The four word chronicles

The causes of wealth are two: work, and thrift. The causes of poverty are two: idleness, and waste. Four words to the wise. This Scottish philosophy, with supplementary details such as the division of labour and open competition, is correctly attributed to Adam Smith. It was controversial in his own day (all my favourite Tories satirized it), and remains controversial to this, not because it doesn’t work, but because it is amoral. If wealth, however, is to be accepted as the ultimate good, it becomes morally charged, or “weaponized” for moralizing. An equal and opposite force is then summoned, from the partisans of “equality,” and our ideological wars ensue.

Let me drop no hint to the identity of an auld acquaintance, who by the world’s measure is quite rich, and by my own, fabulously so. His wife is given to candour, however, and once mentioned that he is not worth a cent. She loves him dearly, but explained, that what lies behind his reputation as a captain of industry, and her own spectacular domestic arrangements, is a great heap of debt. She, who is spiritually if not racially Scotch, lives in the expectation that some day the bankers will call it all in.

Add another wee dram (the eighth part of a fluid ounce), and she may add that it would be a good thing.

Doctor Johnson, a man of much sense and little nonsense (and that little mostly joyful) loved to correct people who had confused the concepts of “wealth” and “money.” The distinction can be over-complicated or over-simplified by the observation that there are some cash rich and land poor, others land rich and cash poor, and others still with both or neither. But by their confusion Lord Keynes, in our world a century ago, exhaled an acrid fog of plausible assertions, which fail whenever they are put into practice. That other man of four words, Samuel Johnson, would have confuted him, thus: “Money is not wealth.”

To the older economists, perhaps money was more valuable. This is because it was denominated in weights of silver and gold, and the miser had more options than him tied down to properties, and all the bother that goes with. But in itself this cash was only glister, until put to use. You can’t take it with you, of course, but then, you can’t take anything into that dark night.

There is a fly in the ointment of the Glasgow professor, which I will put in four words: poverty is a blessing. This has naught to do with how it’s brought about.

I could tolerate socialism if its advocates were honest, and said that their purpose was to make us poor, by restricting our freedom, in order to enhance their own power. As things stand, I think they are very devils, and that their efforts to pose as anything but socialists are the devil’s work. But good often comes of evil, and the impoverished and yet ordered decay of a Rangoon or an Havana is something pretty to see. Well, I have yet to walk Havana, but the photographs are attractive.

The challenge, to my mind, is how to achieve poverty, without any help from the socialists. And I think, once again, Adam Smith points the way. It is that the great majority of our fellows are, by disposition, neither industrious nor frugal. Left to their own devices, they will live in blackhouses and crofts. But they don’t want to die, so will plant their potatoes. Perhaps it should be the purpose of our political economy to let them do this, and find their happiness in music and dance. (And single-malt whiskies, which came before the tritely homogenized, blended kinds.)

For the rest, let us simply create obstacles to the accumulation of capital, by the withdrawal of “limited liability,” and the reinstatement of the usury laws.