The Magazine

More Adam Smith, Please . . .

and less Barbara Ehrenreich.

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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More Adam Smith, Please . . .

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that most recent college graduates learned everything they know about capitalism from Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich’s 2001 book Nickel and Dimed was compulsory summer reading for entering freshmen throughout most of the past decade at countless campuses across the country, including Smith, Rutgers, the State University of New York-Brockport, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Appalachian State University, Illinois Wesleyan, Northern Arizona University, and California State University-Northridge. At none of those campuses were students at any level, from freshmen to graduating seniors, required to read a single word written by Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations (1776) is considered the seminal philosophical justification for a Western economic system that relies on private property and private investment and allows the market, not governments, to set wages and prices, in the process generating prosperity from the pursuit of self-interest. Nor were those students—and the same can be said for their successors enrolled in college today​—required to read any of the seminal philosophical critics of capitalism, such as Karl Marx or Ferdinand Tönnies, who famously worried that social systems based on Gemeinschaft (traditional bonds of family and neighborhood) were being replaced by those based on Gesellschaft (impersonal monetary and contractual relations).

Instead of works by leading 18th- and 19th-century thinkers, college students got the adventures of Ehrenreich, a self-proclaimed socialist, dabbling in minimum-wage blue-collar employment such as waitressing, cleaning houses, and clerking for Walmart. Her modus operandi was to put in a few weeks on the job, quit in a huff over such indignities as having to scrub toilets or be nice to customers, and then complain about employee drug-testing at Walmart and the impossibility of surviving on $7 an hour (impossible for Ehrenreich, that is, since she lived by herself in relatively costly motel rooms instead of with family like most of the real-life working poor). Instead of wondering whether some people stay poor and live in poverty because they make lousy lifestyle choices such as dropping out of high school and bearing children out of wedlock, Ehrenreich made the zero-sum argument that people are poor because the rich systematically steal from them, for example by buying up all convenient residential land for “condos, McMansions, golf courses, or whatever they like,” thereby forcing those at the bottom of the ladder into shabby trailer parks from which they commute to their “junk” jobs.

Nickel and Dimed has pretty much run its course as required freshman reading, having been supplanted by Eric Schlosser’s war against junk food and Elizabeth Kolbert’s campaign to have the federal government force people to clamp down on carbon emissions. The point is that, for nearly a decade, professors and administrators at institutions of higher learning across America who do not consider Adam Smith to be essential reading for their students made Barbara Ehrenreich mandatory. This is not just an indictment of the anti-intellectualism of an academic system that would rather expose its students to a piece of flippant and ephemeral journalism than to one of the classics of the West. It is also a revelation of the pervasive ideological imbalance on campuses. Ehrenreich’s tract passed for an uncontroversial requirement; any effort to introduce college students to a fair—not boosterish, simply fair—evaluation of capitalism with all its virtues and drawbacks would likely provoke a faculty revolt.

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