Friday, December 3, 2010


We were talking about cabritismo at dinner the other night. Cabrito is goat in Portuguese. A goat, when tied to a post, will eat all the grass in its reach, down to the roots, denuding the ground in a sweeping circle along the radius of his line. Cabritismo is this ultimately self-defeating greed.

Mozambican friends claim that it is standard practice in business here. An employee skims away at the margins of his or her employer's business, even at the risk of threatening his or her own employment by bringing down the company. Our dinner guest told us about a rather heroic newspaper editor here who's been running an opposition paper. Among many of the daily, petty thefts he dealt with, we learned about an elaborate scheme to steal a few hundred newspapers each week as they were delivered from the printer; not much in money, but enough to make it even harder for him to run his business.

Coincidentally, the next morning over coffee, I read this passage, from a piece by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, on Adam Smith's archetypal idea, the invisible hand:

…one can't grasp the idea of the invisible hand without the balancing idea of the imaginary inner witness. All those [inner] moral judges are what let the invisible hand work….The narrow animal instinct is not to trade and exchange and invest; it is to hoard and guard and pillage. The acquired human trait is the market trait, and it depends on trust, sympathy. To see what happens in the absence of trust, one need only consider the recent history of the developing world; if there is not civic capital, a network of trust, already in place, "privatization" just produces kleptocracy.

So, here is Adam Smith in 1776 understanding perfectly the cabristismo that markets, without sympathy and trust, produce. My wariness of neoliberal American ideas about unregulated markets is rather unexpectedly confirmed by looking west from Mozambique.

Focusing my gaze here, in Maputo, I see something I understand as history in action, something known intellectually, but now felt and observed. "Market man" is nothing natural, but a being cultivated--out of cultural habits, daily practices, and regulated rules of the game. I watch this cultivation in Mozambique with perhaps the same ambivalence that Adam Smith watched the unfolding of early capitalist marketplaces. Mozambique is galloping along in its development, but will it do so in ways that spark trust more often than cabritismo?

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