Thursday, February 10, 2011

Adam Smith on European (and Christian) Treatment of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas

My heavy cold is slowly passing. Despite my listlessness and bouts of coughing, (plus the prompt home visit from a unfairly and much-maligned NHS General Practitioner system, resulting in a free prescription for antibiotic capsules, funded by taxation), I occasionally check the Internet for daily Google Alerts on references in the world media to Adam Smith, without the energy to reply or comment on several interesting pieces since last Monday (for which my apologies to regular readers).

Among these, I read what can only be described as an ignorant rant against Adam Smith’s of alleged discrediting, where not actually insulting, the indigenous people of the Americas in Wealth Of Nations. The ranter – some kind of Christian radical – opened with an attack on Smith for comparing the living standards of ‘savages’ with those of the poorest day labourers in Scotland in Chapter 1 of Wealth Of Nations.

I would quote directly from the ranter’s rant, or even give a reference, but I have ‘lost’ it, accidentally I can assure readers, to my regret. [Here it is:]
The piece is hardly worth reading but it is Lost Legacy's policy to provide sources, and not just because it is clear that its author has never read Adam Smith’s Wealth Of Nations, nor does he understand the quotations he has read, but its author exposes an alarming ignorance of his subject.

Adam Smith was not mocking the poverty of the ‘savages’; he was contrasting the effects of the relative absence of the division of labour in hunter societies, the First Age of Man, which he makes clear was once the norm in Europe, until the division of labour was underway following the discovery of shepherding (the second Age of Man) and, eventually, farming (the 3rd Age of Man). This had absolutely nothing to do with the alleged ‘genius’ of humans in one Age or geographical location, or the ‘stupidity’ of people in earlier ‘Ages’ or locations. There were no racial imputations whatsoever in Adam Smith’s examples.

Moreover, Smith was never blind to the social injustices suffered by the ‘defenceless’ indigenous peoples in the Americas at the hands of Europeans. He showed an embarrassing honesty about the conduct of Europeans in all the discoveries of recent times - just 300 years, when Smith was writing in mid-18th century. Let me quote from Wealth Of Nations:

The discovery of America, and that of passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two Greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. Their consequences have already been very great: but, in the short period of between two and three centuries which has elapsed since these discoveries were made, it is impossible that the whole extent of their consequences can have been seen. What benefits, or what misfortunes to mankind may hereafter result from those great events no human wisdom can foresee” (WN IV.vii.c.80: 626).

This is a clear example of why Smith was not in the habit of forecasting because ‘no human wisdom can foresee’ the future. Smith, however, was industrious in looking at the past and at what had brought the present about. So he, then turns to examine the early effects of the present in the impact of European and Christian-driven behaviour on those primarily affected – the indigenous peoples – who shared none of the benefits of arrival of Europeans on their shores:

By uniting, in some measure, the most distant parts of the world, by enabling them to relieve one another's wants, to increase one another's enjoyments, and to encourage one another's industry, their general tendency would seem to be beneficial. To the natives, however, both of the East and West Indies, all the commercial benefits which can have resulted from those events have been sunk and lost it the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned. These misfortunes, however, seem to have arisen rather from accident than from any thing in the nature of those events themselves. At the particular time when these discoveries were made, the superiority of force happened to be so great on the side of the Europeans, that they were enabled to commit with impunity every sort of injustice in those remote countries
(WN IV.vii.c.80: 626).

That’s not too good an account of the blessings received from their introduction to Christianised Europeans, and shows no racial bias whatsoever. Would that the Church had spoken up for them as clearly as Smith (whose Wealth Of Nations was read at the highest levels in the British and the emerging Colonial, establishments on both sides of the Atlantic)?

However, he did warn, almost prophetically, of what might happen when the colonial subjects acquired in due course the accoutrements of knowledge – and the weapons – from the division of labour in an later age (that of the Age of Commerce, the 4th Age of Man). This episode is one that we may now be entering with the rise of the commercial power of India, China and Brazil.

Hereafter, perhaps, the natives of those countries may grow stronger, or those of Europe may grow weaker, and the inhabitants of all the different quarters of the world may arrive at that equality of courage and force which, by inspiring mutual fear, can alone overawe the injustice of independent nations into some sort of respect for the rights of one another Nothing seems more likely to establish this equality of force than that mutual communication of knowledge and of all sorts of improvements which an extensive commerce from all countries to all countries naturally,
or rather necessarily, carries along with it”
(WN IV.vii.c: 626-7).

Smith had no doubts about the motives of Europeans taking the extraordinary risks of trans-Atlantic voyages: it was greed for gold, sanctified by pious allusions to converting the indigenous peoples to Christianity to get their hands on what for them were mere trinkets:

In consequence of the representations of Columbus, the council of Castile determined to take possession of countries of which the inhabitants were plainly incapable of defending themselves. The pious purpose of converting them to Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project.

But the hope of finding treasures of gold there, was the sole motive which prompted to undertake it; and to give this motive the greater weight, it was proposed by Columbus that the half of all the gold and silver that should be found there should belong to the crown. This proposal was approved of by the council
” (WN IV.vii.a: 661; see also WN.xi.c.36: 192).

And so began the negative side of the consequences to the indigenous people of European colonialism:

As long as the whole or the far greater part of the gold, which the first adventurers imported into Europe, was got by so very easy a method as the plundering of the defenceless natives, it was not perhaps very difficult to pay even this heavy tax. But when the natives were once fairly stript
of all that they had, which, in St. Domingo, and in all the other countries discovered by Columbus, was done compleatly in six or eight years…
” (WN IV.vii.a.16: 561)


But though the judgment of sober reason and experience concerning such projects has always been extremely unfavourable, that of human avidity has commonly been quite otherwise. The same passion which has suggested to so many people the absurd idea of the philosopher's stone, has suggested to others the equally absurd one of immense rich mines of gold and silver. They did not consider that the value of those metals has, in all ages and nations, arisen chiefly from their scarcity, and that their scarcity has arisen from the very small quantities of them which nature has any where deposited in one place, from the hard and intractable substances with which she has almost every where surrounded those small quantities, and consequently from the labour and expence which are every where necessary in order to penetrate to and get at them. They flattered themselves that veins of those metals might in many places be found as large and as abundant as those which are commonly found of lead, or copper, or tin, or iron. The dream of Sir Walter Raleigh concerning the golden city and country of Eldorado, may satisfy us, that even wise men are not always exempt from such strange delusions. More than a hundred years after the death of that great man, the Jesuit Gumila was still convinced of the reality of that wonderful country, and expressed with great warmth, and I dare to say, with great sincerity, how happy he should be to carry the light of the gospel to a people who could so well reward the pious labours of their missionary” (WN IV.vii.a.19: 563).

Adam Smith was not an advocate of colonialism as practiced by Europeans on defenseless hunter-gatherers, early stone-built civilizations (Central America), or brutally-intimidated ancient civilisations (China), the price for which remains unpaid. He did not consider slavery was a benefit to either slaves or their cruel masters.

He did not consider that anything other than education and knowledge was the trigger for economic development, or that the division of labour was the cause of differences in the living standards of the Ages of Man, which included raising the levels of education and knowledge.

If people are to be critical of what Adam Smith observed about the world around him, and its history, they should at the very least read his Works in full and not just collect a few quotations.

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Blogger entech said...

Could this be the blog you talk about.

10:56 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks David

It was exactly 'fathertheo'. I'll put the reference on the post. Always best to refer to what I comment on, so that readers cab check for themselves.


7:59 am  

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