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How Many Servants Do You Have?

Cato University Into the corners of a life with full-time work, two toddlers and a halfway-accomplished pregnancy, I’ve been tucking some Cato University podcasts on the Western tradition of free minds and men. I recommend the series. First, it’s free, but second, it’s high-quality free. The selections of readings and the actors used to illustrate them are top-notch. Rather than forcing myself to listen because it’s mental medicine, I enjoy each bit of time I can spend listening while making dinner or doing laundry. I’m almost finished with their selection on Adam Smith, and I wanted to ask you a question he’s inspired: How many servants do you have? You may think you have none, but as Smith points out, we all have thousands. Let me put it this way. For about $500, you can—as I am now—hurdle through the air at 300 miles per hour in a machine created by an industry that employs thousands all over the world just to make your air-hurdling possible, in myriad combinations of flights to suit your needs and fancy. For $75, you can have hundreds, if not thousands, of petroleum industry workers bring gas for your car from deep caverns of the earth up to a few blocks from your home. And for $2—just a few minutes of work—you can have two or three employees at Starbucks make you hot coffee. In “The Wealth of Nations,” Smith points out that the number of people under your command is a measure of power and wealth. Nowadays, the number of people you and I can “command” for $500 or $75 surpasses the number many—probably most—ancient kings commanded into war and peace. In other terms, it takes me from two hours to half a week of work to have the power of ancient kings. Even for a person earning minimum wage, it takes one workday or one and a half work weeks to have the power of ancient kings. Smith’s point is that even the lowliest workers in a free market are given power far beyond those at the top in a restricted market. The comparison is not perfect, but like many insights of major thinkers, it’s a wild change of perspective. Do you think it’s a fair one?