Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Euvoluntary Self-Actualization

The classic Isaac Watts poem about the virtues of diligence and prudence should resonate well with euvoluntary exchangers.
How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
Observe the pointed absence of avarice. The bee labors not to pad a bloated bank account or to afford a new Ferrari, but rather for the satisfaction of the job itself (ignore the error; bees gather nectar, not honey). Or so we might be led to conclude. The poet makes no mention of profit or opportunity in the opening stanza, no hint of self-serving gain. The bee toils and in her toil, improves each shining hour. This could be lifted straight from Smith: It is not from the benevolence of the tulip, the honeysuckle, or the violet that she expects her honey, but from their regard to their own interest. The trade between the flower and the bee is euvoluntary, and moreover, generates massive spillover benefits. This bit of the parable is particularly easy to overlook, given as one might be to forget that the riches in a free, open society benefit everyone.
How skilfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.
Even after studying economics for as long as I have, I confess I still don't quite grasp the logic behind the so-called paradox of thrift. I've an old gripe about "teaching to the test", which is what happens when an analyst elevates a metric to a goal. GDP is an instrument used to gauge the vitality of an economy that is composed of people in the ordinary business of living. The economy serves the people. GDP targeting reverses this notion, perverts it, lashing individuals to the pillory of an accounting fiction. Miss Bee (a eusocial insect, I might point out) saves for her colony, alert to the specific knowledge she has of her particular time and space. She is a Hayekian bee.
 In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.
I wonder if anyone else besides me saw that 1999 Seth Green movie. Anyway, this is an interesting sentiment. There's a lot to parse in the "idle hands" narrative. Is idleness a vice because it breeds dissatisfaction and a penchant for vandalism? Does it sap the social benefits of production? Is there a proto-Randian anti-looter mentality buried in there? Is a moocher is a moocher whether she's supping at the trough of her family or by the generosity of the taxpayer? I don't want to take this too far out of its context, but I think there's a sort of general lingering contempt against people who are genuinely capable of working but who voluntarily elect to take public funds and sit on the couch all day surrounded by a cloud of Cheeto dust, watching talk shows in fluffy bunny slippers. There's probably something in there to offend every moral axis: dishonesty is universally reviled.
In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.
Here's where it's really interesting. Here, we drop the parable and go straight for Maslow. Production for the sake of spiritual elevation, participation in the market to the end of a sweet and tender bourgeois satisfaction is truly a remarkable thing to find in a piece of poetry. It rejects the notions of what Deirdre McCloskey calls the "clerisy", those intellectual elite hidebound in their disdain for the common virtues of entrepreneurship. The very notion that work can elevate the soul? Heaven forfend! Of course, that might be a bit of a strawman. I think it's reasonable to assert that even an ink-stained ivory tower professor or a towncar Manhattan socialite can agree that there's a spiritual satisfaction in the adroit performance of a challenging task. It might be that they think the "trade" part of production and trade is sordid after a fashion, but I think almost everyone can appreciate the laudable pride earned by a task well and truly mastered. I just happen by the light of my own working-man experience to subscribe to the proposition that this pride is more ubiquitous than the clerisy may be willing to admit.

At any rate, contrast the Watts poem with Carroll's rejoinder from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
Watts celebrates the virtues of bourgeois production, Dodgson lampoons the craven avarice wrought by the collusion of the second and third estates. It's another Smithian argument, this one on the propensity of guildsmen to seek ye rents while ye may.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?