It is often overlooked that Smith did not take the pure market mechanism to be a free-standing performer of excellence, nor did he take the profit motive to be all that is needed. Perhaps the biggest mistake lies in interpreting Smith’s limited discussion of why people seek trade as an exhaustive analysis of all the behavioural norms and institutions that he thought necessary for a market economy to work well. People seek trade because of self-interest – nothing more is needed, as Smith discussed in a statement that has been quoted again and again explaining why bakers, brewers, butchers and consumers seek trade. However an economy needs other values and commitments such as mutual trust and confidence to work efficiently. For example, Smith argued: “When the people of any particular country has such confidence in the fortune, probity, and prudence of a particular banker, as to believe he is always ready to pay upon demand such of his promissory notes as are likely to be at any time presented to him; those notes come to have the same currency as gold and silver money, from the confidence that such money can at any time be had for them.”
Smith explained why this kind of trust does not always exist. Even though the champions of the baker-brewer-butcher reading of Smith enshrined in many economics books may be at a loss to understand the present crisis (people still have very good reason to seek more trade, only less opportunity), the far-reaching consequences of mistrust and lack of confidence in others, which have contributed to generating this crisis and are making a recovery so very difficult, would not have puzzled him.
There were, in fact, very good reasons for mistrust and the breakdown of assurance that contributed to the crisis today. The obligations and responsibilities associated with transactions have in recent years become much harder to trace thanks to the rapid development of secondary markets involving derivatives and other financial instruments. This occurred at a time when the plentiful availability of credit, partly driven by the huge trading surpluses of some economies, most prominently China, magnified the scale of brash operations. A subprime lender who misled a borrower into taking unwise risks could pass off the financial instruments to other parties remote from the original transaction. The need for supervision and regulation has become much stronger over recent years. And yet the supervisory role of the government in the US in particular has been, over the same period, sharply curtailed, fed by an increasing belief in the self-regulatory nature of the market economy. Precisely as the need for state surveillance has grown, the provision of the needed supervision has shrunk.
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