Why the rioters should be reading Rousseau


Britain has experienced two crises this August, one on the streets and one in the markets. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau perceived the common issue three centuries ago. The gangs he observed were not on the city streets or trading floors, they were huntsmen: “If a deer was to be taken, everyone saw that, in order to succeed, he must abide faithfully by his post: but if a hare happened to come within the reach of any one of them, it is not to be doubted that he pursued it without scruple and, having seized his prey, cared very little, if by so doing he caused his companions to miss theirs.”

在这个8月里,英国经历了两场危机,一场街头危机,一场股市危机。法国哲学家让-雅克•卢梭(Jean-Jacques Rousseau)三个世纪前就观察到了这个带有普遍性的问题。他观察的对象不是城市街头或交易所里的某一伙人,而是猎人:“为了捕猎一只鹿,所有猎人都认识到,要想成功,每个人就必须坚守岗位。但如果有一只野兔碰巧进入某个猎人的看守范围,他肯定会无所顾忌地去追捕野兔;并且,如果逮到了野兔,他几乎不会在乎自己的行为是否导致同伴失去猎物。”

Rousseau was an early and incisive critic of the idea that self-interested behaviour would necessarily work to the benefit of all. If the hunt were to catch a deer, it would need to establish shared values and probably impose them through some sort of hierarchy. Without such a structure there would be no more for supper than the occasional hare. It is unlikely that the people who introduced the concept of “eat what you kill” into modern professional services had read Rousseau. Nor – it is safe to say – had the people who snatched electrical goods from the broken shop windows of Tottenham.


Two broad economic theories describe the allocation of income and wealth. The power theory states, broadly, that people get what they grab: from the forest, the markets, or the shop window. The distribution of income reflects the distribution of power. For most of history, this was plainly true – the landlord took what he could from the tenant, the baron what he could from the landlord and the king what he could from everyone. The sixth Duke of Muck was rich because the first Duke of Muck had been an especially successful gang leader. The alternative theory is that what people earn reflects their marginal productivity – how much they personally add to the value of goods and services. The marginal productivity theory has many attractions, especially to those who are well paid: if what they receive is a product of their own efforts, their rewards are surely well deserved.


Collaborative organisation was only occasionally necessary in an agricultural society in which there were no asset-backed securities and no electrical goods in the shops. But in a complex modern economy, as in the deer forest, production requires the involvement of many. Adam Smith marvelled at the resulting efficiency in his description of a pin factory. But if, as Smith described, one man wrought the iron and another stretched it, who could say what was the marginal productivity of each? And what was the marginal product of the chief executive of the pin factory, or the person who hedged the foreign exchange exposure on the unfinished pins, whose contributions the Scots savant unaccountably failed to mention?

农业社会很少需要合作性组织,那时没有资产支持证券(ABS),商店里也没有电子产品。但在复杂的现代经济中,生产却需要许多人的参与,正如在森林中捕鹿一样。亚当•斯密(Adam Smith)在描述大头针工厂时,对分工合作产生的效率感到惊叹。但是,如果像斯密描述的那样,一个人负责对铁进行锻造,一个人负责对铁进行拉伸,谁能说出他们各自的边际生产率是多少呢?大头针工厂的首席执行官,或者负责对冲未完工大头针汇率风险敞口的人,边际产出又是多少呢?不知道为什么,这位苏格兰大学者甚至都没有提到后两者的贡献。

If the pin factory really did increase the productivity of the factory by a factor of at least 240, as Smith claimed, there was likely to be a surplus when the wage earners had received whatever their marginal product was. And when it came to dividing that surplus, the distribution of authority within that pin factory would be crucial. That distribution would surely favour the CEO. Since the CEO wrote – or at least commissioned – the pin factory’s annual report, the moral and economic argument could be turned on its head. If you were paid a lot, that showed that you contributed a lot. What the recipient earned was, by that fact alone, justified. So the ethic of just reward through effort gave way to the culture of present entitlement from possession.


A recent survey of children – by Sky Television, of all organisations – showed that their career aspirations, once directed towards professions, were now aimed at celebrity. They hoped to be pop stars or footballers, not teachers or doctors. They wanted – like the sixth Duke of Muck – respect: to be valued for what they were, not for what they had contributed. Children, of course, tell adults what they want to hear. But adults’ expectations are further confirmation of how economic and social values have been eroded.

天空电视台(Sky Television)最近进行了一项儿童调查——没想到吧,它居然也做调查——结果显示:以前的孩子,职业志向是成为专业人士;现在的孩子,职业志向却是当名人。孩子们想当的是歌星或足球运动员,而不是老师或医生。和某某公爵六世一样,孩子们也想受人尊重:这种尊重要源自他们的身份,而不要源自他们的贡献。当然,孩子们说的是大人们想听的话。而大人们的期望只是进一步表明,经济价值观和社会价值观受到了怎样的侵蚀。