Philosophers and Adam Smith on the Division of Labour
In The Economist Blog HERE “C.W.” writes (1 November): “Smith's word”
General: I make my comments in a spirit of encouragement for CW’s constructive reading of Adam Smith, which broadly is commendable. However, CW strays a trifle perhaps in some conclusions, and I think it worth suggesting some ideas for “CW” to consider.
CW: “Smith sowed the seeds of his own problems. He tended to write pithy sound bites that left his ideas open to distortion. One of his best-known quips [CW quotes here the “butcher, brewer, and baker” lines) which was part of anything but a “pithy sound bite” on Smith’s part. CW reports: “Journalists and economists frequently use this quotation. Most people think that Smith was advocating pure egoism.”
The sentence on Journalists is strictly correct but the second sentence woefully misunderstands Smith’s example. From not reading the whole paragraph in which it appears (WN I.ii.2: 25-6), such people totally misunderstand Smith’s profound thinking on self-interest (which had nothing to do with “selfishness”). I posted on this specific paragraph only last Wednesday, 31 October (see “Adam Smith on Self-Interests, Not Greed”) to which CW is referred.
CW: “In the "Theory of Moral Sentiments", his second most famous book, Smith discusses the position of philosophers in society. He argues that it would be contradictory and unjust for them just to think about their self-interest. Instead philosophers needed to cultivate a sense of public duty in order to be any good at helping to solve the world’s most pressing problems. But butchers, brewers and bakers did not need such lofty aspirations—unlike philosophers, they could probably do their job well by acting selfishly. So according to Mr Fitzgibbons, when Smith mentions "their own interest", he is arguing that “not all occupations are pursued with the same low motive in mind”. Smith certainly did not intend to suggest that self-interest was the only driving force of human behaviour.”
I have marked in bold where I urge CW to think again, because I suggest that CW may have been misled by Athol Fitzgibbons (Fitzgibbons, A. 1995, Adam Smith’s System of Liberty, Wealth and Virtue. Oxford: Clarendon Press). Again, CW should consult my post of last Wednesday.
Also, I know of no desire of Adam Smith “to be any good at helping to solve the world’s most pressing problems”. Smith was not an evangelist on a mission.
Philosophers attempting to solve the “worlds most pressing problems” usually are hopeless cranks. Smith was an educator at Glasgow University analysing the “nature and causes of the wealth of nations” and the “theory of moral sentiments”. As a philosopher he saw his role as “observing everything” but “doing nothing”. That role of doing something he left to others.
CW: “Smith’s ideas of the division of labour were revolutionary, says Tony Aspromourgos of Sydney University. Smith opens the "Wealth of Nations", his most famous book, with a discussion of a pin factory.”
The division of labour, as an idea and a daily practise, had been around for several millennia before Smith, which he noted “has been very often taken notice of”. He did not imply his precedence and nor could he. Indeed the very example and details of the “pin factory”, with which he is so often associated, came from prior French sources. Rival claims for precedence and for elaboration could be located in the works of Sir William Petty (1690); Bernard Mandeville (1724); Chamber’s Encyclopedia; (1728), which inspired Diderot, (1755); John Harris (1757), not to mention Plato.
Moreover, Jean-Louis Peaucelle in the European History of Economic Thought, “Adam Smith’s use of multiple references for his pin-making example”, (13:4, 489-512) (Discussed on Lost Legacy, 11 February, 2008), and more recent articles (e.g., Peaucelle: European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Volume 19, Number 3, 1 June 2012) have effectively identified the source of Smith’s data on pin-making.
What this shows is that CW has a lot more reading to do on the division of labour.
CW: “In fact, [Smith] thought that the division of labour could have negative effects—both for the individual and for society. In a later part of the "Wealth of Nations", Smith reckons that as a result of strict labour specialisation, the worker “has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention”, and consequently “becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”.
In the references CW cites Chomsky (2002): Understanding Power: The Indispensible Chomsky. The New Press (p.221 onwards), who in my view, expressed on Lost Legacy several times when some readers write in and report Chomsky’s views that the “division of labour” was “terrible”, compared with Smith’s view that humanity gained from the “advantages” derived from it from way back into pre-history.
Chomsky’s smart quip was based on the usual out-of-context comments by Smith in Book 5 (his main analysis was in Book 1) that was part of his analysis of the patent disregard in England for the education of the children of the labouring classes (NB: not in Scotland where the education of young males of all classes had been under way for over a century, such that basic literacy at least was fairly common in the adult male population).
In highlighting the case for “little schools in every parish” Smith discussed the effect of such large-scale ignorance where long hours of daily labour made the labouring poor a dangerous reservoir of ignorant, brutish and likely candidates for every ignorant political agitator to mislead into subversion and disorder.
He recommended adopting in “every parish” (approximately 60,000 of them!) the “little schools” expenditure across England.
Ignorance was not caused by the division of labour (which Smith thought had so many “advantages” for the creation of real wealth), instead it was exacerbated by a total lack of education among the labourers engaged in it. Chomsky, in effect, turned Smith’s ideas on their head.
CW might wish to read a bit more before accepting the plausible ideas of those who occasionally misread Smith’s Works.
However, CW also does a service to his readers. His Blog piece is readable and might provoke wider reading, or at least interest in Adam Smith.