Adam Smith’s writings on the decline of feudal-property relations in Britain shows an outstanding grasp of history and a deft hand at work, explaining the complex inter-actions between the ruling feudal lords and the newer, lower-order trading merchants. Smith confined his remarks to silver buckle buying by some of the Lords (he lived in a man’s world), but we can be sure that much of the trinkets, brooches, rings, rare perfumes, silks and such like were destined for the Lords’ women.
Smith’s point was that the merchant traders brought luxury goods for the Lords to buy, they were increasingly tempted dispose of the main sources of their political power – they’re armed retainers – which troubled the leading Lord, the King, and those would be Kings who eyed their throne, and oppressed the landed workers (hardly, incidentally, a ‘petty tyranny’; it served ‘petty’ ends, no doubt, but was brutal to its victims).
This was a long process, but the end result was an enfeebled aristocracy and a more vibrant merchant core, able to extract concessions from the king in parliament which gave them, eventually, an effective veto over the sovereign’s spending. These Liberties constituted the constitutional monarchy that was 18th-century Britain.
Markets only continue what the consequences of the origination of property did way back in pre-history: create wealth and, inevitably, inequality. The great agricultural societies, growing from a long history of hunter-gatherer subsistence economies from 11,000 years ago in a small segment of the earth’s surface, were noticeable by their inequality, which extended way beyond economic inequality to political and religious inequality.
The great empires of Egypt, Babylon, India and China, were dominated by ruling elites that managed the hydraulic mysteries and seasonal timing of everything about everyday life for the vast majority of their peoples. Their stone detritus of these former stone-built civilisations are spread across the Eurasian continents, north Africa, and in parts of central and south America.
Their predecessor stone-age detritus is spread all round the world, into modern times too, which was the fate of every human society that did not grow into shepherding and farming. Those, few, modern, aimlessly discontented, people who have notions of going back to what they call, the ‘simpler’ life of pre-history have no idea what that would involve, including the mass extermination of about 6 billion people.
For tens of millennia, the inequality of the world’s population remained constant, with a small elite monopolising the power, and almost everybody else living on subsistence and almost static per capita levels. That is until, again in parts of Europe, the 16th century as commercial society began, slowly, to revive after the thousand years of stagnation, Black Death, endless wars, and social strife, to where it roughly was at the fall of the Western Roman empire.
And within three centuries, in Britain, economics, technological and social change, the unprecedented steady, albeit minute rise in per capita incomes finally broke through the Malthusian Trap, ironically almost coterminous with its identification by Thomas Malthus.
These events created social inequalities of a new kind – that between societies that developed institutions capable of ensuring the necessary conditions for continuous, though small growth rates, and those societies – the majority – not capable for various reasons of breaking out of their subsistence economies. The unequal poor in the commercial societies were incomparably better off than those in the unequal traditional societies.
It is that comparative inequality that is the distinction brought about by the social evolution of early commercial societies into what became known as capitalism from the mid-19th century. It is a phenomenon that the Left do not acknowledge and the conservatives do not yet accept. There is nothing ordained about the existing arrangements of Big State capitalism or Big Welfare States that will ensure their continuation in their present forms.
The task of the philosopher, said Adam Smith, is to observe and seek to understand; it is not to do anything to intervene with panaceas and social engineering. Philosophers must be wary of becoming 'men (and women) of system' (TMS VI.II.2.17-18: 233-4)