Thursday, April 07, 2011

Smith On the Political Risks of the Absence of Education on the Division of Labour

Kevin Quinn writes (6 April) on Econspeak Blog (HERE):

“Adam Smith on Education”

“I gave a talk last week at a local college called "What is living in the thought of Adam Smith and dead as a doornail in modern economics." One focus of the talk was this passage from Book V of WN:”

“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it (WN V.i.f.50: 782)”.

Notice Smith’s rationale for government intervention here: this has nothing to do with correcting a market failure, nothing to do with efficiency; the argument is that the great body of the people produced by a commercial society with a refined division of labor would otherwise be, as he goes on to say, "deformed in an essential part of their humanity." And this is most emphatically not education as "human capital." Tellingly, when I ask my history of economic thought students to write about Smith on the Division of labor, after we have looked at the first three chapters and the passage from which the quote above is lifted, and I ask were they any qualifications Smith made to his enthusiasm for the DOL in the opening chapters, students will cite this passage and say that here Smith is saying that The DOL may in fact make people stupid and so less productive after all!!! Obviously they have completely misread this passage. Why? They have already been so indoctrinated by their study of economics that they cannot think about what Smith thought was crucial - the way in which economic institutions shape character and preferences, for ill (as in this passage) or for good (there is lots in Smith of course about the way markets promote the virtue of prudence, eg). The further implication that one cannot evaluate economic institutions without evaluating the preference they promote or hinder is again simply unthinkable for someone who has received the standard education in economics, where the idea of evaluating preferences is a veritable contradiction in terms - since the efficient satisfaction of exogenous preferences is the sole evaluative criterion countenanced, and anyone who thinks otherwise is committing the grave sin of paternalism.”

Kevin Quinn’s correction of the error in his student’s way of thinking is welcome as far as it goes. But I suggest a wider consideration may be appropriate. True, Smith is often quoted by many tutors in explanation of this paragraph along the lines of Quinn’s students (before they receive his explanation), but most tutors (I blame their tutors!) miss a more fundamental explanation lying dormant in Smith’s purpose of writing what he did about the division of labour at this precise position in his text (Book V instead of in Book I where he introduces the subject of the DOL).

Quinn notes that “one cannot evaluate economic institutions without evaluating the preference they promote or hinder”, to which I would add that the situation in 18th-century England was pretty dire, except for the better off children , but less dire in 18th-century Scotland with its longstanding ‘little schools’ in the Parishes mainly under the guidance of the Presbyterian Church and other benfactors and funded by donations, bequests, and charities for all children – though mainly for boys in common with the prejudices of the age. Most children of the poor majority of the population were not educated at all and were illiterate and innumerate from when they began working for a few pence a day (if their parents found work for them) to make ends meet – and a few shillings a day until they died closer to their 30s than to their 60s.

Smith used the basic education of the young in Book V in association with the political-moral consequences of the absence of any institutions of education in order to motivate middle and upper orders who read his work to support extending ‘little schools’ in every parish in England (60,000 of them) with fears of masses of subversive lower orders, led by dangerous and ‘enthusiastic’ fanatics. As the overwhelming majority of his readers were more than likely never to experience the actual division of labour, his rhetoric was likely to affect some of them.

Smith’s message in Book V was that it wasn’t that the division of labour caused ignorance and its consequent political or moral risks; it was the existing and longstanding habits of ignorance from a total lack of education among the poorer orders that caused its political and moral risks, unless (note well) “government takes some pains to prevent it”. (Smith did not expect the government to fund the little schools totally - they were to be locally funded, as many oF them were in Scotland).

Some of our finest scholars among historians of economic thought have not yet realized the simple point Smith was actually making (and ascribe to an ‘inconsistency’ to his WM), so it is no wonder that Jonathan’s students misread this passage to say that here Smith was saying that The DOL’ may in fact make people stupid and so less productive after all!!! Obviously they have completely misread this passage.”

Yes, indeed. Thank goodness then that Kevin’s students had Kevin on hand to gently lead them away from the normal ‘misreading’ of the passage – perhaps he might consider taking them just a little further, as above, to reinforce his timely correction?

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Blogger Frank M Howland said...

Since Smith begins the passage with "In the progress of the division of labour," Your reading of the passage seems a bit strained. Clearly the division of labour caused ignorance. Yes institutions could offset this, but they would not be necessary were it not for the division of labour.

2:48 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Frank makes a good point, but I do not share his conclusion.

For the division of labour (DOL) to be the cause of ignorance, Frank would have to show that the “far greater part of those who live by labour” were not ignorant (defined by them being predominantly literate and numerate – though I would consider any other suggested definition) which anything more than slight acquaintance with the relevant condition of the families of the labouring poor in England and Scotland (and, indeed, continental Europe) in the 15th to 18th centuries would strain credulity to believe that the DOL was the cause of their ignorance. They were already as ignorant as they could be.

Such ideas as they had were dominated by “pusillanimous superstition” – the last so-called witch was burned to death in 1727 in Scotland. The DOL did not make them ignorant; they already were ignorant. Their ignorance made the educated minority in society more susceptible to political risks because the DOL created more compact groupings of ignorant people in the newer mode of production compared to the dispersal of labouring population in the agricultural and pastoral economy.

Smith makes point of his proposed remedy for the dangers in their lack of education (the only sure antidote to the political risks of the existing ignorance of the common people) very clear in a later paragraph in the same chapter:

“The same thing may be said of the gross ignorance and stupidity which, in a
civilized society, seem so frequently to benumb the understandings of all the inferior
ranks of people. A man, without the proper use of the intellectual faculties of a man,
is, if possible, more contemptible than even a coward, and seems to be mutilated and
deformed in a still more essential part of the character of human nature. Though the
state was to derive no advantage from the instruction of the inferior ranks of people, it
would still deserve its attention that they should not be altogether uninstructed. The
state, however, derives no inconsiderable advantage from their instruction. The more
they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and
superstition, which, among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful
disorders. An instructed and intelligent people besides are always more decent and
orderly than an ignorant and stupid one. They feel themselves, each individually,
more respectable, and more likely to obtain the respect of their lawful superiors, and
they are therefore more disposed to respect those superiors. They are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are, upon that account, less apt to be misled into any wanton or
unnecessary opposition to the measures of government. In free countries, where the
safety of government depends very much upon the favourable judgment which the
people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they
should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it” (WN V.i.f.61: 788).

In these circumstances I suggest that Smith’s view of causal direction of ignorance and the DOL is clear: uneducated common labourers are dangerous to stability when joined to the DOL and not that the DOL creates their ignorance.

1:19 pm  
Blogger Frank M Howland said...

I think Gavin Kennedy's argument is stronger with regard to the actual history of Scotland (and England and Continental Europe) than it is regarding Smith's text. Smith contrasts mid-18th century laborers with people living in "barbarous societies." Ignorance is not lack of literacy and numeracy in this discussion, rather it is a complete lack of political judgment which results from lack of use of the full capacities of the mind.

Smith writes at V.1.f. 51 (p. 183)--V.1.179 in the Library of Liberty) immediately after the passage quoted by Kevin Quinn.
"It is otherwise in the barbarous societies, as they are commonly called, of hunters, of shepherds, and even of husbandmen in that rude state of husbandry which precedes the improvement of manufactures and the extension of foreign commerce. In such societies the varied occupations of every man oblige every man to exert his capacity and to invent expedients for removing difficulties which are continually occurring. Invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people. In those barbarous societies, as they are called, every man, it has already been observed, is a warrior. Every man, too, is in some measure a statesman, and can form a tolerable judgment concerning the interest of the society and the conduct of those who govern it. How far their chiefs are good judges in peace, or good leaders in war, is obvious to the observation of almost every single man among them."

I'm not sure what semi-mythical past Smith is referring to. A few pages later he talks about how the Greeks and Romans maintained the martial spirit of their citizens so presumably even then the state found it necessary to shore up qualities that members of previous barbarous societies possessed.

So one way to reconcile Smith's argument with the historical facts might be to argue that the limited extent of ancient trade was enough to cut down on the varied occupations that men exercised.

I am puzzled about what Smith thought about the level of ignorance in his society. Smith praises country folk in I.x.c. 23-24, asserting that the "common ploughman" possesses considerable "judgment and discretion" when it comes daily working life. He goes on in language very similar to Book V: "His [the ploughman's] understanding, however, being accustomed to consider a greater variety of objects, is generally much superior to that of the other [the town mechanic], whose whole attention from morning till night is commonly occupied in performing one or two very simple operations. How much the lower ranks of people in the country are really superior to those of the town, is well known to every man whom either business or curiosity has led to converse much with both." [I.x.c., 144; I.10.79 in Library of Liberty]

I'm ignorant (though very interested): Did Smith discuss the structure of Scottish society? What portion of the people would he classify as town mechanics, what portion as common ploughmen, what portion as agricultural laborers who were beneath common ploughmen (if there is such a category)?

3:22 pm  
Blogger Frank M Howland said...

In I.x.c. of WoN, there is in fact some evidence in favor of the generally mistaken lesson that Quinn's students draw from Smith's discussion of education. Quinn says "students will cite this passage and say that here Smith is saying that The DOL may in fact make people stupid and so less productive after all!!!"

Smith says at I.x.c. 24 (pp.143-44; I.10.79 in the online Library of Liberty)
"Not only the art of the farmer, the general direction of the operations of husbandry, but many inferior branches of country labour, require much more skill and experience than the greater part of mechanic trades. ... His [the common ploughman's] understanding, however, being accustomed to consider a greater variety of objects, is generally much superior to that of the other [the town mechanic], whose whole attention from morning till night is commonly occupied in performing one or two very simple operations. ... In China and Indostan accordingly both the rank and the wages of country labourers are said to be superior to those of the greater part of artificers and manufacturers. They would probably be so every-where, if corporation laws and the corporation spirit did not prevent it."

3:33 pm  
Blogger kevin quinn said...

Hello Gavin and Frank: very interesting discussion. Frank, on that last quote: I don't think it follows that Smith thinks that the productivity of industry would be improved if husbandmen occupied the slots in the DOL occupied by mechanics. The pin factory doesn't need well-rounded and versatile workers. In fact, Smith beat Harry Braverman to the punch by about 200 years in describing the de-skilling of jobs that is the dark side of the enormous increases in productivity the DOL makes possible. Part of Smith's genious, I think, was in his ability to see that the good and bad aspects of commercial society were inseparable: if you want the prosperity, realize that courage, practical intelligence, and the ability to think about the common good will be scarce among the laboring population unless the state takes pains etc.

10:34 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

In contrasting ‘country labour’ with ‘the greater part of mechanic trades’, Smith advances his theme on the proper progression to opulence from a fully expanded agriculture, and pointed out that the ‘natural’ progress to opulence had been made irregular by post 15th-century development.
Given the details of the history of Rome (before the 5th century barbarian invasions), the uneven revival of agriculture and commerce from the 15th century disrupted the natural progression.
Smith was brought up in Fife with its fairly developed commercial economy and a prosperous agricultural economy, in which Smith’s mother’s farming relatives were well represented. His grandfather successfully farmed locally. He knew many artisans and farm labourers and also visited iron ‘factories’ (including nail producers).
Children showing scholarly promise could get scholarships, funded by the charity of locally gentry, and go to University and become literate and numerate functionaries in the arts and the professions from age 17. Others left the ‘little schools’ at 8 or 9 years old, with a smattering of basic subjects (‘reading, writing, and account’), and became day labourers, perhaps skilled artisans (only a minority made pins).
These education opportunities in Scotland were not common in England for labourers children. Smith recommended ‘little schools’ for them. Local outbreaks of ‘clamour’ and ‘enthusiasm’ from common labourers in the countryside and the towns, usually over the local magistrates prescribing low day-wage rates for farm labourers and others, were more prevalent in England than in Scotland and remained so into the 19th century.
Artisans, and those who laboured for them, regarded their country-cousins as less less intelligent (‘country bumkins’, etc.,), as did the magistrates (usually farm-owners themselves), a common enough prejudice to which Smith addressed his corrective praise of the actual superiority in their skills. Indeed, the passages quoted from Book I are part of Smith’s criticism of the arrangements in Europe that led to the exclusive ‘privileges’ asserted by the towns for themselves, which were not open to the deserving poor in the countryside, despite the actual multi-skills practiced in seasonal farm work. Moreover, factory work was a minority activity through to the early 1800s.
Smith goes on to discuss (WN Book I) the various skills of labourers employed in the towns as ‘mechanicks, artificers, and manufacturers’, which by their nature in mid-18th century Britain were not open to the intense division of labour as represented by ‘pin factories’ (which tended to employ women and girls). In fact, Smith, significantly, was more concerned with illustrating the division of labour along the supply chains for popular products (for example, the long supply-chain of the day-labourer’s common coat across the country, and internationally (WN Book I.i).

3:48 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Smith deliberately chose the example of ‘a very trifling manufacture’ (‘the pin-maker’) (WN I.i.3: 14) to highlight one aspect of the DOL into separate operations, upon which his reference in Book V.i.f. applies. Interestingly, Smith applies his critique of induced stupidity not just to pin-making labourers; he also includes the members of the land-owning ‘great order’ which he finds deficient to a similar extent as the ‘pin-makers’:
Landlords "are, indeed, too often defective in this tolerable knowledge. They are the only one of the three orders whose revenue costs them neither labour nor care, but comes to them, as it were, of its own accord, and independent of any plan or project of their own. That indolence, which is the natural effect of the ease and security of their situation, renders them too often, not only ignorant, but incapable of that application of mind which is necessary in order to foresee and understand the consequences of any publick regulation” (WN I.xi.a.I: 265).
He taught many scores of sons of the landed gentry at Glasgow University. They were educated for careers in the State. Smith saw education as a preparatory antidote to them becoming indolent, not from the repetitive labour of the pin-labourers, but from have nothing to do and wasting themselves doing it.
When reading Smith we must consider the context, not look for absolute literal consistency in everything he wrote.
There is much more to Adam Smith than meets the eye.

3:50 pm  
Blogger Frank M Howland said...

Kevin: You are correct, well rounded country laborers might not be as productive as single-minded factory workers in factory jobs. What are we to make of Smith's view that the former ought to command greater wages than the latter? My guess is that even in Smith's time agricultural productivity is increasing in Britain, output is rising as a result, and fewer workers are needed,; less skilled farm laborers are moving into manufacturing (much it in rural locations). I don't know if that's a coherent story. Perhaps Smith is just carried away by the political argument and stretches to make a more dubious point about wages.

Gavin: The references we've cited from Book I are useful evidence against the claim I've occasionally seen that the discussion of education and the relationship between the DOL and ignorance in Book V are somehow at odds with the point of view in Book I. We see in Book I both concern with the effects of the DOL and with the application of mind (or rather lack thereof) and its effects on political judgment.

2:07 am  

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