“The government, both state and federal, could at any time confiscate not only the whole field, but every ounce of gold the man had mined with so much labor and pain. While the three miners were at work they would be well guarded. Only when on their way back with their hard earned loads would they be waylaid or hijacked by a party of fake bandits acting under orders from someone who was paid by the people to protect the country from bandits. Things like that have happened even in the country to the north; why not here? It is the influence of the atmosphere of the continent.”
From The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by B. Traven (85)
Economics, the value of hard work, and the proper role of government are subjects that have been debated for centuries. These topics seem to rise to the forefront (as they naturally would) when times are not good…and in America in the 1930’s, things were not good at all. Putting the 1930’s focus on economics and the role of big government into perspective, B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – while a work of fiction – provides something of a textbook on free market theories and how government can get in the way. Traven’s observations contain pieces of early studies on capitalism and the free markets. Before discussing how the book embodies this thinking, it is first necessary to explore the work of early economist/philosophers. As I will point out, this embodiment extends to the three main characters in the novel, each of whom comes to represent the thoughts of an early economist/philosopher. In the 17th and 18th centuries, following the Renaissance and the era of mercantilism, what became known as capitalism was documented and commented on by three noted economist/philosophers, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), and Adam Smith (1723-1790). Each man took the theory of capitalism one step further than the man before him. Hobbes was about power, Locke about private property, and Smith expounded the relationship between labor and wages and the value of goods. Before delving further into the benefits or detriments of capitalism (or free enterprise, market-based economies, and/or lack of government control), it is helpful to understand a little about each man’s positions.
Hobbes is credited with being the first “true” capitalist thinker and philosopher. Among his many published works on the subject was Leviathan, in which he commented, “The Value or Worth of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say as much as would be given for the use of his Power; and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependent on the judgment and need of another…” Additionally, Hobbes noted, “As in other things, so in men, not the seller but the buyer determines the Price” (Cryan, 24) This is a long and fancy way of saying, as we would today, “every man has his price.” The upshot of Hobbes’ views was that the individual’s power derived from such attributes as strength, intelligence or social standing was powerful, but only in relation to others. It is a somewhat Darwinian philosophy in that the strongest are the most self-reliant and capable of obtaining what they need, when they need it. An individual’s power, according to Hobbes, could (and should) be traded for some form of compensation (making one “infinitely free”), but weaker individuals, not possessing these attributes, might very well resort to dishonest or evil tactics in order to “get their piece of the pie.” Therefore, government’s role, in Hobbes’ view, was to protect each individual’s right to freedom and to defend himself from “the wickedness of bad men.” Because, in Hobbes’ view, it was in man’s nature to battle everyone else for every small advantage, the proper role of government was that of protector of the individual’s right to honest compensation through honest endeavor. (Cryan, 25) Put simply, if someone tried to hold you up at gunpoint to relieve you of what you rightfully...
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