Saturday, January 02, 2010

Adam Smith Included Among Unproductive Labour

Nate Hawthorne, writes on Marx’s Capital in What in the hell… Blog (HERE)

Marx quotes Eden, “It is not the possession of land, or of money, but the command of labour which distinguishes the opulent from the labouring part of the community.” (766.) Here’s a funny bit in the extended footnote that runs from 766-768. “Parson Thomas Chalmers was inclined to suspect that Adam Smith invented the category of ‘unproductive labourers’ out of pure malice, so that he could put the Protestant parsons in it” (768).

As my copy of Marx’s Capital is in storage, I cannot check the footnote reference, though I think Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), is the most famous Scottish Presbyterian Church minister next to John Knox. He taught moral philosophy at St Andrews University and The Works of Thomas Chalmers, (Glasgow: William Collins, 1836 –1842) went to 25 volumes.

However, Karl Marx, from memory, was more than critical of the distinction that Adam Smith made between productive and unproductive labour. The former was associated with revenue spent on producing output sold at a price sufficient to cover costs (available for re-investment) and a profit available for growth (frugality); and the latter were regarded as unproductive (household servants, and generaly associated with prodigality).

Marx didn’t buy this idea and was given to picking holes in it, especially in the examples given by Smith and from his labour theory of value and his theory of surplus value. Much misunderstanding, and not just among Marxists -has always followed Smith’s distinction – somewhat carelessly expressed, it must be agreed.

For example, it had nothing to do with the social value of the employment; soldiers and seamen are unproductive – they do not normally generate a revenue – but those employed in manufacturing their weapons and supplies, which are sold by manufacturers to the government, do generate revenue and therefore are productive.

Domestic servants in a household are unproductive – their employers do not re-sell the wine in the bottles they open and serve to their dinner guests and, therefore, they are unproductive for their employers. But as menial servants in a hotel or inn, their employers who re-sell their services to paying customers and do receive a revenues to cover their costs and make a profit. (Likewise for Marx's example of a brothel keeper and the prostitutes who earn income plus a profit for the owner.)

For the record, I think it doubtful that Adam Smith picked on ‘Protestant parsons’ (doesn’t sound very Scottish) in his designation of unproductive labour. Any way, that is besides the point: it’s not their value or importance to society, but whether they generate revenue to continue at their employment in subsequent years:

The sovereign, for example, with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him, the whole army and navy, are unproductive labourers. They are the servants of the public, and are maintained by a part of the annual produce of the industry of other people. Their service, how honourable, how useful, or how necessary soever, produces nothing for which an equal quantity of service can afterwards be procured. The protection, security, and defence of the commonwealth, the effect of their labour this year will not purchase its protection, security, and defence for the year to come. In the same class must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, &c. The labour of the meanest of these has a certain value, regulated by the very same principles which regulate that of every other sort of labour; and that of the noblest and most useful, produces nothing which could afterwards purchase or procure an equal quantity of labour. Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician, the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production” (WN II.iii.2: 330-31).

Also note, Smith includes himself in the category of “unproductive” in respect of “men of letters”, though I expect he also included himself among those unproductive labourers who were to be “ranked” among “both of the gravest and most important” of the unproductive. Though depending on whether his income from writing his books was sufficient to pay for subsequent editorial and new work in the new editions of each is an empirial question.

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