Archives for posts with tag: Adam Smith

Basically, Adam Smith and Ayn Rand had the same thing in their minds.

How society works and how individuals meet their needs in a social context.

And both of them had reached the same solution.
That capitalism was good.

Unfortunately – for Ayn Rand’s fans, any similitude between them stops here.

Adam Smith had described a reality.
Something which had evolved, naturally, in the cultural milieu to which he had happened to belong.

Ayn Rand was trying to push a social model.

The fact that what Rand was trying to push was very close to what Smith had described is, indeed, important.
But the difference between something which had evolved naturally and the very same something which had been imposed, by force, is also important.

Let me give you an example.

Christianity.
Much of what we have today – from ‘human rights’ to the very concept of ‘science’, has it’s roots down in the principles exposed in the Bible.
South America is, now, a Christian territory. Populated by people who had immigrated as Christians and by people – just as Christian as the first category, who had been born to parents having other beliefs. Parents who had been forcefully ‘conversed’ to Christianity.

It’s easy to notice that people in South America don’t fare as well as those in Europe, North America or Australia.
Why? They are Christians, South America uses the same capitalism and the same democracy as the rest of the ‘civilized’ world… why are the results so different?

Don’t bring ethnicity into discussion!
The explanation is simple and has nothing to do with ethnicity.

While in Europe, North America and Australia Christianity and capitalism had evolved naturally – in the sense that they had occurred in Europe and had been translated by the European immigrants to North America and Australia, in South America – and in other places, Christianity and capitalism had been forcefully imposed by the immigrants upon the much larger local populations.

Just as Communism had been forcefully imposed by the Lenin led Bolsheviks upon the Russian People.

Forget about the fact that communism had failed, no matter how hard some people have tried to make it work, while capitalism works for real – when used properly.
My point is that whenever somebody tries to force something upon somebody else, the results will never rise to the expected level. No matter how good that ‘something’ might be.

Are you familiar with ‘you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’?
Leading it to water is enough.
Whenever somebody becomes ‘enthusiastic’ enough to try to force a horse to drink, the results …. no matter how skillful the ‘enthusiast’ might be…

And there’s another ‘small’ thing which makes a hell of a difference.
Adam Smith’s main point was that the whole society benefits from the functioning of the free market. Where each ‘agent’ competes with the others towards meeting his own goal. Which competition – as long as it remains free, results in everybody – well, almost, having a better life.
Ayn Rand’s point being that the free market is there only for the benefit of the ‘strongest’. Which is in line with Lenin’s view on the matter… ‘The Bolsheviks merit to lead the revolution because they are the strongest…’

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As much as I love writing, I do have to eat.
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Your contribution will be appreciated!

As much as I love writing, I do have to eat.
And to provide for my family.
Earning money takes time.
If you’d like me to write more, and on a more regular basis, hit the button.
Your contribution will be appreciated!

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Socialism!!!

Yeah.. tell that to Otto von Bismark

Why did I even mention his name?
Simple. He was the first secular – anti-clerical, to be more precise, political leader to consider a society as an ‘organism’.
He passionately hated the self styled ‘socialists’ yet he had treated the ‘working class’ a lot fairer than the future ‘popular democracies’ which revindicated themselves from Marx’s teachings.

But enough, for now, about Marx’s blunders.

Who among us has not yet read a personal improvement book?
And what was it about?
How to make yourself ‘better’?

How to ‘stand out’?!?

How many of you have read a ‘personal improvement’ book which mentioned ‘fitting in’ as opposed to ‘standing out’ at all costs?
Finding a place where your contribution will make a more significant ‘difference’ towards the shared well being versus making ‘your’ difference more noticeable to the whole world?

‘Do such books even exist?!?’

Yep!
And the first three which come to my mind – well, four actually, are:

The Bible,

The Wealth of Nations – coupled with The Theory of Moral Sentiments, of course,

The Origin and Evolution of Species.

Also helpful would be
What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr and
The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann.

I’d start with the last two though. And then jump directly to Adam Smith.

Happy reading!

In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to their basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.” Milton Friedman, 1970

Between 1776 and 1970 the world had leaped forward. Technologically, economically and socially. Not only that we’ve managed to learn so much about the world and to produce immense wealth but we’ve somehow managed to ‘spread around’ the results. The proportion of people who had improved their fortunes had grown constantly during the entire period.

The majority of Americans share in economic growth through the wages they receive for their labor, rather than through investment income. Unfortunately, many of these workers have fared poorly in recent decades. Since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2% per year. In other words, though the economy has been growing, the primary way most people benefit from that growth has almost completely stalled.” Jay Shambaugh, Ryan Nunn, HBR

Isaac Newton hadn’t invented gravitation. He only ‘noticed’ it. Put it in words.
Adam Smith hadn’t invented the free market. He had noticed how it used to work and opened our eyes about it.
For what ever reasons, enough of us had chosen to close those eyes back. And have reached the conclusion that ‘greed is good’.

Milton Friedman was both horribly wrong and exactly right.

He was right in the sense that he had gouged correctly what the ‘general public’ wanted/was ready to accept. “in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible

He was horribly wrong in the sense that he had perpetuated Marx’s error. Karl’s, not Groucho’s.

Money isn’t everything. Life beats it to the post.
Profit is, indeed, essential. Only it is nothing but an indicator. About how efficient a corporation is.
Meanwhile the role of a corporation is to accomplish – as Friedman himself had dully noted, the will of the shareholders.

The problem arises from the fact that ‘near mindedness’ blinds.
If/when both shareholders and management have nothing but ‘money’ in their scopes the market actually looses its freedom.

Economic agents no longer converge towards the market to solve each-others problems – like Smith had noticed, but to ‘make money’.

Not the same thing. Not by a long shot.

One way to interpret Maslow’s pyramid of needs is to consider that an individual might become a full fledged human only after having climbed to the ‘fifth floor’.

The key word here being “might”!

Because nothing mandates that all those who have overcome the material constraints of this world and have successfully integrated themselves in the social milieu will ever become a ‘better version of themselves’.

Need examples? Have you ever heard about people like Bernie Madoff, Martin Shkreli or Myron Scholes?

‘But the last guy, Myron Scholes, was recognized by the Nobel committee as a world class economist!’
Exactly! What more could a person want? Money, fame, worldwide recognition… he was on the fast track to becoming whoever he wanted…
Yet he had chosen to associate himself with one of the deepest financial black-hole ever… Knowingly, unknowingly… doesn’t matter!

‘But what does it mean to become a full fledged human?’

To be free. To consider them-self a free person and to be recognized as such by their peers.

‘Scholes wasn’t a free person?!? Shkreli?!? Madoff?!?’

Nope. Neither was free from greed!
Greed for money, power, public recognition… or any combination thereof.

‘But “greed is good”!!! Isn’t this the current mantra? Aren’t we all driven by this sentiment?!?’

First of all, greed is not good. Read Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment.
But yes, we are bombarded from all sides with this notion. That ‘greed is good. That greed is the engine of capitalism, which capitalism has brought us here. Where it is good.’

Yes, here it is indeed good. Only for fewer and fewer of us. It used to be better but since ‘greed has become good’ every ‘bump’ we encounter along the ‘free market’ road has proven to be quite a challenge. An insurmountable challenge for more and more of us.
An unsustainable arrangement. For us, as a community.
And yes, capitalism is the best economic paradigm to date. Only, as all paradigms, it has to be put in practice. By us, the people. In the right way. In the free market way.
Only we are no longer free! Those who cannot escape their sentiment may not consider themselves free. And too many of us have been enslaved by their greed!

‘But greed is written in our DNA!’

Indeed! So is the urge to have sex!
Only we’ve managed to teach ourselves, community wise, that while sex is good, rape is bad!
Not so long ago, rape was more or less condoned. ‘She must have enticed him’. ‘What was she doing there at that hour?’ And so on…
Nowadays, rape is shunned. By most of us.

Only we still live surrounded by rape culture. Seeped in greed.

Will we ever learn?
Will we, as a community, ‘actualize’ ourselves?

I’m sure you’ve already learned everything worth knowing about how to flatten the curve…

My post is about something else.
About the need to think with our own heads.
Individually. Each on their own.

More damages are caused by the manner in which we have chosen to react than by the pathogen itself.

‘Then what should we do?’

I don’t know. And I just told you to stop taking cues, blindly.

There is something I do know.
Nobody can get out of something like this on its own. Alone.
And another thing. If we get out of it as a herd, we’ll very soon end up in another trap.

‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t… I really can’t figure out what you want to say….’

OK.
We, humans, are social animals.
We not only raise our young – all mammals do that, we raise them in a social context. We live in groups and we raise our children to belong there.

Living in a social context has consequences. From being prone to infestation to having adopted specific behaviors.
Humberto Maturana is actually convinced that our very conscience – ‘our ability to observe ourselves while observing‘, a paraphrase, is a product of us leading our lives in close community.

One of these specific behaviors is the herd instinct.
Whenever in a dire strait, the members of a group pay a lot more attention to the rest of the group than in the ‘peaceful moments’.
This has two bright sides and one huge drawback.

All members of a group paying close attention to the others makes it easier for those who need it to get attention. And help.
All members of a group paying close attention to the others makes it easier for the group to follow when one of them finds a way out.
All members of a group paying too close attention to the others makes it very likely that the entire group will dash out at the first opportunity. Without checking first where they’re going to land. Nor whether there are any other opportunities.

Another specific behavior is ‘opportunism’.
Some of us have figured out that by keeping their chill in a crises they are more likely to identify whatever opportunities might exist in that moment.
And the deeper the crises, the bigger the opportunities.

Theoretically, these two should work like a charm.
The opportunists keep their chill, look around, identify the best way out and the rest of the herd follows them to safety.
A win-win situation.

Yeah… but!

Wouldn’t it be a way lot better whether all (or, at least, ‘more’) of us would keep their chill? Wouldn’t we be able to identify even more ways out?
It would take a lot more time? We’d need to discuss things over, to negotiate… we’d have to exert a lot of discretion…
True enough. Hence we’d need to evaluate two things. First, how urgent the dangerous situation is and, then, whether a better alternative would be worth searching.

And something else. In a ‘follow me blindly’ situation there’s no going back. The consequences for a hasty choice might be tremendous.

We might end up with more people being hurt by our blunder-some reaction than by the cause which had spooked us.

Yet another specific behavior is responsibility.
Living in a social context means that, sooner rather than later, individuals are censored for their actions. By the rest of the community or, sometimes, by the stark reality.
Unfortunately, sometimes entire communities are censored, by the stark reality, for not behaving responsibly. For not imposing responsibility upon their members.

For not taking enough time before choosing between flight and fight.

Let me put things into perspective.
How many of you have chosen to continue smoking despite having been warned?
How many of you have emptied the shelves despite being told there’s enough for everybody? Or that there will be soon enough?
How many of you do not smoke in the presence of your children? Because you know it will hurt them?
How many of you have taken active measures to protect the elderly? For the very same reason…

As for the economy being the main casualty of the present scourge…
I’m afraid ‘the economy’, as we know it, has been dying for quite a while now. That’s why it is so susceptible to SARS CoV-2.

The Ancient Greeks had come up with the concept of ‘oeconomia’ as the art of making the ends meet. Adam Smith had described the free market as the place/environment where competing agents made it so that people – solvent demand, could satisfy their needs.
Nowadays, too many of us understand/accept ‘economy’ as the art of getting rich. ‘Free’ in ‘free market’ is understood as ‘free’ to do anything you want. Because very few are asked to answer for the long term consequences of their actions.

The economy, as the manner in which we cooperate towards fulfilling our needs, has fallen prey to our gluttony. And to our nearsightedness.
Greed is not good. And SARS CoV-2 is only an eye opener, not the cause for the current implosion.

We, but let me start with the beginning.

First of all, I find it very interesting that Adam Smith never used the expression.
He explained the intricacies of the market without describing it as being ‘free’. For him, the market had to be free in order to function properly…

But, perhaps, no country has ever yet arrived at this degree of opulence. China seems to have been long stationary, and had, probably, long ago acquired that full complement of riches which is consistent with the nature of its laws and institutions. But this complement may be much inferior to what, with other laws and institutions, the nature of its soil, climate, and situation, might admit of. A country which neglects or despises foreign commerce, and which admits the vessel of foreign nations into one or two of its ports only, cannot transact the same quantity of business which it might do with different laws and institutions. In a country, too, where, though the rich, or the owners of large capitals, enjoy a good deal of security, the poor, or the owners of small capitals, enjoy scarce any, but are liable, under the pretence of justice, to be pillaged and plundered at any time by the inferior mandarins, the quantity of stock employed in all the different branches of business transacted within it, can never be equal to what the nature and extent of that business might admit. In every different branch, the oppression of the poor must establish the monopoly of the rich, who, by engrossing the whole trade to themselves, will be able to make very large profits. Twelve per cent. accordingly, is said to be the common interest of money in China, and the ordinary profits of stock must be sufficient to afford this large interest.”

OK, he was talking about the XVIII-th century China… but I’m sure you already know that.

Then what was it which lead Britain on what is currently known as the ‘free market path’ but blocked China, until very recently, from following suit?
After all, the participants to both markets were driven by the same self interest and their efforts were determined by the same division of work. Not to mention the fact that China’s was a many times bigger market than Britain’s. Initially, of course.

Both countries had a lot in common. Both populations were similarly stratified and class conscious, both monarchies had reached the same level of impotency, both states were run by specialized coteries … what was the difference?

“A country which neglects or despises foreign commerce…”

For a market to be truly free – as in ‘fully functional’, those who participate in it need to be free to do as they see fit and to go wherever they wish.
For this to happen the participants have to feel free – to be conscious of their freedom, and those who oversee the market need to act only as ‘arbiters’ and never as rulers.

This was the difference between the XVIII-th England and China. The British authorities were a lot more permissive than those ‘in charge of’ China and the British subjects felt a lot freer than the Chinese.
While the British authorities did nothing more than police the market, the Chinese Mandarins actually run the day to day activity.
The end result being that the British merchant men learned to deal with each-other and ask for help only when the law was broken, while the Chinese were conditioned to look up for directions at every corner of the road.
As a consequence, the free participants to the free market have learned to respect each-other, and to collectively defend their freedom, while the mainland Chinese have been conditioned to accept that bowing your head was safer.

But people learn fast.
Just look at what’s currently happening in Hong-Kong.

“Do you know why I hate capitalists?

1. All they care about is money

2. They have all the money”

This is a bi-partisan joke. Some of the haves use it to demonstrate that money is the essence of modern life while the ‘lefties’ use it to demonstrate the ‘malign’ nature of capitalism.

Both sides are wrong.

According to Adam Smith, the market consists of many specialized economic actors who sell their wares/services. Thus helping each-other lead a better/simpler life than if each of them had to ‘do everything’. Furthermore, a free market is better than a ‘cornered’ one, simply because competition keeps everybody on their toes.
In this sense, a capitalist is a guy who organizes a group of synergically skilled operators in such a manner as to increase their aggregated efficiency.
In order for the market to remain free, a.k.a. efficient, there must continue to exist a certain degree of competition between the said capitalists. And for the whole thing to remain a market, each of the capitalists must remain but an actor, not become a dictator. A.k.a a monopolist.
Differently put, for the market to remain functionally free, capitalists should remain/must be kept level with the other ‘merchant-men’. The bakers sell their bread-making skills, the brewers their beer-making skills, the butchers their ability to carve carcasses while capitalists sell their ability to organize people. Their entrepreneurial skills.
OK, there is difference. But only in our heads. While each of the others use specialized tools – ovens, vats, knives, etc., capitalists use money. Yet another tool but one which seems familiar to all of us. But very few of us see money as a tool and even fewer accept that using money, a lot of it, implies a huge responsibility.  Hence the enormous misunderstanding. No reasonable human being – except for a carpenter, of course, would dream to amass a huge number of, say, hammers, but a majority of people are convinced that having a lot of money would make them happy.

And why did I say “both sides are wrong”?

Because real capitalists are focused on the needs of their business partners – a.k.a. ‘consumers’, not on their pockets/paychecks. Because real capitalists understand that sellers would go hungry if there was no money to buy their wares.
Because free market capitalists are focused on making money go round – and getting handsomely paid for this, instead of constantly attempting to hoard all the money in their grasp.

It’s not me who says so.
Jamie Dimon, Alex Gorsky, Tim Cook, Ray Dalio….

 

“Profit is a natural by-product of voluntary commerce, exchanging value for value. Increasing profits come from better exchanges of value over time. Accepting a lower value of trade in order to benefit someone else believed to need the benefit is a myth. Self interest has always been a key component of human commerce.”

Paul Garner

The barons who had forced King John to sign the Magna Charta were interested in preserving their privileges, not in the deepening of their fellow citizens’ freedom… yet this was the ultimate consequence of their actions.

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This clause gave all free men the right to justice and a fair trial. However, ‘free men’ comprised only a small proportion of the population in medieval England. The majority of the people were unfree peasants known as ‘villeins’, who could seek justice only through the courts of their own lords.”

The heirs of those barons had evicted their Scottish tenants in search of the higher profits yielded by raising sheep, not because they wished to improve the local food market. Yet exactly those ‘clearances’ had constituted the stepping stone for the economic blooming of Scotland. And for the advent of the ‘Scottish Economic Thought’, epitomized by Adam Smith.

Are we to understand that ‘self interest’ will, sooner or later, somehow morph into ‘the greater good’? By its own, according to a yet unknown ‘natural law’?

I’m afraid this is nothing but wishful thinking.

The barons who had rebelled against King John were following an already established tradition.
Being the nephews of the Norman – read Viking, invaders, they were familiar with the Scandinavian things. Their uprising against the king was nothing more than a defense of their fore-fathers’ way of life.

Of their fore-fathers’ free way of life!

The landlords who had evicted their tenants to make way for the more profitable sheep may have created the conditions for the development of a thriving free market… only it was exactly this free market which had represented the doom of the ‘landed aristocracy’…

So. Is freedom the most important aspect of the free market?

I’m afraid that would be an oversimplification.

The markets are free, period.
If anything impedes their (transversal) freedom in ‘space’ – a ruler, a dictator or even a natural set of events, markets will find their (longitudinal) freedom in ‘time’. All dictatorships have been toppled by ‘history’ and all ‘natural’ sets of events have been overcome. As yet, at least.

The most important ‘things’ in the market are the people who animate it.
Any market would be nothing but an empty intersection of roads if not for the people who gather there to trade their wares. To better solve their existential problems by exchanging the ‘fruits of their respective skills’.
And the freer those people are to hone their skills and to take the fruits of those skills to whatever intersection they choose, the better the solutions developed, by them, for their existential problems.

And what about the profit? Is it good?

Of course it’s good. But for only as long as it remains free!
For only as long as it doesn’t depend on external forces and for only as long as it doesn’t become an obsession.
Since most of you understand the perils of monopolistic ‘external forces’ being exerted to limit the freedom of the market, I’ll delve directly into my obsession about the hidden dangers of pursuing profit as an existential goal.

We describe ourselves as being conscious.

In Humberto Maturana’s terms, ‘we are able to catch ourselves red handed’.

As a human being I do what we human beings do, I operate as an observer observing. The observer is not a condition of being, it is not a transcendental entity that exists by itself, it is not a material entity, it is our experience of being aware of ourselves doing what we do as we human beings operating as observers observing. And what do we do as human beings operating as observers in observing? We make distinctions. We make distinctions of objects, of notions, of ideas, of concepts, …,of entities that we bring forth with our operations of distinction together with the domains of existence in which they arise.

When hungry, we not only feed ourselves. We also notice that we feel good once our bellies are full. And we strive to make provisions for the next meal. Thus increasing our chances to survive.

Some of us end up eating too much. They are so keen to reproduce ‘that’ good feeling that they end up morbidly fat. Thus diminishing their life span.

Still others try to make sure they’ll enjoy their next meal by appointing themselves ‘gatekeepers’ to ‘food’.
And, sooner rather than later, every time they succeed, this ‘arrangement’ ends up in abject failure. The most publicized recent example being the failure of the centrally planned ‘popular democracies’. Unfortunately, there had been countless other examples. In fact, in all instances where power had been concentrated in a too small number of hands, the societies which had allowed this to happen have eventually collapsed.

Another example is our addiction to drugs.
All of us enjoy feeling good. Which is an evolutionary device meant to show us we are on the right track. To prod us in the right direction.
Some of us have discovered ‘the short cut’. Instead of doing ‘the right thing’ first and expect the reward afterwards, they just imbibe the ‘right’ substance. Alcohol, sugar, nicotine, heroine, coke, THC

Now, can any of us pretend that a drug addict or a morbidly fat individual is a free person?

Returning to the freedom of the market, we can only say that a market is functionally free for only as long as a functional majority of the trading agents behave in a free manner. Do as they individually see fit.
Compare this to the situation when, for whatever reason, the majority of the trading agents feel compelled to follow a fad.
The Tulip Mania is the first example which springs into my mind every time I discuss this subject. Followed by all other bubbles which had ‘punctured’ our economic history ever since.

The current fad being ‘profit’.
Which profit is essential for the long term well being – read ‘survival’, of any economic enterprise.
Only we need to remember that economic enterprises are meant to solve problems. To be of service to people. So useful to the consumer side of the market that the consumers are willing, on their own accord, to part with enough money to make those enterprises profitable.

If the market is warped so far that things go the other way – enterprises are managed to maximize profits at the expense of the services rendered to the clients and the ‘beneficiaries’ are not aware of what’s going on, or have no say in the process, the whole thing starts to resemble what used to happen inside an opium den.

We somehow managed to weather all economic crises that we, ourselves, have brought upon our heads. And to outgrow our obsession with opium.

I’m sure we’ll manage to free ourselves from our current obsession with profit.

Nota bene!
Under no circumstances we may allow capitalism itself to be left behind in our quest for liberty from the tyranny of ‘profit’.
Capitalism is something else than the unending and callous adoration of the ‘golden god’, just as profit is a very useful indicator but a horrible master.

 

“Capitalism has generated massive wealth for some, but it’s devastated the planet and has failed to improve human well-being at scale.”

Drew Hansen, Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity by 2050,
Forbes, feb. 9, 2016.

I’m afraid we are dealing with a huge confusion.
Capitalism hasn’t generated anything and hasn’t starved, nor fed, anybody.
People did!

Capitalism is nothing more, nor less, than a particular manner in which we, ‘the people’, relate to property while ‘the free market’ is one of the manners in which economies are run.

And here’s the place where things become ‘murky’.

‘Oekonomia’ is Greek for ‘making ends meet’.

“The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations.

According therefore, as this produce, or what is purchased with it, bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are to consume it, the nation will be better or worse supplied with all the necessaries and conveniencies for which it has occasion.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776

The way I read it, Smith sees ‘wealth’ as people’s/nation’s ability to supply for their ‘necessaries and conveniencies’.
In other words, ‘to make ends meet’.

How we define our needs, the manner in which we choose to fulfill them and what we are disposed to ‘spend’ in the process… is our responsibility.

So.
What is it that we need/want?
A healthy planet? Clean air/water/soil and a fair opportunity for each of us to earn their keep?

Or a dog eats dog type of contest for ‘who has the biggest pile of money’?

Capitalism can encompass both.

Unfortunately, the second scenario has nothing to do with ‘making ends meet’.
On the contrary!

We, humans, pride ourselves on many things.

On being smart/intelligent. And on being the only animals able to brag about their achievements with their peers…

But what is it that qualifies us as humans?
That would, of course, depend on what a human really is…

OK, let me use another tack.
What are we really good at? What sets us apart from the rest of the animals?

Practical intelligence? Our ability to solve really complicated problems?

Then watch this wild New Caledonian Crow treating itself to a piece of meat.

new Caledonian crow

Our ability to figure new meaning and to overcome our natural impulses?

Then read about Sheba the Chimp using language to suppress her greed:

In a celebrated study that investigated impulse control, Sally Boysen of Ohio State University asked chimps to choose between two dishes of M&Ms®.

SALLY BOYSEN: Now, you watch real carefully. We’re going to put one, two, three, four down here. Are you watching, Miss Priss? Sheeby? And we’re going to put two in here.

Give those to Sarah. Okay.

Well, I have to give these to Sarah, and Sheeba gets two. So Sarah gets four and Sheba only gets two. Aw, too bad.

NARRATOR: The twist was that the chimp got the candy she didn’t point to. Could the chimp learn to resist her impulse to reach for the bigger pile?

SALLY BOYSEN: You want Sarah to have these? It’s okay, it’s okay. You get to have that one. Yeah, Sarah gets five, and Sheba gets one. Oh, that is such a shame.

NARRATOR: Amazingly, chimps never overcame their greedy urges. They always reached for more and, so, ended up with less.

SALLY BOYSEN: And Sheba gets two, so Sarah gets four. See?

NARRATOR: Impulse studies have also been run on humans. In a classic experiment from the 1970s, a researcher gave a four-year-old a simple choice.

RESEARCHER : So, if you wait for me to get back, I’ll give you this bowl with all of these gummy bears, okay? But if you can’t wait, you can push that button, like this, and then I’ll come back and you can have this bowl with just this one gummy bear, okay? Okay, I’ll be right back.

NARRATOR: According to an inconclusive but intriguing study, the longer children resisted temptation, the higher their S.A.T. scores were years later. In any case, the differences between people are small compared to the gap separating humans and apes.

BRIAN HARE: Maybe one of the first things that happened during our species evolution is we became much less emotionally reactive. And maybe that’s one of the big differences that may explain why we solve problems so differently. We sort of got control of our emotions.

NARRATOR: Can apes be given skills to help them master their emotions? Sally Boysen trained a chimp to understand numerals. Then she repeated her M&Ms experiment, but now offered different pairs of numerals rather than treats.

SALLY BOYSEN: You want to give two to Sarah? Okay. Two goes to Sarah, and you get six.

NARRATOR: Remarkably, chimps were now able to learn what they couldn’t before: point to the smaller number to get the bigger prize.

Symbols can make you free. They can help distance an ape from its impulses. But outside of the lab, apes don’t seem to use symbols. Still, ape minds seem to share many of the amazing features of the human mind.

There is a video which depicts all this. Click on this link and see if it’s available “in your area.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/ape-genius.html.

How about our consciousness? Our ability to ‘observe ourselves in the act of observing‘.
Well, that alone wouldn’t have made us any more special than an octopus…

self aware octopus

But what if our individuality resides in us having taken all three to ‘a different level’? One which hasn’t yet been attained by anybody else? Not necessarily higher, mind you!

I’ll deal with ‘trade’ now and I’m afraid you’ll have to come back for the rest.

‘Trade’ wasn’t even mentioned in those three examples?
What was the crow trying to do?
Feed itself? As in exchange matter with the ‘outside’?
What was Sheba trying to do?
Figure our what was going on? As in trading information with the surrounding world?

In this sense all living things are engaged in all forms of trading? And continue to do so for as long as they remain alive?
What did I tell you about us doing nothing really new? Only different?

OK, we had already figured out – long before Adam Smith described it as ‘division of labor’, that by dividing tasks amongst us we’ll be able to accomplish far more things than if we had attempted ‘individual autarky’. And then we had invented ‘trade’, as a manner of exchanging the different wares each of us was proficient in doing…
Wait! Even this is not really ‘new’!
Mother Nature had already invented sexual reproduction – a very extreme ‘division of labour’, a very long time ago…. but not before bacteria were already adept at ‘trading’ genetic information.