Yet man is a funny beast, Adam knew, and in case of a lapse in reason a guiding hand, "The Invisible Hand," existed to override his less intelligent and unjust impulses. He put all of his fine words and moral sentiments down in a book that changed the western world. The Wealth of Nations was birthed in the same year of 1776 that a little rebel nation was born of its empirical British mother. America and Adam Smith's free market capitalism grew up together.
Fairy tales inevitably have happy endings. Due to their simplistic nature, these tales usually close with, "And they lived happily ever after," yet fail to finish the story. Adam Smith's theory of "enlightened self-interest" presupposed an inner morality by its actors. Something many people simply don't possess. His treatise was a tale of an idyllic world where the real story was yet to be written over the next two centuries.
Smith had a deep belief in a supreme intelligence that guided all things human and natural. When human reason failed, God or the Hand would intervene. Free markets according to laissez-faire capitalism's father were dependant on a firm foundation of ethics. Smith wrote, "Markets could not flourish without a strong underlying moral culture, animated by empathy and fellow-feeling, by our ability to understand our common bond as human beings and to recognize the needs of others."
Two centuries after Smith's theory went through bumps and starts, rejections and debate, it was embraced with gusto in another fairytale called, Atlas Shrugged, written by former Hollywood screenwriter Ayn Rand. In Rand's lengthy and outdated sci-fi novel, protagonist John Galt is brutally electrocuted by the rulers of the "collective" hoping he will renounce his staunch belief in individualism over altruism. No matter what painful tortures he endures, he never fails to claim the moral superiority of self-interest.
The 1957 novel stirred up controversy between FDR adherents who believed economies and governments should serve the common good and materialists who believed as Rand did, that "selfishness" was a rational moral code to live by.
"Ayn Rand rejects altruism, the view that self-sacrifice is the moral ideal. She argues that the ultimate moral value, for each human individual, is his or her own well-being."
Defining morality as "fundamental principles of right conduct", Rands' distorted understanding borders on sociopathic. Her complete lack of empathy and social obligation or conscience defies the modern view of "doing well by doing good." So who really cares in the five decades since "Atlas Shrugged" for this clearly antiquated and hollow view? Why should any "enlightened" post-crisis citizen be concerned with an obviously flawed perspective? As remarkable as it may seem, everyone alive in America today is paying the price for this empty morality, simply because it was embodied in the High Priest of the Federal Reserve, Rand friend and student, Alan Greenspan.
In "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal," a collection of rants from Rand and her lovers, Greenspan writes, "It is precisely the "greed' of the businessman, or more appropriately his profit-seeking, which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer. What collectivists refused to understand is that it is in the "self-interest' of every businessman to have a reputation of honest dealings and quality products" that regulates the markets.
Sadly, the two decade Fed Chief did not see the "fundamental flaw" in his model until after the financial system collapsed in the fall of 2008. "I made a mistake," he told a stupefied Congress.
Rand, who personally experienced the Bolshevik Revolution and savage Soviet rule, believed the only way man could survive was to rule over himself. Greenspan bought the concept hook, line, and sinker, and did nothing as the competing self-interests of market moguls collided in a cataclysmic explosion heard round the world. We are still paying for his "mistake" and the unfortunate indoctrination of his belief in "self-interest" as sole market regulator. Too bad for America and the world that Alan Greenspan, with his naïve view of the innate genius of selfishness, was pulling the purse strings in the early 21st century.
How did we get here, free marketers ask? What went so terribly wrong that self-preservation turned into the ugly face of self-destruction?
Leaving God or Divine Providence out of Smith's theory, the treatise does not stand. It becomes the "survival-of-the-fittest anything goes" economic system that we know all too well. Smith's theories were embraced by self-confessed atheists Milton Friedman, Rand, and Greenspan. With the absence of a higher power (the Hand) the theory is flat and requires expertise in behavioral psychology rather than economics.