Bakers of the World Unite

The Original Capitalist

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
– Adam Smith

Adam Smith gave bakers a bad rap 300 years ago when he noted that they – all businesspeople really – didn’t produce the goods they produced out of some deep altruism or because someone was holding a gun to their heads, but because it made economic sense to do so.

This sounds rather cold hearted, as is Smith’s popular reputation these days (Laissez faire capitalism is criticized more for its depredations that it is lauded for the wealth that it creates and the folks that it raises out of poverty.)  But there are a couple of important caveats worth noting.

First, Adam Smith was part of the Scottish Enlightenment, a group of thinkers from that bleak Northern country, who saw all men as equal (A big new idea in the 1700s, which fueled this country’s independence.) and as each having great potential for self development.  Second, Smith observed that tariffs – the state’s main form of revenue back then – on everything from salt to hats to sealing wax, hurt the consumer by raising their cost of living.  His rambling and reasonably readable “Wealth of Nations” (Which I finally got around to reading last year) is full of observations about how free markets and free trade raise folks’ standards of living and enable them to save and invest more.

This is not to say that free trade and technological change (Smith wrote about this too) are not disruptive and that society should not take care of those affected by these factors, but that open markets are, in Smith’s estimation, much about consumers than they are about capital.  This is the reverse of the way we tend to think of capitalism these days.

​Now about those bakers (And brewers and butchers.).  Smith’s comment, while certainly true about what motivates sellers in open markets dealing with freely traded commodities, misses something about both craftsmanship and innovation.  At some level, the butcher, brewer and baker want to take pride in what they make, and expand their expertise in doing so.  Even those of use who spend most of our day in front of a computer screen moving bits and bytes around, look for some elegance, some perfection in what we do.  And we push to improve the way we do things.

This is evident all around us, especially with respect to food in the Bay Area.  For example, the development of a coffee culture, first locally and now spreading worldwide; in the development of a “California Cuisine”; in the spread of excellent winemaking and craft brewing.  And in baking, where we live at the epicenter of the (Re)discovery of artisan sourdough bread.

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