Adam Smith & Poverty

2.4) Adam Smith & Poverty: Adam Smith loathes poverty.

Adam Smith is eager to create a society in which there is no poverty.

Adam Smith spends a substantial amount of time investigating the course of poverty over time. For example, he takes time and care to write:

During the course of the last century, taking one year with another, grain was dearer in both parts of the united kingdom than during that of the present…. It is equally certain that labour was much cheaper. If the labouring poor, therefore, could bring up their families then, they must be much more at their ease now. In the last century, the most usual day-wages of common labour through the greater part of Scotland were sixpence in summer, and fivepence in winter.… Through the greater part of the Low country, the most usual wages of common labour are now eight pence a-day; tenpence, sometimes a shilling, about Edinburgh…. In England, the improvements of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, began much earlier than in Scotland. The demand for labour, and consequently its price, must necessarily have increased with those improvements. In the last century, accordingly, as well as in the present, the wages of labour were higher in England than in Scotland. They have risen, too, considerably since that time, though, on account of the greater variety of wages paid there in different places, it is more difficult to ascertain how much…. Not only grain has become somewhat cheaper, but many other things from which the industrious poor derive an agreeable and wholesome variety of food have become a great deal cheaper. Potatoes… cost half the price which they used to do thirty or forty years ago. The same thing may be said of turnips, carrots, cabbages; things which were formerly never raised but by the spade, but which are now commonly raised by the plough. All sort of garden stuff, too, has become cheaper…. The great improvements in the coarser manufactories of both linen and woollen cloth furnish the labourers with cheaper and better clothing; and those in the manufactories of the coarser metals, with cheaper and better instruments of trade, as well as with many agreeable and convenient pieces of household furniture…

Which he then cross-checks with elite gossip:

The common complaint that luxury extends itself even to the lowest ranks of the people, and that the labouring poor will not now be contented with the same food, clothing, and lodging which satisfied them in former times, may convince us that it is not the money price of labour only, but its real recompense, which has augmented…

Having established that poverty has diminished, he next launches a full-bore attack on all those who claim this is a bad thing:

Is this… to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency?… Servants, labourers, and workmen… make up the far greater part…. What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable…

And then he makes a strong appeal to human solidarity, and to the reciprocal obligations humans undertake by entering into the gift-exchange relationships that knit society together:

It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged…

“It is but equity, besides…” This is a very strong appeal to human solidarity. It is coming from someone often seen as and sometimes dismissed as an apostle of human self-interest.

Here the full files are—unfinished:

And the course slides:

#books #highlighted #history #historyofeconomicthought #moralphilosophy #politicaleconomy #2019-11-23