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Adam Smith And Aristotle Discuss The Fourth Industrial Revolution


Adam Smith is arguably the world's most influential economist. And Aristotle is arguably the most influential philosopher that ever lived. When their ghosts get together for a chat, the outcome is absolutely ghastly.


"Adam felt deeply misunderstood by his commentators."

Adam Smith stepped out of the flat he had haunted the night before with a spring in his step. The morning walk always invigorated his cold, stiff limbs. He wandered along the sidewalk, composing his shopping list as he crossed a quiet road and turned his steps towards the grocery store. He loved grocery window-shopping. He took great pleasure in tracking the price of milk over the last two hundred years, especially. He smiled at the thought. Then he froze. A few feet ahead of him, the ghost of an elderly man in a toga floated onto the sidewalk. Adam tried to turn around, but it was too late. The elderly man spotted him.


“Morning, Adam,” the old ghoul waved at him.


“Morning, Aristotle,” Adam answered, trying to sound cheerful. “How are you this morning?”


“I feel nasty flu coming on, to be honest. Thought I’d take a quick walk and get some sunshine. See if I can shake it off. Where are you headed?”

"Aristotle struck his usual thoughtful pose."

“Down to the grocery store.”


“Still tracking the price of milk?”


Adam nodded and smiled.


“Let me walk with you then. I finally finished “The Wealth of Nations” by the way. Interesting book.”


“Really?” Adam asked, excited. “I’d love to know what you think of it.”


“It’s a great book. A bit too long in some parts, but who am I to point fingers, right?”


Adam laughed.


“Yes. If we were alive in this century, instead of just walking about haunting people at night, then I think we would both have written much shorter books.”


“Speaking of this century,” Aristotle said, “I believe your book is far more popular than anything I ever wrote.”


“That’s because I spoke about money.”


“Yes, that’s an eternally popular topic, isn’t it. What do you think of the way in which they’ve applied your theories?”


“I am quite pleased, I must say,” Adam replied. “Though I am a bit disappointed with the way the capitalists have found a way to work my theories to their greater enrichment.”


“Yes, that’s the nature of the ruling classes,” Aristotle answered, with a knowing nod. “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile. But that’s not what I’m concerned about at the moment.”


They came to a halt outside a little coffee shop with large glass windows.


“Take a look at those three or four middle aged men inside that shop,” Aristotle said, pointing a ghastly pale finger. “They’ve been there now for about two months. Sitting there, from morning to night, doing absolutely nothing.”


“Yes,” said Adam. “They used to work in a call centre. They got replaced by an automated chatbot.”


“And now, they are unemployed. And that, I think, is the greatest misery that can befall a person.”


“Now wait just one minute, Ari,” Adam said, folding his hands defiantly. “I’ve read a couple of your works. And if I remember correctly, you always said that the aim of work is leisure, right?”


Aristotle nodded.


“And if these young men are in a state of leisure, even though it may be forced, how can you say it’s the greatest misery they can endure?”


“I think you misunderstood what I meant when I spoke about work and leisure in *The Politics.*”


“It was pretty clear to me. You said we work so that we can rest. These young men are already resting. So what’s the problem?” Adam asked, sticking a finger beneath Aristotle’s nose.


“You’re misquoting me, Adam,” Aristotle answered. “My exact words were that the first principle, the end, or the goal of all human activity is leisure. Leisure is properly the enjoyment of life; it consists in doing the things which make a life worth living.”


“I wouldn’t have minded spending time in a coffee shop with a computer all day when I was alive. That’s great leisure time.”


“That’s idleness. Not leisure. There’s a big difference between the two. But that’s a topic for another day. What I’m trying to convince you is that some of your economic ideas may be responsible for this *forced leisure* as you call it.”


“Now hold on just one minute, Aristotle. You’re getting your toga in a knot. How on earth can this be my fault? I’m just a humble Scotsman.”


“But it’s you that pushed for machine labour to replace human labour, Adam.”


“Yes. I did speak about automation and the division of labour. And you know what? I thought that part of my book was one of the few that was above any question or critique. It made perfect sense.”


“In theory, yes, maybe.”


“But in practice too, Ari. Surely, you can’t fault people winning time from work, so they can pursue leisurely interests and perhaps even elevate their thinking through music and the arts. Weren’t you Greeks all about such things?”


“Indeed we were. You seem to have come across a lot of our writings.”


“Yes, precisely in my leisure time. And if I had had more time while here on earth, I would have read even more of your books and factored them into my lectures. Now it’s too late.”


“Tell me,” Aristotle asked, “You didn’t maybe get a chance to read any of my Ethics books, did you?”


“I think I took a look at your Nichomachean ethics. Why do you ask?”


“Because I wanted to get your views on the idea of the golden mean and virtue.”


“You mean the idea that the good is usually the middle ground of two extremes?”


“Yes, that’s precisley it. Although I can hardly lay claim to the idea. I took it from my teacher Plato, who learned of it from his teacher Socrates. Socrates heard of it from...”


“Yes, yes,” Adam interrupted. “I get it. I think it made a lot of sense. I find it quite applicable in the real sense. For instance, take the cars on this road we are walking past. If they go too fast or too slow, it could give rise to a problem, right?”


“Correct. So do you see where I am going with this?”


“No,” Adam shrugged. “I don’t think I do.”


“Remember those unemployed people in the coffee shop. Don’t you see the connection?”


“I remember in my book I gave the example of how a boy came up with a way to save time when operating the pump on a fire engine, by inventing a machine to do it.”


“Yes, that’s the division of labour and a practial example of how it gives rise to automation.”


“Like I said, that part of my book I think is quite practical and above criticism. In fact, the human race in the last one hundred years has created tons of time saving inventions that have pushed up production and made people more wealthy.”


“Who has it made more wealthy, Adam?”


“I know you want me to say the capitalists. That goes without saying. But I’m sure you haven’t considered the consumers also, Ari. Think about it. The consumers have cheaper products because they cost less to produce and they also are in greater supply, driving down prices.”


“That’s all well and good, but there’s another side of the coin that you’re losing sight of, Adam.”


“ Which is?”


“That consumers are also producers.”


“Of course, but what does that have to do with anything?”


“Think of a person as having two hats, a producer hat and a consumer hat. When wearing his consumer hat, he is benefitting from cheaper products, right?” Adam nodded sagely. Aristotle contined. “So he becomes wealthier. But when it comes to his producer hat, his role as a producer, his job has been replaced by a machine. Now he has less money to spend as a consumer.”


Adam paused and scratched his chin, frowning.


“I’d never thought of it that way. You’ve got a point. You damn Greek philosophers. You like to look at things from all sides, don’t you?”


“I’m just being circumspect, Adam. You need to be circumspect if you want to tread the middle ground between two extremes.”


“So what are you saying? Are you saying that machines that reduce human labour are bad?”


“I’m saying that anything taken to an extreme is bad. Unless of course you disagree with the golden mean idea?”


“ No, I agree with it.”


“Then surely you must also agree that if the human race gets to the stage where machines replace all of human labour, or a good amount of it, there’s a possibility that that might not be good?”


“Imagine a world where people have machines to do all the heavy lifting. They can turn their minds to more intellectual pursuits. With the rise of machines, humans will find other work to do.”


“I disagree with you on two grounds, based on experience and observation. It’s funny that you started by saying, “imagine a world...”. This isn’t about imagination at all. You’ve observed the world for the past couple of hundred of years, right?”


Adam nodded.


“With the rise of machines to replace human labour,” Aristotle continued, “what’s happened to the employment rate, generally speaking?”


“So you’re blaming machines for rising unemployment?”


“I’m saying let’s be circumspect in our thinking. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s worth thinking about seriously?”


“And your second point?” Adam asked. “You mentioned two points.”


“The second point is that not every human being is cut out for intellectual work. Humans come in all shapes and sizes. Each with their own peculiar gift. Think about it. Even though man-made objects have a lot of imperfections, they do possess a dignity and the charm that is quite unique. That’s one reason why they tend to be more expensive than their mass-produced equivalents.”


“Yes. After the invention of cinema, I always noticed that cinema tickets were cheaper than theatre tickets.”


“I’m happy to see you are quite in touch with the times, even though you are only a ghost.”


“As are you.”


“ But despite all the changes that have happened since the time we lived, I still see the same three prevalent weaknesses now that I saw in my time.”


“Yes?”


“First of all, all human beings are afflicted with a disorderly desire to avoid working.”


“Yes,” Adam said, nodding. “Laziness still persists even today.”


“Secondly, we are greedy. We have a disordered desire for more wealth, power and fame.”


“That’s true. Especially in this information age, everyone wants to have their slice of fame, I’ve noticed.”


“And thirdly, we still have a disordered desire to experience anything new.”


“Yes,” Adam chuckled. “They’re just as curious as we were.”


“But now, as you alluded when you mentioned the information age, they have more means to satisfy their curiosity. These three desires combined might make it harder to be circumpect about the rise of machines.”


“You mean what they now call the fourth industrial revolution?”


“Yes. Or the internet of things or disruption or whatever else they want to call it.”


“But I have one objection.”


“Only one?”


“When you look at China and India and other such places that I have haunted recently---”


“Why didn’t you tell me you were going there? I’d have joined you.”


“I noticed,” Adam continued with a dismissive wave, “that they’ve invested quite a lot in training their young people to be programmers. Isn’t that an example of how the rise of machines gives rise to new jobs?”


“I don’t know. When I last checked, over the last ten years or so, China’s rate of employment has been increasing steadily, while India’s has been decreasing steadily. Whereas both countries may have trained armies of programmers, India hasn’t undertaken the kind of infrastructure projects that China has. And maybe those projects have had a far greater impact on employment than programming.”


“Okay, I concede defeat Ari,” Adam says, nodding. “You raise valid points.”


“It’s not a competition, Adam. It’s just a friendly conversation. One ghost to another. Who knows, since we are now spirits and are going to be in this state for a very long time, we might have the pleasure of seeing the disruption of disruption.”


“Yes. I think I’d quite enjoy seeing that.”


“It would give us a lot of material for another very fruitful conversation.”


“Are you going much further,” Adam asked. “I wanted to pop into this grocery store and get some supplies.”


“Machine made supplies, nonetheless!”


“It was fun speaking, Ari. We must speak again soon.”


He waited for a car to go by, then hurried across the street.


“You’re dead, Adam!” Ari called out after him. “No need to worry about getting run over.”


“Old habits die hard,” Adam called back, and stepped into the grocery store.

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