Adam Smith on Providence
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Recent exchanges on the meaning that Adam Smith attributed to the invisible hand have prompted thoughts about how inequality persist over time. To this end, I have been looking at certain texts by Adam Smith.
“They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for” (TMS IV.1.10: 186-7).
This passage is more literary than historical. By referring to ‘Providence’ in this manner, Smith executed a nice evasion and did not have to explain the means by which this operation was carried out, and most of his contemporary readers, familiar if only vaguely with language that resorted to providential interventions, would accept Smith’s alusion without questioning it.
In his Lectures On Jurisprudence (6 January, 1762), Smith gives an altogether less Providential gloss to the passivity by which property-less peasants accepted the dictates of a benign Providence:
“The tyranny of the feudal government and the inclination men have to extort all they can from their inferiours, has brought property in some measure into these subjects. By the civil law and the constitutions of most countries in ancient times, game was considered as being free to every one. And this certainly is what is most agreable to reason. For no one can have any power over an animall of this sort, nor can he claim the property of it, because it pastures on his ground just now, for perhaps the next moment it may be on another mans ground. But when the feudal government was established, which was the foundation and still prevails in some measure in all the governments in Europe, the king and his nobles appropriated to themselves every thing they could, without great hazard of giving umbrage to an enslaved people' (LJ(A) i.55: 23).
The feudal lords, following the Fall of Rome after the 5th century, took ownership of the land and all that was on it, by violence and the threat of violence, “without great hazard of giving umbrage” from those in no position to resist. Earlier, Roman attempts to divide the land equally among its citizens also suffered from natural pressures of human societies over the ever-present tensions between the generations, to which, incidentally, he exposed his Glasgow students in his Jurisprudence classes and his readers in Wealth Of Nations. His conclusions about legislating for “equality” are worthy of consideration by those peddling modern idealistic utopias:
“Rome, like most of the other ancient republicks, was originally founded upon an Agrarian law, which divided the publick territory in a certain proportion among the different citizens who composed the state.2The course of human affairs, by marriage, by succession, and by alienation, necessarily deranged this original division, and frequently threw the lands, which had been allotted for the maintenance of many different families into the possession of a single person. To remedy this disorder, for such it was supposed to be, a law was made, restricting the quantity of land which any citizen could possess to five hundred jugera, about three hundred and fifty English acres. This law, however, though we read of its having been executed upon one or two occasions, was either neglected or evaded, and the inequality of fortunes went on continually increasing. The greater part of the citizens had no land, and without it the manners and customs of those times rendered it difficult for a freeman to maintain his
independency” (WN VII.3: 556-7).
Smith was more candid about the literary niceties when he taught his Jurisprudence students in 1762 and when he published Wealth of Nations in 1776, than about the role of Providence that he expressed in Moral Sentiments (1759), when he taught his Jurisprudence students in 1762 and when he published Wealth of Nations in 1776. In this approach he was closer to Richard Cantillon’s ( 1755) assessments of the realities of the origins of feudal inequalities than appears from Moral Sentiments, where he made a different point, namely that the illusion of absolute power of the feudal lord over his inferiors, nevertheless, meant that the ‘inferiors’ “too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them.”
Cantillon noted that:
“even if the Prince distribute the land equally among all inhabitants it will ultimately be divided among a small number. One man will have several Children and cannot leave to each of them a portion of Land equal to his own; another will die without Children, and will leave his portion to some one who one who has land already rather than to one who has none; a third will be lazy, prodigal, or sickly, and be obliged to sell his portion to another who is frugal and industrious, who will continually add to his Estate by new purchases and will employ upon the Labour of those who having no Land of their own are compelled to offer their labour in order to live” (Cantillon, Essai Sur La Nature Du Commerce en Generale, p5, ed. and trans. Henry Higgs, Augustus M. Kelly, New York, 1964).
As if to make the general comment on the true source of the Landlords’ status as owners of the land, Cantillon makes a more pointed remark that is relevant to Smith’s, albeit later, fable about ‘Providence’”
“It does not appear that Providence has given the Right of the Possession of Land to one Man preferably to another: the most ancient Titles are founded on violence and Conquest. … But howsoever people come into the property and possession of Land we have already observed that it always falls into the hands of a few in proportion to the total inhabitants.
“If the Proprietor of a great Estate keeps it in his own hands he will employ Slaves or free men to work upon it. If he have many Slaves he must have Overseers to keep them at work: he must likewise have Slave craftsmen to supply the needs and conveniences of life for himself and his workers, and must have trades taught to others in order to carry on the work.
In this economy he must allow his labouring Slaves their subsistence and the wherewithal to bring up their Children” (Cantillon, p 32-3).
I suggest these extracts from Smith’s Lectures On Jurisprudence and Wealth Of Nations, and the quotes from Cantillon (Smith quoted from his Essai, WN I.viii.15: p 85), demonstrate that the Providence fable in Moral Sentiments was, well, just a literary allusion; Smith knew perfectly well, and taught, that the earth was divided by men, using violence, and anyway, that ‘equality’ obtained in Moral Sentiments, barely in the matter of biological subsistence, but not in the ‘conveniences and the amusements’ of life, show that so-called Divine Providence had not moved common labourers much further on than when their ancestors ran in the forests.