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Monday, November 14, 2011

Adam Smith, Really?

So, I've just started Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations when I come to this at the end of the first chapter.
yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute masters of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.
Book I, Ch. I. To be sure, there is plenty of careful economic analysis--specifically the division of labor--and there is the beginnings of the idea that economic advances happen as a result of everyone looking out for their own self interest. But this little gem caught my attention.

I think it is worth recognizing the brutal racism toward African nations. Locke had this, too. Although, with Locke it was more about the American Indian nations. It doesn't necessarily discount his analysis, but I think it should be in the back of ones mind while reading these authors.

I think it is also worth noting the underlying assumption about productivity necessarily improving ones life. Surely one would rather be "absolute master" of "ten thousand nake savages" then a peasant wearing a jacket that much division of labor went into creating. Again, not to say that Smith's observations should be disregarded, but I do think it is worthwhile to keep his biases in mind. Curiously, he later writes, "Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life." Book I, Ch. V. Does this contradict his observation about the "savages"?

Is the ability to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life of those in what Smith calls civilised, but what we call industrialized, nations always greater than those in less industrialized nations? Was it in Adam Smith's time?