Monday, June 25, 2012

Adam Smith Was Innocent ....

Benjamin Mitra-Kahn writes 24 June HERE 
"Division of labour was common knowledge by the 1770s"
I always think of Adam Smith when I hear the term 'division of labour' - but I'm being cured of this by reading a bit more about Britains late 18th century in Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men. A very good read on industrialists and doctors, it remarks on Matthew Boulton's (think steam engine / manufacturing) explanation to Lord Warwick (in 1773) that it is ithe seperation of processes which allow British manufacturers to compete with continental Europe. So Adam Smith's comments were not so much brilliant discovery, but rather explanation of well established fact.”
Adam Smith never claimed nor implied that he discovered the division of labour.   In his chapter on the division of labour in Wealth of Nations he states of pin manufacturing:
a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of”.  He also draws attention to the fact that the idea of the division of labour was of long vintage before Wealth Of Nations, and before he lectured on it to his Lectures on Jurisprudence classes from 1751-63.  As were its consequences where he notes early hunter-gatherers exchanging arrows for a share of the kill.
In fact, Diderot’s French Encyclopedie (1755) contains the exact same arithmetical demonstration of a pin factory as Smith detailed in WN.   Also, the English "Cyclopedia" from Chambers in 1741 had a similar entry under pin-making with details of the division of Labour was widely available  In short: The "Division of labour was common knowledge by the 1740s", as Smith noted.  Adam Smith is innocent of this imputation.
The popular modern notion that Smith “discovered” the division of labour was initiated by later authors, and spread by their readers, and not by him.  


Blogger SM said...

"Smith's" pin factory example can actually be traced back to Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) where he used an example of a needle factory. It was probably well known by Smith's time and your right about Smith's discovery being an invention of modern economists.

3:54 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Interesting reference.
TDL was boosted by hand tools and hand-driven machines. Power-driven machinery also boosted it as well as multiple manufacturing processes.
The sheer number of implements available to farming, households, transport, including shipping (rigging, ropes, navigation, small and large boats - all within sight of young Smith in Kirkcaldy's port and his uncles' farms) suggest general awareness of TDL.
The claims are ridiculous. As are tales that 'Smith' invented 'capitalism' and so on.

7:02 pm  
Blogger SM said...

I completely agree with your assessment about the "general awareness of TDL."

I find it interesting that these misconceptions spread among modern "scholars" when the primary texts are so widely available.

11:46 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

The overwhelming majority of economists from graduation through to senior professorships do not read anything about the history of economic thought.
Hence, they imbibe whatever their half forgotten lecturers may have mentioned as 'throw away' smart lines at tutorials.

9:30 am  

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