Win-win economic competition makes sense when we think about it now, but it is revolutionary.
In Great Books of the Western World, a collection of fiction and nonfiction writing compiled by the University of Chicago in 1952, only two of the 102 writers whose works are selected as “great” address what the editors describe as “the means to wealth”—how individuals and societies increase their wealth: Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) and Karl Marx’s Capital, published in 1848.
From the classic Greeks and Romans through more than 2,000 years of philosophers, poets, historians and others who comment on what seems like every aspect of human life, no one else conceived of anything even remotely resembling the economic growth virtually all societies now accept as a primary and essential goal.
Marx focused on individual well-being as opposed to overall societal wealth, while his colleague and frequent collaborator Friedrich Engels emphasized what we now call economic growth; Engels also anticipated the process through which technology would generate new needs (much more on this soon).
Events in the past century have discredited the writings of Marx and actions based upon them, leaving Adam Smith alone as the thinker who attempts to describe a world in which the growing wealth of one person does not mean another becomes poorer.
In a separate volume, the Great Books editors identify and analyze more than 1,100 basic ideas found in the volumes they publish. Describing “wealth,” they say that the great authors focus on:
…wealth as a factor in the lives of men [people] and societies. They scrutinize the desire for wealth or the love of money in relation to sin or virtue. They raise questions of justice concerning the distribution of wealth, the rights of property, and fairness in exchange — in buying and selling, borrowing and lending, and in compensating the laborer. They describe the effect of poverty and prosperity or opulence on states, and prescribe the attitude that individual men as well as societies should take toward wealth and poverty.
Plutus, the Roman god of wealth, for example, bestows his graces on a select, and usually isolated few; hence, the word “plutocrat.” And “El Dorado,” a concept from the 16th century, is a place in which massive wealth can be instantly acquired—again, as in all myths about quests—by a select, elite few.
These writings certainly laud the desirability of wealth. As the Book of Job begins, for example, he has “seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels and five hundred yoke of oxen and give hundred she-asses and a very large number of slaves;” and then, after enduring tribulations and keeping faith in God, he is rewarded by, among other things, having his possessions doubled.
But nothing in the Great Books seems to describe a society in which overall wealth increases. To the contrary, the books express concern about too much wealth. For example, Plato’s The Republic, written at about 360 BCE, says producing too much wealth results in a “luxurious State” which destroys itself:
… a State at fever heat… many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries… Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want… and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured…
Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music—poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also makers of divers kinds of articles, including women’s dresses.
And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now.
The ultimate and inevitable result, Plato says, is war, unhappiness and destruction for the city whose only “sin” was to increase its overall wealth.