I am a son of Adam Smith. I was taught that endeavor is motivated by self-interest and justified by profit. But as I have grown older I feel that is an oversimplification of the human being. Not that Smith was wrong, but that maybe he needed to be blended equal parts with Tolstoy or Wordsworth and taken in balance.
After ten years as a small business I think one of the things that has impressed me most is how complex and personal it is. Many times you won’t really know if the decision is right or wrong. You can’t rely on profit alone to justify it, nor can your self-interest clearly guide a complex decision like “how important are the aesthetics of a wall?” Its just a wall, really, right? I don’t have an answer but reading James Rebanks “The Shepherd’s Life” I found another way to struggle with the topic.
In the Lake District of Northern England farmers still engage in a backwards relic of the medieval age called walling. They spend some allocated portion of their year stacking stones and repairing the walls which are so characteristic of the region and one of its great charms. These walls are impractical. They cost so much in labor, and God help you if you ever had to buy that stone. But this old habit, born partly of necessity since they did not have other materials, is continued because of affection. They love their walls. And if you ever go you will fall in love with the charm of this impractical, archaic, unprofitable way of life.
The most efficient ways of doing things are often not the most lovely. We often seek to justify gruesome aesthetics by pointing at the money it made us or saved us and saying, “look what I have been able to do with that.” Thus we build a harsh and bitter world, which we separate from our lives by distance, by walls, and by habits, and then live in a world where all the aesthetic beauty is only aesthetic and has no function.
I believe there is a deep lesson in walling. There are parts of the world of production which are unavoidably gruesome and unlovely. But we as human beings, moved by affection, can choose to build a world not unprofitable, but less profitable and more lovely. We still need to make a profit, but what if the poets and philosophers are right that humanity exists more in contentedness with simple things than in the accruement of wealth.
In the end we have to make profit. In the end we have to take care of our families and our homes. But in the end I think the question of “how beautiful is the world we are building?” should haunt us each time we build a structure or create a lasting mark on the physical world.