Saturday, November 19, 2022

The ancient Greeks believed that the political realm was “the space of appearance,” wrote Hannah Arendt. Through political action, men acquired a public identity that was visible to other men; in the polis, they saw and were seen by others. Smith’s innovation was to locate that space of appearance in the economy. Why do we seek wealth, he wondered, losing ourselves in “all the toil and bustle of this world?” It is not to supply us with necessities, for “the wages of the meanest labourer can supply them.” What we want from wealth is “to be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy.” The reason the rich man “glories in his riches” is that “he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world.” He is “fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him.” The poor person, by contrast, lives “out of the sight of mankind.”

The political realm in ancient Greece, according to Arendt, was the space for those who could afford it. In Smith's time they would be aristocrats, but Smith wrote about and for the bourgeoisie. 

The "cottages" in Newport were built for the nouveau riche, Carnagies and Rockefellers, to upstage old money living a few miles away, where a friend's uncle lives in an old house on land given to the family by the King. He parks his station wagon in the neighbors' driveway because it has more space. He's not interested in drawing your attention; he's interested in power, and he has it. 

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