Adam Smith

I make no claims to a high level of expertise in the philosophy of Adam Smith. This is the first time I have spoken about Smith outside of a classroom setting. I assign selections from The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations in a sophomore-level core course, so the students and I discuss his work without any of us proposing to specialize in it. The irony of approaching Smith in this way is certainly not lost on me.

Nonetheless, I think that it makes sense to think about liberal education with Smith because we live, work, educate, and are educated in a “market society.” It is impossible not to think about the “job market,” the “higher education marketplace,” and so on. The notion of liberal education certainly antedates the ascendancy of the capitalist market, and the question of how the two fit together, if at all, ought to be taken seriously by all those who profess to be devoted to liberal learning in the contemporary world.

Let me take as my point of departure Smith’s discussion of the division of labor in Book I of Wealth. There he argues that this very division of labor is the principal cause of the wealth of nations, perhaps the most important consideration in an account of the human good. The great collective wealth, from which we all benefit to one degree or another, follows from the division of any complex work into a multitude of smaller tasks. In the course of explaining why this arrangement is so productive, Smith makes a number of arguments, the last of which has to do with the role of inventions and machinery in enabling us to accomplish these smaller and simpler tasks more efficiently and hence more productively. Many labor-saving machines are themselves, he avers, products of the division of labor.

Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that simple object, than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things.  (165)

There are a few of things about this statement that are noteworthy. In the first place, Smith is stating what is arguably a general truth about the human mind: at least when it is seeking means toward an end, it gains power through a narrowed focus. In any human endeavor, it would seem, specialization seems to produce greater results than synopsis and synthesis, than taking a sort of grand overview. The latter seems, as Smith says, to be kind of “dissipation,” hardly a compliment in any circumstance. Second, this observation has no necessary bearing on theory for its own sake. Means-end rationality, or (if you will) instrumental reason, profits from this narrow focus. It is hard to believe that (grand) theorizing as an end in itself would similarly benefit. It would not then be “grand,” would it?

I shall return to this last point soon and then again later, when I consider what Smith has to say about “unproductive labor.” At the moment it is sufficient to note that when one is—as Smith is—concerned with the wealth of nations, narrow specialization seems to be the order of the day. Of course, this may be as much a reflection on the natural limitations of the human mind as anything else: the proud multi-tasker probably does most of his or her tasks rather badly. And Smith appears in general not to be too impressed by human genius, referring as he does (for example) to the “vanity” (p. 170) of the philosopher who thinks himself so much naturally better than the common street porter.

Immediately after making this argument about specialization and the improvement of productive processes, Smith revises it slightly, averring that some (not “many”) of the improvements come from a different source:

Many improvements have been made by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines, when to make them became the business of a peculiar trade; and some by that of those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is, not to do anything, but to observe every thing; and who, upon that account, are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects. (166)

Here we have theory, not necessarily as an end in itself or for its own sake, but as a “trade” that specializes in synthesis.  Indeed, Smith is quite explicit about the “trade-like” quality of philosophy thus understood:

In the progress of society, philosophy or speculation becomes, like every other employment, the principal or sole trade and occupation of a particular class of citizens.

The one who engages in theoretical synthesis or synopsis is a specialist just like everyone else, even if his or her specialty involves a broader sweep of vision and less focus on a simple object. But Smith is not yet done with his account of specialization in philosophy:

Like every other employment too, it is subdivided into a great number of different branches, each of which affords occupation to a peculiar tribe or class of philosophers; and this subdivision of employment in philosophy, as well as in every other business, improves dexterity, and saves time. Each individual becomes more expert in his own peculiar branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased by it.

In a sense, this might seem to defeat the purpose of synopsis and synthesis, if the philosophers are specialists just like everyone else. Smith may be right about the “quantity” of science being “considerably increased by it,” but what about the quality? If philosophy is specialized, how can the objects compared be “most distant and dissimilar”? What we have here is something that seems most closely to resemble the division of the academy into disciplines, with synthesis occurring perhaps in an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary setting. It seems to be more of an antithesis to than an apotheosis of liberal learning.

Thus far, we might argue that—so far as he is concerned with the wealth of nations—Adam Smith seems to be no great friend of liberal learning in the traditional sense. He does not adopt the Aristotelian gentleman’s disdain for professionalization or specialization, and he certainly does not seem to care for what we might call Socratic philosophizing for its own sake. If theory is for the sake of practice—for the sake, that is, of increasing the wealth of nations—we would seem to gain everything by specialization and apparently lose nothing by abandoning the traditional liberal view.

But there are two caveats worth noting here. The first follows from Smith’s reference to “the quantity of science” that is increased by specialization. Strictly speaking, this is a “theoretical,” not a practical, concern. Regardless of any payoffs in productivity or wealth, specialization would increase the quantity of science. We should favor it, even if we were not necessarily concerned with increasing the wealth of nations.  If we care about knowledge for its own sake, in other words, we might favor specialization just as much as if we cared solely about increasing wealth. If there are two facets of the concern with liberal learning—one opposing “professionalization” in the name of breadth, the other favoring theory as an end in itself—Smith’s claim would seem to suggest the two are at odds: those who wish to promote knowledge for its own sake would also have to favor specialization. We cannot have it both ways.

A second caveat seems to tend in a different direction. As I noted a few moments ago, if the “philosophers or men of speculation” are indeed increasingly specialized, it would be difficult for them genuinely to combine together “the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects.” If this combination is indeed desirable—either for innovation or for its own sake—it cannot be promoted by mere specialization.

Let me put these two points together in the following, somewhat paradoxical, way. Specialization increases the quantity of science but undermines the possibility of a certain sort of innovation—not that which depends upon it, but rather that which depends upon synopsis and synthesis. Scientists who diligently till their own disciplinary gardens contribute to the quantity of science and to the wealth of nations (whether they intend the latter or not). But their disciplinary discipline (if I may be permitted such an awkward expression) militates against a certain kind of innovation, one that requires ignoring or breaking disciplinary boundaries. The latter undertaking cannot be justified by any sort of attention to the wealth of nations, until it can, that is, until it produces the unexpected result that adds to the sum of our knowledge and/or to our wealth. In other words, for the sake of innovation, productivity, and wealth, we may have to indulge mere, apparently pointless, curiosity, because it from time to time will produce something genuinely new and important. Such mere curiosity will increasingly go against the grain of a society devoted to specialization and wealth creation, but it is difficult to see how such a society can, in the end, do without it.

There is some good news and some bad news here. The good news is that, left to their own devices, different people will pursue different paths, with the result that some may be attracted to a “trade” that involves comparing different and dissimilar objects. We could be the beneficiaries of the unintended consequences of ordinary (or extraordinary) human curiosity. The bad news is that, especially in the short term, the market is likeliest to reward the narrow specialization that shows the most promise of producing immediate results.

Toward the end of Wealth, Smith returns to this issue. The context here is his account of the responsibility of government to provide certain public goods, in particular, education. He presents education in the first instance as a remedy for the stultifying and narrowing effects of the division of labor, which leads many to become “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become” (p. 302). The remedy for this is not for everyone to become liberally educated—heaven forbid!—but for the state to provide for, in essence, universal primary (and secondary?) education. In the course of making this argument, Smith contrasts “barbarous” and “civilized” societies. In the former, human beings are called upon to provide almost all their needs on their own, with the result that “[i]nvention 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” (p. 302). In the latter, the only people, it seems, who are afforded similar challenges to keep their minds flexible are the theorists:

In a civilized state…though there is little variety in the occupations of the greater part of individuals, there is an almost infinite variety in those of the whole society.  These varied occupations present an almost infinite variety of objects to the contemplation of those few, who, being attached to no particular occupation themselves, have leisure and inclination to examine the occupations of other people.  The contemplation of so great a variety of objects necessarily exercises their minds in endless comparisons and combinations, and renders their understandings, in an extraordinary degree, both acute and comprehensive (p. 303).

While most people in a “civilized society” run the risk of a certain sort of dehumanization, paying dearly for the great opulence to which they contribute through the division of labor, a few stand to gain extraordinarily by taking advantage of that opulence to gain leisure and contemplating the very complexity that a fully developed division of labor produces. Here Smith’s concern is not with productivity, but rather with what we might call intellectual acuity, the development of which requires both “leisure and inclination.”

But he does not neglect the social and political consequences that might follow from this development. If we do not find positions for these people, so that we can take advantage of their learning, “their great abilities, though honorable to themselves, may contribute very little to the good government or happiness of their society” (p. 303). In other words, if such people are not afforded the opportunity to apply in practice what they have gained through theory (in the original sense of observation or contemplation), government and society stand to gain little or nothing from their “great abilities.” It is not clear what Smith has in mind here, as he speaks of these observers “happen[ing] to be placed in some very particular situations” (p. 303), as if their influence would not be by anyone’s design, but rather by accident (thanks, perhaps, to the “invisible hand”).

It is worth noting in this connection that Smith speaks here of the possible benefits to either government or society. He is not obviously calling for those with political power to elevate these people into positions of political leadership or responsibility. After all, those who “happen to be” in positions of political power may not themselves be capable of recognizing great intellectual talent when they see it. It is just as likely that they will elevate crackpots as geniuses. And in any event it is very likely that they will elevate those who are saying, or are willing to tell them, what they want to hear. As Smith says in a different context, “I have never known much good to be done by those who affected to trade for the public good” (p. 265).

Furthermore, as Smith makes abundantly clear on more than one occasion, it is not just the manner in which our intellects serve our interests, but also the limited character of our intellects, that justifies modesty in this connection:

The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could not safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it (p. 265).

Smith does not deny that there is a public good; he simply denies that we, generally speaking, have the capacity to discern it or the interest to pursue it as something apart from our own interests. He implies that landowners might have the leisure necessary to discern that good, but all too often their leisure leads to “indolence” (p. 226). Even in this case, Smith suggests that it is not so much their intellect (even rightly applied) as it is the “strict and inseparable” (p. 225) connection of their interest with the public interest that would enable them to promote the latter, were they able to discern it.

Where do all these considerations leave us? Let me offer a couple of preliminary conclusions. First, the market rewards the narrowness of specialization, rather than breadth of vision, however much it relies upon the latter for certain sorts of innovation. Second, when a person who happens to specialize—so to speak—in synthesis and synopsis offers something for the benefit of society, there is no guarantee that society will pay attention, and no reliable program for assuring that it will. Indeed, programs meant to bring innovation to the marketplace from “on high” run the risk simply of putting in place, and indeed reinforcing, the selfish or mistaken judgment of a political leader. Under these circumstances, people like Smith himself, whose intellect ranged widely over a number of subjects, would seem to be orphans, not favored by the marketplace and favored by the government only at their peril.

If there is a saving grace, it comes from the very market that discourages what my institution has long called the “humane generalist.” Here I would advance two considerations, one from Smith’s discussion of productive and unproductive labor and the other from his treatment of education. What unites them is that the great abundance produced by a “civilized” society with a fully developed division of labor leaves room for all sorts of “waste.” Not every one of Smith’s capitalists will be one of Max Weber’s Calvinists who abhors leisure and invests every last penny of his or her profit back into the business. Rather, some will consume (so to speak) “luxury goods” like liberal education and the arts.

Let me begin with Smith’s account of productive and unproductive labor. The former, he says, produces something of value that is “vendible” (p. 234); in other words, there is a product external to the labor that can be sold, yielding a revenue that leaves a profit beyond the human and material costs of production. By contrast, unproductive labor leaves no such profit. The services of an unproductive laborer “generally perish in the very instant of their performance, and seldom leave any trace or value behind them, for which an equal quantity of service could afterward be procured” (p. 234). Thus people “waste” money on servants or entertainment, when they could invest it productively and turn a profit. Smith’s list of unproductive laborers is quite telling:

The sovereign, for example, with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him, the whole army and navy, are unproductive laborers….In the same class must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera singers, opera dancers, etc. (pp. 234 – 235)

Many on the list arguably receive (at least in our day and age) what might be called a liberal education. And since, as Smith next observes, the “annual produce of the land and labor of the country” (p. 235) pays the wages of both productive and unproductive laborers, the more that is devoted to the latter, the less that can be devoted to the former. When our productive laborers are very productive, we can afford more unproductive laborers as well. When a nation is wealthy, it has room for more people who do not obviously contribute to its wealth. Of course, there is a perfectly reasonable “bias” in favor of productivity, but it is hard to imagine a nation without both grave and frivolous unproductive laborers.

If there is anything that those of us on the unproductive side of things ought to take away from Smith’s account, it is that we should probably not bite the hand that so profligately feeds us. The more wealth that is generated by productive labor, the more that can be “wasted” on us. We can decry the bias in the marketplace against our sort of undertaking, but, as I said, this is a perfectly reasonable bias, one that contributes to the very wealth that ultimately supports us.

The second consideration takes as its point of departure Smith’s remarks about “the employments…in which people of some rank and fortune spend the greater part of their lives” (p. 304). Unlike the jobs that are stultifying and narrowing, “[t]hey are almost all of them extremely complicated, and as such exercise the head more than the hands” (p. 304). Furthermore, they “are seldom such as harass them from morning to night,” leaving them “a good deal of leisure, during which they may perfect themselves in every branch either of useful or ornamental knowledge of which they may have laid the foundation, or for which they have acquired some taste in the earlier part of life” (p. 304). Leaving aside for the moment whether our people of some rank and fortune have (or allow themselves) as much leisure as did Smith’s contemporaries, we can see here both that a developed economy affords opportunities for what we now call lifelong learning and how we in the liberal arts can prepare the way for it. Our task is to lay the intellectual foundations and to cultivate our students’ taste.

In the end, we are compelled, I think, to take the good with the bad. A Smithian market economy does not favor either leisure or liberal learning; it does not smile upon either theory for its own sake or upon taking a broad view of the world. But it does produce wealth and hence leisure, and (thankfully) leaves it up to individuals how they will use that leisure. Some may give themselves over to frivolity (think Duck Dynasty, poker night with the guys, or a neighborhood Bunko party), but others will not use it productively, but nonetheless well.  How they use it depends in some part at least upon us, the teachers.

What we should not do, as teachers, is complain about the marketplace and invite someone with authority to “fix” it. To see why, we need only consult the ways in which our political leaders generally approach higher education. They focus on efficiency of delivery, “college completion” (without any real regard for whether those who complete their education actually learn anything), and (when they do pay attention to content) workforce development. Education doubtless is an economic development tool, but it is or can be much more than that. That “more” can only flourish in the spaces left by the market economy. It is a luxury good, available to those who are fortunate enough to acquire a taste for it. It has always in a sense been that; we can only hope that it will continue to be available for those who seek it.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

All references are to Robert L. Heilbroner, ed., The Essential Adam Smith.  New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.

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