Specular Economics

Specular Economics October 31, 2018

In various places, Jean-Pierre Dupuy cites Adam Smith’s claim that “speculation” is the essence of economic activity. Dupuy traces economic “speculation” to its etymological source in the Latin speculum, a mirror.

In The Mark of the Sacred, he writes: “In a key passage of his greatest work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith asks what wealth consists in. It is not what assures our material well-being, since a frugal life would provide for this satisfactorily enough. It is everything that is desired by what Smith calls the spectator, the person who observes us and whose regard we seek to attract. Because both the financial and the real economy rest on a specular logic, the supposed ethical opposition between them cannot be taken seriously. If one condemns the first—something one is hardly obliged to do!—there is no reason not to condemn the second. Considering the economy as a whole, Smith himself speaks of ‘the corruption of our moral sentiments.’”

He relates the same argument in Economy and the Future, citing Rousseau’s distinction of two forms of self-love: “Smith regards interests as having been contaminated by destructive passions. . . . To use Rousseau’s terms, one loves oneself through amour propre, not through amour de soi. This means that improvement of our economic circumstances—bettering our condition, in Smith’s phrase—depends on being able to attract the ‘sympathy’ of others: if we desire wealth, it is not for the illusory material satisfactions that it may give; it is because wealth brings us the admiration of others, an admiration fatally tinged by envy. Inevitably, then, the price of public prosperity is the corruption of our moral sentiments” (12).

He concludes, “The moment desire makes its appearance, as Adam Smith well understood, all the bad passions—envy, jealousy, resentment—immediately and inescapably come into play. To suppose otherwise is to ignore what happens in the real world.”

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