PART 2: THE REAL SIGNIFICANCE OF ADAM SMITH'S TREATMENT OF THE DIVISION OF LABOUR
In Part 2, I look closely at how Michael Perelman is led into ideological bias. Critique of "Michael Perelman on The Fraud of Adam Smith’s Pin Factory”. [The Draft of Part 1 was published on 23 June and needs to be edited as it does not fit too well with Part 2].
Michael Perelman is both an avid reader of all of Adam Smith’s Works and too highly selective in what he remembers of his readings of Smith. Here, I shall put Smith’s ideas into their appropriate and broader historical context, which at present Michael does not seem to appreciate.
In his Lecture on Jurisprudence on 28 March 1763, Adam Smith explained to his students the singular difference between the histories of humans and all other animals. In many ways his explanations were radical for the 18th century because he did not tie them to the dominant Calvinist theological certainties of the time, which could have been risky for him if his ideas had been brought to the attention of the zealots who dominated the Glasgow Presbytery of the Church of Scotland. Three Professors (Robert Simson - Divinty; Francis Hutcheson - Moral Philosophy; and William Leechman - Divinity) were all charged with various offences deemed to be unacceptable to Calvinist zealots. Smith, however, managed to escape their vigilance, despite his failing to mention Genesis or Creationist theology. You can compare Smith’s secular approach by contrasting it with that of his “beloved and never to be forgotten”, Professor Francis Hutcheson’s orthodox theological approach in his (1755). “A System of Moral Philosophy”, Chap. IV, pp 280-92: Augustus M. Kelly, New York (1968).
Smith’s conjectural interpretations of how the necessary foundations of the wholly human division of labour slowly emerged eventually in small social groups of humans linked to their discoveries, accidentally and by reason, when searching for their sustenance from Nature. However, while Smith had no idea of the prior existence of several predecessor species of humans, nor of the immense time (a million years?) it took proto-humans to evolve throughout pre-history and to pass on their innovations to new generations, some of which spreciated as Homo-sapiens about 200,000 year ago. Only recently have we began to appreciate the consequences of how proto-humans discovered how to use and improve crude, tool-making artifacts, from which they slowly created and then dominated their social and geographical space in Nature. These uniquely human evolving processes were necessary for their sociality to emerge. Anthropologists, archeologists, and a host of modern sciences now explore the detritus left by our predecessors from a million years ago and trace how humans developed through the division of labour to what we now call the history of civilisation. (See: Cyprian Broodbank. 2013. ‘The Making of the Middle Sea: a history fo the Mediterranean from the beginning to the emergance of the classical World. Thames and Hudson.)The ‘famous Pin Factory’ example included by Smith in Wealth Of Nations (WN I.i.3: 14-15) was a rather trivial (Smith describes it as “trifling) event in the long human history of the division of labour, which necessarily was the greater, more socially significant, unique human behaviour than mere pin-making in 18th century Europe. The common overstated significance in modern textbooks of Smith’s example of pin-making has over-shadoowed the real significance of the early humans who initiated the great leap to humanity by the albeit crude application of their more powerful intelligence to the basic problems of obtaining raw subsistence from Nature in competition with other animals and in their search for minimal protections from Nature’s climate and other natural events.
From these broader perspectives, adddressed by Adam Smith in 1763, I suggest that Michael Perelman’s reading of Adam Smith on his treatment of the division of labour is too narrow.
The Unintentional Development of Human Sociality
It was the indispensible necessity of acquiring daily subsistence from Nature that led the c.14 sub-species of Hominids and, later, early Homo sapiens, to discover the means to evolve securely from wild brutes towards humanity. Adam Smith had no idea that a million years ago proto-human predecessors of Homo sapiens began to develop crude tool-making stone technologies, as evidenced by modern archeology. The new, future sciences of anthropology, archeology, sociology, biology, genetics, let alone political economy, had not yet been articulated, nor was the scanty supporting evidence well-researched. Nevertheless, Smith threads together a plausible account based on the very scant evidence at his disposal and from his conjectures. He also carefully trod the line between the very restricted academic freedom common in the 1700s, especially under the prevailing unacceptabilty of even hints at apostacy. [The last person to be hanged for blasphemy in Scotland was executed in 1694.]Therefore, Smith’s line of argument can be read as a limited secular exposition of his congectures unconnected to the Biblical Creation and the alleged events in the Eden Garden. Fortunately, Smith confined his expositions of his ideas to his moral philosophy classes each year and their risky content did not leak to the ultra-rigorous, Calvinist Glasgow Presbyterry at the time (see Kennedy: “The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology’, JHET 2011; one former student's memoir reported his criticism of Smith's views on religious grounds, but published long after Smith's death in 1790.
In his ‘division of labour’ lectures (LJ) Smith first distinguished between the different approaches of animals and the ‘savage’ brutish humans to the acquisition of their daily subsistence from Nature in its wild state. Animals competed in the same niche with the few early species of sub humans then inhabiting a relatively small niche in the vast African landscape of the Earth’s habitable space. Early mankind slowly began to develop their own ways of exploiting limited space in the same niche. He continued his conjectures to how human inventiveness and discovery slowly emerged spontaneously and separately among individuals, and continued by imitation among myriads of small, separate human bands living in the forests and plains of the earth and all facing the same problems, including somre problems from their slightly different physiology. Knowledge of the world necessarily was uneven as human bands scattered across the landscape, some of them, we now know, losing direct contact for many millennia, by which time wandering small groups of humans unkowingly had reached the Americas, via the then shallower Behring Straits (c.9,000 BCE) and others had reached northern Australia even earlier, via the island chains of Southeast Asia (40,000 BCE).
Animals remain totally dependent on Nature where and as they find it, whereas humans as species can change their relationhips with their environments from what we now call natural selection through myriads of generations, amidst natural and climatic shocks. Smith draws out the distinctions between humans and all other other animals, most of which are totally dependent on nature’s bounties as they find them. Humans, suggests Smith, were blessed with an ability to slowly reduce their total unselective dependency on pristine Nature as they find it and change the nature of their initial absolute dependency.
From cumulative changes over many generations, small bands, and then, larger tribes of humans slowly emerged, often violently, into social societies, quite distinct from those of Nature’s other animals who lived and hunted or foraged in packs. These social humans were commonly described as “Savages” in the 18th century from the narrower perspectives of self-celebrated, ‘civilised’ Europeans. The characteristics of humans encompass a wide range of behaviours from the disparagingly named ‘savages’ through to ‘civilised’ Europeans, who regarded themslves as being distinctly different and superior to Nature’s innumerable animal species in the ‘wild’.
Smith’s lecture (LJ vi.9.9 -13: pp 334-5) contrasted how humans and animals reacted to their exposure to raw nature and how early, thinly scattered mankind slowly began to differentiate their behaviours from the other animals by consciously adapting themselves, first individually, later collectively, with creative thoughts that led to conscious imitations, many but not all of them, irreducibly conducive to the longer-term survival of a global human species. Those first steps to humanity were significant, though minor compared with today; animals accept what nature provides; mankind accepts and changes what nature provides in forms made suitable by human experimental intelligence.
Smith’s purely conjectural assertions, either by him or by earlier people, he attributed mankind’s ability within Nature to use their innate reasoning, cultivated with ingenuity, art and contrivance and with the capacity for improvements far superior to what raw Nature “bestowed” on all other animals, even with the proviso that Nature had “left mankind” in a “more helpless and destitue condition” in terms of the “support and comfort of his life” in those earlier times (LJ vi.9: p.334).
From the mid-19th century onwards all of mankind’s capabilities for self-improvement were generated from within the biological and behavioural evolution of the human species, making Smith’s broad conjectures in the 18th century, without direct evidence, all the more interesting, but well short of being conclusive
In his 1763 lecture, Smith contrasts how “all other animals” were content to find their food as nature supplied it and did not require anything else done to it, such as improving it by cookery to render it more platabable. All other animals were, and had to be, content in the forms, places and seasons that nature provided their food. Until human ingenuity eventually was applied to improve Nature’s provision of food, humans also digested what was available in its natural state, but with the slow and relentless application of conscious human discovery, early humans over millennia developed their food into more agreeable forms for them. Smith speculated that early savages endured undressed victuals, leaving them vulnerable to diseases arising from “indigestion and crudies”, which were a frequent cause of early deaths from “raw, unprepared and indigestable foods”. In response to natural weather events, humans eventually sought temporary covering, later crude cloathing and shelter against the vicissitudes of seasonal and nightime weather. their needs led them gradual improvements and inventions over the lands over which they wandered (LJ vi.9; 10: p. 334).
From general conjectures Smith moved his focus to consider early mankind in its natural environment by contrasting contemporary human societies with those he envisaged as existing in distant lands supplemented by consulting the works of Jesuit missionaries such as Lafitau, (J-F. 1681–1746; - see also: 1974. Journal of American History. Vol. 66, No. 2, Sep., 1979) The observed customs of the North American Indians compared with the customs of primitive times. [For example: TITLE?ed and trans. W. N. Fenton and E. J. Moore, Chaplain Society, Toronto; Charlevoix Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France, avec le Journal historique d’un voyage fait par ordre du roi dans l’Amérique septentrionnale (3v., and 6v., Paris, 1744). Both texts were in Smith’s Libruary (in French) (James Bonnar, 1894, 2nd ed. 1932. ‘A Catalogue of the Library of Adam Smith’, pp. 44; 99. New York, Augustus M. Kelly, 1966).]
Such albeit primitive accommodation by today’s standards nevertheless illustrates the stark differences evolving millennia ago between early mankind and all other animals having to make do with whatever nature inflicted upon them. Particularly, Smith crucially differentiated the human species from all others in that the “same temper and inclinations which prompted him to make these improvements push him to still greater refinements”, and, we may note, that that process continued and deepened into the 21st century, but now, of course, on a uniquely, ever more complex and grander scale. Smith asserted that his conjectures were of specific human characteristics, though he was well short of identifying his assertions with evidence to the standard required from today’s scholarship.
Thirteen years later, after elucidating his themes in his 1763 Lecture, he returned to the subject of the division of labour in Wealth Of Nations (1776), albeit in a truncated form compared to the detail he went into in his 1763 Glasgow lecture. Crucially, Inventiveness remains a specific human characteristic, not shared by animals living in Nature. The regular copying by other humans of new habits discovered or observed, slowly spread incrementally across the human generations and among nearby tribes, which slowly improved upon them, albeit marginally, thereby slowly reducing Nature’s total dominance over human life forms. As human individuals and groups modified nature’s arrangements, and chains of occasional contact remained feasible, in time, human innovations were copied and unevenly dispersed among the human species and across distant environments. The endless minor changes and improvements widened the tiny gaps separating early humans from their forebears and from their compatriots long separated in distant continents, and from all the other animals living in Nature.
Distinctly human-sourced incremental changes enabled populations to grow if they could extend their food sources. From circumstances where every adult could undertake all necessary tasks within their common skill-sets, humans needed to increase their unique outputs derived from Nature.
Smith in his Glasgow lectures, showed that the division of labour had a very long history many millennia previously from the human impulse to create “the whole of the arts and sciences” which were “invented and improved by mankind” to supply their “wants of meat, drink, cloathing, and lodging”. He identified the ancient and unique characteristic of the human invention and development of the division of labour across all aspects of the human interface with Nature, necessarily without fully understanding their significance.
Rainfall, even when less than stormy, is sufficiently a discomfort for humans seek ways to furnish themselves uniquely with “cloaths” to wrap round the body and with a house shelter of some kind. They also “anoint themselves with “oil and grease, and stain their skins with various dyes” to ”tann them and render them callous and able to endure the scorching sun, the piercing winds and the chill, battering rain” (LJ iv.ll. pp. 334-5)
Smith also informed his students that “The savages … do not apply themselves in different trades” , as became common among later humans living in settled societies. Therefore, opined Smith, savages did not show much evidence of divisions of labour for as long as each could “supply themselves with food, with cloathes, and with lodging” by their own efforts. In those earliest times, the savage enjoyed the “fruits of the earth spontaneously produced, with the flesh of the animals he takes by the chase, [to] supply him with food which they can easily prepare. A few skins stitched perhaps together with a few thongs of the same, supply him with rainment and a few poles stuck in the ground and covered over with the skins or matts afford him shelter in the night or in the inclemencies of the weather” (LJ vi.12-13: p. 335). At some low level of output in such small societies where each person could provide all their own needs, their low productivity was bounded by personal, individual needs in small family groupings, and with limited opportunities for personal comforts, the absense of a division of labour is tolerable. But once needs expanded, even by small margins, the absense of a division of labour becomes burdensome and a space opens up for new arrangements to emerge gradually by human ingenuity.
Experience and experiment over millennia widened the applications of human ingenuity to improve these activities. In his lecture Smith did not expand on stating the driving forces of the human dilemma of how to develop the technologies, organisational as well as technical, to bridge the divide between small, self-sufficient, families of up to a half-dozen or so, to fairly substantial populations in tribes of scores of families, where the innate generality of skill-sets was universal within the band to resource the necessary major increase in total consumable and the output of usable output that could increase sufficient to provide more reasonable life-supporting consumption levels.
Smith’s exposition leaps over the long process by which the division of labour was introduced to make salient points about its significance to human history, without explaining how it happened. One possibility driving this process was the natural one that while each individual could provide the common skills required to meet his minimal needs, using easily acquired minimal skills, and because variations in the quality of individual skill-sets, while necsssarily uncortable, their existence were not totally destructive in small communities of individually independent individuals. The poorest applications of low skill-sets imposed disamenties on the individuals causing them who were solely affected by them and not imposed on the rest of the community of better-skilled more competent individuals.
Inequalities from varying competence in the necessary skill sets were naturally present among the groups, and we can see in this existing phenomenon one of the possible inner-driving forces for humans to discover the division of labour as a source to compensate for these universal and skill variations. Smith in Wealth Of Nations (1776) makes his famous opening statement:
“The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skills, dexterity, and judgement with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been theeffects of the division of labour” (WN I.i.1. 13).
In this context to which I have drawn Michael’s attention lies the most significant idea in Adam Smith’s political economy. By linking his 1763 Lecture to his 1776 Wealth Of Nations we see a definite continuity in his thinking, surprisingly neglected by modern economists, for it affects major topics in economics, from the history of economic ideas, to exchange in societies from the first humans through to classical times, 800 BCE to the Fall of Rome 145?,and on through to the re-emergence of commence into markets and modern growth theories of economies to the 21st century.
Smith’ opening paragraph in Chapter 2, of Book 1 is also revealing of his insight:
“This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which forsees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” (WN I.ii.1: p. 25).
[Note: I left off Smith’s Lecture with a comment on his remarks that:
“savages did not show much evidence of divisions of labour for as long as each could “supply themselves with food, with cloathes, and with lodging” by their own efforts” ((LJ vi.12-13: p. 335).
I suggest Michael casts his eyes over Smith’s assertions in that paragraph and contemplate the implications in Smith’s argument over the following 3 pages of WN (WN pp. 337-339):
“Agriculture multiplies the materials on which several artifices, are imployed, but chiefly those things which are fit for food as of these their is the greatest consumption. The forest supplies us with trees and planks for building, and from the plain we have wool, flax, cotton, and by the cultivation of the mulberry tree, silk for cloathing, besides indigo, woad, madder, and 100 other plants employed in dying the above substances. It would impossible to enumerate all the artists who join their labours in improving on these originall productions and prepare them for use. The butcher, the miller, the baker, the brewer, the cook, the confectioner, etcetera all give their labour to prepare the various products of the earth for food to man. How many artists are employed to prepare these things with which the shops of the [uphosterer], the draper, the mercer and the cloth-seller to clip the wool, pick it, sort it, spin, comb, twist, weave, scour, dye, etc., the wool and a hundred other operators engaged on each different commdities? How many artists concur to furnish the various commodities to be met with in the grocers, chiefly for the food of man. The carpenter, the wright, the carver of wood, etc. all contribute their aid allong with the mason, bricklayer etc to build or furnish our dwellings. The artificers in brass and iron, copper, etc., all bestow their labour in preparing household utensils of various sorts or tools for otherartificers. Commerce and traffic and all sorts of the ship-builder, etc., etcs., and the mariner and the assiduous industry of the merchant, tend to the same end” (LJ LJ vi16-20. pp.337-339).
[Space precludes me quoting it here in full - as well as copyright charges by Oxford University Press! But as Michael goes on to quote angrily Smith’s comparisons of the living standards of the meanest common labourer in 18th-century Europe with the Chief of 1,000 North American or African savages with such passion he has access to the full quotations without me paying to quote them here for him].
What I would ask fair-minded readers to consider whether Adam Smith’s comparisons, given the absolute (not relative) life chances and actual living conditions, exposed to the elements, and so on, compared to the actual living circumstances of the common labourer in Smith’s times were unworthy? In such a comparison, the gross inequities of common labourers with their very rich landlords and merchants is not an issue in a discussion of the evolution of the division of labour. Nor, frankly, is the space devoted Smith to the “very trifling manufacture” referred to in the ‘pin factory’ example in WN. J. L. Peaucelle in his article in the European Journal of The History of Economic Thought, vol. 13, no. 4, pp 480-512. Peaucelle identified Smith’s (unacknowledged) sources for the pin-factory data and shows that Smith took the arithmetic from Diderot and d’Alembert’s ‘Enyclopedia’, (published in 28 volumes, Paris, during 1755-1772, complete with illustrations of the mechanical machines used in the ’18 pin-making operations’. Diedrot’s Enyclopedia was inspired by a (poor) translation into French of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728). Diderot introduced an example of the collaboration involved in the division of labour, by summarisng his Encyclopedia project as: “This is a work that cannot be completed except by a society of men of letters and skilled workmen, each working separately on his own part, but all bound together solely by their zeal for the best interests of the human race and a feeling of mutual good will.” This innocently describes a positive consequence of sociality evolving in human societies, though being human, there were also negative consequences too.
I do not consider Smith’s comparisons of the consumables available to North American Indians with the consumables available to 18th-century day labourers to be a sign of a negative consequence of the division of labour. Poor people today living in the poorest parts of the World do not consider it against their best interests to attempt to migrate, at serious risks to their lives, to join the poorest people living in richer countries. We know this because the traffic is all one way to join the poorest people in the rich countries.
[NOTE: I am now expanding the above draft into a longer and more comprehensive Essay for future publication. When it is available, I shall publish details for readers of Lost Legacy to download a copy]