Friday, September 11, 2009

Samuel Johnson's Early Observation of the Division of Labour

ELIZA GRAY (a Bartley Fellow) writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Samuel Johnson and the Virtue of Capitalism: The great 18th century writer on commerce and human happiness.”


He was even more struck by the contrast between places where markets thrived and those where they didn't. In Old Aberdeen, where "commerce was yet unstudied," Johnson found nothing but decay, whereas New Aberdeen, which "has all the bustle of prosperous trade," was beautiful, opulent, and promised to be "very lasting."
Johnson also understood that what Smith would later call the division of labor was instrumental for human happiness and progress.

"The Adventurer 67," which he wrote in 1753 at the height of a commercial boom (and 23 years before Smith published "The Wealth of Nations"), delights in the sheer number of occupations available in a commercial capital like London. The insatiable demand for the most specialized goods and services means employment for anyone who wants to make a living: ". . . myriads [are] raised to dignity, by no other merit than . . . contributing to supply their neighbors with the means of sucking smoke through a tube of clay."

"[E]ach of us singly can do little for himself," he wrote insightfully, "and there is scarce any one amongst us . . . who does not enjoy the labor of a thousand artists." He also saw the market as the only mechanism by which the diversity of human desires could be satisfied: "In the endless variety of tastes and circumstances that diversify mankind, nothing is so superfluous, but that some one desires it . . ."

Johnson described what today we would call the capitalist system. Of course, the term "capitalism" was unknown in his day (though "capitalist" was; Johnson pithily defined it in his dictionary as "He who possesses a capital fund"). Also unknown to Johnson was the notion of "ideology." Rather, what he wrote was drawn from observations and reflections on human nature as he saw it—a nature that always aspired for more and better and (when properly instructed) nobler things. That nature is still with us, as is the economic system that Johnson observed is best adapted to it. Our latter-day moralists shouldn't lightly throw it away

Eliza Gray supplies a gem of which I was not aware and which may be of interest to lecturers seeking new angles for jaded Econ 101 lectures and writers looking for good references to identifiable names like Samuel Johnson who said something interesting in the context of basic economics.

Of course, the contrast between bustling London in a boom and the daily life of contrasts in Old and New Aberdeen, let alone the desperately poverty-stricken Western Island communities in mid-18th century Scotland, is stark and shocking.

Those moderns contemplating – nay, evangelising in favour of - a return to local, self-sufficient economies in place of modern, global capitalism, may wish to take on board the realities of what such a return would mean, including the need to liquidate 2-3 billion humans to make it happen. Never has mass murder on such an unprecedented scale been advocated by so plausibly nice campaigners as one finds among environmentalists (though, true, some of them really are weird).

But Johnston’s point surely stands.

A small caveat about Eliza’s reference to Adam Smith includes the fact that he never claimed to have been the first to in any way to notice the division of labour. He makes the point en passant in Wealth Of Nations that the phenomenon “has been very often taken notice of”; he didn’t claim to discover it. (WN I.i.3: 14).

Moreover, Johnson’s acute observation was reported in 1753 which Eliza notes was “23 years before Smith published ‘The Wealth of Nations’”, implying for casual readers of WSJ that Johnson identified the division of labour before, by a country mile, Adam Smith. However, Smith lectured on society’s economic subjects from his time in Edinburgh (1748-51) and then in Glasgow (1752-64).

He stoutly defended his early record in his lectures in an enigmatic paper (since lost) read by Dugald Stewart in his eulogy to Adam Smith in 1793 at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Known as the ‘1755’ paper, it contained this in it:

A great part of these opinions .. enumerated in this paper is treated at length in some lectures which I still have by me … They have all of them been the constant subject of my lectures since I first taught .. the first winter I spent in Glasgow, down to this day, without any considerable variation …[and were] the subjects of lectures which I read in Edinburgh the winter before I left [1750-1]…”
[Quoted in Ian S. Ross, The Life of Adam Smith, 1976: p 108, Oxford University Press – a second edition is to be published in 2010.]

We know also from the student notes, published as Lectures on Jurisprudence (Oxford University Press, 1978), of Smith’s lectures in 1762-63, that his chapters in Wealth Of Nations on the division of labour are almost verbatim from his Glasgow lectures (see for example, lecture for 5 April, 1763: pp 355-6).

In short, the 23 year gap, if there is one, is considerably shortened and the analytical detail gone into be Adam Smith considerably advances to acute observations of Johnson.

Still, economists should be grateful to Eliza Gray for her reporting the early recognition of the benefits of specialisation in mid-18th century Britain.



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