Hugh Hefner and Adam Smith

Economic laws and Hugh Hefner's domestic arrangements.

When the list of fascinating personalities of the 20th century is written, Hugh Hefner will doubtless hold a place of - well not honor exactly, but certainly distinction.  For the last half of the century, he represented the American ideal - a self-made man of wealth surrounded by as many impossibly gorgeous and willing beauties as his stamina could sustain.

Yet he himself, much though he no doubt enjoyed certain aspects of this lifestyle while in the midst of it, nevertheless ended life with some regrets.

I’ve spent so much of my life looking for love in all the wrong places... I never really found my soulmate.

It certainly wasn't for lack of available candidates: he didn't bed as many women as Genghis Khan, and perhaps not even as many willing women as Wilt Chamberlain, but if the pages of his publications are any indication he probably holds the record for overall pulchritudinous quality.  He selected, publicized, compensated, and enjoyed the best of the best.

And still, he wasn't happy.  In an earlier article, we explored a misunderstanding he shared with both King Solomon and the English language: that "love" is just one thing that you can seek straightforwardly.  Actually, he achieved a lifetime supply of one kind of love - eros, or erotic love - but not very much of any of the other kinds of love which his soul desired.

Which is interesting, because he had the opportunity to try a quite rational way to achieve the best of both worlds, which we can better understand in the light of that notable economist Adam Smith.

In Pursuit of Excellence

While most Americans have probably heard of Smith's foundational text The Wealth of Nations, next to none of them have ever read it, aside from this somewhat lengthy passage that used to be commonly found in history books:

To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

Still awake?  Smith is describing the foundation of modern industrial wealth, namely, the benefits of specialization.

If one person tries to make an object of any complexity one at a time, it will take forever to hand-craft each one individually.  But if instead each step in the process of pin-making is carefully defined and performed by a different person, over and over again, he'll get very good and very fast at it.  Break down any manufacturing process into its component parts, and you're on your way to mass-production and wealth.  This was the basis of "scientific management" and of "interchangeable parts."

What Smith's unnamed entrepreneur did with the pins, Samuel Colt did with guns, Henry Ford did with cars, and Michael Dell did with computers.  As a result, the prices of all those items, along with everything else, have plummeted over the decades until we are now, in material terms, by far the wealthiest civilization in all of human history.

What has this to do with Mr. Hefner's lifestyle?  Modern feminists are split on whether Hef liberated women by allowing them to fully monetize otherwise-depreciating assets, or instead objectified and dehumanized them (personally, we'd agree with both perspectives.)  But most modern feminists view inter-gender relations as an imbalanced commodity trade, and vent their ire on "the patriarchy" which supposedly is able to exert unearned power to obtain female commodities at less than their proper price, which in addition to room and board, includes non-monetary considerations such as dignity, honor, appreciation, and respect.

In the preceding article, we discussed the many quite different forms of love documented by the ancient Greeks:

  • Eros is erotic love (sex).
  • Ludus is playful love between children or young people (puppy love).
  • Pragma, or longstanding love, comes from a mature relationship between long-married couples.
  • Philia is filial or brotherly love.
  • Philautia is love of the self - ranging from good self-esteem to unhealthy narcissism.
  • Agape is selfless, empathetic love, which we don't see much of today.  Certainly Hef didn't.

Yet all these widely varying types of love, aside perhaps from ludus, we moderns expect to be met by one and only one spouse.  Is it surprising that we're nearly always disappointed, and that so many of us resolve to try again with someone else only to be disappointed yet again?

As with Adam Smith's pin factory, the optimization of specialization suggests a different approach.

The Germans once had a saying to describe the responsibilities of wives:

Kirche, Kinder, Küche, Kammer

(Church, Children, Kitchen, Bedroom)

How many human beings could possibly be expected to be "best in category" in all four of these very different domains of responsibility?  To make matters worse, while we've mostly ditched the "church" today we've replaced it with the job of "associate breadwinner," an even more demanding role, while not relaxing the rigors of any of the other three.

Let's repeat Mr. Smith's trenchant observation of the solitary pin-maker: one man alone would be lucky to make a dozen or two pins in a day, but as part of an organized, specialized whole, he churns out (proportionately) several thousand.

Solomon, Mohamed, and Brigham Young

From time to time in history, the doctrine described by Adam Smith has been put into practice in marital relations.

King Solomon famously started off with one wife whom Hugh Hefner would have been happy to employ.  By the end of his life, though, he was the proud owner of "seven hundred wives, and three hundred concubines" - and an empty soul.

In a harem of that size, obviously not everyone is equal and not everyone has the same responsibilities.  Over a thousand years of Ottoman harems and a few decades of Mormon ones, patterns and roles were developed.

Customarily, the first wife was the most senior and held the role of "head wife."  Most commonly, she was the mother of the designated heir and was the "official" wife when one was needed for important ceremonies or public affairs.

The addition of more wives to the collection allowed specialties to be determined.  Perhaps one wife was excellent with child-rearing and acted as teacher and governess to the entire brood.  Another wife might excel at operations and logistics, overseeing the kitchens and housekeeping staff.  Still another might be wholly dedicated to meeting the husband's physical needs in bed.

Hugh Hefner certainly had no problem filling that last position many times over, but how about the other roles?  Did he even think about his need for competent women to fulfill them?  And how about when you consider the various different forms of love, some of which some people do better with than others?

Mr. Hefner availed himself of many loves, but he never seems to have tried organized polygamy.  Instead he had a sort of revolving door, featuring at any given time a wife, a "#1 girlfriend," and any number of ancillary girlfriends cycling in, out, up, and down as the spirit took him in a more or less whimsical and chaotic fashion.

Similarly, most Westerners today practice serial monogamy - one mate at a time, but an indefinite number of mates over a period of time, with no particular thought or planning given to the sequencing, or to objectives beyond the immediate.  In stark contrast, the ancients and the Mormon fathers viewed marriage as for life, but not as monogamous - a mode not commonly tried these days, yet one with a great deal of logic to commend it.

Paved with Good Intentions

Adam Smith's theory of specialization has been proved true countless millions of times in the two centuries since he penned his observations.  In six thousand years of human history, though, for all that it seems rational and logical, polygamy invariably works out poorly for all parties.

It doesn't make sense.  The benefits for the man are so obvious as to need no explanation; but the benefits are also there for at least some of the women.  Wouldn't it be nice to have "some other wife" to take care of the parts of wifery that don't strike your fancy, allowing you to be your best at whatever it is you prefer?  Not every woman likes kids, or cooking and cleaning, or even bedroom athletics, though all are required for the smooth long-term operation of a family.  By common sense, polygamy should be welcomed by all who can afford it.

Yet the facts are clear.  King Solomon famously lamented "One man among a thousand have I found, but a woman among ten thousand have I not found."  Hef expressed much the same regret.

Instead of a smooth-flowing expertise of different specialties like Smith's pin factories, the Ottoman harems were infamously full of the worst possible skulduggery and backbiting, with constant murders and violence inside and out.  Sultan Ibrahim I became so enraged that he had his entire harem tied in weighted sacks and tossed into the ocean - all 280 of them - and started over.  It didn't help.

Hugh Hefner may not have found his soulmate, but at least none of his many bedmates tried to kill him nor he them.  Specialization may work well for making pins, but apparently not for making marriages.

Natural Selection Wins

Nobody like to admit that men and women are products of generations of natural selection which have resulted in our having powerful emotions and instincts which affect our behavior, particularly in matters pertaining to reproduction.  For most of history, a man was barely able to feed himself, one woman, and their children.  Kings such as Solomon could afford to feed many women, but most women were critically dependent on whatever food their single husband could scratch out of the ground.

A wife tended to react very negatively if she saw her husband spending resources on some other woman that ought to have gone to take care of her; if he wasted too many resources, she or her children might starve.  In a subsistence economy, women had very few alternative ways to feed themselves, so a woman more or less had to stay with her husband, regardless of anger.

Women don't have to put up with this when there's no shortage of resources.  For example, Governor Schwarzenegger of California came to the US as an immigrant and accumulated a net worth of about $50 million by, as he put it, "work hard and marry a Kennedy."

His wife, the former Maria Shriver, was a special anchor on NBC with a decent following.  This made her a fine example of the "public wife" who could be taken to assemblies of the glitterati, apparently a prime opportunity for the optimization of specialization which helped her husband gain political advantage.

Yet even though the Kennedy clan is not known for marital fidelity, Ms. Shriver divorced her husband when he admitted fathering a child with their housekeeper.  Mr. Schwarzenegger had a first-rate public wife and hired a housekeeper to take on the onerous parts of child-rearing and housekeeping, who also turned out to be competent at the provision of other services.  It's no surprise that eros led him to father a child on "the wrong side of the blanket," as the saying goes.

Unlike a subsistence farmer, there was absolutely no danger of the Gubernator running out of funds to keep both women well provided for, and Ms. Shriver was perfectly capable of providing for herself anyway.  It ought to have worked swimmingly for all parties.  Instead, his wife used her ample financial resources to indulge her fury and jealousy by divorcing him.

We can see natural selection at work: even though in this particular case the "other woman" was no risk to health, wealth, or well-being, ten thousand generations of the opposite experience have mostly bred the "tolerance for infidelity" gene out of the human race.  Since the dawn of recorded history, women have never been particularly enthusiastic about sharing their husbands with other women no matter how practical it might seem, even when it was their idea in the first place: Abraham's wife Sarah cajoled her husband into bedding her maid because she herself was unable to provide him with a son, but then was so enraged by jealousy she threw the poor girl out into the desert with unfortunate results to her descendants down to this day.

Modern women ought to be grateful that our society is wealthy enough that they can afford to walk out on men who anger them too much.  As Arnold discovered too late, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, even if there's no rational grounds for her worrying about survival.

There are, alas, a great many women around these days who feel scorned - and a whole lot of that is Hugh Hefner's fault.  We'll discuss that in the next article in this continuing series loosely revolving around him, like so many buxom blondes.

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Feels like you're over thinking this. Hefner was selling a lifestyle that was quite unfamiliar to the generations of men he was reaching. It was desirable because it represented everything that most men never experience...beautiful women throwing themselves at them and disrobing in the process. Pictures of Mr. Hefner with all these ladies were abundant on his magazines and web site.
How exactly did he get all these women to cooperate ? He paid them ! And promised them fame and fortune by having them "entertain" B list celebrities at the Mansion. There is a term for women who provide sexual favors for consideration. And I believe that occupation pre dates the Greeks.

October 16, 2017 12:04 PM

Hef was simply ahead of his time, and the Chinese are catching up:

The fall in marriage, in part stemming from more than three decades of the one-child birth control policy, is largely driven by a mindset shift on Chinese women’s part. As the country’s rapid development translates into more and more opportunities, women no longer view marriage as a path to security. They are delaying it for education and career, a choice that was frowned upon in as early as 2007, when unmarried women over 27 were derisively called shengnu, or leftover women.
“Chinese society is definitely getting more tolerant towards different ways of living,” said Yuan Xin, a professor of population studies in Nankai University in Tianjin. “More and more people choose to not get married, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have partners.”

Last year, new marriages fell by 6.7% to 11.4 million, marking the third consecutive year of decline since 2013, according to government data. Meanwhile, divorce saw consecutive increases since 2012, climbing a further 8% to 416 million in 2016.

October 20, 2017 10:21 PM
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