Different Perspective on Wall Street Woes

John Mauldin: The Death of Capital

The recent problems experienced by Goldman Sachs highlight just how far the financial system has lapsed from the days of gentlemanly capitalism. Change in itself is neither good nor bad – it is an inevitable feature of human life and it must be managed. Change on Wall Street has by and large been managed poorly by being left to the most self-interested forces. My April 2008 essay began with a quote from Adam Smith that should be etched into the brains of every Wall Street CEO and included in the oath of office of every new member of Congress. The quote is from Adam Smith, who is best known as the author of the bible of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, but who wrote an equally important book two decades earlier entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith wrote the following:

"This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect, persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."

What Adam Smith pointed out more than two hundred years ago is equally true today – our society, fed by the media, worships wealth at the expense of other values that are far more important to a cohesive and healthy society. The entire mission of The Wealth of Nations was to try to recognize man for what he is – a social animal who is reliant on the good opinions of his neighbors – and to develop the optimal economic system to harness that human essence for the good of all mankind. Smith believed that system was a free market, and history has by and large proven him correct. But the United States has strayed from a free market model to a system that privatizes gains and socializes losses.

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