Tuesday, 5 May 2015

A nation of shopkeepers?

A reasonable concern about an economic system like capitalism that relies on a large number of (small) enterprises, is that it might degenerate into a society of small-minded people. To paraphrase the disdainful reference of Napoleon and French aristocracy to British merchants – the risk of becoming a nation of shopkeepers.

It is a fact that most of the infrastructure and cultural heritage of humankind was not decided on economic grounds, whether we think about the Pyramids or Mona Lisa. Indeed, some of the major feats of humanity require a level of capital accumulation that is not accessible to individual capitalists and have therefore been often promoted by political or military rulers and religious leaders regardless of any economic calculation.

In fact, Adam Smith had already tackled this question in relation to the British Empire, when he said that: “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight, appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

Indeed, it is possible that during their short existence, capitalists have already procured more palaces and works of art than the nobility that preceded them. To some they may seem less refined or nouveau rich but, given the nobility’s preference for horses and jewelry, capitalists certainly pushed the human heritage well beyond past forms of wealth accumulation.

The question of whether capitalism promotes conspicuous consumption at the expense of the poor and the arts is not specific to capitalism. Conspicuous consumption is a characteristic of all wealthy classes and new riches, whether obtained through inheritance, lottery or business.

On this matter, one relevant issue is to decide whether corporations should be patrons of the arts and similar aggrandizement or philanthropic endeavors, or if such role and its consequences should be left exclusively to their shareholders.

This decision is often influenced by the tax system which may favor one of the options. Likewise, supporters of managerial capitalism may advocate that company directors are more profligate with donations to the higher arts than individual shareholders would be.

Nevertheless, it is questionable whether governments and directors should impose their own preferences on shareholders. Indeed the shareholders tastes may be very diversified.

For instance, small shareholders are more likely to sponsor local sport teams and artists while the wealthy and corporate directors will sponsor national events and the higher arts. Likewise, the wealthy may be more conspicuous or social minded. For example, Bill Gates has chosen to spend his fortune to fight diseases while one of his co-founders of Microsoft has chosen to spend his money on a super-yacht. These are personal choices and have nothing to do with capitalism.

The role of capitalism is to produce wealth, and the more it produces, the greater the wealth at the disposal of governments, capitalists and foundations to procure the items that will constitute the heritage of future generations.

In this regard, a system of dispersed small enterprises typical of market capitalism is the most efficient to create wealth. So, after all, we may paraphrase Adam Smith and conclude that “a higher aim may be altogether unfit for a nation of small businesses; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by small business.”

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