Rose Edge at her shop

It was Rebecca’s birthday. Rebecca was our second child, and Marguerite was baking a cake. At the time were were living in Denstone, which was in many ways a traditional English village. It had one shop, and the shopkeeper was Rose Edge. The picture is of Rose outside it.

Marguerite realised that we had no candles for the cake. She sent our youngest, Stephen, to the shop to buy a packet.

‘Oh dear’, said Rose, ‘we don’t seem to have any. When is her birthday?’ ‘Today’. ‘In that case we’ll have to see what we can do about it.’ She telephoned the next shop, two miles away in the next village. Yes, they had some birthday cake candles. One of the staff drove a van to Denstone, specially to deliver the candles. We bought them at the usual price, with no extras for special delivery.

How on earth can a shopkeeper make a living if they are going to do things like that?

Adam Smith, the Father of Capitalism, had different ideas. In his Wealth of Nations (Book 1, Chapter 2) he wrote :

Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.

Now comes the famous sentence, endlessly quoted as the basis for modern economics:

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.

Where was Rose going wrong?

I haven’t asked Rose for permission to publish this because I know she wouldn’t give it. What she did was, to her, normal. It was the kind of thing she did all the time. She didn’t think of herself as a capitalist, or even a money-maker. She ran the shop as a service to the village. It was her way of contributing.

Here lies a deep divide between capitalist economics and human nature. Adam Smith’s successors have developed economic theory in such a way as to treat humans as though we were always out for what we can get for ourselves, always self-centred, always negotiating against other individuals. No doubt when he wrote that passage Smith was thinking of shopkeepers in big cities, constantly selling to one stranger after another, unable to develop relationships with them, just treating them as momentary partners in economic exchange. Indeed, much of our buying and selling is just like this.

However, this is not human interaction at its best. It is the way we cope when there are so many people around that we cannot attend to each of them as a person with feelings, desires and needs similar to ours. We have evolved to cope better, and care better, in smaller groups. It is not surprising that many of the most successful business executives and manipulators of capitalist economics, when they retire, choose to live in villages and small towns populated by people like Rose - people who get to know their neighbours, care for them and take pleasure in contributing.

The dominant values of our society are capitalist. We are expected to believe that money-making is what makes the world go round. Whatever our natural instincts, whatever our personal experience, we are under constant pressure to behave as though the best form of relationship is an economic exchange which is utterly uncaring, unmodified by the needs and concerns of other people unless they have financial implications.

This constant pressure on us, only too clearly expressed by the current pre-election debating, causes us to suppress our better instincts. Treating other people as mere means to our own ends, instead of being recognised as an unfortunate effect of living among strangers, gets presented as a virtue. For the economy, selling is better than giving. Giving is usually better for relationships, but we do not measure those. We are encouraged to be more selfish than we would otherwise be.

The cult of the economy is the worship of a false god. It measures only the buying and selling, and values these as though they were the only criteria of well-being. There are higher, better, more fulfilling relationships to be had if we resist the pressure to suppress them.

I sometimes wonder whether Adam Smith ever watched children feeding ducks in a park. I guess he probably did. But he didn’t allow for it in his theory, and his successors still do not. We have an inbuilt desire to receive, but we also have an inbuilt desire to give. The desire to give can be suppressed, either by desperate poverty or by taking capitalist theory too seriously.

So thank you, Rose. You have shown us a better way.