Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Did Adam Smith Write This?

ANDREW C. REVKIN posts in Dot Earth (HERE):

The Endless Pursuit of Unnecessary Things’

“Adam Smith, the father of economics, 250 years ago, said: “An investment is by all right-minded people to be commended, because it brings comforts and necessities to the citizenry. But, if continued indefinitely, it will lead to the endless pursuit of unnecessary things

I am not aware of where Adam Smith made such a pronouncement (or, at least have not found it yet) and would appreciate any help from readers of Lost Legacy to locate it in Smith’ works.

It sounds in part as something Smith could have said, but has a modern ring to it as well. It may be a paraphrase at best or simply invented by somebody with a modern axe to grind.

It is now reappearing on other Blogs, which is to be expected, and has received at least one rebuttal from Ronald Bailley at Reason.com HERE:'Decrying the "Pursuit of Unnecessary Things"
Are we overconsuming our way to doomsday

Any light that readers can shine on it would be appreciated.



Blogger Ruari said...

I can't find it either, Professor, although it does ring a vague bell.

If I can nail down whatever it is that is tinkling, I will let you know.

4:33 pm  
Blogger Andrew Revkin said...

I've been trying to run this to ground as well. Happy to share any insights. What other Smith scholars/biographers are out there who'd know?

5:04 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Smith described wealth as the annual output of the 'necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life'.
Basic hunter gathers were limited to 'necessities' by the limits of what an individual could make of the bounties of nature and the fruits of his/her labour. The conveniences came later (shepherding and farming) and mostly enjoyed by the elites. In the transformation to commerce, consumption gradually rose (population increased, but per capita incomes of the majority remained basic - the elites syphoned off luxuries and stone 'civilisation'.

Smith said the driving force for these changes was the urge to self-betterment, epitomised by his fable of the ambitions of the 'poor man's' son (Book IV, WN), who strived and suffered for wealth, represented by 'trivia', but this cleared the land and created the technologies that 'crossed oceans', etc.

Now this is close to the 'unnecessary things' themes, but misses the point. Life on 'necessaries' is mean, low population (10 million not 6 billion), and short, in the midst of ignorance (murderous superstition).

The 'unnecessary things' theme is an unwarranted perversion of Smith's meaning.

6:27 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Andy Revkin

See above. I appreciate your willingness to remain open to dissent. Any idea where you sourced it?


6:29 pm  
Blogger Ruari said...

Thanks, Prof, for your reminder - but that isn't it! There is something that is closer to the original quote you've challenged - but I don't think it's Smith. I hesitate to say it in case it turns out to be someone else entirely but I have a feeling it's more like mid-Marx.

7:03 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

We are missing each others point!

My comments were not an attempt to show where Smith made anything like the statement attributed to him but to show what he did say, which is much less than the attribution.

I agree: someone has misattributed the invented quote to Smith. The human capacity to search for 'conveniences' and 'amusements', Smith says, is almost inexhaustible, a point made by Smith but and not realised by the 'stagnation' purveyors on 19th century doomsayers and todays dismal (usually well-healed) 'environmentalists'.

The hunt continues.


3:22 pm  
Blogger Ruari said...

Ah, well, we're on the same page now!

I've scanned much, including Ursula K le Guin ('The Dispossessed' - not as weird a choice as some may think!) to Yevgeny Zemyatin and including J M Keynes - nothing yet. However, I'm certain I have read pretty much exactly that quote somewhere and I think it's within the past 18 months.

On the Internet, I've found nothing before February 2008, when it was mentioned in a New York Times column. It pops up all over the place after that.

(and no, the NYT column wasn't where I read it previously!)

The hunt helps to make those long summer evenings just fly by...

3:37 pm  
Blogger entech said...

“An investment is by all right-minded people to be commended, because it brings comforts and necessities to the citizenry. But, if continued indefinitely, it will lead to the endless pursuit of unnecessary things.”
The entire phrase does not seem authentic:
“Investment” does not appear in WON. Investigate and Investiture are the only are the only references to Invest.
“All right minded people” comes very close to question begging.
“Comforts” is never used in this sense. The usual phrase is “necessaries and conveniences”.
“Citizenry” is never used.
Presuming this is meant to be investment for manufacture and that the Industrial Revolution had not really begun. The capacity for the production of necessary things was barely sufficient.

This appears to be a modern idea looking for historical justification, without a convenient “invisible hand” to support it one had (perhaps) to be created.


6:45 am  
Blogger Ruari said...

I tend to agree with you David.

There are elements of Smith but also of Keynes, mixed with a bit of 'Hollywood' buddhism. And other stuff besides.

It's increasingly sounding to me like something from a 'League of Gentlemen' stocktake in the Local Shop. I have a suggested script, if you're interested...;-)

1:12 pm  

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