Crime and Punishment
I came upon a surprising passage while reading the Russian novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky which was first published in 1866. I was reading it as one of those “must reads” that the intellectual elite tells us we should do.
Well in this case the elite was Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who said the book had great discourses on the basis for morality. The protagonist conducts two senseless and horrible murders and the book centers on the murderer’s perspective.
A fourth of the way into the book, a new character tries to share his excitement regarding progress that the city of Petersburg appears to be displaying more than out in the country. Here the character seems to me to extoll the virtues of Adam Smith’s self-interested individual described in his 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations.
"Isn't it so?" Pyotr Petrovitch went on… "You must admit,"… "that there is an advance, or, as they say now, progress in the name of science and economic truth . . ."
“…Hitherto, for instance, if I were
told 'love thy neighbor/what came of it? It came to my tearing my
coat in half to share with my neighbor and we both
were left half naked. As a Russian proverb has it, 'catch
several hares and you won't catch one.' Science now tells us,
love yourself before all men, for everything in the world
rests on self-interest. You love yourself and manage your
own affairs properly and your coat remains whole. Economic truth adds that the better private affairs are organized
in society the more whole coats, so to say the firmer are
its foundations and the better is the common welfare organized too.
Therefore, in acquiring wealth solely and
exclusively for myself, I am acquiring so to speak, for all,
and helping to bring to pass my neighbor's getting a little
more than a torn coat; and that not from private, personal
liberality, but as a consequence of the general advance. The
idea is simple, but unhappily it has been a long time reaching us, being
hindered by idealism and sentimentality.
And yet it would seem to want very little wit to perceive
it . . ."
Had the Russian author Dostoevsky lived long enough to experience the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, he very likely would have been placed against a wall for writing the praises of free-market self-interest.
As it was, he was arrested in 1849 for belonging to a literary group that discussed banned books critical of "Tsarist Russia," was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted at the last moment. He spent four years in a Siberian prison camp, followed by six years of compulsory military service in exile. So, I guess Dostoevsky lived between a rock and a hard place.
I think the character Petrovitch’s statement fairly accurately captures Adam Smith’s assessment of self-interested business people benefiting the general population through their works.
The statement, however, seems to be too quick to cast away Christian doctrine regarding our relationship to others. Modern Christians find no conflict between their religious doctrine and free enterprise. They are arguably the most generous people on the planet. An impoverished third-world citizen might be more relatively generous when he gives me the shirt off his back, but that is all he can give. A prosperous American can and does give so much more.
I find it amazing to find a Russian, living under the fist of a Czar, in a country soon to be ravaged for generations by communism, writing on free market theory.
Oppressed Dostoevsky understood it, why don’t so many free Americans?