By Patrick Moloney (Creighton University)


Shortly before the fifteenth anniversary of Kanye West’s The College Dropout, I found myself reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is astonishing how easily Smith blends economics into keen social insights that still apply today. This quote from Smith seems especially appropriate for Dropout’s anniversary:

“There are some very agreeable and beautiful talents of which the possession commands a certain sort of admiration; but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of public prostitution. The pecuniary recompence, therefore, of those who exercise them in this manner, must be sufficient, not only to pay for the time, labour, and expence of acquiring the talents, but for the discredit which attends the employment of them as the means of subsistence…It seems absurd at first sight that we should despise their persons, and yet reward their talents with the most profuse liberality. While we do the one, however, we must of necessity do the other.”

Smith is writing in a world in which theatre is considered to have corrupted British culture, and in which other published considerations of virtue are demanding that plays be hissed offstage (Goldsmith, 1976). Smith’s consideration of simultaneous virtue and shame reveals his stance to be more nuanced than embracing either authoritarian public virtue or the vice-laden hedonism of Mandeville. Instead of demanding that anyone agree with his support of artistic virtue, Smith points out that the market increases the range of human activities a community can allow, by somehow decreasing the humanity of the producer in the eyes of the public. Smith, however, does not seem content with this outcome, and continues, “The over-weening conceit which the greater part of men have of their own abilities, is an ancient evil remarked by the philosophers and moralists of all ages.” Smith is not only advocating for the virtues of art – he is criticizing those who consider themselves more human than artists!

Smith is certainly not alone in appreciating virtue in spite of base celebrity. Kanye certainly understands this paradoxical existence. Claims to virtue are simply not tolerated in the market he occupies:

We rappers are role models we rap we don’t think
I ain’t here to argue about his facial features
Or here to convert atheists into believers
I’m just trying to say the way school need teachers
The way Kathie Lee needed Regis that’s the way I need Jesus
So here go my single dog radio needs this
They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played

Huh?

-Kanye West, Jesus Walks from The College Dropout

In these examples, Smith and Kanye face different opponents, but these opponents are proper foils after considering their differing circumstances. Smith, the academic and moral philosopher, pushes back against the high-minded demands of the public virtue crowd, while the underground rapper pushes back against the rampant vices associated with Mandeville’s Hive. There is overlap, of course – Smith detests Mandeville’s lack of private virtues, and Kanye makes his bread and butter precisely because he flouts social norms. Kanye seems to enjoy playing with the various distastes for his work – on one hand, his religious nature upsets rappers, and on the other, his rap career upsets the academic hierarchy in which he floundered, based on his reflections in School Spirit.

Smith and Kanye both understand that the markets are the primary method of sharing and appreciating the talents of the scorned entertainer. However, to simplify the market by removing “agreeable and beautiful” virtues, either for the purpose of depriving the market of virtue entirely or for the preservation of public virtue, is a fundamental misapplication of what a Smithian market is supposed to accomplish. Markets are not supposed to provide either orthodoxy or debauchery, but to carefully explore the ways in which a society, comprised of individuals with unique talents with rewards, can become more fully human.

Smith deserves far more consideration for his social analysis, and to deem his work as merely “well-written axioms of an economics textbook” is to deprive the reader of the nuance that Smith himself insists upon. He is aware of value not completely captured in monetary exchange that is nevertheless relevant for social science. Smith is in favor of beauty in markets and opposed to the sort of reputation rent-seeking that comes from disparaging the beautiful talents of others. Although Smith is willing to tolerate the simplistic market participant, he reminds us that bakers and butchers, philosophers and rappers alike can and should engage their fellow man for the benefit of all.

Citations

Goldsmith, M. M. “Public Virtue and Private Vices: Bernard Mandeville and English Political Ideologies in the Early Eighteenth Century.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, 1976, p. 477., doi:10.2307/2737791.

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