Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Mystery About Chomsky on Adam Smith and the Division of Labour

I always welcome readers who ask questions and I always publish their comments direct to the Blog.  I also receive other letters sent direct to me about things I have written, though I tend not to publish these where the reader either does not supply a name or specifies their letter is not for publication. And for the minority of readers letters sent directly to me without mentioning publication that I do publish – usually without identifying them – I refer to the post upon which they direct their comments, again without identifying them.  Sometimes they raise issues worthy of a wider audience for my replies.
The problem I raise in this post is quite different.  From about 2007-8, I have received several post and direct letters, usually in the same months from readers each year, usually whom I do not know their whereabouts, that raise questions about posts I made some years back on the subject of Chomsky’s assertions about Adam Smith on the division of labour in Book V of Wealth Of Nations.  I posted responses recently in 2012, though earlier ones are scattered in the years previous to 2012.
Given the relative frequency of these posts all making the same point in ‘defence’ of Chomsky’s remarks and in criticism of my own interpretation of Smith’s remarks in Book V. Interestingly, the ‘Chomsky’ posts usually are comments on posts of several years back and under the Blogger moderation system, as they are comments on my responses in the comments to these earlier posts.  When I pass these for posting, of course, they are added to the comments to those earlier posts and probably pass unnoticed by most readers unless they come across them by scrolling back through the posts of earlier years and check the comments sections, though I do not expect many readers would undertake that task.
Given the annual frequency of the quoting of ‘Chomsky’s’ comments, I suspect that the different student authors who write on this subject to Lost Legacy are in attendance at some kind of annual postgraduate lectures in which their tutor(s) direct them to read specific posts on Lost Legacy, given they all seem to make the same points of disagreement with my views.  Moreover, the earliest posts criticising me were fairly hostile personally, but lately they became less so, though they remain firm in their criticism. Chomsky himself is quoted as saying his critics had not read WN, a charge wholly ridiculous in my case.   If somebody could shed any light on this phenomenon I would be grateful, if only to satisfy my curiosity.
Here is the latest comment by  Jacob Perl  on my comment about Chomsky (2012):
"From Jacob L Perl (13 May 2013)
I wouldn't suppose that Chomsky meant that there ought to be no division of labor or that Smith thought that, or that this were even possible. People do different things and take on different tasks - it would be so silly to think otherwise I couldn't see anybody thinking it, much less Noam Chomsky. It also looks like Chomsky's reading of Smith as saying too much specialization makes people soft in the brain and body unless otherwise checked is in line with the Smith quote and your thinking about what prompted it. You're bringing some good thoughts to the table (I assume - it's not my specialty), but I don't see what part of Chomsky's statement you are in conflict with here. Actually, it looks like Smith in your thinking is arguing for government intervention to help avoid the effects of division of labor going to their natural limit - more or less in line with that first Chomsky quote. Isn't Chomsky an anarchist anyhow? I think Chomsky is just noting that the way people think of on Once More On Chomsky"
Let us examine the contentious passages in Book V.
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 too 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: 781) …
[Smith the provides details of his recommended policy for England to adopt the Scottish “little schools” movement in order to spread basic literacy and numeracy among all classes, which had been common in Scotland since the late 1600s. England’s lack of a basic education system for the common people, showed his views of what caused the negative the consequences and general ignorance among the labouring poor.]
“It is otherwise with the common people. They have little time to spare for education. Their parents can scarce afford to maintain them even in infancy. As soon as they are able to work, they must apply to some trade by which they can earn their subsistence. That trade too is generally so simple and uniform as to give little exercise to the understanding; while, at the same time, their labour is both so constant and so severe, that it leaves them little leisure and less inclination to apply to, or even to think of any thing else.
But though the common people cannot, in any civilized society, be so well
instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life, that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations, have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expence the publick can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people, the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.
The publick can facilitate this acquisition by establishing in every parish or district
a little school, where children may be taught for a reward so moderate, that even a common labourer may afford it; the master being partly, but not wholly paid by the publick; because if he was wholly, or even principally paid by it, he would soon learn to neglect his business. In Scotland the establishment of such parish schools has taught almost the whole common people to read, and a very great proportion of them to write and account. In England the establishment of charity schools has had an effect of the same kind, though not so universally, because the establishment is not so universal. If in those little schools the books, by which the children are taught to read, were a little more instructive than they commonly are: and if, instead of a little smattering of Latin; which the children of the common people are sometimes taught there, and which can scarce ever be of any use to them: they were instructed in the elementary parts of geometry and mechanicks, the literary education of this rank of people would perhaps be as complete as it can be. There is scarce a common trade which does not afford some opportunities of applying to it the principles of geometry and mechanicks, and which would not therefore gradually exercise and improve the common people in those principles, the necessary introduction to the most sublime as well as to the most useful sciences.
The publick can encourage the acquisition of those most essential parts of education by giving small premiums, and little badges of distinction, to the children of the common people who excel in them.
The publick can impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of
acquiring those most essential parts of education, by obliging every man to undergo an examination or probation in them before he can obtain the freedom in any corporation, or be allowed to set up any trade either in a village or town corporate” (WN V.i.f.53-57: 784-786).
“… 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).
It was on the basis of reading Wealth Of Nations, I detail I might add, that led me to differ with Chomsky’s interpretation of what Smith was saying, when he asserted from his alleged reading of WN, that Smith advocated the government to “take steps to prevent” the division of labour because it “caused” the “ignorance” of the labouring poor, if taken “too far”.  How on earth was Smith suggesting that the division of labour be stopped, or even slowed down?   He was not such a utopian as to believe that such an impossible policy was even worth discussing, let alone disregarding its impact on progress towards opulence, with which the division of labour was a necessary ingredient.
Indeed, as I have reported on Lost Legacy more than once regarding the then future of the manufacture of simple pins, of which the evidence is clear.  From a few labourers in many hundreds of pin plants, by the 20th century, only few plants remained and by the 1960s, two manufacturers in the UK and similarly in the USA produced many millions of pins a week operated by automated computer-driven machines to meet a very large market from pin manufactures.   In both countries, elementary education, high school education and university education raises the level of achievement to higher standards undreamt of by Adam Smith and his generation concerned with the appalling illiteracy, innumeracy, and general ignorance of the majority of their populations.  Smith was right; educate all children and abolish ignorance, on the basis of the ever more complex division of labour. What was Chomsky’s solution without the division of labour or even a government taking steps of “prevent it”?
I suggest that any reading of what Smith actually said in this chapter, could not possibly support such a questionable conclusion.  I expressed the view that I did not believe Chomsky understood what Smith was saying here.   This annoyed him, or his student readers, and presumably their tutors, to the extent that Chomsky concluded I had not read Wealth Of Nations, or by implication, if I had read it, I had misunderstood it!  
I suggest, respectively, that this is a case of a leading intellectual mixing up his “kettles” with his “pots”, and not having the grace to admit his conclusions, on this occasion, were unwarranted.


Blogger gcallah said...

I have heard commentary from people who attended linguistics conferences with Chomsky decades ago. They said while most scholars commenting on a paper would begin, "This is a good paper, however..." Chomsky would typically begin "This is a terrible paper, and what's more..."

I.e., don't expect him to back down however wrong he is.

11:46 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

Chomsky is longwinded. So is this post.

I just some times wonder, what is the point.

2:11 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Interesting observations. Thank you.
I don't expect Chomsky to reply too. And if he did I expect him to make a personal attack rather than debate the issue.
My impression of his style is to 'take no prisoners, perhaps from the tirades of attacks he suffered from in the past.
You "don't expect him to back down however wrong he is" runs counter to my understanding, and behaviour in the academy. When an errors is pointed out, if it is an error, is to acknowledge and correct it at the first opportunity.

10:29 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

The 'point' depends on how important you regard the historical integrity of a scholar's, in this case Adam Smith's, Works are for those who read them, may be for better or worse, and especially when thousands of policy decisions based on accurate and inaccurate reading of them affects the lives of tens of millions.
I shall try and be more focussed in future posts.
Thank you.

10:39 am  
Blogger michael webster said...

Gavin, I have always learned something interesting from your writings.

But, I remain annoyed when reading Adam Smith.

Passages like this infuriate me:

"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. "

We are asked to imagine a progress in which a division occurs -to start.

Ok, perhaps "a road which forks" is the metaphor.

Next, we are forced to compute: "the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people."

I have no idea what this means, unless it is "most people work at manual labor."

We end with: "comes to be confined to a few very simple operations; frequently to one or two. "

Again, no idea. Most of us, can do many simple operations and not only one or two.

1:59 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Smith was addressing a topic of how labourers earn their living in the 18th century. They way you read creates justified irritation when compared with both your experiences today (you look around and see a lorry driver, for instance, and you would soon lose count trying to list the driver’s hourly discretionary ‘operations’) and so it was in Smith’s day. Farm labourers, building workers, wall painters, porters, AB sailors, and so on, did more than a few simple operations. However, compared to the farmers, architects, decorators, coachbuilders, ship’s captains, and entrepreneurs, and contractors, their pin-making labourers had fewer demands on their very limited discretion.
Those pin makers were someways along the process through which the division of labour was underway. As power-driven machines came into more use (first steam, later electricity), the process of breaking down the operations of simple pin making reversed and the consolidation process commenced. By 1900, pinmaking firms were fewer, but each was much larger. Today two factories supply the whole market (UK and USA) with their entire pin output from computer- controlled machines. Supervising a batch of machines is rather boring work.
When Smith, an intellectual, visited workplaces, he viewed them as an outsider (apparently Marx never visited a factory). He saw labourers working away at little tasks, supervised by managers, and all brought together by the owners. In his own place of work, while he was doing what intellectuals do, those who serviced the University buildings had simpler tasks, oblivious as they may have been to his apparently doing nothing!
Having worked in both roles – in factories as a labourer under the eyes of vigilant supervisors and in universities as an intellectual – I can see what both sides think about the other. In the time it takes to write a paper, how many simple operations will the pin-makers repeat? Compare this with the multiple skilled tasks of the hunter-gatherer seeking daily sustenance from the open country.
I think you are right in your 3rd last sentence.

7:20 am  
Blogger gcallah said...

@Michael Webster: 'Next, we are forced to compute: "the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people."

I have no idea what this means, unless it is "most people work at manual labor."'

Smith is talking about two portions:
1) most labourers

Which also happens to be

2) most people

The writing of the 18th century was ornate compared to ours. Hemingway hadn't lived yet!

7:40 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

I see what you're saying - Smith didn't want the government to keep specialization from happening, and it looks like Chomsky claims that this is what Smith thought. I wish Chomsky said a little more on this, because I can't imagine it is how he meant that phrase.

Anyhow, it looks as if on the major points your interpretations are in line - Smith thought specialization could make people soft and useless in body and mind. He argued, in your reading, for some state action to get around that. I can see why you would take task with the one phrase you have, but overall you and Chomsky seem to be in accordance on your reading of Smith.

3:58 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

I ran across your old blog post after reading some Chomsky online and wondering if he had gotten that Smith quote right (it was an interview in which he used it). Yours was one of the first hits that came up in response to a search on that. I hope you didn't mind going back - wasn't trying to rehash old arguments already settled - I just saw a basic agreement that people seemed to be glossing over in the discussion on your blog.

5:25 pm  
Blogger michael webster said...

How were books sold in Adam Smith's time?

2:24 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think it's important to make a distinction between Chomsky's definition of "government" in contrast to the ruling class at the time of Adam Smith. Smith's view of the "publick" can be seen as, in Chomsky's anarcho-syndicalist viewpoint, a collectivization of the poor or underprivileged to have a fighting chance in society to be heard, which ultimately is the reason for a democratic form of government.

3:57 am  

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