When contemplating a cartoon explaining the political and economic philosophies of Adam Smith, the 18th Century Scottish scholar, one has to decide whether the cartoon or comic is intended to satirize Smith’s notion of an “invisible hand” guiding the conduct of relations between and among nations in light of the massive reputational hit capitalism suffered following the 2008 banking crisis and subsequent major increase in government intervention in the marketplace. Or, alternatively, the comic or cartoon could simply and accurately depict Smith’s views without any attempt at social commentary.
Adam Smith believed very fervently that, while all countries acted in their self-interest, their common exchange of goods would ultimately prove mutually beneficial. His seminal treatise, The Wealth of Nations, remains a veritable bible for free-market, free-trade advocates. His enthusiasm for capitalist economic principles, however, was not insulated from the realities that oft-times accompanied capitalism in practice. In particular, he was deeply concerned about glaring disparities between economic classes that would emerge if oligarchies were allowed to emerge or there were no efforts at income distribution designed to minimize those disparities. The following quotes from The Wealth of Nations illuminate this concern:
“Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”
“Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.”
These concerns aside, Smith also believed that the wisdom of man would compensate for the weaknesses of unfettered capitalism. In fact, the passage for which he is best known –
“[The wealthy] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity . . . they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal proportions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society . . .”
– lends itself to considerable exploitation, if that is the intent.
As noted, Smith remains to this day a philosophical inspiration to many free market capitalists. Given the serious constraints on complex issues inherent in the cartoon format – assuming, of course, that restrictions on length are in place and the graphic novel format is not an option – a premium has to be placed on brevity. Explaining his philosophies in the cartoon format is a challenge, but his having given the benefit of the doubt to the better nature of man is worth depicting in graphic form.