Read Smith Yourself Before Alleging Others Have Not Read Him
[Tidying my desktop to create room for daily use, I came across a file containing what follows below (and in the previous post), which I do not appear to have posted when I prepared them in mid-September. As they remain relevant, I have posted them today.]
KEITH ARMSTRONG writes HERE
“ADAM SMITH’S ‘INVISIBLE HAND’ IS SUPPOSED TO HAVE A CONSCIENCE – WHERE DID IT GO?”
“As so many people continue to blindly pursue their own self-interests, I start to wonder if Adam Smith’s infamous ‘Invisible Hand’ continues to improve the living standards and benefits for all members of society? Who is actually looking out for the ‘common wealth’ these days?
“I wish people who robotically and extravagantly praise unfettered capitalism would spend some time reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (of which the term ‘invisible hand’ is first used). By doing so they would gain insight and understanding of his intent (to be decided by themselves of course) for those members within a community who had excess. They were obligated by their humanity and moral compass to distribute their unnecessary excess, which in turn would benefit all members of society.
“The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. 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.”
The quotation is from Moral Sentiments (1759) (TMS IV.1.10: 184). Keith has truncated it somewhat before and after the piece he quotes, and neither does he explain to what Adam Smith was referring, which may give the casual reader a misleading impression and prevent her “gain[ing] insight and understanding of his intent (to be decided by themselves of course) for those members within a community who had excess’.
Smith developed his parable of the “poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition” to emulate the rich and the awesome consequences for him. The desire for emulation of the rich and powerful, said Smith was a curse, for which his body and spirit paid in due course. Such emulation was a “deception”, but it was “this deception which rouses and keeps in motion the industry of mankind” (183). He adds that the earth by mankind’s labour has “redoubled her natural fertility” and “maintains a greater number of inhabitants”.
Note that this time period (from when Smith says "when Providence divided the earth"- clearly a long time ago) that we know now covered the period since agriculture appeared about 11,000 years ago, near the modern Syria-Turkey border, and covered a multitude of regimes, all of them with a “richer” leading segment and an overwhelmingly larger labouring poorer segment. This is the position where the “proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them”. It must also have covered times when the relevant “proud and unfeeling” rulers of numerous agricultural societies lived, including Egyptian Pharaohs, Jewish Kings, Babylonian Kings, Chinese Emperors, Greek Kings and Dictators, Roman Kings, Asian Hordes, Barbarian invaders, Arab and European slave owners, Feudal Lords, and the rest, right up to rent-paying tenants from the c. Twelfth century.
Now it is “the rest [which] he is obliged to distribute among” the “thousands whom he employs”. And this is the key sentence to what follows, which Keith Armstrong quotes in full and draws misleading impressions. Why is the “proud and unfeeling” landlord “obliged” and why also have all his predecessor rulers of mankind been so “obliged” too, right through to the Eighteenth century?
Adam Smith uses the metaphor of “an invisible hand” to describe its object “in a more striking and interesting manner” (See Adam Smith on the role of metaphors in his “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, (, p. 29), specifically, in this case to describe what was beyond doubt the object of the metaphor of “an invisible hand”, specifically the ruler’s total and absolutely necessary dependence upon his labourers, servants, overseers and retainers who labour in his fields, and palaces (kept in place for most millennia by armed retainers). Hence, there may have been a few rulers moved by their "humanity", but given the "humanity" of all rulers was always backed by armed force it appears more likely that rulers as a whole were motivated by the absolute necessity of so doing and not a reliance on their general "humanity".
The dependence was mutual: the “thousands whom he employed” had to be fed from the product of the landlord's fields, because without food – even for a short time – they could not labour, and conversely, without their labour there would be no “heap” of anything for anyone, incuding landlords, to draw from: ‘no labour, no food; no food, no labour”.
Smith also specifies the “necessaries of life”, which were part of the annual produce of the “necessaries, convenience, and amusements (luxuries) of life" (Wealth Of Nations). By definition, human kind had managed to consume the “necessaries” (food, primarily, but also shelter and other basic utilities) since our ancestors were in the forests. Those necessaries were basic, absolutely so in times of dearth. No “proud and unfeeling landlords” shared the “luxuries” of life with the “thousands whom they employed”, except perhaps occasional cast offs of some “conveniences” with family favourites, but certainly no “amusements” – their wife’s luxury cloths, trinkets, and such like.
The basic subsistence diet of necessities was more or less what their ancestors had drawn in the forests before agriculture and shepherding – poaching was now a hanging offence. The growth of “wealth”, miniscule as it may have been compared to the average possessions of even the poorest labourer in Europe (post war) and the USA today, was not “shared” with the labouring poor, as can still be seen in large swathes of the world today (that’s why so many try to emigrate to the “richer” countries. Keith may be drawing erroneous conclusions from comparing the alleged “humanity” of “proud and unfeeling landlords” as being somehow more “humane” than what he calls today’s ‘top 1 per cent’. Scale wise, it was more of the same, only the size of the wealth baskets have changed, I suggest.
Incidentally, I am not known for “robotically and extravagantly prais[ing] unfettered capitalism”, and many of us have spent a number of years “reading and studying The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the rest of Adam Smith’s Works. I invite Keith Armstrong to join us in doing so.