imposition of austerity in Greece and other European countries.

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Hazel Henderson, D.Sc.Hon., FRSA, founder of Ethical Markets Media, is a futurist, evolutionary economist and author of award-winning Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy. She leads the Transforming Finance initiative, created the Green Transition Scoreboard®, tracking global private sector investment in green tech, and developed with Calvert Group the widely used alternative to GNP, the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators. In 2010 she was honored as one of the “Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior 2010” by Trust Across America.