Adam Smith, Really?

So, I’ve just started Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations when I come to this at the end of the first chapter.

yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute masters of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

Book I, Ch. I. To be sure, there is plenty of careful economic analysis–specifically the division of labor–and there is the beginnings of the idea that economic advances happen as a result of everyone looking out for their own self interest. But this little gem caught my attention.

I think it is worth recognizing the brutal racism toward African nations. Locke had this, too. Although, with Locke it was more about the American Indian nations. It doesn’t necessarily discount his analysis, but I think it should be in the back of ones mind while reading these authors.

I think it is also worth noting the underlying assumption about productivity necessarily improving ones life. Surely one would rather be “absolute master” of “ten thousand nake savages” then a peasant wearing a jacket that much division of labor went into creating. Again, not to say that Smith’s observations should be disregarded, but I do think it is worthwhile to keep his biases in mind. Curiously, he later writes, “Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life.” Book I, Ch. V. Does this contradict his observation about the “savages”?

Is the ability to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life of those in what Smith calls civilised, but what we call industrialized, nations always greater than those in less industrialized nations? Was it in Adam Smith’s time?

9 thoughts on “Adam Smith, Really?”

  1. I think it bears considering that you have and yet have not embraced the full scope of Smith's racism. It's possible that when he says, "Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life.", he is not even considering the naked savages as men. I think it's reasonable to expect that Smith wouldn't consider it possible for the savages to enjoy at the same capacity as white men.

    I think a peasant from AD 1300 in Britain was probably not better off than a king from AD 900 in Britain. But I think a sanitation worker from 1950s New York was fabulously better off than Edward V.

    wisess

  2. I think your temporal spin on my question is a fair one. I wonder if quality of life has steadily improved since the Industrial Revolution, just as I wonder if quality of life has always been better in industrialized nations as compared to non-industrialized nations.

    For example, surely there have been periods in history when those in rural settings have enjoyed a higher quality of life than those in cities. Am I over romanticizing simplicity?

  3. surely there have been periods in history when those in rural settings have enjoyed a higher quality of life than those in cities. Am I over romanticizing simplicity?

    No, I don't think you are. I think there have to have been times and places where a rural life was spent in relative abundance, was disease-free and not overly burdened with the threats of war. But rural/urban, agrarian/industrial is not the same as king/peasant.

    "Progress", as defined by an increasing specialization in production, is a tide that raises all ships–I believe that. There are local nadirs along the landscape, but a local nadir is often still higher than a spot that is truly down-slope. In other words, there is something meaningful to the word "progress", and I do think that has to do with social/economic structure.

    cohydret

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