And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. -- Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments,The "deception" Smith was referring to in the sentence quoted above was the idea that strenuous effort would bring riches, which in turn would bring ease. He ridiculed that belief on the part of the individual but concluded his parable of the poor man's son by praising the deception from the standpoint of society as the providence of an "invisible hand."
How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it.... They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles… of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.Frivolous trinkets and baubles fit the category of superfluous goods alright and the poor man's son is motivated by a desire to emulate his superiors. In pursuing his ends, the poor man's son relies more on fantasy than rational calculation. But Smith's parable doesn't fit into our counter-narrative entirely. That's O.K. It doesn't fit into the standard Economic Man mold either. Instead, Smith marshals a truck-load of irony and consummate story-telling magic to recuperate a rather paradoxical and sardonic version of Homo oeconomicus.
Nor is it only with regard to such frivolous objects that our conduct is influenced by this principle; it is often the secret motive of the most serious and important pursuits of both private and public life.
The poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a-foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble. He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. To obtain the conveniencies which these afford, he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. He studies to distinguish himself in some laborious profession. With the most unrelenting industry he labours night and day to acquire talents superior to all his competitors. He endeavours next to bring those talents into public view, and with equal assiduity solicits every opportunity of employment. For this purpose he makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it. It is then, in the last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases, his mind galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends, that he begins at last to find that wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquility of mind than the tweezer-cases of the lover of toys; and like them too, more troublesome to the person who carries them about with him than all the advantages they can afford him are commodious.
If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are capable of affording, by itself and separated from the beauty of that arrangement which is fitted to promote it, it will always appear in the highest degree contemptible and trifling. But we rarely view it in this abstract and philosophical light. We naturally confound it in our imagination with the order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system, the machine or oeconomy by means of which it is produced. The pleasures of wealth and greatness, when considered in this complex view, strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it.
And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility, and to maintain a greater multitude of inhabitants. …
The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, 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 portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.
The poor man's son's striving succeeds only in acquiring for him a body wasted with toil and disease, a mind "galled and ruffled by the memory of a thousand injuries and disappointments which he imagines he has met with from the injustice of his enemies, or from the perfidy and ingratitude of his friends..." and, at long last, the realization that his dogged pursuit of wealth and greatness was a sham.
No matter. It was all for the best! (La di da.) The invisible hand saw to it that the benefits trickled down to the poor -- even including the beggar on the sunny side of the street.
It is easy to be charmed by Smith's eloquence. Thus charmed, the reader is led by a succession of small, seemingly-logical steps to a gross exaggeration and distortion of the futility of riches and the disagreeableness of strenuous effort. In narrative terms, Smith's poor man's son falls down a well but then eventually stumbles upon a hidden door that opens to reveal a magical kingdom. The graphic equivalent is an Escher drawing of a perpetually ascending staircase, exploiting the artifice of perspective drawing to the point of impossibility.
When Smith eventually invokes his invisible hand to pull a redemptive rabbit out of the hat, the enchanted reader gasps with surprise, relief and credulity... and presumably lets pass the preposterous notion that, "the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for." The deception is neither Nature's nor Providence's but the triumph of Smith's story-telling artifice.
In Wealth of Nations, Smith talks about leisure in radically different terms than he does in these picaresque vignettes of the poor man's son and the beggar sunning himself by the side of the highway.
In Book Five, Chapter 1, Part 3 Article II, "Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth," Smith contrasts the common people who "have little time to spare for education... their labour is both so constant and so severe, that it leaves them little leisure and less inclination to apply to, or even to think of, anything else."
By contrast, "The employments of people of some rank and fortune are seldom such as to harass them from morning to night. They generally have a good deal of leisure, during which they may perfect themselves in every branch either useful or ornamental knowledge of which they may have laid the foundation, or for which they may have acquired some taste in the earlier part of life."
So, the common people have little leisure while those of rank and fortune have a good deal of leisure. And what does the invisible hand have to say about that? Here's the argument again from The Theory of Moral Sentiments :
The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor... they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements.... In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they [the poor] are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level...Now, unless we grant that "little" is nearly upon a level with "a good deal," Mr. Smith is having us on. This difference also has to be viewed in the context of the classical Aristotelean view that leisure is the activity proper to humans in which they find their fulfillment or happiness. In discussing leisure, Smith is not talking about time off to drink or play cards. So, in what constitutes the real happiness of human life -- that is to say, leisure -- the rich and the poor are, by Smith's own admission, not on a level. Therefore, his invisible hand image cannot be on the level, either.
In conclusion, both the dominant narrative of Economic Man and the Persona parsimoniae counter-narrative resonate in Smith's parable of the poor man's son, albeit with strong doses of inversion, paradox and magical thinking. The extravagant nature of the parable's lesson -- and specifically of its recuperative image of the invisible hand -- is made evident by comparing Smith's claims to passages in the Wealth of Nations.