Secret Concatenations: Mandeville to Malthus
Lecture 1. Overhearing Conversations, Political and Social Scientific
Lecture 2. Mandeville, Rousseau and the Paradox in Favour of Luxury
Lecture 3. Adam Smith and the Oeconomy of Greatness
Lecture 4. Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Factious Citizens
Lecture 5. Malthus, Godwin, and Condorcet: Inequality and Post-Economic Society
Lecture 6. Economists versus Human Beings
References and Sources
About the Author
These lectures were written for delivery as the Carlyle Lectures at Oxford in 1995. They were based on research that appeared as Riches and Poverty; An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1750-1834, which was published by Cambridge University Press in its Ideas in Context series in 1996. A sequel to this work was published in the same series in 2009 as Wealth and Life; Essays on the Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1848-1914. Some of the bibliographic material used in the final lecture here can be found in an appendix to that work.
As in Riches and Poverty the lectures centred around the theme of luxury and inequality. But they were sufficiently different from the book in content and style to justify publication as an ebook in the new Rounded Globe series planned by Simon Cook and Andrew Holgate – to whom my gratitude is due for proposing and making publication possible. I have retained the first-person informality of the lectures and resisted the temptation to qualify or supplement the opinions expressed in 1995. I have also left the text uncluttered by any scholarly apparatus. Instead, for those who wish to follow up the lines of inquiry mentioned here, I have provided some notes on references and sources in an appendix.
The Carlyle Lectures were endowed in memory of the Reverend A. J. Carlyle, a student of medieval political thought; they were originally intended to support work in that field of scholarship. Over the years the brief has been broadened to include other kinds of history and different periods. Two previous lecturers were and are friends of mine, the late John Burrow and Quentin Skinner. Their imaginative capacity to reconstruct past styles of thinking has been an inspiration to me. It was in company with John Burrow, and under the captaincy of another friend, Stefan Collini, that our book on That Noble Science of Politics; A Study in Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History was written in the early nineteen-eighties. It derived from our collaboration at the University of Sussex in teaching an ambitious course devoted to the history of the social sciences from the Enlightenment onwards. Although I shall be practicing that trade here only in attenuated, perhaps even subversive form, relations between the different perspectives that have emerged from the standard histories of the social sciences on the one side, and histories of political thought on the other, feature as a kind of subplot in these lectures.
There are some broad similarities in the way in which Quentin Skinner and Burrinchini (Burrow, Winch, and Collini) approach the problem of how past thinking should be understood historically. But Quentin Skinner brings more philosophical sophistication to bear on such matters than I can muster, which may be why I am fond of a homely image that John Burrow used when speaking on these subjects. In the course of reviewing some of the more theoretically ambitious ways of writing the history of ideas that are available today – the study of collective mentalities, the archaeology of discourse, the new historicism, cultural materialism, deconstructionism, and so on – he referred to intellectual history, quite simply yet artfully, as ‘eavesdropping on the conversations of the past’. Following this lead, I have organised these lectures around various overlapping eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century conversations that deal with different aspects of the problem of riches and poverty, luxury and inequality, treated as moral and political issues that do not belong to any one of the disciplines we now think of as the social sciences. Each lecture revolves around various quotations from my cast’s writings that help to convey the tone of voice employed in the conversations on which I shall be eavesdropping.
One of the attractive features of the conversational simile is that conversations, friendly ones in particular, allow participants to take one side, no side, or all sides, according to occasion or mood. Unlike formal debates they allow participants to change sides. I have certainly been impressed by the protean qualities of the underlying themes in the extended conversation on luxury and inequality as the theme has appeared and reappeared since the eighteenth century; and I shall try to illustrate some of the variations that my cast played upon it in these lectures.
Those familiar with Quentin Skinner’s methodological writings will appreciate why I prefer ‘protean’ to some such term as ‘perennial’ in mentioning these themes. The notorious relativity of any definition of what constitutes luxury – relative as to time, place, and social class – was one of its features that a significant early figure in the conversations I shall be considering, Bernard de Mandeville, exploited to undermine any confident moralising on the subject. While there have been many attempts to define absolute limits below which any person or group can be deemed to be suffering from unacceptable levels of deprivation – what Adam Smith referred to as that standard of life consistent with ‘common humanity’ – the general phenomenon of inequality of access to property, power, status, and material satisfactions is on the one hand so pervasive, while being subject on the other to such important sea changes, that it seems vacuous to speak of there being only one recurrent form of problem demanding the attention of different generations of thinkers. If there was one such problem all I can say is that my interlocutors decided not to bore themselves and their listeners by repeating themselves.
Samuel Johnson, The Adventurer, 26 June, 1753
He that contemplates the extent of this wonderful city, finds it difficult to conceive by what method plenty is maintained in our markets, and how the inhabitants are regularly supplied with the necessaries of life... In the endless variety of tastes and circumstances that diversify mankind, nothing is so superfluous, but that some one desires it; or so common, but that some one is compelled to buy it... When I look round upon those who are thus variously exerting their qualifications, I cannot but admire the secret concatenation of society, that links together the great and the mean, the illustrious and the obscure; and consider with benevolent satisfaction, that no man, unless his body or mind be totally disabled, has need to suffer the mortification of seeing himself useless or burdensome to the community... By this general concurrence of endeavours, arts of every kind have been so long cultivated, that all the wants of man may be immediately supplied; idleness can scarcely form a wish which she may not gratify by the toil of others, or curiosity dream of a toy which the shops are not ready to afford her... It were a speculation worthy of a philosophical mind, to examine how much is taken away from our native abilities, as well as added to them by artificial expedients. We are so accustomed to give and receive assistance, that each of us singly can do little for himself; and there is scarce any one amongst us, however contracted may be his form of life, who does not enjoy the labour of a thousand artists.
The protean qualities of luxury and inequality as a discursive theme during the eighteenth century can most briefly be illustrated by drawing attention to two apparently divergent connotations of luxury. They roughly correspond to what I have referred to in the title of this lecture as political and/or social scientific conversations. What in political and moral discourse might be called indulgence in excess, carrying with it dangers of enlarging the private sphere at the expense of res publica – dangers that preoccupied a host of ancient authorities and their modern admirers in the eighteenth century – can also be seen more neutrally as evidence of superfluity. From the latter it is a small step towards the idea of social surplus beyond immediate subsistence needs, currently available to the few, but potentially available to the many. Then as now, the most devastatingly simple answer to the question of why the rich are rich, was that the poor are poor and becoming poorer as the rich become richer. As we shall see in the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, such simple zero-sum interpretations could have persuasive advocates; and where this was the case, the more positive idea of luxury as an index of social surplus played little part in determining attitudes to the relationship between riches and poverty over time. And when the time dimension is considered more fully, what emerges is an ancient story of cycles of rise and fall through the familiar processes of corruption and loss of virtue, in which luxury is synonymous with social feminisation and manly enfeeblement.
Even those willing to countenance the neutral idea of surplus as opposed to moral excess could maintain that it arose from active exploitation of differential trading power or property rights. They continued, in other words, to ascribe zero-sum qualities to it. Hence the mercantile focus on achieving a favourable balance of trade with other nations, where utilitarian or reason-of-state arguments in England could be fortified by moral condemnation of imported French fripperies in the form of wines and silks. Hence too the mercantile preoccupation with low wages and enforcement of a work ethic as a means of maintaining a competitive edge in a world of warring nations – the doctrine that has become known as the ‘utility-of-poverty’ doctrine. Karl Marx, of course, provides a potent example of another way of envisaging surplus, in this case surplus value – the result of a different kind of exploitation that was built into the very fibre of the labour/capital relationship. It was one of the ways in which Marx appropriated for the mid-nineteenth century and beyond some of the conclusions that emerged from the conversations I shall be considering in these lectures.
As an alternative to such conceptions of how national opulence and power could be secured surplus could be attributed to exploitation in a more benign sense. We rightly identify one prominent eighteenth-century school of thought, that associated with Francois Quesnay and the Économistes or physiocrats, with the idea that social surplus – or, as they called it, the produit net – arose uniquely in agrarian pursuits, where labour was applied directly to land. Botanists and gardeners have no difficulty in understanding this form of abundance, and for Christian or deistic thinkers it was attractive to regard such surpluses as the ‘bounty of Nature’ proceeding from the wisdom of a beneficent Deity. That indeed was precisely how a prominent later member of my cast, the Reverend T. R. Malthus, chose to regard the phenomenon of rent, the income from landownership. In so doing, he was merely speaking common sense to his Christian readers. More secular-minded theorists, such as his friend and rival, David Ricardo, found Malthus’s combination of moral and economic language obfuscating, particularly when he saw how blatantly English landowners defended their this-worldly interests as rent-receivers during the Corn Law debates.
Despite this hint of a later separation of moral and economic languages, Malthus and Ricardo were able to continue their conversation with each other because they were united in their acceptance of some Smithian ideas of how the social surplus arose and might be augmented to public advantage. These ideas arose from Smith’s striking contribution to the debate on luxury as it developed during the third quarter of the eighteenth century. Smith represents a temporary culminating point for this debate, synthesising its main conclusions while at the same time launching the conversation in a different direction. As I shall try to show in my third lecture, this was accomplished in two ways. The first entailed recognition of how the physical productivity of labour in all pursuits, manufacturing and commerce as well as agriculture, could be enhanced through the division of labour; and the second came through what was then a novel stress on the role played by frugality rather than extravagance in generating economic growth. Surplus-augmenting activities were added to surplus-circulating ones to explain what Smith called ‘the oeconomy of greatness’. In this way a conversation that began with consumerist preoccupations, attracting moral condemnation of prevailing manners and suggestions for sumptuary regulation to preserve social and political stability, could become something far more central to the question of social survival – production and reproduction over time. Ancient cycles might give way for the first time to an idea of open-ended advance, though it proved difficult to shake off the idea that the career of growth was more likely to be asymptotic, subject to limitations inherent in the process itself. In saying this I do not wish to imply that the newer analytical dimension excluded the moral; that social scientific conversations replaced or drowned out moral and political ones. For those who wished to take part in both types of conversation, as my cast certainly did, such analytical insights merely shifted moral and political discussion on to new ground.
An attractive feature of conversations is that we can continue them at the point where our predecessors left them. The only restriction I would place on such freedom, speaking as an intellectual historian, is that the conversations should be between interlocutors who were genuinely aware of each other’s existence, language, and arguments. This rules out those encounters in which the historian acts as omniscient host at a kind of celestial cocktail party at which those invited only speak to one another through the intermediation of the host – indeed, can only speak through the host because they had no common language in life. I shall appear to break this rule in one respect only, namely by posing some counter-factual questions of my cast in some crucial instances in my fourth lecture. In other words, having established that a genuine conversation was taking place, I shall sometimes seek to reconstruct what the responses of the interlocutors might have been when more direct evidence is unavailable.
Interesting conversations are usually free from the coercive dualisms that tend to be an occupational hazard of much intellectual history devoted to political thinking. Whigs and Tories have long since been replaced by debating teams bearing more sophisticated labels such as contractarians and anti-contractarians, liberals versus classical republicans, civic humanists versus natural jurisprudentialists, and so on – to mention only those dualisms that are current among students of the period and authors I shall be considering. Narratives that purport to be dealing with past social scientific conversations often attempt to enforce another powerful dichotomy – between positive and normative propositions, between statements of fact and statements of value or rights. As already hinted, one of the negative conclusions I would like to emerge from these lectures is that none of my cast was foolish enough to allow their conversations to be constricted by these dualisms. That is something we have done to them in retrospect and for our own purposes, taxonomic or ideological.
Accurate reporting of what our chosen interlocutors were saying, the passive result of eavesdropping, may be the first but is not the only thing intellectual historians do. The reporting task itself is never as easy as it sounds, and if intellectual historians do not make a fair stab at accuracy it is difficult to see what other tribe will take responsibility for doing so. The best cure for thinking that intellectual history is a soft option compared with the activities of those who work on other historical coal faces, quarrying for different kinds of evidence, I find, is to read what other historians write when they trespass, as they frequently must, into such realms.
Eavesdropping originally meant lurking unseen in the spaces between houses, the places where the eaves dripped or dropped. My own lurking activities have occurred in more comfortable settings, and while the general title I have chosen for these lectures contains the word secret, I shall not be dealing in esoteric truths or with mysterious intellectual events that can only be deciphered by covert methods. ‘Secret’ here means, more simply, something like ‘in need of historical recovery for the purposes of revaluation’. The object being recovered is often something obscured or distorted by interpretations that have been rendered stereotypical by the way in which the ideas were first appropriated and later allowed to become part of the ideological furniture we need to feel at ease in a world of competing claims on our loyalties.
In speaking of stereotypes and ideologies I do not wish to convey an entirely negative view. I am prepared to concede that the stereotypes may have become necessary ones, the shorthand means by which we characterize, accord a lineage to, and even articulate our present-day concerns and allegiances. They represent the kind of one-sided dialogue we have become accustomed to having with certain ideas and figures on those subjects we currently find most agreeable. As with the small talk of everyday life, some of our conversations are meant to seal social bonds that already exist. Although I shall not be engaging in overt attempts to convert or recruit in these lectures, one happy outcome would be greater willingness to re-examine the established bonds by realising that what seem like familiar friends or enemies are more interesting than they have sometimes been credited with being.
I can bring these historiographic generalities into closer focus by some introductory remarks about three of the figures that will feature prominently in some of these lectures, two of whom, Adam Smith and Robert Malthus, have been mentioned already. Between them I should now like to place Edmund Burke, a figure who would appear in any account of the political conversations taking place during the period with which I shall be concerned, roughly speaking, between 1750 and 1834, with some final reflections going well beyond that date. In each of these cases the stereotypes that need to be questioned are powerful because their writings have acquired iconographic status. In crude summary these figures have come to represent, respectively, a powerful brand of possessive individualism, sometimes rudely labelled ‘bourgeois’ or negative liberalism; an archetypal form of organic conservatism that is antagonistic to almost all forms of rationalism and political constructivism; and, in Malthus’s case, a form of bio-economic determinism that stresses the strict environmental limits within which moral and political life can be conceived.
It is also possible to permutate the relations between the Smith-Burke-Malthus trio in various ways. The two figures who have come to be thought of – inadequately, I shall suggest – as social scientists or economists, Smith and Malthus, are often treated as the respective embodiments of what for shorthand I will describe as Enlightenment optimism and post-Enlightenment pessimism concerning human prospects. When lumped together for target practice, as they were for the first time by the Lake poets, led by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, they were spokesmen for a materialistic vision that treated man solely as economic or bio-economic animal, as a mere instrument in the process of wealth generation. This has remained the position of the twentieth-century successors of the early romantics, whether on the left or right of the political spectrum. In Coleridge’s terminology ‘things’ rather than ‘persons’ were the focus of attention. Or as Southey put it, political economy was subverting moral economy – a proposition that has given rise to one of the more enduring schisms or fault lines in the cultural history of Britain as that history emerged during the early decades of the nineteenth century when Britain became the world’s first manufacturing nation.
In my final lecture I shall address some features of this durable schism. For the moment I want simply to draw attention to the conflict it creates between the narratives that political theorists and social scientists have sought to construct around these figures. One potent version of the story can be expressed in terms of the Hegelian and post-Hegelian distinction between state and civil society, where the latter is seen as comprising all those relationships into which we enter in the ordinary course of meeting our everyday social and economic wants and needs. Civil society had been conceived in the eighteenth century only to be later redefined as economy, where this connoted a self-regulating realm of anonymous individuals engaged in self-interested pursuits dictated by their wants and mediated by impersonal exchange relationships, including the exchange of labour for wages or wage-goods. In a world entirely composed of those butchers, bakers, and brewers with whom, as Smith famously said, we are constantly striking bargains based on mutual self-interest, there is no room for benevolence or any other normal human attribute beyond that of rational calculation of personal interest.
In the language Marx was to introduce in his German Ideology, it represents that material realm of necessity, compared with which, inverting Hegel’s logic, he believed the realm of consciousness, religious and political, was merely a distorted shadow, something like that cast on the walls of Plato’s cave. The history of civil society could be recounted in materialist terms that are largely separated from the language of norms and ideals within which the ancient and Judeo-Christian worlds conducted their discussions of the meaning of political existence. We are embarked on a road that will lead us from an arena in which moral and political philosophy was concerned with relations between men and men (women either being excluded or treated as though they were men), towards one in which men are judged only in relation to the things they acquire, the economic roles they occupy, and in some versions, the economic class into which they are born.
Furthermore, if this economic realm functions best when operating under a system of natural liberty (otherwise known in the nineteenth century as laissez-faire or the night-watchman state, and in the twentieth as free market capitalism) – where goodness is measured solely in terms of whether it delivers the maximum sum of material satisfaction – it seems clear that the only occupation left to the social scientist is a contemplative one, charting the outcome of cause-and-effect relations of a probabilistic, possibly even deterministic character. Even when the social scientist fails on all occasions to adhere rigidly to the positive/normative distinction, as most of us thankfully do, the prescriptive role will be confined to pious warnings against ‘artificial’ or ‘unnatural’ expedients. No space is left in this scheme of things for the exercise of citizenly virtue, for public spirit or service, or the activities of an all-wise legislator concerned to create the conditions for human thriving in its fullest sense. The essentially normative content of politics has been eliminated, and the way is now open for what became the modern social sciences, those forms of positivistic social understanding which are the legacy of the great nineteenth-century system builders from Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer to Marx and on to Emil Durkheim and Max Weber. Hence the tendency among historians of social science to treat some of the members of my cast, rather patronisingly, as forming the pre-history of those ways of thinking that reached fruition in later hands. Within the systems created by such thinkers, politics is becoming a residual category, perhaps merely an ideological reflection of the deeper currents of modern life that issue from economic necessity or laws of social evolution.
I am guilty here of running together a number of distinct narratives, some of which will be disentangled later, but the caricature will convey some idea of the prevailing anti- or a-political direction of all these lines of argument. I would have little difficulty in showing that this remains the preferred interpretation of Smith and Malthus by normative political theorists and practitioners of ideological archaeology. It gains strength from the confluence of two opposed points of view: from being a persistent source of lament about the modern world for some, with Rousseau standing as a prominent eighteenth-century prototype, and the Lake poets as another in the early decades of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, it becomes a source of congratulation to those who hail the advent of positivistic social science as response and clue to what is perplexing about the modernity of modern society. Notice too that it dramatizes another question: are the ideas that lie behind a history of moral and political discourse fundamentally incompatible with those required for a history of political economy and the social sciences? If so, have we not stumbled on the origins of the cultural schism mentioned earlier without having to look any further?
I shall return to that question in my final lecture. First let me bring into play another permutation between my three icons that has acquired reinforcement in recent decades. Burke is not usually assigned a prominent place in the pre-history of the social sciences, except by those who regard the origins of sociology as being irrevocably bound up with a post-French revolutionary concern with hierarchy and organic solidarity. Nevertheless, it became increasingly fashionable in some circles to combine Smith’s economic liberalism with Burke’s conservatism to justify the conviction politics of a late twentieth-century British Prime Minister and her intellectual gurus, Friedrich von Hayek and Keith Joseph. As so often happens in these cases, what began life as an interpretation associated with the Old Left (it began with Marx describing Burke’s posthumous pamphlet, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, as definitive proof that Burke was an ‘out and out vulgar bourgeois’) has been appropriated and stood on its head by the New Right. By combining Smith and Burke one retains the idea of a spontaneous and harmonious economic order that is the outcome of un-coerced individual choices. In the process one acquires an organic legal and governmental regime that respects custom and tradition, while being protective of those ‘little platoons’ – the family, the Church, and other voluntary associations – thought to be essential to social cohesion and national identity. Political and social scientific insights have been successfully reconciled: an idea of community, even nationality, has been reconciled with anonymous, self-interested behaviour in the market place.
Faced with such heady infusions it may come as relief if I disclaim any intention of dealing with such grandiose speculations as the decline of the political in modern consciousness, and such near-contemporary journalistic reflections as the intellectual genealogy of Thatcherite versions of conservatism. I can best make this plain by saying that my starting point would be recognition that, far from being proto-Austrians, proto-Marxians, proto-Weberians, or even little Liberals and Conservatives, terms they would not have understood as substantive nouns, Smith, Burke, and Malthus were all species of that large political genus called Whigs. Given the immense variety within the genus such a description may not take us very far, but it has the minor virtue of ensuring that we do not set off confidently in the wrong direction at the outset. By beginning from a common starting point it may also be possible to say something about the emergence of those more familiar ideological ‘isms’ by which we still regulate our lives. It was certainly towards the end of the period with which I shall primarily be concerned, in the 1820s and ‘30s, that ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ first emerged in general use in this country.
At this point explaining the slightly mysterious title I have given to these lectures will help to introduce the sequence that follows. ‘Secret concatenations’, as you will see from the quotation that serves as my epigraph, is taken from a phrase used by Samuel Johnson when musing on life in London, his favourite city. He was meditating on that ‘general concurrence of endeavours’ according to which nobody needed to be idle, and where each of us relies on ‘the labour of a thousand artists’ to satisfy his wants. This system of interdependence and ‘artificial plenty’ could be contrasted with the more self-sufficient life of the savage, whose perseverance we may choose to admire, but whose unassisted labours could not ‘procure him the conveniences which are enjoyed by the vagrant beggar of a civilized country’. In drawing attention to a minor essay by Johnson written in 1753 I hope to have hinted that he was joining an established conversation on luxury and inequality, on the benefits of specialization and exchange in commercial societies, that brings to mind the far more celebrated later contribution of Smith, whose Wealth of Nations offered a key to unlock Johnson’s secret concatenation. Smith also provided a far more durable phrase, almost a translation of what the secret concatenation does, namely operate as an ‘invisible hand’.
Although it is hard to think of many things about which Smith and Johnson agreed, whether on religion, morals, or politics, the coincidence in their ways of speaking on this subject is not difficult to explain. They were both drawing on the same source: Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, published thirty years before Johnson’s essay, and more than fifty years before publication of the Wealth of Nations. Mandeville gave scandalous currency to a particular version of the secret concatenation; it was part of his argument that the public benefits of modern economic life, opulence and power, could only be acquired by allowing more or less free rein to private vices. Johnson’s distinctiveness on this matter lay simply in the fact that he refused to follow either popular moralising on the corruption of manners, or to endorse, as he might have done with greater probability, Mandeville’s pious detractors. It is further proof of conversational versatility that Johnson had no difficulty in combining his Mandevillism on luxury with writing a reverent poetic sermon on the vanity of human wishes. Smith was to do much the same in more secular fashion.
My next lecture will begin with Johnson’s Mandeville coupled with another interlocutor, Rousseau. It is an illustration of a point made earlier that whereas Rousseau commands ready assent to being included in the canon of political thought, Mandeville is more usually assigned a place within histories of the social sciences, both in his own right and by virtue of his influence on Smith and Smith’s closest friend and intellectual ally, David Hume. Why there should be this differentiation of roles between Rousseau and Mandeville is not immediately apparent. It could be an example of the artificial dichotomy that has grown up between political and social scientific conversations. The artificiality is suggested by the fact that Rousseau’s second discourse on the origins of inequality is part copy of Mandeville, part attempted rebuttal. Since I shall also be maintaining that Smith, in company with Hume, was responding to both Mandeville and Rousseau on the question of luxury and inequality, on the new relationship between economy and polity made possible by commercial societies, you will appreciate why I am not anxious to place the conversations in which these authors were engaged in separate sound-proof rooms.
It may also help to explain why I find ‘secret concatenation’ a useful image to describe the less obvious connections between my conversationalists. To concatenate means to link together by means of a chain. What is being linked could be anything from a suspension bridge formed by the loops of a hanging chain to a set of propositions used in deductive logic to form a catena, a chain of reasoning. My usage is meant to describe something between these two extremes, a series of overlapping connections between different persons, writings, and propositions. Whether the result will constitute a bridge leading from one interesting place to another is too programmatically immodest for me to claim at this stage. I need first to focus less on images than on subject matter. What are we talking about? Or, adapting a semi-playful question posed by the mathematical logician, Frank Ramsey, making devastating use of the fact/value distinction, one could even ask whether there is actually anything left to talk about. Clearly, if those who argue that the emergence of the social sciences spells death to anything normative or truly political, there is not much more to be said, and I ought not to be trying to say it. Although I have hinted that such coercive binary choices should be resisted, I have yet to say why or how we should do so.
Let me approach this crab-wise fashion by returning to Johnson’s musings on the provisioning of London, his curiosity about the ways in which its variegated wants, in the form of necessities, conveniencies, and luxuries, were met – wants of the body and wants of the mind, where the latter have the characteristic of being indefinitely expandable as a result of vanity and fashionable emulation. This was one of the special dangers attached to luxury: it offered ways of indulging in sensual and appetitive pursuits without limit, going beyond that moderation and frugality preached by ancient and Christian moralists alike. By separating such moral questions arising from vanity and depravity from the more utilitarian or consequentialist ones underlying the public benefits derived from the division of labour in commercial societies, Johnson can be accused of plagiarising Mandeville, just as Smith was to be accused of doing by Marx much later.
Whether they knew it or not writers of elementary textbooks on economics regularly used to steal from Mandeville (or Johnson or Smith) by employing the example of how a city is provisioned without an all-wise central planning authority. Their object was to show the properties of markets as a sensitive system of rewards, punishments, and signals for allocating finite resources between competing wants. We seem to be back, therefore, with Mandeville as one of the sources of Smith’s invisible hand and the origins of a conception of ‘economy’ as a self-regulating mechanism. Can there be anything wrong with finding ourselves in such familiar surroundings? For if this was not the central message of Smith considered as the founding father of economics, what else could he be doing? Quite a number of things, in fact, none of which, or so it seems to me, requires one to think of him as an a-political or proto-positivistic social scientist.
There are good reasons for not giving undue prominence to the term ‘invisible hand’ when dealing with Smith. First, one always has to point out that the phrase appears only three times in Smith’s writings, where each of the contexts differs greatly. Secondly, the term has been debased by its use as a slogan by the stereotypical interpreters mentioned earlier. Even when ideological axes are not being ground the term has acquired misleadingly instrumentalist connotations. To a post neo-classical generation of economists, for example, the expression is now most likely to conjure up a picture of the price mechanism as currently understood by means of general equilibrium theory. There are bits of Smith that lend themselves to such interpretations, but not as many as historians of economic doctrines – who have saddled themselves with a professional obligation to recover such things – like to think. Equilibrium theorising based on assumptions of complete markets that are also perfectly competitive was not, as we now so eloquently put it, Smith’s bag. The tendencies to equilibrium and closure in Smith are consistently being overwhelmed by the open-ended forces of economic change.
To this economistic conclusion I would add that the forces making for harmony and stability are also threatened by a large range of anti-social human proclivities as well – those propensities which involve corporatist conspiracy to further personal goals at the expense of public good, as well as that love of ease and love of domination that surfaces whenever an opportunity presents itself. There were also some a-social by-products of commercial society that Smith wished to record in his clinical balance sheet, chief among them being the ‘mental mutilation’ produced by specialisation – an example that reveals why the unintended consequences produced by the invisible hand do not invariably produce an acceptable result, and hence why Smith’s legislator, the person to whom, after all, he addressed the ‘branch of the science of a legislator’ that became political economy, has positive duties to perform in this as well as other spheres. Commercial progress could be achieved under a variety of forms of government, but it was vulnerable under regimes that could not guarantee a tolerable degree of security under the rule of law.
The historical record also showed that economies could not be made secure against war and revolution. Anticipating a later lecture, one could say that Smith is a philosopher of permanent imperfection in human affairs, anxious to create a ‘system’ that would explain how an ideal world might operate, but far more concerned to provide guidance to legislators in circumstances that were, by definition, always second best. Conventional histories of economics, or the social sciences generally, rarely prepare us for appreciating that the founding fathers of these intellectual enterprises could be quite so genuinely voluntarist (non-determinist) in their conclusions.
The invisible hand is rightly seen as shorthand for an explanatory style that stresses the unintentional nature of historical and social outcomes. Smith employs this style extensively as moral philosopher, as legal, economic, and ecclesiastical historian, as well as political economist. While the style is capable of being seen as a methodological doctrine – roughly speaking, embodying an individualistic alternative to the legacy of methodological holism left by Marx and Durkheim – its significance to the subject matter of these lectures is more substantive. It provided Smith, as it had a more cynical Mandeville earlier, with a way of dealing with complex outcomes that captured the ironies, ambiguities, and imperfections of human motive, and hence of social life, without giving way to romantic despair in the face of its meaninglessness, depravity, or imperviousness to anything short of total reconstruction.
Conservative is one term that might be applied to this pervasive feature of Smith’s thinking, though in a later lecture I shall be concerned to show how Smith’s conservatism differs from that more usually associated with the name of Burke, with the American and French Revolutions serving as the crucial historical context for the comparison. Although Smith was not given to proclaiming his scepticism in religious matters quite as blatantly as his friend, Hume, his lack of orthodox piety played a part in distancing him from Burke. There might be scope for providential design as an answer to the question of final as opposed to efficient causes of this-worldly outcomes, but any wider appeal to natural theology as the clue to man’s moral arrangements takes the matter beyond Smith’s normal secular range. In saying this I do not wish to invoke a rigid dichotomy between religion and science, or religion and politics for that matter. Premature secularisation is another of those modern habits against which intellectual historians ought to provide remedies. Although we may sometimes suspect modern social scientists of indulging in natural theology rather than science, we no longer associate explicit appeal to the designs of a beneficent deity with social science, any more than we do so in post-Darwinian biology. In political discourse too we have found some blunt ways of characterising arguments used by Burke when offering the consolations of religion to the poor. We suspect hypocrisy or worse in those who, from comfortable social locations, maintain that the rewards in the after-life compensate the poor for injustices in this life.
Such criticisms have been aimed at the Erastian elements in Burke’s thinking. They are less justified when aimed at Malthus, whose personal piety and intellectual commitment to systematic natural theology cannot be ignored in any attempt to understand his Newtonian aims as a social scientist. It was essential to the cautiously moderate view of human improvement which he wished to substitute for the more brilliant visions of indefinite progress advanced by his Rousseauiste opponents, William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, the subject of my fifth lecture.
Eavesdroppers not only have to be attentive listeners, they cannot afford to over-indulge in modern selectivity in what they choose to hear. Just as the political and social scientific conversations I shall be considering cannot be separated from one another, so is it with fideistic arguments. I would also like to think that we stand to learn something to our own advantage by being tolerantly eclectic in such matters.
Letter from Adam Smith to the Edinburgh Review, 1755
Whoever reads [Rousseau’s discourse on the origin and foundation of inequality] with attention, will observe, that the second volume of the Fable of the Bees has given occasion to the system of Mr. Rousseau, in whom however the principles of the English author are softened, improved, and embellished, and stript of all that tendency to corruption and licentiousness which has disgraced them in their original author... Both [Mandeville and Rousseau] suppose, that there is in man no powerful instinct which necessarily determines him to seek society for its own sake: but according to [Mandeville], the misery of his original state compelled him to have recourse to this otherwise disagreeable remedy; according to [Rousseau], some unfortunate accidents having given birth to the unnatural passions of ambition and the vain desire of superiority, to which he had before been a stranger, produced the same fatal effect. Both of them suppose the same slow progress and gradual development of all the talents, habits, and arts which fit men to live together in society, and they both describe this progress pretty much in the same manner. According to both, those laws of justice, which maintain the present inequality amongst mankind, were originally the inventions of the cunning and the powerful, in order to maintain or to acquire an unnatural and unjust superiority over the rest of their fellow creatures... the principles and ideas of the profligate Mandeville seem in [Rousseau] to have all the purity and sublimity of the morals of Plato, and to be only the true spirit of a republican carried a little too far.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Last Reply to Critics of the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, 1751
For every hundred paupers whom luxury feeds in our cities, it causes a hundred thousand to perish in our countryside: the money that passes between the hands of the rich and the Artists to provide for their superfluities, is lost for the Husbandman’s subsistence; and he is without a suit of clothing just because they must have piping on theirs.
Following what was said in the first lecture about conversations in intellectual history, the first exchange I wish to consider may seem oblique and one-sided. It conforms more with the general theme of these lectures: it illustrates a secret concatenation, a connection containing hidden elements. The conversation involves Rousseau’s response to Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees and to all those who had been tainted by Mandeville’s worldly doctrines on the social and political benefits of the arts and sciences of civilised existence associated with commercial progress, luxury, and inequality. Although Rousseau makes only a few critical references to Mandeville himself, he was well aware of the pervasiveness of Mandeville’s influence: in France it could be found in the work of Voltaire, Jean-Francois Melon, and even Montesquieu, one of the few moderns whom Rousseau respected. It was also the source of Rousseau’s puzzlement about David Hume before he met him: how could Hume combine republican sympathies – an idea conveyed, perhaps, by Hume’s essay on a perfect commonwealth – with what Rousseau described as those ‘English paradoxes in favour of luxury’, a comment on Hume’s essay ‘On Luxury’ later rechristened as ‘On Refinement of the Arts’?
Mandeville’s defence of luxury was the most deliberately paradoxical one available, making it possible to appreciate just why it was, for Rousseau, one of the signs of modern times he most deplored and sought to counter. What is far less obvious, yet, as the first epigraph will show, was clearly discerned by Adam Smith when he reviewed Rousseau’s second discourse on inequality in 1755, is how much Rousseau had borrowed from Mandeville while attempting to stand the diagnosis on its head, or, as Rousseau would have thought, right side up. The most basic assumption they shared centred on man’s lack of innate sociability, an assumption that dictated the intellectual strategy they both employed when dealing with the origins of civil society and when explaining those codes of behaviour to be found in its modern commercial manifestation.
I will return to these common assumptions later, but first let me summarize, headline fashion, the more important aspects of Mandeville’s scandalous message in the Fable of the Bees, the subtitle of which, Private Vices, Public Benefits, left a great deal for the intervening comma to suggest. French translations connected the two phrases with active verbs – faire, devenir, or tend – but in English the connection was left hanging teasingly on the comma alone. Incidentally, French translations were also forced to leave out passages that were far too coarse for tastes that were no longer as Rabelasian as Mandeville’s continued to be.
Mandeville’s juxtaposition of private vices and public benefits was suggestive and evasive at the same time, exploiting all the freedoms of the satirical genre. It is notoriously difficult to decide on the appropriate historical context or contexts for works of satire, but two have regularly been advanced to deal with Mandeville’s texts. The first, and most easily appreciated, is his attempt to subvert a large body of contemporary literature, much of it taking the form of a jeremiad designed to reform English manners by curbing luxury and instilling a disciplined frugality among those lower orders whose labours were essential to sustain the public realm. From this point of view, to put it no higher than the commonplaces of eighteenth-century English political life, Mandeville is simply what those who first attempted to prosecute him thought him to be: a Court Whig, a Walpolean, defending corruption and ridiculing Country Whig and Bolingbrokean anxieties about the growing political influence of non-landed forms of wealth.
The second and more interesting context is one that starts from Mandeville’s Epicurean and Jansenist sources and takes seriously his claims to be an anatomist of human nature, the medical author of a treatise on hypochondriac disorders who was operating, with deliberate disregard for religious or other sensibilities, on the sensitive socio-biological borderline between man and beast, Culture and Nature. If England seemed to be the main stage on which Mandeville exercised his craft as anatomist, this was simply because it was there that he found the most compelling evidence of conflict between professed codes of morality and those required by the emerging modern order. Anticipating a later lecture one could also say that it was on the same socio-biological borderline that Malthus was later to set out his own stall, one on which Charles Darwin himself would make the significant call that was to give rise to most modern forms of socio-biology.
The Fable of the Bees revealed its author’s delight in overturning the established rhetoric connecting private virtue and frugality with public benefit – a rhetoric that drew from Christian teaching on moderation and self-denial as well as classical republican anxieties that centred on the threat to public spirit posed by luxury and inequality. In bald summary, Mandeville demonstrated that civilisation and luxury were indissolubly connected; that virtue and equality were synonymous with poverty; that the passions of self-interest, vanity, and pride played an indispensable part in all commercial and civilised societies; and that there was an irrevocable connection between private vice and public benefits. Taking this summary alone, it is possible to appreciate Smith’s shrewdness in noting how much Rousseau was simply inverting the logic of Mandeville’s position while retaining its basic assumptions: Rousseau endorsed all of these propositions, merely placing a moral minus sign in front of each of them.
Mandeville’s extended reductio was practised on moral rigorists from a standpoint that purported, Jansenist-style, to be ultra-rigorous in its own standards of vice and virtue. It also reinforced the power of its paradoxes by adopting the view that virtuous motives should be judged according to intention, while employing consequentialist criteria when dealing with the public outcome of various motives. In the course of his attack on the Earl of Shaftesbury’s optimistic or benevolist doctrines, Mandeville denied man’s innate sociability and moral sense by maintaining that moral codes were merely rhetorical devices created in order to work on man’s essential vanity, his desire to appear well in the eyes of others. In this fashion unsociable creatures had been transformed into sociable ones by making them more pliable in the hands of the wise and cunning. The result was what might be described as an ignoble version of Plato’s noble lie. Since humankind in its natural state was not equipped with moral propensities or categories, they were incapable of being ruled by reason or sentiment. The defect had to be made good by governing through flattery, deceit, and artifice.
In one sense Mandeville was merely following other Augustans in holding up the mirror of satire to his contemporaries, though doing so with a savagery matched only by Jonathan Swift. In another sense, however, his purpose was not so much pedagogic and homiletic as anatomical. His aim was not to produce reformation through self-recognition, in the manner of Swift, Joseph Addison, and Richard Steele, but to unmask hypocrisy and induce acceptance of the world, flesh, bone, bodily fluids, warts and all. This points to the inadequacy of any account of Mandeville that depicts him merely as Court Whig. Addison and Steele, the authors of The Spectator, are better examples of the Court Whig mentality, better exponents of the polite virtues of commercial society, which is precisely why Mandeville, in his role as unmasker and anatomist, ridiculed the hypocritical gentility of their defence of the existing commercial order. Their writings, he said, resembled those ‘tricks made use of by women that would teach children to be mannerly’. It was not so much what they were doing, but their failure to admit its chief purpose that was hypocritical. Speaking the language of pathology Mandeville held that all melancholic diseases are self-inflicted; they only require self-knowledge to effect a cure. Genteel moralists perpetuated the disease by encouraging the fantasy of politeness, by obscuring real motives. Serpents do not become doves by being described as such, though it may suit some people’s book to treat them as though this was possible.
Another source of Mandeville’s paradoxes lay in his portrayal of the world as one of masquerade, of theatrical performances designed to win applause. Society became an arena for endless yet orderly dissimulation. And in these respects it was preferable to the unattainable alternative depicted by moralists, where motive and action were aligned in a transparent manner. Civilisation, judged by professed moral standards, must entail corruption and vice; but judged by the standards that most men appear, in their behaviour, if not their pious protestations, seem to want, modern commercial society is a miracle of self-regulation and discipline. This gave rise to a highly disturbing dilemma: how could there be any basis for moral judgement, any bedrock on which authenticity in human relations could be established? In the absence of such a moral realm, all we have is a utilitarian world of material consequences arising from the pursuit of selfish goals. We face another version of the Hobbesian problem of war of all against all that now includes war within ourselves. Most of us are the prisoners of false consciousness: the rest, a wise or cunning minority, are either hypocrites or ready to become willing prisoners by appreciating, as Mandeville did, that false consciousness is necessary to social order. It is not difficult to see why such a truly amoral anatomy of man could be read as immoral.
Like Mandeville, much of Rousseau’s initial literary notoriety derived from his deployment of striking paradoxes, moral if not logical ones, beginning with his first discourse on the rise of the arts and sciences treated simultaneously as a product of progress that was also a source of moral decline. As in the case of Mandeville, the arts and sciences ‘owe their birth to our vices’; they are the by-product of that luxury and idleness which Rousseau was later to attribute to inequality, the root of the evil. As the second quotation in the epigraph indicates, the vicious and trivial enjoyments of the rich are achieved at the expense of enslaving the artist or artisan, those who labour but do not enjoy the fruits of that labour. It is the classic master-slave relationship in which the rich master and his poor slave are both enthralled, the one by his passions, the other by incessant toil.
Anyone acquainted with these features of Rousseau’s position will recognise how much Mandeville seems to be revelling in the very things that Rousseau most condemned as political moralist: the dissimulation, insincerity, the role-playing that had taken the place of knowing your own character and cultivating it according to your own true lights; the emulativeness that had caused an unnatural amour propre to replace the natural instinct of self-preservation called amour de soi-meme; the endless confusion of être with paraitre. It had even blunted or distorted the natural instinct of compassion or pitié which all creatures have for their fellows in distress. It was, in short, all the things against which Emile’s elaborate education in Rousseau’s eponymous work on the subject was designed to protect him. All the things, one could add, for which Rousseau’s idealised version of the social contract was the only remedy in corrupted states.
Mandeville had maintained that the attempt to raise an edifice of public good on the basis of private virtue was a ‘vain Eutopia seated in the brain’. Rousseau, in the Social Contract at least, sought refuge in just such a Eutopia while believing that it was not entirely in vain. For states that had yet to be fully corrupted, say Corsica or Poland, other less drastic remedies might be found, though they would have to be based on resistance to the disruptive forces of change celebrated by those who followed Mandeville in accepting the paradox in favour of luxury. Smith had been equally shrewd in pointing out that Rousseau’s main defect was in carrying ‘the true spirit of a republican’ to extremes. Rousseau was counter-posing a republican conception of liberty against the commercial alternative, proposing solutions designed to minimize the corrupting process by recommending continuous vigilance over and curtailment of those economic opportunities celebrated by Mandeville and his growing band of followers – all those, in fact, who refused to treat satisfaction of the wants of the mind associated with luxury as the most important threat to social and political existence, as an opening of the floodgates to an uncontrollable empire of private greed and moral decay.
Reverting to the contrast I drew in my first lecture between moral and social scientific conversations, it is easy to see why Rousseau appears to be an ideal candidate for the role of moral and political antithesis to Mandeville’s social scientific thesis. Appreciation of this seems to underlie Smith’s comparison of the two figures: thus while Smith praised the Platonic sublimity of Rousseau’s morals, he also appropriated an important aspect of Mandeville’s social science, the notion of unintended consequences and the double truth. Mandeville’s subsequent reputation as social scientist partly depends on Smith’s act of appropriation, but has also been cultivated by admirers who do not need Smith’s intermediation. On the left of the political spectrum, for example, Mandeville’s reputation has tended to revive each time the debate on the ‘moral deficit’ of the capitalist system has intensified. At various times Mandeville has been treated as the forerunner of Max Weber on the ‘spirit of capitalism’ or the anticipator of Thorstein Veblen’s views on conspicuous consumption and the leisure class. For was he not the person who first let the cat out of the bag by showing the wicked potential of an a-moral world ruled only by self-interest acting under the cover of more decorous motives?
Admirers of the freedoms conferred by capitalism and the logic of its inner wisdom, such as Friedrich von Hayek, have also been attracted to Mandeville’s qualities as laissez-faire theorist and social evolutionist. Indeed, one could point to the ironic indirection of Mandeville’s explanatory style as the ultimate social scientific insight. Individual morality does not regulate real social outcomes, any more than individual genius can be used to explain the evolutionary processes by which major innovations in the arts of social and economic existence are discovered and refined by lesser mortals. Like it or not, the world works through unintended consequences which depend little on professed motives or conscious plans; there is a base wisdom in human affairs that defeats the efforts of genteel and sentimental moralists, as well as conceited rulers, to order things differently. We have here one of the sources of Smith’s strictures on the ‘man of system’ and his notion of the ‘invisible hand’ – strictures that have been shorn of their eighteenth-century meanings in order to be recycled in recent decades to underline the hubris of all attempts to replace the market as the source of both freedom and order. For Hayek’s followers Smith’s man of system has become identified with state bureaucrats and arrogant social planners, all those who received their come-uppance in Eastern Europe after 1989.
Mandeville’s moral relativism, like Montesquieu’s sociological version of the same idea, has also proved attractive to some social scientists. We may have manners but we do not have morals in any generalizable sense. He tells us that the only collective morality we have is local to where we happen to live. As with our conceptions of beauty, there are no absolute standards, merely customs and acquired tastes that vary between peoples and places. They may even be local inventions, maxims relating to honour, vice, and virtue designed by the skilful or cunning for purposes of continuous ‘management’ of human affairs. Such cynicism apart, it is worth noting that in dealing with the powerful role played by custom or tradition in human affairs, Mandeville had come down firmly on the side of culture in the debate with nature, despite appearances of having dwelled so lovingly on the bestial side. Mandeville as satirist could exploit what might otherwise be contradictory insights; he could use conspiracy theories alongside those that stressed the evolutionary nature of social life. He was also adept at those forms of explanation we call functionalist, as in the case of his defence of ‘public stews’ or brothels: since prostitution served the purpose of enabling decent women to preserve their virtue, why not admit the fact while at the same time removing some of its unwanted consequences? Social scientists continue to use all these modes of explanation, with or without contradiction.
Nevertheless, Mandeville could also be read as moralist, and not merely a libertine moralist. Samuel Johnson provides the best example of such a reader. Johnson could see that Mandeville had written a self-consciously wicked book, while protesting that he was doing the opposite. He was also fully aware of the way in which Mandeville had achieved his shocking result, namely by the sophistic device of defining all pleasures, however harmless, as vicious; and by defining virtue as necessarily entailing self-denial. But none of this prevented Johnson from confessing that Mandeville had ‘opened [his] eyes to real life very much’. He refused to endorse popular moralising against luxury, believing it to be a source of employment that was superior to giving alms to the poor. A benign form of Mandeville’s functionalism can also be found in Johnson’s famous remark about a man never being so innocently employed than when he is making money. Equally, Johnson refused to accept the connection between luxury and depopulation advanced by his friend Oliver Goldsmith in his elegiac account of the Deserted Village – despite supplying the final lines of the poem himself.
But what chiefly attracted Johnson to Mandeville’s work was the reminder he found there of the ‘natural depravity of mankind’, that consequence of original sin which clung to man until death, and for which the only solution was the cultivation of true Christian humility and pious resignation to our earthly fate. Goldsmith could play ancient moralist when condemning what was happening to the village of Auburn. Johnson also chose an ancient theme when he wrote on Juvenal’s tenth satire on the ‘vanity of human wishes’, but his main purpose in doing so was to display the superiority of the Christian as opposed to Juvenal’s pagan or Stoic solution. I would advance this as an illustration of the cross-fertilisation between moral and scientific conversations mentioned in my first lecture; and it goes alongside the fact that Smith, in expatiating on the invisible hand in his Theory of Moral Sentiments in what might seem to be a Mandevillian manner, can also be interpreted as preaching on the vanity of human wishes, though more in Stoic than Christian fashion. This will become clearer in my next lecture.
Johnson’s way of accommodating Mandeville within his Christian view of man’s fate entailed treating his paradoxes as hypothetical imperatives: this is how the world would look if we adopted the hypothesis that man was entirely without inherent moral standards and acted solely on self-interest. It is rather like Hume’s advice that we should assume men to be knaves, driven only by self-interest, when we construct a science of politics: it may not be true, but it is the safest and most useful starting point. Strangely enough, by adopting the same strategy with Mandeville’s opponent, Rousseau, we can begin to appreciate the social scientific side of Rousseau’s political moralising. After all, the second discourse on inequality is constructed around an elaborate hypothesis, a conjectural device of imagining savage man before he was corrupted by civil society, and then by reconstructing the steps he must have taken to arrive at his present degraded state. Rousseau’s criticism of earlier political moralists was that they were not good experimental scientists.
One of the few moderns to whom Rousseau was sympathetically inclined was Montesquieu, whose credentials as an experimentalist he accepted. In his Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu had made use of the indirect, or hypothetical strategy by distinguishing between his own self-consciously ancient concept of ‘virtue’ when discussing the animating principle of republics, and that form of virtue honoured by all good Christians. It was a thinly disguised attempt to evade censure in Christian and monarchical France, and for that reason not a successful one. Indeed, he was less successful in using this ruse with his contemporaries than he was in professing that he had drawn his inferences from the observed facts of political life under different forms of government rather than from his prejudices – a subject on which we might be a good deal more sceptical.
Rousseau’s remarks on this in Emile show that he accepted Montesquieu’s decision to separate ‘the principles of political right’, that is normative questions, from ‘the positive right of established governments’, while of course upholding the view that ‘whoever wants to make healthy judgements about existing governments is obliged to unite the two. It is necessary to know what ought to be in order to judge soundly about what is’. Although this sentiment was a commonplace among eighteenth-century moralists-cum-social scientists, it was, as we shall see, to prove less acceptable to many of Rousseau’s romantic successors during the nineteenth century. In this respect Rousseau was to prove more open-minded: he did not confuse diagnoses and hypotheses with remedies.
As evidence of Rousseau’s credentials as a social scientist let me cite the opinions of two notable French exemplars of this way of thinking, Emil Durkheim and Claude Levi-Strauss. In 1893 Durkheim linked Rousseau with Montesquieu in a Latin dissertation that dealt with them as the joint progenitors of the holistic form of French sociology for which Durkheim was preparing himself to become the chief embodiment. Much later Levi-Strauss was not merely being polite or, perhaps like Durkheim, patriotic, in suggesting that the voyages to the Pacific in the late 1760s of the explorer-naturalist, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, were undertaken in the spirit of Rousseau’s ethnology. Rousseau himself, I would suggest, armed with the Comte de Buffon’s encyclopedic Histoire naturelle, would not have felt it necessary to make such hazardous journeys in search of knowledge. Or rather perhaps we should say that like Montesquieu, though with less thoroughness, he was content to use a few borrowed ethnological observations, together with the self-knowledge provided by his introspective promenades, as the basis for his anthropology.
Speculative anthropology certainly comes closer to describing Rousseau’s aims than urban sociology, still less the political economy of Mandeville, Hume, or Smith. He could never have taken Johnson’s pleasure or interest in observing urban pursuits. In Rousseau’s eyes, the inhabitants of Paris and of London were almost indistinguishable; they had both become corrupted in language and deed by modern society. Nothing new could come from studying the minute differences that divided them. Only in rural settings were differences revealed, a justification, if you like, for both romanticism and the practice of anthropologists – when that was possible – in seeking the strange and exotic.
In making these remarks about Rousseau’s capacity to combine science with morality, where science was interchangeable with philosophy and therefore carried no message of exclusiveness, I do not wish to follow Durkheim or Levi-Strauss in creating, or even decorating, a niche for Rousseau’s bust in the social scientific Pantheon. I merely want to suggest that the architecture of any such Pantheon ought to be less regularly neo-classical in its proportions, more accommodating in granting space for surprising juxtapositions such as those calmly noted by Smith when comparing Mandeville and Rousseau. The similarities sprang, as Smith said, from a common assumption that man, left to his own devices, would not necessarily seek society. Hence the need for a peculiar strategy to explain what seemed to them extraordinary: how, as Rousseau famously put it, could men who were born free rush so heedlessly into their chains? The trap is laid by language, without which the ‘imposter’ who founded civil society, after the meum and tuum of property relations had made its first appearance, could not have worked his fateful ruse.
With language comes rhetoric and with the arts of persuasion come those of disguise. This, in essence, is how Rousseau explains the deception that underlay the history of the social bond as well as those artifices needed to sustain the bond in the face of the patent injustices associated with inequality in the distribution of property and power. Similarly with Mandeville, savage man was broken, like a horse, by ‘the skilful management of wary Politicians’ working upon that central feature of human nature, pride and vanity, thereby proving that ‘the Moral Virtues are the Political Offspring which Flattery begot upon Pride’. By playing on this distinguishing feature of human as opposed to animal nature men achieve control of their passions and a proper subordination of unruly private interest to public good. It is the Mandevillian solution to the problem he holds in common with Hobbes.
Natural man in Rousseau and Mandeville is a simple brute following immediate instincts for self-preservation and the satisfaction of his only wants: food, shelter, and sex. In this natural state, according to Rousseau, the sexual drive is not elevated by conceptions of love. Just as any tree will give shelter, so any woman can give satisfaction. Compare this with one of Mandeville’s most shockingly Rabelasian statements on the subject of the natural instinct to procreate: the peasant, he said, cares as much and as little about his offspring as he might about finding that a cherry tree has grown from his excrement, the cherry-stone merely being the remnant of an earlier meal. Or take another shared position: Emile’s tutor may seem to be moved by the highest aspirations, but the manipulative style of his educational practices is much the same as the operations conducted by Mandeville’s ‘skilful politician’. This figure too has something in common with another character in Rousseau’s Social Contract, the legislator entrusted with the powers necessary to do what a corrupted people cannot do for themselves, endow themselves with a constitution. Is there not something similar too about the way in which ‘civil religion’ was supposed to operate in the Social Contract, and the codes invented by Mandeville’s politician to marshal vanity and pride in the interests of order and stability?
The similarities between Mandeville and Rousseau extend to the central question of luxury and inequality itself. What is not quite so obvious is the shared assumption that the relationship between riches and poverty has significant zero-sum qualities, an aspect of the master-slave conundrum mentioned already. This is obvious in the statement by Rousseau cited in the epigraph. Contrary to the English paradox in favour of luxury, he maintained that the employment offered to urban artisans by the luxury expenditure of the rich was not a remedy for poverty or even a countervailing influence: it conferred no net benefit because it operated at the expense of rural labour and hence led to de-population of the countryside. One finds the same assertion in the ample literature of jeremiad in eighteenth-century England, to which Goldsmith’s Deserted Village was a notable contribution. Goldsmith too had argued that as ‘wealth accumulates, men decay’, where decay meant numerical attrition as well as moral decline.
Although Mandeville accepts the inevitability and hence, in his ultra-realistic view of things, the desirability of luxury and inequality, his assumptions are in fact similar. This arises from his endorsement of the utility-of-poverty argument often to be found in mercantile writings before Hume and Smith began the business of eroding it. In a world composed of competing states, power and plenty depend not only on paying constant attention to the balance of trade, but in maintaining a strict regime of unremitting toil for low wages. Without such a regime the poor would only indulge their taste for idleness, otherwise known as leisure. As economists were later to express this, the supply of labour becomes backward bending at some point defined as bare subsistence. If the supply of effort was to be maintained, this point would have to be kept at or just beyond the grasp of the poor. Or, as Mandeville put it, while it was wise to relieve the wants of the poor, it was folly to remove them.
Let me also remind you that the psychology behind such an analysis had considerable meta-economic as well as economic significance. Consider the following quotation taken from Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
A man does not ‘by nature’ wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing the productivity of human labour by increasing its intensity, it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labour.
It was the opposite of this psychology, the willingness to forego leisure in return for non-subsistence goods that Weber chose as his definition of what marked the capitalistic ethos off from its ‘natural’ alternative. So peculiar was this ethos, indeed, that Weber found it necessary to explain it by invoking – some would say inventing – a supernatural turn of mind that was not only religious in origin, but where the form of religion originated with a tiny ultra-Calvinist minority.
Mandeville exploited the utility-of-poverty idea in his Essay on Charity and Charity Schools by asking a rhetorical question: what was the point of educating the poor beyond their allotted station in life, beyond those menial capacities that would ensure regular employment in roles that, in satisfying the wants of the rich, also served the wealth of the nation? Education of the poor risked undermining the artificial system of deference upon which the social and political edifice was constructed. Not only would more charity schools for the poor lead to menial tasks being left undone, or done at more expense to the rich, Mandeville warned that it would also be destabilising. As he said: ‘No Creatures submit contentedly to their Equals and should a Horse know as much as a man, I should not care to be its Rider…’ Moreover, since it was a matter of common observation that the ignorant poor were more inclined towards religious belief than their educated superiors, there was not even a good case for religious education. The message was scandalous only in its frankness, another case of Mandeville undermining the hypocritical gentilities of public debate. In all other respects he was merely expressing conventional wisdom.
Johnson, again, provides a useful illustration. Johnson could not have adopted Mandeville’s cynical attitude to charity as a Christian virtue; and there are frequent remarks in his writings on the evils of poverty that are clearly based on personal experience. Nevertheless, Johnson accepted the same fierce logic concerning its inevitability for the mass: his chief riposte to Goldsmith’s diagnosis concerning depopulation was that the poor could never be ruined by luxury because they had no prospect of enjoying it. As in the case of Mandeville, the best they could hope for was to play a useful, if humble, part in the secret concatenation, in the ever-increasing subdivision of labour in commercial societies.
In drawing this lecture to a conclusion let me try to relate these comparisons of Mandeville and Rousseau to the state of the larger debate on luxury that took place in England throughout the eighteenth century, before it was thoroughly transformed by Smith in his Wealth of Nations, the subject of my next lecture. Although it is possible to find extreme exponents of the jeremiad, those predicting imminent national ruin as a result of luxury and the rise of commercial opulence – with John Brown’s Estimate of Manners being one of the best candidates for defining this position – most of the interesting contributions to the debate sought a middle point between the extremes marked out by Mandeville and Rousseau’s paradoxes. The arguments on either side became so familiar that it was a matter of deciding where a balance should be struck between opposed forces, of finding the golden mean beyond which rise would become decline.
Goldsmith could adopt the ‘ancient’ position in Deserted Village, but that did not prevent him from writing on the side of the ‘moderns’ as well – one of several reasons for not jumping to the proleptic conclusion that he was mounting an attack on the enclosure movement or registering a protest against an incipient industrial revolution. Goldsmith invites us to pity the inhabitants of Auburn for their loss of simple communal pleasures rather than for the destruction of their industry and enterprise – of which he says nothing. Rather than see this as a contradiction, as rank ambivalence, one can treat it as evidence of a genuine spectrum of opinion allowing movement along its length. At what point on the spectrum did luxury become blameable rather than innocent? Under what circumstances did the growth of cities retrench on population? When did pursuit of private goals serve, and when did it undermine public good? Are we not capable of feeling ambivalence when faced with the modern equivalent of these questions? If so, why do we expect earlier writers to have cut and dried opinions.
As the form of the questions show, the historical or time dimension to the debate is one measured by cycles of rise and fall. Any generation that could describe itself as living in an Augustan age could not fail to be aware of the double-edged nature of the comparison by forgetting what followed the reign of Caesar Augustus. On some points one can speak of an emerging consensus. There was, for example, increasing acceptance of Johnson’s argument that luxury expenditure was superior to alms as a method of supporting the poor. There was also an agreement that art and buildings and other durable forms of magnificence were preferable to more ephemeral forms of consuming wealth. In these respects one could say that luxury was recognised as having a useful circulatory or employment-generating function.
Hume’s moral and political essays are another good index of the moderate pro-luxury position as it stood at the middle of the century. They are also – to revert to an earlier observation – an example of how the Addisonian essay could be employed for serious anatomical or philosophical purposes without giving way to Mandeville’s licentiousness. They were part of Hume’s plan for bringing philosophy out of the closet to make it, as he said, ‘conversible’. His essays on commerce and luxury were meant to show that the public interest could be served by a diffusion of their benefits: armies could be strengthened and societies released from agrarian routine and idleness. Commerce was favourable to tolerance and liberty; and it furnished the incentives needed to improve all the arts and sciences of civilised existence. Although Hume did not always succeed in maintaining the cool philosophical stance in the face of such institutions as public credit, he took a remarkably sanguine view of the positive feed-back mechanisms associated with commercial opulence. Far more so than Smith in some respects, who was anxious to record its shabbier potentialities as well as the serious drawbacks associated with the narrowing effects of an extensive division of labour. But neither Hume nor Smith were men of republican principles; they could not even share the quasi-republican anxieties that were a marked feature of the writings of such Scottish contemporaries as Adam Ferguson. Nevertheless, they did not dismiss such anxieties out of hand: they had to be taken seriously. It was still a matter of choosing a position along a continuous spectrum rather than plumping for one end or the other.
Hume also began the process of undermining the ‘jealousy’ between nations that was part of mercantile balance-of-trade preoccupations; and he cast doubt on the utility-of-poverty doctrine in a way that prefigures, without anticipating, Smith’s mature position. As can be seen from the following short quotation, from ‘Of Refinement in the Arts’, what is equally remarkable is the fact that he treats luxury in second-best terms.
To say, that, without vicious luxury, the labour would not have been employed at all, is only to say, that there is some other defect in human nature, such as indolence, selfishness, inattention to others, for which luxury, in some measure, provides a remedy; as one poison may be an antidote to another. But virtue, like wholesome food, is better than poisons, however corrected.
Though it may be the only resource available in an imperfect world, it is a substitute for something better. Hume is rejecting Mandeville’s perverse refusal to believe that a distinction can be made between innocent and blameable forms of luxury.
One finds the same second-best argument employed by Edward Gibbon when defending the luxury of the Antonines, and there is a parallel with Johnson’s remark about the innocence of money-making, where something worse lurks in the background: private fortune is preferable to more harmful ways of dominating others. It was tersely expressed by Voltaire in his philosophical dictionary when he said that there were worse things than inequality, with the worst of all being represented by dependence, the actual master-slave relationship, rather than the one imagined by Rousseau. On this subject too Smith was to build on the understandings of the middle decades of the century when he began his own work, making the end of ‘servile dependency’ under feudalism the centrepiece of the history of the progress of opulence that later appeared in Book III of the Wealth of Nations.
In my next lecture I shall be dealing not only with how Smith appropriated the conclusions of earlier conversations, but how he shifted them in a different direction. A more triumphalist and Whiggish version of the story would say that in doing so he provided a permanent legacy for his nineteenth-century successors, one that remains an essential part of our own way of making comparative assessments of the successes and failures of wealth generation and economic growth. A case can be made for such stories, but they often entail parting company with the quiddity of the past. I would rather say that Smith began a new set of conversations, but did not put an end to all versions of the old ones. As I shall try to show in later lectures, echoes of the original Mandeville-Rousseau positions were frequently heard – in the writings of Burke and Malthus, for example – long after Smith had established the basis for a new consensus on luxury and inequality.
In preparation for next week’s lecture let me conclude by drawing attention to a major flaw in Mandeville’s credentials as a guide to the phenomenon we know as capitalism and he and Smith were content to describe as commercial society. Although Mandeville has some interesting things to say about the evolution of technology through time, his account of what makes capitalism work is largely a consumerist one. The capitalistic ethos depends solely on whimsy and vanity, on envy and excess. He fails, in short, to confront the disciplines of the system, the delayed gratifications connected with frugality, those choices that entail sacrifice of present enjoyment for future gain. Mandeville had argued that ‘the Prodigal is a Blessing to the whole Society, and injures no body but himself’; that frugality was ‘a mean starving Virtue, that is only fit for small Societies of good peaceable Men, who are contented to be poor so they may be easy’. Far from being an active virtue, it was merely a conditioned response to necessity, such as that found among the people in his native Holland, who were forced to be frugal by their poverty in the period that followed war with Spain. As some of his contemporary critics were quick to point out, however, if frugality enabled the disadvantaged Dutch to prosper, how much more would it do for more favoured nations.
For Smith, on the other hand, parsimony or saving had much greater significance, and it was not to be confused with mere avarice, where this connoted barren hoarding. Wherever ‘tolerable security’ existed, he said, ‘a man must be perfectly crazy’ not to make use of the opportunity either to invest his savings on his own account or lend them to others who would do so in return for an interest payment. Prodigality involved the consumption of stock or capital and could never be beneficial to a nation. The wastrel who merely consumes his patrimony and ends in debt has not benefitted the public. Nor has the person who engages in ventures that fail. It followed that ‘every frugal man [was] a public benefactor’. By maintaining that ‘what is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom’, Smith, in this case at least, collapsed one of Mandeville’s double truths into a single one. By so doing, he also eliminated much of the space Mandeville had created for the operations of the ‘skilful politician’.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was right, from his own point of view, when he complained of the Social Contract that ‘Rousseau does not know what economics means’. This deficiency prevented him from dealing with what nineteenth-century radicals came to regard as essential to the articulation of their position: a notion of economic rights. Some of those who followed Rousseau’s stress on the institutional origins of human misery were equally innocent of knowledge of economics: Godwin will be my main example. More controversially, I shall argue that the Lake poets, having abandoned Godwinian ideas and the Pantisocratic hopes that were associated with them, were still in thrall to Rousseau and Godwin’s wish to abolish economics, the realm of scarcity.
Early Draft of the Wealth of Nations, circa 1760
In a civilised society the poor provide both for themselves and for the enormous luxury of their superiors. The rent which goes to support the vanity of the slothful landlord is all earned by the industry of the peasant. The monied man indulges himself in every sort of ignoble and sordid sensuality, at the expence of the merchant and tradesman to whom he lends out his stock at interest. All the indolent and frivolous retainers upon a court are, in the same manner, fed, cloathed, and lodged by the labour of those who pay the taxes which support them. Among savages, on the contrary, every individual enjoys the whole produce of his own industry. There are among them no landlords, no usurers, no tax gatherers. We might naturally expect, therefore, if experience did not demonstrate the contrary, that every individual among them should have a much greater affluence of the necessaries and conveniencies of life than can be possessed by the inferior ranks of the people in a civilized society.
Theory of Moral Sentiments, IV.1.10
The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to [the proud and unfeeling landlord]. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the oeconomy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice. The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.
Last week’s lecture dealt with the ‘paradox of luxury’ posed by Mandeville and Rousseau, two representatives of what might seem to be opposite extremes of an eighteenth-century spectrum on the subject of inequality and modern economic life generally. The lecture partly revolved around Adam Smith’s recognition that Rousseau was, in fact, merely presenting a concave mirror image of Mandeville’s thesis based on the common assumption that human sociability, far from being a natural instinct, had to be created artificially. Once created it could only be sustained by a continuing effort of artifice and will that perpetuated arrangements which could not be justified by reference to notions of distributive justice. It entailed methods that later exponents of transparency in human affairs – some of them Rousseauistes – were to call ‘political imposture’ or ‘Machiavellism’. When explaining the origins and artifices of commercial society Mandeville had cast himself in the role of anatomist, but was more often cast by others as a cynical apologist for luxury and inequality. Rousseau endorsed the diagnosis, while making clear that it described a corrupting process that should not only be condemned, but, if possible, contained and reversed through the process of re-legitimisation outlined in the Social Contract.
With this as background I want now to consider Smith’s alternative account of what was variously described as the ‘oeconomy of greatness’ or ‘the great wheel of circulation’, stressing its connections with, yet ultimate transformation of, what had previously dominated eighteenth-century discussions of luxury and inequality. Much of the evidence for this, unsurprisingly, can be found in what has come to be thought of as Smith’s economic work, the Wealth of Nations. For reasons that will feature again in my final lecture, I am anxious not to perpetuate a long-established habit of Anglo-American scholarship by endorsing a division of labour that allows moral philosophers unimpeded access to the Theory of Moral Sentiments as the price for allowing economists to monopolize interpretation of the Wealth of Nations. I shall not be making a frontal assault on what nineteenth-century German scholars called Das Adam Smith Problem – the problem, as some of them saw it, of reconciling, if possible, the ‘sympathetic’ idealism of his moral philosophy with the ‘selfish’ materialism of his economics – but I do want to maintain that no account of Smith’s mature position on riches and poverty based on the Wealth of Nations alone can be complete. The immediate relevance of the Theory of Moral Sentiments to my theme can be gauged not only by the fact that Smith devoted a chapter there to Mandeville under ‘licentious systems’ of morals, but by recalling that the entire work was an attack on that family of political moralists, of which Hobbes was now the pater familias and Mandeville was a younger son, who had attempted to explain and justify social and political institutions by reducing all human motives to versions of self-love. In the Wealth of Nations Smith was also answering the lesser progeny of this family, all those mercantile authors who had duped the public with false maxims of state that identified the pursuit of mercantile interests with public good.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments can be read as an attempt, along broadly Humean lines, to provide a naturalistic account of social institutions, including moral codes and the rules of commutative justice, based on ‘immediate sense and feeling’ rather than on reason and ideas of public utility. It is constructed on foundations that are opposed to those on which Mandeville and Rousseau built. Given the affinities between these authors noted by Smith, it is frequently possible to identify Rousseau as the hidden interlocutor in the conversations Smith was conducting in the pages of his work. What seemed peculiar and in need of special explanation and justification to Rousseau did not appear as such to Smith. He assumes man’s instinct for society to be an entirely natural one that did not require resort to speculations about pre-social man in a state of nature, and how this state came to be relinquished, whether by historical accident, rational calculation, or conspiracy on the part of the few or the many.
What Hume has to say in opposition to contractual modes of dealing with the origins and legitimacy of society or government goes for Smith, his closest friend and intellectual ally, as well. Neither the Hobbesian version based on fear nor the Lockean version based on a utilitarian perception of mutual self-interest could be accepted. All such devices were at best unnecessary intellectual fictions, at worst a hindrance to proper understanding, and hence to stability in ‘free governments’ that were dependent on opinion based on understanding. For Smith and Hume appeals to reason were simply teleological short-cuts, no substitute for the business of understanding based on natural instincts or passions that were common to all men in some degree or mixture. Reflective reason may underlie the philosopher’s contemplative perspective, but this should not be confused with an account of how social actors behave, and how in so behaving an explicable order emerges, where reason is more likely to appear as a dubious form of ex post rationalisation than as an ex ante guiding light. The enterprise could be described as experimental in the Newtonian manner because it could be verified by an appeal to everyday experience of social and political life, historical evidence properly interpreted, and the kind of knowledge that intelligent social actors have of their own behaviour and hence that of others.
One of the distinguishing features of moral as opposed to natural systems – where a system was defined by Smith when writing on the history of astronomy as an imaginary machine designed to connect imagination with reality – lies in the ability of natural philosophers to propound plausible ideas, such as the Cartesian vortices, which have ‘no foundation in nature’. Systems of moral philosophy, on the other hand, are open to more immediate scrutiny via the introspective knowledge we have as social actors; it is more difficult, then, for them to be imposed upon our credulity. It was by this standard that Smith judged that Mandeville ‘could never have imposed upon so great a number of persons’ if his ideas had not ‘in some respects bordered on the truth’. Separating this kernel of truth from what was false entailed taking Mandeville seriously as an anatomist of human nature rather than becoming ensnared by the licentious sophistry with which it was entangled.
Another brief way of expressing the naturalistic change of focus engineered by Hume and Smith would be to say that what were known as the ‘first principles’ of government, those attempts to deal with obligation, promises to obey, consent, and rights of resistance, became at best secondary concerns. It was the rules of meum and tuum, the rules of commutative justice, which constituted the formal social bonds, regardless of forms of government. As expressed by Hume these rules had evolved to deal with the world of scarcity and limited benevolence in which most of us live our lives, with the complete Hobbesian anarchy of total social shipwreck on one side, and universal plenty and brotherhood on the other. No society, however primitive, could exist without such rules; no complex society with elaborate forms of property could function, let alone prosper, without them. They were, in Smith’s phrase, the pillars on which the social edifice was constructed, compared with which all other social codes, such as those surrounding benevolence, were the ornament that embellishes.
What is necessary to social existence may not, of course, make it enjoyable or rewarding in a deeper sense. Smith made use of the natural law distinction between perfect and imperfect rights and obligations to make this clear. Perfect rights were negatively defined as all those injuries which it is possible for us to inflict on one another as persons and as the owners of various types of property. They were, Smith said, part of the grammar as opposed to style of social existence. Like the rules of grammar they were capable of being defined with the precision required for them to become the object of coercive action by the magistrate, acting with the approval of the community in exacting punishment for infringements of perfect rights. Imperfect rights of a positive kind concerned ‘mutual good offices’ between citizens, rather than injuries. These too were part of the duties of any legislator, but they required ‘the greatest delicacy and reserve to execute with propriety and judgment. To neglect it altogether exposes the commonwealth to many gross disorders and shocking enormities, and to push it too far is destructive all liberty, security and justice’. I mention this category of rights because it provides a clue to Smith’s attitude to republican moralists such as Rousseau or his Scottish contemporary, Adam Ferguson, who sought to promote these obligations over the perfect rights connected with justice defined as security. As the late Duncan Forbes was one of the first to show in any detail, it is impossible to grasp what modern liberty meant to Hume and Smith without understanding that it chiefly connoted the rule of law. The ability of governments to administer justice regularly, with a tolerable degree of impartiality, was the achievement of post-feudal regimes, without which it was impossible to conceive of civilisation in its modern sense. It was this revolution rather than any parochial political event such as the one that took place in England in 1688 that constituted the beginnings of modern civil existence.
The main difference between Hume and Smith on justice lies in the theory employed to sustain their common idea of it. For Hume justice was an artificial virtue based on an acquired sense of the public utility attached to any inflexible set of rules of ownership. It required a different explanation from those social practices built on the natural virtues that underlie the whole range of our other interactions as members of families and through friendship. For Smith, on the other hand, justice is merely the negative side of a common phenomenon that can best be explained by means of the instinctive feelings of sympathetic resentment we have with the injured party when his personal and other rights are infringed. Far from being a basis for justice utility only enters into Smith’s picture as an ‘afterthought’.
Sympathy, of course, was also the basic psychological process upon which Smith relied to explain how objective codes of behaviour arose from our inter-subjective dealings with one another. It was a description not so much of an altruistic or benevolent disposition towards others, but of the psychological process by means of which we use the mirror that society holds up to us to view the behaviour of ourselves in relation to others, and then to make the adjustments necessary to acquire our own sense of propriety. On this basis we seek to attain the viewpoint of the impartial spectator; to see ourselves, not merely as others see us, but how an ideal spectator, internalised as conscience, might see us. In brief, Smith was more thoroughgoing than Hume in tracing all social arrangements, including justice, to ‘immediate sense and feeling’. He also extended the categories of justice beyond physical property to include all forms of personal right, including those rights associated with labour. But perhaps Smith’s most important innovation was to recognize that if, as Hume had argued, justice was based on conventions, it required a social learning process. The theory of justice needed to be supplemented or illustrated by means of a form of history that showed how rules of justice had evolved to cope with the different forms of property and social relationship to be found in four main stages of development: from hunter-gatherer societies, to pastoral societies, to settled agrarian societies of the feudal type, and on to commercial societies.
But how does all this relate to the Mandeville-Rousseau paradoxes on luxury and inequality? Employing the nature/artifice distinction, one can say that for Smith as well as for Hume the artificial wants associated with luxury were natural and, with some important reservations, beneficial. The ancient literature justifying sumptuary legislation was no longer relevant to modern monarchies and republics. Spartan solutions, as Hume said, were ‘violent’, contrary to the ‘common bent of mankind’. Smith went further by claiming that one of the distinguishing characteristics of man was his unwillingness to be content with mere utility, with meeting only his basic needs. The desire for variety and refinement were not only essential, they corresponded with another human trait, the substitution of means for ends – a kind of self-deception that underlay an important aspect of commercial society that can be labelled Mandevillian. We associate happiness, defined as social regard, with material possessions. It fuels our ambition to succeed, and while the benefits to the individual are often nugatory when judged by the severer forms of morality, the deception has beneficial results for society. This was Smith’s version of private vices leading to public benefits, and it also provided him with an answer to Rousseau’s splenetic treatment of the arts and sciences of civilised existence. From an extreme Stoical view of life, perhaps the game was not worth the candle, but the public benefits were genuine.
This form of reasoning was to emerge in the Wealth of Nations as part of the cradle-to-grave desire for personal betterment. Smith compounded this departure from Rousseau by treating language as another distinguishing characteristic of natural social man. It was through language that we exercised our basic instinct to truck and barter, to persuade others to enter into arrangements that would meet our needs, where these needs were not merely material but derived from a wider psychological urge to influence others to share our view of the world. Language for Rousseau had become a means of disguise and dissimulation. For Smith it was a more benign tool that was essential to social collaboration. A pack of dogs could hunt together, but lacking the power of language, they could not conduct the process of persuasion and bargaining we call exchange.
Much the same transformation can be seen in the case of Rousseau’s concept of pitié or compassion. Instead of this being weakened when amour propre is released, Smith, one could say, regards society as the arena in which our capacity for mutual sympathy is enacted, and in being enacted is enhanced. Society is our natural home, the only place in which we can acquire a moral character by seeing ourselves as others see us. Along with this opportunities arise for our moral sentiments to become corrupted through vanity and our tendency to defer to the rich and powerful rather than true merit. Our characters and habits are also powerfully formed and deformed by our occupations, opening up possibilities for ‘mental mutilation’ and loss of basic virtues as a result of the division of labour. Smith’s account is by no means one that assumes perfect harmony between individual and society. There are useful stabilising properties in our prejudices and in our deference to others that could not be defended in any pure system of morals.
Nevertheless it is important to stress that Smith rejects the ‘splenetic’ side of the Mandeville-Rousseau position, not on grounds of ‘licentiousness’ or, in the case of Rousseau, the ‘sublimity’ of his morals, but on grounds of defects in their experimental anatomy of human nature. In both cases, though especially that of Mandeville, an important human capacity was being denied: the capacity to distinguish mere praise from true praise-worthiness. Since both of these entailed reference to the opinion of others, actual spectators or ideal ones, Smith acknowledged there was a ‘remote affinity’ between them that had given Mandeville’s system an appearance of truth. But it was essential to Smith’s view of things to uphold the distinction. Without it moral codes would collapse into mere manners – those ideas that happened to accord with social fashion. Without this it was impossible, or so Smith believed, to explain an important fact about our moral codes, namely how they come to take on a quasi-objective existence that can be internalised as conscience, while being based solely on a learning process acquired through the myriad of inter-subjective social exchanges we engage in throughout our lives. Showing how this occurred was central to Smith’s project, and by Smith’s standards Mandeville and Rousseau were both guilty of ducking the problem.
Since I want to keep the issue of riches and poverty, luxury and inequality, in the foreground, let me now choose a more direct point of entry by using the two quotations in the epigraph to this lecture as my peg. Smith answered the Mandeville-Rousseau paradoxes by posing one of his own, the first part of which is given in stark terms in the first quotation: how was it that a commercial society, characterised by the kinds of oppressive inequalities mentioned there, was capable of guaranteeing a standard of life to the lowliest of its members that was superior to that found in more primitive societies? The answer given in the first chapters of the Wealth of Nations on the benefits of the division of labour is now famous: gradual improvements in the physical productivity of labour, against a background of extending markets, had made this possible in spite of unfairness in the distribution of rewards and efforts that were part and parcel of the unequal distribution of property in commercial societies. Neither Rousseau’s static zero-sum view of riches and poverty, nor Mandeville’s mercantile emphasis on the necessity for low wages, could survive in a world where Smith’s version of the paradox of commercial society was recognised, where growth in the annual produce of labour was taken to be a normal phenomenon. It was possible for both rich and poor to gain, for wage earners to increase their command over the necessities of life by sacrificing less of their own labour. Even though the gains and pains might not be distributed equally, absolute if not relative improvements in standards of living for the mass of society could take place, an outcome that had been inconceivable for earlier forms of society.
By jumping to this well-known conclusion of the Wealth of Nations, however, some important features of Smith’s argument get lost. First, the Theory of Moral Sentimentsseems to have been bypassed, or separated from the Wealth of Nations; and secondly, by bringing the division of labour to the fore, we miss much of what was truly distinctive about Smith’s engagement with the contemporary debate on luxury and inequality. This can be found in his emphasis on frugality and capital accumulation, his demonstration that, contrary to Mandeville’s vision, commercial society was based on more than the whimsy of consumerism. Self-betterment was more often expressed in abstention from present enjoyment than in prodigality and extravagance. While it may be true that nobody before had laid quite so much emphasis on the benefits of the division of labour, much of what Smith has to say can be found in earlier work by others. The famous example of the pin factory was lifted from the pages of the Encyclopèdie and Marx actually accused Smith of having plagiarised the rest from Mandeville. What chiefly distinguished Smith’s vision of economic growth was capital accumulation, without which, as he rather tardily told his readers in Book II of the Wealth of Nations, the division of labour cannot proceed.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments can be brought into the picture by reference to the second long quotation in the epigraph. I make no apology for its length because every part of what is clearly a rhetorical set piece has relevance to my theme. It contains one of the two main references to the invisible hand to be found in Smith’s work, and the entire argument should be read as an answer to Rousseau on inequality that has Mandevillian overtones in its stress on unintentional results. The rich, as represented by the greedy landlord whose position in the economic hierarchy entitles him to receive the social surplus, are unable to engross the material satisfactions of life, denigrated here and elsewhere as mere ‘baubles and trinkets’. Despite their greed they are forced to share their incomes with those they employ in the course of consuming them. The poor benefit in a way that does not depend on the caprice, benevolence, or sense of justice of the landlord, leading to the decidedly non-utilitarian final conclusion on ‘real happiness’.
Notice too that the providentialist bias of the passage, distancing wealth from happiness, bears a close resemblance to Johnson’s poetic sermon on the vanity of human wishes, where ‘Wealth heap’d on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys/ The dangers gather as the treasures rise.’ Although the passage does not read like a Mandevillian celebration of the benefits of commercial luxury, one could still say that it retains Mandeville’s consumerist emphases. It does not matter what forms the caprices of the rich take: they can spend their incomes on menial servants or durable magnificence, ruining their health or improving their minds. The result is the same. The circular flow of income from rich to poor, and the level of employment is maintained. The argument could be described as static rather than dynamic, with the time dimension being implicitly confined to what happens during any given harvest year. It is a static account of how the surplus from each harvest accruing in rent or raw produce is expended rather than a dynamic story of how the agricultural and other forms of social surplus can be augmented year by year. We are still within the limits set by what I said last week about Hume, Gibbon, and Johnson: luxury is a source of employment and an antidote to inequality.
When we next encounter the same argument in Smith, however, it has lost its providentialist and static overtones to become the centrepiece of a much larger historical drama. In Book III of the Wealth of Nations it has become a story of how the powers of the feudal barony were undermined, how modern commercial interdependence has replaced feudal dependence, and how centralised monarchies have acquired the power to administer the rule of law in a tolerably impartial manner. These historical results are traced back to a fateful change in the expenditure habits of landowners. In exchanging their command over the surplus for the baubles and trinkets produced in the towns, instead of consuming it in the form of menial servants and soldiers, they undermine their own military powers and place land in the more capable hands of tenants paying cash rents, thereby removing one of the most important obstacles to the natural progress of opulence. The conclusion, cynically expressed, was as follows:
A revolution of the greatest importance to the publick happiness, was in this manner brought out by two different orders of people, who had not the least intention to serve the publick. To gratify the most childish vanity, was the sole motive of the great proprietors. The merchants and artificers, much less ridiculous, acted merely from a view to their own interest, and in pursuit of their own pedlar principle of turning a penny whenever a penny was to be got. Neither of them had either knowledge or foresight of that great revolution which the folly of the one, and the industry of the other, was gradually bringing about.
Gibbon appropriated this conclusion for his own purposes as historian of the fall of Rome, while registering a mild protest about its ‘severity’ – a protest that can be translated as a criticism of its Mandevillian demonstration ‘that the most salutary effects have followed from the meanest and most selfish causes’. Whatever we may think of Smith’s performance over this historical territory, the one thing he cannot be accused of is putting the circulatory argument to trivial or quietist purposes.
But resolution of Smith’s paradox of luxury still requires the question of frugality and capital accumulation to be confronted. Here again Mandeville provides a useful point of departure. Mandeville had argued that ‘the Prodigal is a Blessing to the whole Society, and injures no body but himself’. By contrast frugality was ‘a mean starving Virtue, that is only fit for small Societies of good peaceable Men, who are contented to be poor so they may be easy’. Far from being an active virtue, then, frugality was merely a conditioned response to necessity. It was one of the weakest arguments in Mandeville’s work. As observed in last week’s lecture, several commentators pointed out that if, as Mandeville asserted, the Dutch were merely frugal out of necessity, how much more would frugality do for nations better placed? For Smith parsimony or saving had much greater significance, and it was not to be confused with mere avarice, where this connoted barren hoarding. Wherever ‘tolerable security’ existed, he said – the unintended outcome of the decline of feudalism – ‘a man must be perfectly crazy’ not to make use of the opportunity either to invest his savings on his own account or lend them to others who would do so in return for an interest payment. Prodigality, whether by private persons, or more dangerously, by governments, involved the consumption of stock or capital and could never be beneficial to a nation. The wastrel who merely consumes his patrimony and ends in debt has not benefitted the public. Nor has the person who engages in ventures that fail. It followed that ‘every frugal man [was] a publick benefactor’. By maintaining that ‘what is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom’, Smith, in this case at least, collapsed one of Mandeville’s double truths into a single one.
When these arguments were advanced in Book II of the Wealth of Nations they were expressed by means of a distinction that Smith borrowed for his own purposes from the Économistes after his visit to France in the 1760s: the distinction between productive and unproductive labour, with the former being represented by expenditure that was oriented to future production and hence was growth-enhancing, while the latter simply maintained the annual circular flow. Alongside the division of labour, and essential to its further sub-division, the ratio of productive to unproductive labour became the co-determinant of a nation’s capacity to grow. This enabled Smith to replace the mercantile use of the balance of trade as a barometer of health with a different kind of balance: that between the annual consumption and production of any nation. Nations could now be classified as progressive, stationary, or in decline in accordance with whether they were adding, maintaining, or subtracting from their stock of capital, and how rapidly they were doing so. Continual increase now mattered more than actual size of annual product and the rate at which capital was being accumulated became the significant index for what was happening to wages. Only in progressive states could wages be both high and rising, which is why the North American colonies were advancing more rapidly than Britain, despite the smaller size of their capital stock.
Only progressive states could meet the welfare criterion of rising absolute incomes for the mass of society recorded in Smith’s well-known maxim:
No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath 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, cloathed and lodged.
Although there are still economists who persist in seeing the Wealth of Nations as a neo-classical exercise in the economics of competitive equilibrium, open-ended growth, operating through increasing returns, is, as the title of the book makes plain, the overriding theme. The terminology of productive and unproductive labour gave rise to problems, for Smith himself as well his successors, but the picture is recognisable as the one that we still employ when making comparative assessments of national or regional macroeconomic performance.
Intellectual historians should be wary of triumphalist conclusions; they should not see it as part of their responsibility to hand out prizes. What makes this highly inappropriate in Smith’s case is his principled unwillingness to engage in the dubious punditry of long-term historical prediction. This explains my use of ‘open-ended’ rather than ‘optimistic’ as a description of Smith’s position. He was far too impressed by the power of special interests in his own society, and far too knowledgeable about the destructive effects of what he described, with infuriating equipoise, as the ‘ordinary revolutions of war and government’, to risk such predictions. It seems typical that his most optimistic statements on growth are retrospective. England had enjoyed two hundred years of gradual and uneven improvement in living standards since the reign of Elizabeth, but he added immediately that this was the longest period that such prosperous epochs usually survive. At the same time, and by contrast with the anxieties of his immediate followers in England, it is worth noting that Smith does not draw attention to inherent economic limits based on proto-Malthusian difficulties and diminishing returns in agriculture. Even China, the stationary state par excellence, could break out of its chains if it adopted more enlightened policies on foreign trade. The limits to growth are more political than economic.
In the light of later asymptotic portraits of the limits to growth prospects – originally advanced as an answer to the more confident ones associated with Rousseau’s perfectibilist followers, the subject of my fifth lecture – such points seem worth registering. It is one of several historical peculiarities of Smith’s position, and I would like to draw this lecture to a close by mentioning a few more of these peculiarities.
The jeremiad was the most popular form of commentary on the course of political and economic events during the eighteenth century. Seeds of ruin were carried by every passing breeze. Financial bubbles burst, public debt was escalating, the balance of trade was moving adversely, manufactures were decaying, the countryside was being depopulated, and villages deserted – not to mention the host of minor signs of corrupted manners such as the spread of tea-drinking and men becoming effeminate as a result of riding in coaches rather than on horseback. The examples belong to the eighteenth century, but the complaint is universalisable: O tempora! o mores!
There was, of course, that major source of moral or ‘mental mutilation’ that concerned Smith deeply, the narrowing effects of the division of labour. Since characters were powerfully moulded by occupations, a society that deprived many, perhaps most, of its members of the opportunities for forming a positive view of themselves was in serious trouble. Minimisation of its consequences was one of the major responsibilities in the art that corresponded with this part of Smith’s science of the legislator. Education, partly at public expense, was only the most obvious of the remedies, the others being connected with militias and allowing religious sects to proliferate, together with public support for the performing arts as an antidote to the puritanical style of manners encouraged by the sects. Though ridiculed by Marx as ‘homeopathic doses’, Smith’s remedies conform to his non-utopian frame of mind: they also reveal that he was by no means impervious to classical republican concerns, even if he did not share the same anxieties or favour the same solutions. Inability to do everything does not excuse the legislator from doing something. If we are only able to achieve net public benefits, the legislator’s duty is to ensure that the costs of economic change are minimised.
Smith remained studiously neutral on what continued to excite many when faced with signs of luxury. He admired such examples of durable magnificence as Versailles, Stowe, and Wilton, despite their unproductive status, and placed considerable confidence in that cradle-to-grave propensity he found in all human beings, the urge to self-improvement. It would ensure that private frugality, on average, compensated for examples of public prodigality. It was, of course, an essential part of his case against mercantile utility-of-poverty arguments that he applauded the diffusion of minor luxuries, including leisure, to those at the bottom of the heap. He could also speak conventionally of public credit as a ‘ruinous expedient’, but in drawing attention to England’s growth he was aware of what had – so far at least – made its rise tolerable.
Smith’s way of posing the problems associated with the oeconomy of greatness had another normative characteristic that brings the subject back to the original paradox of commercial opulence. Neither the starting nor likely ending points of growth would conform to ideal conceptions of distributional justice. Compared with the precise injuries that underlay any concept of commutative justice, there was no communal consensus for such ideals – a prerequisite for any coercive action in this sphere. Any attempt to impose redistribution in the manner suggested by republicans such as Rousseau was likely to be ineffective and could constitute a serious threat to liberty defined as security. Clearer recognition of some commutative rights such as those associated with labour would go some way towards meeting ordinary notions of equity. But more important re-distributional gains could best be achieved by the mass of society, as represented by its wage-earners, consumers, and tax-payers, through gradual implementation of the conclusions of Smith’s detailed critique of mercantile policies and institutions. The conclusions of Smith’s study of the oeconomy of greatness furnished clear criteria for deciding which actions of private economic agents could be judged as serving or damaging the public interest, where organised conspiracies by merchants and manufacturers, acting in their own interest, constituted the main threat. Such examples of the malign spirit of corporation were not confined to merchants: they could also be found among civil servants, Oxford dons, and Glasgow professors acting in concert.
Smith did not overplay his hand by suggesting that such activities had robbed the public of all the benefits of modern commercial society, merely that they restricted or redirected them in ways that should be condemned. To have gone beyond this would have made him guilty of the intellectual arrogance he associated with the Économistes, namely a kind of perfectionism that was the vice of all men of system who believed that only under the perfect regimen they prescribed could the patient survive, let alone regain health. Smith’s view was that complex organisms usually recovered in spite of the absurd nostrums of would-be politician-physicians; and that any movement towards a better state of affairs should only be introduced gradually and with due warning to the interests adversely affected. He was attracted to the wisdom of Solon in such matters, namely that when a legislator cannot establish the best system of laws he should work for ‘the best which the interests, prejudices, and temper of the times would admit of, hoping that this would prepare the way for a better system’. Only against the prevailing background of short-term jeremiad can such long-term views be seen as more than an exercise in sang froid. By all accounts, Smith had this phlegmatic temperament in large, sometimes irritating, measure, but the position was hard-won: it was not a mere pose.
In focussing on capital accumulation and gradual improvement through the division of labour, Smith accomplished two things: he extended the time-horizon over which economic success or failure should be measured, enabling structural or microeconomic changes to be placed in longer perspective; and he shifted the focus of attention from monetary preoccupations towards the ‘real’ sources of growth. This provided him with a well-armed sceptical position that is epitomised in another well-known example of his phlegmatism. Faced with expressions of anxiety that Britain’s defeat at Saratoga in 1778 presaged national ruin, Smith made the reassuring comment that ‘there was a great deal of ruin in a nation’.
Such composure, often expressed through irony, is one of the many pleasures associated with Smith’s prose. Whether the philosophic stance it reflects was capable of being maintained under fire, under circumstances such as the French Revolution, as well as dramatic developments in Britain’s relationship to its American colonies, is something I will consider next week, using Edmund Burke and Burke’s radical critics, Richard Price and Thomas Paine, as my points of reference. It will also allow me an opportunity to consider whether Smith’s gradualism is accurately described as a conservative stance when compared with that of Burke.
Robert Bisset, Life of Edmund Burke, 1800
Mr. Smith, [Burke] said, told him, after they had conversed on subjects of political economy, that he was the only man, who, without communication, thought on these topics exactly as he did.
Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791
Had Mr. Burke possessed talents similar to the author of ‘On the Wealth of Nations’, he would have comprehended all the parts which enter into, and, by assemblage, form a constitution. He would have reasoned from minutiae to magnitude. It is not from his prejudices only, but from the disorderly cast of his genius, that he is unfitted for the subject he writes upon.
Letter from Adam Smith to George Chalmers, December 22, 1785
[Richard] Price’s speculations cannot fail to sink into the neglect that they have always deserved. I have always considered him as a factious citizen, a most superficial Philosopher and by no means an able calculator.
The small bouquet of gossipy quotations in the epigraph to this lecture will give some idea of my cast and the problems which any attempt to consider affinities and discords between them poses. It includes Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, treated as the leading exemplars, in the Anglo-American world at least, of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary thinking respectively in the 1790s and beyond. Richard Price can be added to Paine’s side, bearing in mind their collaboration in support of the American Revolution and the fact that it was Price’s sermon on Love of Our Country delivered in 1789 that was the proximate reason for Burke’s decision to write his Reflections on the Revolution in France in the following year. In saying this I do not wish to perpetuate the error of thinking that Burke’s opponents can be treated interchangeably as a homogeneous lump bearing some such label as rationalistic or ‘bourgeois’ radicals. Price differs from Paine on many subjects, including the important one for these lectures, the position adopted on luxury and commercial progress.
You will also notice that Smith occupies an ambiguous position in this company, attributed with almost telepathic sympathy with Burke on subjects of political economy on the one hand, while at the same time being cited by Paine as an example of all that Burke had failed to be as political analyst. To add to the confusion there are Smith’s uncomplimentary remarks on Price, describing him as ‘a factious citizen, a most superficial Philosopher, and by no means an able calculator’. This seems to tilt Smith’s affinities firmly in Burke’s direction, bearing in mind Burke’s lament for ‘the age of chivalry’ in the face of ‘sophisters, economists, and calculators’, Price having the singular distinction of being all three in one. Remembering that Smith died in 1790, during the first year of the French Revolution, having devoted the final year of his life almost entirely to revising his Theory of Moral Sentiments, one could also say that the conflicting claims of Burke and Paine to his legacy show how rapidly the business of using Smith to validate both ends of the political spectrum got going. Are his affinities those of a conservative, Burkean-style, or are they with those who were later described as radicals and liberals? In posing such questions, my interest goes beyond the construction or correction of intellectual lineages: any decent genealogist, worthy of his fee, can supply you with a plausible family tree. What matters more is the relationship between ideas of economy and polity that I mentioned in my opening lecture.
The business of employing Smith, or what is taken to be Smith’s position, as litmus test, showing red or blue, has continued ever since. In my first lecture I mentioned the way in which Old Left and New Right had converged on the idea that Burke and Smith represent, for the Left an out-and-out ‘bourgeois’ liberal view of capitalism, and for the Right, a mirror-image which shows that conservatism has always added a hard-headed appreciation of the importance of free markets to its better-known soft-hearted view of custom and tradition. One of the latest characterisations of modern conservatism by David Willetts claims that Hume, Smith, and Burke together ‘constitute the high point of conservative intellectual achievement’. Why? Because they were the first to reconcile self-interested behaviour with sociability, thereby recognising the liberating role of markets, while harmonising this insight with the claims of community and nationality. As my last lecture may have indicated there is some truth in this, but we are clearly entering territory marked out for ideological archaeology: Willetts’s main interest, understandably, is to answer those critics of the Thatcherite vision of society who charged that it amounted to little more than shopping, as later supplemented by consumer charters.
Before the recent celebrations of an alliance between the ideas of Smith and Burke became popular, those who were anxious to preserve Burke’s ‘conservative’ reputation went to some lengths to prove that the alliance either did not exist or that it was an unfortunate mésalliance. Hence what might be called Das Burke Problem: how can we reconcile his defence of the ancien regime with his boasts about his command of political economy and his equation of the laws of free commerce with the laws of God? The hard-headed economic side of Burke was certainly not the one that his immediate followers in England, the Lake poets – those who began the business of disseminating Burke’s form of patriotic conservatism – were anxious to perpetuate. Indeed, as I shall show in next week’s lecture, when faced with Robert Malthus’s transformation of Smith’s system they denounced the entire business of political economy as anathema.
On the other hand it was precisely those forces connected with commercial change – the understanding of which was increasingly associated with the Wealth of Nations in the 1780s and 90s – that some supporters of political revolution, certainly Paine in his Rights of Man, believed would eventually undermine the traditional monarchical, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical order:
Time, and opinions, have the same progressive effect in rendering modes of government obsolete, as they have upon customs and manners. Agriculture, commerce, manufactures, and the tranquil arts, by which the prosperity of nations is best promoted, require a different system of government.... If governments are to go on by precedent, while nations go on by improvement, they must at last come to a final separation, and the more civilly they determine this point, the better it will be for them.
How could a Smithian Burke answer Paine’s claim that the dynamic private and voluntary arrangements we enter into in the course of satisfying our everyday wants, all those relationships that constitute society, were bound to undermine any static constitutional arrangements based on hierarchy and inherited privilege alone? Dynamic economy and static polity were on a collision course that Paine welcomed as the precondition for peaceful evolution or revolution.
Burke, on the other hand, in some moods at least, was anxious to reverse the causal sequence: commercial progress depended on the maintenance of a particular form of polity and would not survive its destruction. This certainly describes Burke’s position in his Reflections when faced with the claims of the chattering revolutionary classes in France and their supporters in England, those infidels, lawyers, and ‘political men of letters’ who seemed hell-bent on destroying the age of chivalry and with it ‘the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion’. Far from commerce ushering in improvements in civil society that could not fail to bring beneficial changes in forms of government in their train, Burke argued that a world constructed on commercial foundations alone could not survive the demise of those gothic or feudal institutions that had presided over its birth. More specifically, Burke took up Paine’s challenge to defend the hereditary principle not merely with respect to monarchy, but to the landed aristocracy as well. The landed interest provided the stability that no other order within society, mercantile, moneyed, or professional, could furnish. It was invested with the properties of permanence, serving to integrate all other interests in society, without which, in fact, the multitude, as Burke said, could ‘scarcely be said to be in a civil society’. Hence too Burke’s defence of those laws of primogeniture and entail that had brought his aristocratic ‘great oaks’ into being and by which the stabilising role of the landed classes was preserved.
While the polemical issues separating Burke and Paine can be squarely posed in some such manner the part played by Smith in all this needs to be reconstructed jig-saw fashion, with some of the pieces being supplied by counter-factual reasoning. It entails an exercise in intellectual trigonometry conducted over territory marked out by the positions of the protagonists during the American and French Revolutions. It also entails consideration of Burke’s contribution to the debate on acute grain scarcity in 1795/6, his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, as well as his opinions on British economic strength during the final part of his life when he was urging ideological war against France in his Letters on a Regicide Peace.
Counter-factuals are needed to supplement the actual conversational record. While the Wealth of Nations was explicitly tailored to cope with the emerging American crisis, Smith’s death leaves us with little or no record of his reactions to specific events in France. This means that we have to consider his views on social and political stability in his earlier published writings, complementing them by what we now know Smith to have taught his students when lecturing on natural jurisprudence and the theory and history of law and government at Glasgow in the 1760s. We also have to reconstruct – albeit on the basis of ample evidence – how Smith might have reacted to Burke’s attack on all forms of state intervention in the market for labour and subsistence goods during the period of acute grain scarcity.
Taking the American Revolution first, we have a sequence of events and arguments which show Paine and Smith to be in substantial, though by no means complete harmony, whereas Burke and Smith were offering wholly divergent diagnoses and remedies to legislators. Burke explicitly rejected or ridiculed both of the solutions that Smith espoused in the Wealth of Nations: amicable separation or an imperial federation, with parliament becoming the ‘states-general’ of empire by including American representatives. Burke urged a policy of appeasement towards colonial complaints on the subject of taxation as the price for retaining the existing mercantile trading system. Smith condemned this system as a mere shopkeeper’s vision of empire that placed intolerable burdens on British consumers and taxpayers, infringing the liberties and curbing the likely future development of the colonies in the process. Unless a way could be found to share the civil and military burdens of empire equitably between mother-country and colonies, empire offered nothing that a treaty of free trade could not deliver with less damage and at far less cost to the mother country. Smith could readily have endorsed Paine’s statement in Common Sense that: ‘England is at this time proudly coveting what would do her no good were she to accomplish it.’ The Wealth of Nations also provided a partial answer to what Paine described as an inquiry into ‘the many material injuries which these colonies sustain, and always will sustain, by being connected with and dependent on Great Britain’. Paine would undoubtedly have warmed to Smith’s description of the old colonial system as ‘a manifest violation of the most sacred rights of mankind’.
In other respects Smith stood apart from both Paine and Burke. The distancing irony of his remarks on the politics of the dispute – offering colonial representatives a chance to exchange the ‘paltry raffle’ of colonial politics for a share in the larger prizes that came from ‘the great state lottery of British politics’ – is a reminder that while Burke and Paine, in their different ways, were actively sympathetic to the claims of the colonists, the same cannot be said of Smith. Paine could not have derived any support from Smith on the legitimacy of American constitutional claims or the viability of their republican ambitions. In private advice to politicians coping with the likely break-up of empire, Smith predicted that the Americans would regret the loss of regal government and be prey – as Scotland had been before the union of the parliaments and Ireland still was – to the petty rancour and factional politics that were endemic to republics and small states.
We can be fairly confident then that Smith did not accept Paine’s idea that civil society or economy rules or determines polity. The progress of opulence depended crucially on the rule of law, but this could be achieved with equal success by absolute monarchies as well as mixed governments and republics. While commerce might suffer from aristocratic disdain in absolutist France, some republicans were sufficiently fearful of commerce and luxury to argue for restrictions whenever commercial liberty seemed to threaten republican ideas of liberty based on virtue or public spirit. This describes Price’s anxieties about the American dream becoming a copy of the European nightmare as a result of the development of trade and manufacturing on its Eastern seaboard – a view that was to be echoed, of course, in Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideal for republicanism expressed in Notes on Virginia.
With regard to those fundamental constitutional questions that later divided Burke from his radical opponents during the early stages of the French Revolution, Smith’s sympathies would have lain with Burke. Glasgow students who attended his lectures on jurisprudence could have been in no doubt that their professor believed that English civil liberties were well-protected under the ‘happy’ constitutional mixture that had evolved since 1688 – better than in Scotland, in fact, where feudal oligarchy retained a stronger hold over elections. The lectures also show that Smith had no sympathy for those Lockean ideas on the social contract and rights of resistance that were to be revived in more radical guise in the writings of Price and others. This may explain Smith’s description of Price as a ‘factious citizen’: it certainly explains why Smith thought him a ‘superficial philosopher’. As the proponent of a rational intuitionist position on morals and politics, Smith did not even think it worth mentioning Price in his account of the errors of this position in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, where Smith was, of course, upholding the anti-rationalist views of Hutcheson, Hume, and himself, as well as Burke.
The language of rights and natural justice that Smith employs only makes sense within a natural jurisprudential framework rendered modern by his own emphasis on our natural capacity for sympathetic resentment when confronted by ‘injury’, and when supplemented by an historical dimension which provides situational illustrations of how rights, obligations, and potential injuries have evolved over time alongside changing personal and property relationships. Personal or civil rights under law – positive rights that could be critically assessed by ‘natural’ criteria – were Smith’s chief concern, rather than those pre-political rights invoked by Price and Paine to support constitutional changes embodying political liberty through popular consent and political representation. It also seems clear that where vestigial political liberties existed, as in England, Smith saw their main value as providing an additional security against infringements of the rule of law: they were neither essential to civil rights nor were they in fact a common feature of governments that respected such rights.
No reader of the Theory of Moral Sentiments in any of its editions would have been able to derive a radical social or political vision from it. Burke, however, could have pointed to its account of the stabilising influence of deference within a system of social ranks, and to the passages added to the 1790 edition on the arrogance of the ‘man of system’ and the dangers of attempting to remodel constitutions ab initio. Burke had given the work a rave review when it first appeared in 1759, and one could almost believe that he took the famous set piece on the indignities suffered by Marie-Antoinette in the Reflections from some passages on natural deference to monarchy in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. There is certainly more support for Burke’s views on ‘little platoons’ in Smith than there is for Price’s attempt to promote the universal brotherhood of man over love of one’s own country. It is impossible to read a reaction to Price, or to events in France, into the 1790 changes. Nor is it necessary to do so when we have so much other evidence of the affinities between Smith and Hume on the dangers of basing a science of politics on rationalist ‘first principles’ of obligation and rights of resistance. That too is something Smith and Burke have in common when dealing with what Burke called the ‘science of constructing a commonwealth’.
Unfortunately for those who find a Smith-Burke alliance reassuring the matter cannot be left there. On other equally important matters Smith was far closer in spirit and substance to Paine and Price. This is particularly so in the case of those feudal relics, the laws of primogeniture and entail, that were largely abolished by the American and French revolutionaries with the enthusiastic support of Price and Paine, yet were defended as an essential feature of the English inheritance – the social contract that covered past, present, and future – by Burke. Paine’s arguments on the subject, though clearly derived from American experience, were probably influenced by Smith’s account of the inter-generational injustices of the institution in the Wealth of Nations – its effect in preventing land from being traded freely, and hence falling into the hands of those who would make best use of it. Although Smith was far less optimistic about the prospects of abolishing primogeniture in Europe than Paine or Price, his lectures on jurisprudence treated the institution as being ‘contrary to nature, to reason, and to justice’ – the strongest words of condemnation permitted by his vocabulary.
Although Smith was later to be criticised for excessive tolerance towards landowners as an economic interest group, he was incapable of mounting the kind of defence Burke advanced for his ‘great oaks’. Smith proposed several interventionist devices to compensate for their shameful neglect of the agricultural potential of the resources at their command. In short there was too much feudalism in Burke’s notion of ‘chivalry’ and ‘the spirit of a gentleman’ for Smith’s taste, and this was a matter of justice or rights rather than economic efficiency alone. Deference might have natural psychological roots, but should not be confused with something towards which Smith was always hostile, namely dependence. By becoming the object of commerce land offered a prospect of ‘fluctuating fortunes’, of established wealth changing hands. Smith’s radical Whig pupil, John Millar, was to make great play of this in his own assessment of the prospects for modern liberty in his Historical View of the English Government (1787). Although Smith does not commit himself on the subject, he could calmly contemplate the benefits of such fluctuations, provided that the coming and going of large concentrations of wealth, the extinction of the vanities and snobberies attached to membership of an old family, was the result of commercial change rather than expropriation. Once more then, as in the case of Paine, Smith could not have endorsed the connections between economy and polity that are an essential feature of Burke’s arguments in his Reflections.
Smith’s affinities with Paine and Price are equally strong on the subject of church establishments and what was to become a defining mark of Burke’s conservatism, namely upholding the symbiotic relationship between church and state, where the church had, of course, to be protestant and have orthodox Anglican and Trinitarian credentials. Nobody who has read the lengthy treatment of the history of ecclesiastical establishments in Book V of the Wealth of Nations could fail to notice the ironic and Erastian undertones. Smith’s ideal solution to the problem of church establishments was a policy of disestablishment, of what was known in the seventeenth century as ‘independency’, a policy of allowing religious sects to multiply and compete with one another. This was, of course, precisely what most concerned Burke when faced with the ideas of Price – the prospect of every man setting up his own church and the consequent separation of church and state.
If Smith’s ideal could not be achieved he would have lent his support to Hume’s Machiavellian policy of purchasing the indolence of the clergy by means of establishment, thereby curbing the dangerous tendencies of ‘enthusiasm’ and the fatal mixture of religion and politics that had wreaked havoc in seventeenth-century England and was still wreaking havoc in Ireland. Smith also made it plain that the Anglican arrangements were decidedly inferior to the Scottish Presbyterian system, where the absence of large differences in clerical incomes had produced a clergy that was both learned and diligent in performing its pastoral duties.
After his death Smith’s unorthodoxy on such topics was to give rise to charges of having adopted Voltaire’s position on religion – an imputation that could be further supported by the public eulogy he wrote on the Stoic virtue Hume had displayed on his death bed. Posthumous criticism of Smith on this subject was coupled with distaste for Smith’s ungenerous remarks on another set of ecclesiastical corporations, the colleges of Oxford, at one of which, Balliol, Smith had spent seven dull, yet personally productive years before returning to the more bracing air of ‘enlightened’ Edinburgh and Glasgow. When Burke defended the way in which England combined learning with its ‘gothic’ institutions, Smith had already condemned the idleness of Oxford dons, thereby encouraging Edward Gibbon to do likewise in his autobiography. Smith’s final insult was the observation that ‘an old college tutor, who is known and distinguished in Europe as an eminent man of letters, is as rarely to be found [in Oxford] as in any Roman catholick country’. Citing Voltaire as his authority on catholic ineptitude merely confirmed Smith’s unsoundness in the eyes of Tory Oxford and the English faithful. Smith’s death in 1790 probably preserved him from the kind of attack from anti-Jacobin authors that was levelled at others who dared to express such opinions in the climate created by reaction to French events.
Smith’s heterodoxy in religion also provides a clue to the differences between him and Burke on the narrower questions raised by the political economy of subsistence. Burke’s stark defence of laissez-faire in Thoughts and Details has a decidedly theological dimension, with the beasts of the field being seen as part of a divine chain of command running down to them through landowners, farmers, and farm-labourers. By equating the laws of commerce with the laws of God, Burke was able to portray any intervention to raise wages or lower the price of food as a form of blasphemy that confirmed the injustice of infringing the property rights of landowners and farmers, as well as his diagnosis of the inexpediency of intervention. On the other hand, Smith’s arguments for domestic and external freedom of trade in foodstuffs were designed to release the subject from dangerous quasi-religious popular enthusiasms.
Despite what has been said over the years about Burke’s ‘bourgeois’ credentials on this subject, on how Burke and Smith combined to undermine the ‘moral’ economy of subsistence, my own conclusion is that the supposed affinities do not stand up to close scrutiny. The term ‘labouring poor’ was an example of fashionable political cant to Burke. It did not have this significance for Smith. Nor did he assume, as Burke did, that freedom of contract ensured that the interests of wage-earners and employers were harmonious, especially when most of the legislation on the subject was in favour of employers. The prospect of minimum wage legislation aroused Burke’s ire: the injustices of maximum wage legislation were Smith’s main concern. Nor did Smith’s free trade ideas stop short at Britain’s ports as Burke’s did. Freedom in the domestic trade required the relaxation or removal of protective import duties and export bounties. Hence Smith’s patronising judgement on the 1772 Corn Law, a legislative achievement that Burke was proud to claim as his own: it was merely a partial advance on what it had replaced.
While the goal of Smith’s system of natural liberty is far more ambitious than anything to be found in Burke’s defence of the agricultural interest in 1795, Smith’s attitude towards the implementation of free trade was far less dogmatic, far more sceptical and tolerant towards the obstacles and special interests that impeded it. The problem needed to be approached crab-wise, in accordance with the wisdom of Solon, by introducing changes ‘slowly, gradually, and after a very long warning’. On this subject the traditional roles of the speculative philosopher and the ex-legislator and panegyrist of ‘art’ in managing national affairs were reversed. It was Burke who was the more anxious to reason from ideal, even God-given conditions to sweeping non-interventionist conclusions. As was noted in my second lecture, Smith could call on providentialist arguments linking riches and poverty in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. When writing the Wealth of Nations, however, actual conditions are not conflated with divinely-guided ones: he speaks of authentic benefits and real injustices that have this-worldly origins and solutions. In other words he was offering more than Burke was prepared to offer to the poor, namely the consolations of religion and an imperfect right to charitable relief from the hands of the rich. Even in the Theory of Moral Sentiments the original argument in favour of luxury was intended to bypass such unreliable and degrading remedies as alms.
If we are not in too much of a hurry to describe Burke’s solutions as the opiate of the masses, if we take Burke’s professed Christian beliefs seriously, as I would suggest we should, a quite different contrast emerges. According to Burke’s theology and the idea of a divine chain of command, Smith could be held guilty of a double error: of offering more to the poor than could be delivered but less by way of ultimate salvation than they ought to be led to expect. Intellectual historians should be the last to substitute their own opinions and prejudices when reporting on those of their protagonists. Or rather perhaps, if they do so they need to have some pretty good reasons up their sleeve to justify the practice. I know of no reason for casting doubt on the sincerity of Burke’s stated religious beliefs, and even if this were not the case I would not feel confident about supplying my own alternative.
Those differences between Burke and Smith that turn on the question of religious belief are also of some importance to the final subject I wish to consider: the implications of a remarkable passage from Burke’s defence of French church property in his Reflections that has to be cited at length to be appreciated:
In every prosperous community something more is produced than goes to the immediate support of the producer. This surplus forms the income of the landed capitalist. It will be spent by a proprietor who does not labour. But this idleness is itself the spring of labour; this repose the spur to industry. The only concern of the state is, that the capital taken in rent from the land, should be returned again to the industry from whence it came; and that its expenditure should be with the least possible detriment to the morals of those who expend it, and to those of the people to whom it is returned.
In all the views of the receipt, expenditure, and personal employment, a sober legislator would carefully compare the possessor whom he was recommended to expel, with the stranger who was proposed to fill his place. Before the inconveniences are incurred which must attend all violent revolutions in property through extensive confiscation, we ought to have some rational assurance that the purchasers of the confiscated property will be in a considerable degree more labourious, more virtuous, more sober, less disposed to extort an unreasonable proportion of the gains of the labourer, or to consume on themselves a larger share than is fit for the measure of an individual, or that they should be qualified to dispense the surplus in a more steady and equal mode, so as to answer the purposes of a politic expenditure, than the old possessors, call those possessors, bishops, or canons, or commendatory abbots, or monks, or what you please. The monks are lazy. Be it so. Suppose them no otherwise employed than by singing in the choir. They are as usefully employed as those who neither sing nor say. As usefully even as those who sing upon the stage. They are as usefully employed as if they worked from dawn to dark in the innumerable servile, degrading, unseemly, unmanly, and often unwholesome and pestiferous occupations, to which by the social oeconomy so many wretches are inevitably doomed. If it were not generally pernicious to disturb the natural course of things and to impede in any degree the great wheel of circulation which is turned by the strangely-directed labour of these unhappy people, I should be infinitely more inclined forcibly to rescue them from their miserable industry than violently to disturb the tranquil repose of monastic quietude. Humanity, and perhaps policy, might better justify me in the one than in the other. It is a subject on which I have often reflected, and never reflected without feeling from it. I am sure that no consideration, except the necessity of submitting to the yoke of luxury and the despotism of fancy, who in their own imperious way will distribute the surplus product of the soil, can justify the toleration of such trades and employments in a well-regulated state. But for this purpose of distribution, it seems to me, that the idle expences of monks are quite as well directed as the idle expences of us lay-loiterers.
Burke has brought the subject back to a fundamental version of the connections between luxury and inequality from which these lectures began. What Smith had called the ‘oeconomy of greatness’ reappears as the ‘great wheel of circulation’ with Burke, who offers a decidedly double-edged defence of the ‘yoke of luxury and the despotism of fancy’ as the only available means of distributing the social surplus. Why did Burke choose to revive and apply this argument to French circumstances in 1790? In one respect the rationale is easy to appreciate. Burke was attacking those who had appropriated Church property as backing for the assignats, a form of paper currency that was also meant as a solution to the problem of public debt inherited by the revolution. Burke is defending what he regards as legitimate titles to property and the expectations built upon them. On this subject John Pocock has helped us to appreciate why, according to Burke’s diagnosis, assignats and the moneyed interest posed a special threat to France’s ‘stock-jobbing constitution’, its motley National Assembly, a body lacking the permanence of its English parliamentary counterpart.
But what interests me more in this passage is Burke’s ambivalent defence of the ‘yoke of luxury’, which echoes a theme central to his first published work, the Vindication of Natural Society, a satirical pastiche aimed at Bolingbroke’s deism which took Rousseau’s essay on inequality as its subject. Neither the satire of the Vindication, nor the obvious rhetorical qualities of the Reflections lend themselves to straightforward interpretation. Rhetorically, Burke is setting up a contrast between the harmless activities of the monks who have now been deprived of their share of the social surplus, and the uses to which it will be put by its new owners. We are being asked to consider whether the secular pleasures of ‘lay-loiterers’ are more virtuous, more likely to conduce to public good than those of the lazy monks who sing in choirs. The answer seems obvious when, in a subsequent rhetorical flight, we are prompted to regard the lay alternative as substituting ‘the painted booths and sordid sties of vice and luxury’ for ‘majestic edifices of religion’. We are also invited to compare ‘monastic quietude’ with the miseries of those who are enslaved by the ‘yoke of luxury’, those ‘innumerable, servile, degrading, unseemly, unmanly, and often unwholesome and pestiferous occupations to which by the social oeconomy so many wretches are inevitably doomed’. The great wheel of circulation carries the same divine message of resignation as the great chain of being. We are reading Burke’s equivalent to Johnson’s poetic sermon on the vanity of human wishes. On this occasion, however, the ‘labouring poor’, though not referred to as such, are being treated as the object of genuine rather than ‘affected pity’ – the charge raised by Burke in Thoughts and Details when condemning use of the term ‘labouring poor’. But the reason we are invited to tolerate the existing dispensation is, as Burke says later, that ‘property and liberty require that toleration’.
A further observation on the passage can be made. Burke has obtained an oratorical effect by suppressing a crucial part of what Smith had added to the circulatory argument: the distinction between productive and unproductive uses of the social surplus. In this respect the monks who sing in choirs are exactly the same as Smith’s opera singers, teachers, and Carlyle lecturers, those whose services are unproductive because they perish in the moment of their utterance. I support the charge of suppression by pointing to the fact that Burke was only too willing to use Smith’s distinction in Letters on a Regicide Peace when drawing attention to Britain’s accumulated wealth and the superiority of its system of public credit in mobilising resources for war.
With us, labour and frugality, the parents of riches, are spared, and wisely too. The moment men cease to augment the common stock, the moment they no longer enrich it by their industry or their self-denial, their luxury and even their ease are obliged to pay contribution to the public; not because they are vicious principles, but because they are unproductive.
An expedient that was ruinous in peacetime, particularly when it took the form of assignats within an unstable French constitution, was, under British conditions, a source of strength in war.
If I can direct you back to Smith’s comment on Price’s factiousness as a citizen, I should point out that it was made in complying with a request from George Chalmers – an ex-American loyalist who was to lend his pen to anti-Jacobinism later – to supply information that would help him rebut Price’s pessimistic predictions on the subject of Britain’s economic strength. On this evidence alone we can conclude that Smith could be as patriotic as Burke felt it necessary to be in the 1790s. Smith was not fond of Jeremiahs when it was clear that their jeremiads were based on wishful thinking: in this case, the belief that Britain’s war against France would quickly spell ruin through an increase in the burden of public debt. As he had pointed out after Britain’s defeat at Saratoga, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.
Let me try to draw some general conclusions from this congested patchwork of topics. None of the attempts to legitimize or even characterize the radical or conservative positions of Paine and Burke by reference to Smith are entirely convincing and some are downright misleading. Paine’s willingness to extrapolate the forces of commercial progress analysed by Smith into the future by drawing radical political conclusions from the likely results, has no counterpart in Smith. Nor, on the other hand, does Smith’s gradualism, his resort to explanations based on unintended consequences coupled with a sceptical philosophy of permanent imperfection, conform to what is now thought of as Burke’s conservatism. Smith’s conservatism, like that of Hume, lacks the sacred and mystical qualities with which Burke endowed similar ideas.
History and convention play their part in Smith’s jurisprudence, but it remains a critical natural jurisprudence that does not attach prescriptive status to history. Religious faith plays a large part in differentiating Burke from Smith, and this, paradoxically, can be expressed by recalling Mandeville’s use of the ignoble lie, the double truth. Burke makes use of similar arguments when defending the necessary connection between church and state, the need for an element of mystery to support unquestioning obedience. What might be called ‘esotericism’ – the idea that some truths need to be confined to the few – can also be found in his warning to the French revolutionaries of the likely consequences of disturbing property rights: if peasants got used to the idea that such rights could be changed by legislative fiat, would they not go on to conclude that the only natural title belonged to the cultivator who had mixed his labour with land? Despite the appeals to what was natural there is a large element of esotericism or political imposture in Burke, a purified, but none the less, Mandevillian element of artifice that was essential to his defence of the established order.
So far in these lectures I have treated Smith as setting a standard on arguments connecting riches and poverty over time. In my next lecture I want to consider how the descendants of Smith, Paine, and Burke continued the conversation under post-revolutionary circumstances. This entails consideration of how Malthus, Godwin, Condorcet, and the Lake poets treated the relationship of riches and poverty in the light of French political upheavals, the Napoleonic wars, and Britain’s emergence as a manufacturing nation experiencing population growth on a scale which we now know to have been unprecedented, before or since. Crucial among the problems being faced were those connected with the Corn Laws and another venerable English institution, the Elizabethan Poor Laws. The subsistence crisis that provided the background to Burke’s writings on the subject in the 1790s was to surface again at the turn of the century and to persist intermittently during and after the war. There is never any simple relationship between the history of ideas and the history of events, but one could say that the problems tackled by next week’s conversationalists, though connected with the yoke of luxury, were of a kind that were not, and could not have been envisaged by Smith or, for that matter, Burke. It was in these circumstances that the infant science to which Smith had given birth, perhaps somewhat unintentionally, cut its teeth. Before embarking on the novel features of the early nineteenth-century intellectual scenery next week I would like to register a claim on behalf of post-Smithian political economy by comparing British and American circumstances after 1783.
When the American founding fathers set about their task of constructing a new federal style of republic they confronted many of the problems that were integral to the political economy of Smith and Hume, where the term is being used in its broadest senses to include the crucial two-way relationship between polity and economy. The disagreements were sharp and they provided Americans with some ways of describing their condition – Madisonian, Jeffersonian, or Hamiltonian – that were to mark out the main differences of point of view for much of the period in which the issue of American national identity was being resolved. Those familiar with the secondary literature on this subject will know that interpretations of what was going on during this period are often sharply divided between those who stress the ‘liberal’ provenance and credentials of the new nation, and those who think that the ‘classical republican’ concerns, centring on virtue and corruption, which had helped to fuel the move for independence continued to provide a flexible language for debating its future.
Those who stress the liberal, egalitarian, and individualistic aspirations of the founding fathers have looked to Smith to provide legitimation; they maintain that his system of natural liberty spoke more to the American condition than any other, with the result that Jeffersonian republicans especially grasped his invisible hand as a blueprint for a competitive society of equal individuals. Even Alexander Hamilton’s protectionist programme in his Report on Manufactures can be read as an elaborate plagiarism of the Wealth of Nations: post-Wealth of Nations neo-mercantilists differed from the pre-Smithian breed he had attacked in that work. Despite these claims for the ‘liberal’ interpretation of American national identity – a new form of the ‘exceptionalism’ favoured by earlier historians of America – keeping the ‘liberals’ and ‘republicans’ in the separate cages assigned to them has proved difficult. All sides in the American debate could employ the medium of political economy to explore the dilemmas of the new nation.
My concern is not so much with this debate, but with the manner in which political economy featured in British discussions during the same period. By contrast with America, with its highly favourable relationship between population and resources, it is sometimes suggested that the role of political economy in crowded, inegalitarian, and undemocratic Britain had to be a less fundamental, more technocratic one. I think this is an invalid inference. Political economy was called upon to perform similar functions in British debates, despite the fact that – Ireland partially excepted – national identity was not such a crucial issue. Madison and Jefferson, in common with Price, might see Britain, with its teeming manufacturing towns, as a negative image for America, but Madison in particular was willing to accept that this might eventually be America’s fate, whatever was done to postpone the evil day.
Such speculations about what history had in store were not confined to the new nation. The first four decades of American nationhood coincide with British attempts to come to terms with the puzzling signs that their own economic destiny was without historical precedent and possibly fraught with danger. The facts are familiar enough to us, but coming to terms with them was the main challenge to the first post-Smithian generation of political economists. Britain had become the world’s leading commercial and manufacturing nation, with an increasing proportion of its population living in new urban centres. On the eve of the first census in 1801 there were still some demographic experts, notably Price, who maintained that the British population was either at a standstill or in decline. What the census revealed was that population was doubling every 55 years instead of the 300 to 500 years that was believed to prevail a few decades earlier. At the same time it became clear that Britain was entering into the dangerous waters of becoming a net importer of basic foodstuffs – a fact of life, which, like that of the rate of population increase, Smith did not, and perhaps could not encompass. Indeed, the change on this front was so slow and uneven, with importation often seeming to be only an extraordinary expedient during periods of scarcity, that contemporary comment on it is hard to find until the trend had been firmly established. Add to this that Britain was almost continually at war for the period in which these trends were becoming known, placing an added burden on her public finances; and that rising population seemed to go hand in hand with increasing costs of producing food at home and steeply rising expenditure on pauperism under the Poor Laws, and it seems a major understatement to say that the signs were puzzling.
Political economists were frequently divided between those who sought to embrace the new course on which Britain seemed to be embarked, and those, like Malthus, who saw it, at the beginning of his career at least, as the onset of ‘premature old age’. Political economy could not be merely a technocratic blueprint for achieving opulence in these circumstances – a mere calculus of economic costs and benefits that left the human or moral dimension to one side. Although the amateur devotees of the science achieved credibility by tackling ‘technical’ questions connected with debt, taxation, and monetary and commercial policy, political economy would not have been responding to contemporary social and political concerns if it had not gone beyond such matters to encompass more profound issues of a moral kind. ‘Virtue’, and the conditions under which it could be preserved, was more frequently invoked in American debates – a reflection of the fact that virtue had always been seen as the animating spirit of republics. But the idea expressed by ‘virtue’, or what Smith had referred to as ‘character’ when speaking of those imperfect rights which a cautious legislator might foster, was not absent from British debates, despite the fact that Britain’s emergence as a manufacturing nation virtually without parallel made the use of ancient models seem less relevant than they were to the nation that had recently – and in Smith’s view ‘rashly’ – abandoned its regal form of government. My claim then is that economic or social scientific conversations were still being conducted on both sides of the Atlantic as part of the larger moral and political conversations of the period.
Karl Marx, Capital, 1867
The great sensation this pamphlet [Malthus’s first Essay on Population] caused, was due solely to party interest. The French Revolution had found passionate defenders in the United Kingdom; the ‘principle of population’... was greeted with jubilance by the English oligarchy as the great destroyer of all hankerings after human development.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table Talk, 1838
It is this accursed practice of ever considering only what seems expedient for the occasion, disjoined from all principle or enlarged systems of action, of never listening to the true and unerring impulses of our better nature, which has led the colder-hearted men to the study of political economy, which has turned our Parliament into a real committee of public safety. In it, is all power vested; and in a few years we shall either be governed by an aristocracy, or, what is still more likely, by a contemptible democratical oligarchy of glib economists, compared to which the worst form of aristocracy would be a blessing.
Last week I dealt with a triangular conversation centring on revolutionary events in America and France. This week I want to introduce another trio, the members of which clearly belonged to a post-French revolutionary world, where, to be precise, I am thinking of its first phase, the one that ended with the execution of Louis XVI in 1793. One of my figures, the Marquis de Condorcet, was an early victim of the second, or Jacobin phase of the revolution, though his Sketch of the Progress of the Human Mind, composed when he was in hiding, is a lasting testament to the French Enlightenment in its most radiantly rationalistic form. Godwin’s Enquiry into Political Justice has similar post-revolutionary characteristics: it can be read as an attempt to keep alive hopes for the victory of reason under circumstances in which the original aspirations excited by the first phase of the revolution had been abandoned by many. It was, you might say, an attempt to lift the sights and steady the nerve of former supporters of what was happening in France, those who were now inclined to despair over the turn events had taken.
For a time in the 1790s Godwin certainly served this purpose for Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and to a lesser extent, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The plan formed by Southey and Coleridge to escape from corrupted Europe to form an egalitarian Pantisocratic community on the banks of the Susquehanna was largely derived from Godwin’s vision of a world in which wants were simple and physical labour was confined to an hour or so a day – perhaps even less if you took servants, as they intended to do. Adam Smith is supposed to have played a part in this by convincing them of the benefits of the division of labour. The Lake poets quickly outgrew their Godwinian enthusiasms for reasons they each recorded, with Wordsworth’s being the most memorable as a result of being included in Book XI of The Prelude. Nevertheless, I want to argue that on one important subject, their attitude to the questions raised by Malthus’s population principle in his initial attack on Godwin’s perfectibilist speculations, the Lake poets remained enthralled by a central feature of Godwin’s outlook despite their retreat from radicalism into ultra-Tory politics.
For want of a better term I have labelled this feature as post-economic society, a world in which Nature either did not impinge on moral Culture, or could be made thoroughly subservient to it: a world in which scarcity did not pose the acute problems of meumand tuum that made some version of political economy, especially, as we shall see, the Malthusian version, seem central to an understanding of social life. Some noted political economists, John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes, have speculated about the economics of abundance. For Mill this took the form of embracing the concept of a zero-growth society in which attention would be shifted to quality of life and re-distributional problems. For Keynes, it was expressed as the hope that his grandchildren, that is, us, would enjoy a world in which economists would become mere dentists making incidental repairs to a healthy organism. For Keynes, writing in the 1930s, the Malthusian problem had gone into reverse: perhaps the slowing down of population increase was a reason for thinking that the engine of growth and employment was in need of supplementation by methods of stimulating unproductive consumption or investment that Malthus himself had felt necessary to keep the British economy on a stable course. For Mill, however, who accepted the reality of the original Malthusian problem in its starkest form, it was only possible to envisage a post-economic society by becoming a neo-Malthusian, by advocating birth control reinforced by collective pressure of public opinion on irresponsible parenthood. It was on that basis too that he was able to give a sympathetic hearing to socialistic experiments as the clue to the future, and become a long-term supporter of emigration as means of reducing Malthusian pressures.
For reasons that will become clearer later, Malthus himself could not accept neo-Malthusian solutions; and since he was implacably opposed to even the most embryonic forms of collectivism he had to look elsewhere for remedies. But there is a difference between post-economic visions that accept the basic dilemma posed by scarcity and those that proceed by denying, or wishing away, its existence. Some socialistic conceptions of a more equal society fall into the latter category – William Morris’s News from Nowhere comes to mind – where they find much in common with more culturally conservative visions: here Southey and Ruskin come to mind. It was Malthus’s fate to unite opponents on the left and right of the political spectrum, as perhaps no other social theorist has ever done.
Reverting to the Lake poets and my conversational simile there are some conversations that get off on the wrong foot from the outset. Malthus himself suffered from the fact that his opening speech, the first Essay on Population in 1798, was so arresting that he was remembered for it long after he had softened its polemical exaggerations. In responding to him the Lake poets fell at the first hurdle in grasping Malthus’s meaning, and having made so much of their opposition could not recognise just how much they had in common with their chosen enemy. What had struck them as an unwarranted attack on their assumptions as Godwinian radicals remained unacceptable long after the Lake poets had convinced themselves that inequality was not merely a part, but a necessary part of the human condition, the basis in fact for the scheme of paternalistic duties they later assigned to an idealised notion of landownership and to a reformed version of the established Church. When they had turned Burke’s equation of the landed interest with ‘permanency’ and his arguments on church and state into a way of preserving what Coleridge called ‘nationalty’, one could say that they had succeeded in conjuring a speculative form of patriotic conservatism out of the Burkean legacy.
But conservatism, like other political ‘isms’, requires an enemy or antithesis, and this increasingly was supplied by what the romantic poets chose to call the ‘liberal’ point of view, rather in the manner that some Americans use ‘liberal’ today, namely with a curl of the lip. Malthus, a Foxite Whig, with some old-fashioned Country Whig opinions, became one of the embodiments of this ‘liberal’ antithesis, a symbol of all that the early romantics loved to hate. He was, like his chosen opponents, a post-revolutionary author. His first Essay on Population reverberates so much with the sounds of the revolution off-stage that he is often taken to represent the forces of counter- rather than merely post-revolutionary pessimism. Malthus, in this story, becomes a less angry, but far gloomier Burke, suggesting why the status quo has been sanctioned and policed by those physical laws which underlie the population principle. As the person who first attacked the perfectibilism of Condorcet and Godwin, Malthus was later judged to have benefitted from the mood of anti-Jacobinism in Britain. William Hazlitt said that the Essay was one of the ingredients thrown into the cauldron of legitimacy ‘to make it thick and slab’ – a statement that was, as you will see in the first epigraph, endorsed by Marx. It has been echoed by others ever since.
Not to put too fine a point on it – fine points have never been a prominent feature of the literature vilifying Malthus – he was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, a sombre bio-economic determinist, and an enemy to all hopes of human improvement through conscious political and economic change. The relentless pressure of population on the living standards of all those who made their living by selling their labour would swallow up all temporary gains. Nature had a nasty trump card up her sleeve, one that would put paid to hopes based merely on moral, cultural, or political improvements. Not merely did this dampen hopes of a better future, it reversed the proper causal priorities by giving primacy to Nature over Culture.
The fact that Malthus also provided a theodicy to show why these fixed laws of nature conformed with God’s purpose in placing humankind under persistent pressure to find ways of circumventing moral evil was a further insult to those whose secularist hopes were concentrated on this-worldly advances. The population principle was even thought to be blasphemous by the faithful, especially by those who adopted a literalist approach to biblical injunctions to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and to St Paul’s teaching that all who could marry should do so to avoid the sins associated with fornication or ‘burning’.
Marx later provided another way of characterising Malthus when he coined ideological categories to fit his diagnosis of capitalism: Malthus was a hired lackey of the landowning classes, or slightly more politely and insightfully, a representative of those who desire ‘bourgeois production as long as it is not revolutionary, constitutes no historical factor of development but merely creates a broader and more comfortable material basis for the “old” society’. This comment was insightful because it has the merit of recognizing something about Malthus that was completely overlooked by many of those who were affronted by his population principle: he began his career as a political moralist with some profound misgivings about the growth path on which Britain seemed to be embarked during the Napoleonic wars – misgivings of a moral and political, as well as economic kind that centred on the rapid growth of manufacturing and Britain’s loss of self-sufficiency in subsistence products. These reservations softened with age, but they never entirely disappeared.
All this helps to explain why Malthus has never had a good press from spokesmen for the radical and socialistic alternatives to commercial society or what has come to be known as capitalism. As I have said, what is odd about Malthus’s reputation is that he was equally reviled by Tory radicals such as William Cobbett as by Tory humanitarians such as Michael Sadler, and was positively demonized by those who became the main spokesmen for what John Stuart Mill, in his essay on Coleridge called ‘speculative Tories’. ‘Malthusian’ was already in use during Malthus’s life as a term of abuse. It was generally used to describe those who wished to abolish or reform the English Poor Laws, with the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 being seen – erroneously at it turns out – as Malthus’s brainchild. As a result of the barrage maintained by Southey in particular, Malthus’s name could also be used as shorthand for everything the Lake poets found unacceptable about modern society and the science of political economy that accompanied it. And once this conjunction had been forged it was impossible for Smith, the founding father, to escape guilt by association. The Wealth of Nations was duly condemned by Southey as ‘the code, or confession of faith’ that underlay the market-driven logic of the emerging manufacturing system. The result is summarized in the quotation from Coleridge in the second epigraph, one of many such statements that could be cited.
We have arrived at the beginnings of the long debate on the industrial revolution as social catastrophe, with political economy depicted as apologia for what occurred. I want to return to this theme in my final lecture next week, but let me point out one or two of the ironies surrounding the romantics’ choice of Malthus as the embodiment of all they disliked about the science of political economy. Malthus had much in common with the Lake poets on matters of diagnosis and remedies for what was happening in Britain during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Far from having substituted political for moral economy – the basis of a charge that Malthus was responsible for demoralizing political economy which one still finds in writers at both extremes of the political spectrum – Malthus consistently argued that he was adding a much-needed moral component to the secular conclusions of Smith and his friend Ricardo. Without this moral component Malthus could not have acquired the reputation he had with Christian political economists who resented the way in which the science had fallen into the heathen hands of the Benthamites and philosophical radicals.
Malthus’s unwillingness to treat political economy as a mathematical science, or to separate the question of how to become prosperous from whether it was a good thing to be prosperous, was one of the sources of Ricardo’s impatience with his friend. Coleridge claimed that political economy did not understand the hardships inflicted by economic change and fluctuations in economic activity. That too was one of Malthus’s arguments against Ricardo during the post-war depression and when he shocked Smith’s orthodox followers by arguing in favour of the Corn Laws in 1815. Ricardo does have many of the characteristics of an economic thinker who treats the failure of markets to achieve equilibrium as a simple mistake on the part of agents who ought to be acting rationally. Malthus, with his interest in cycles and fluctuations, is as concerned with what happens on the path towards equilibrium as he is with the final state. It was this that gave some substance to Keynes’s regret that Ricardian economics had won out over Malthusian insights into unemployment. But perhaps the crowning irony is the fact that the Lake poets all came round to Malthus’s diagnosis of the demoralising effect of the Poor Laws while continuing to deny they had capitulated to the population principle.
Having briefly indicated some of the later and wider ramifications of Malthus’s position, I want to return to the eighteenth-century theme of luxury and inequality, riches and poverty, as it reappears in the Malthus-Godwin-Condorcet confrontation. Only in this way is it possible to appreciate how established conversational gambits between those who shared a common language were slowly yet drastically being modified.
Malthus’s two initial opponents, Godwin and Condorcet, can be described as Rousseauistes in the loosest sense. They both attributed the evils of the human condition to corrupt political and economic institutions; and they both built on Rousseau’s idea of man’s capacity to perfect himself, giving this more content than Rousseau himself had managed to do. In other respects, however, they were critical of Rousseau; they regarded his educational writings, especially Emile, as superior to any of his political writings, including the Social Contract. On one crucial topic, for example, Godwin was highly critical of Rousseau: it turned on Rousseau’s idea that any legislator who wished to establish a new political system would need to have recourse to a civil form of religious sanction to overcome the selfish short-sightedness of the ‘common herd’. This rejection paralleled Godwin’s attack on Burke’s arguments in favour of deference to established forms of government. Both positions were a form of ‘Machiavellism’ or ‘Mandevillism’ in politics, defined as the belief that government was an exercise in the use of power without moral purpose, the populace at large being too ignorant, too selfish, and too impervious to reason to be capable of being ruled in any other way.
For both Godwin and Condorcet the need for such legislatorial ruses would be abolished in a future state based on the application of reason to human affairs, one in which (Godwin’s emphasis) transparency, sincerity, and universal benevolence would determine social relationships, or in which (Condorcet’s emphasis) new forms of applied social science would be brought to bear on the problems of representative bodies, republican forms of government, and the economic welfare of those living under them. The difference was captured in a casual remark that Godwin inserted into the Enquiry after Condorcet’s work appeared: Condorcet, he said, was one of those authors who was ‘inclined to rest their hopes rather upon the growing perfection of art than, as is here done, upon the immediate and unavoidable operation of an improved intellect’. It was a significant difference, and one that Malthus could not fail to notice. In brief, while Godwin was a post-economic visionary, Condorcet’s hopes rested on technocratic improvements in a society that remained in its essentials a Smithian one.
Godwin had explicitly rejected the system of commercial optimism which he found in Hume and Smith. No pure theory of justice and universal benevolence could be reconciled with such a system – though, rather like Marx, he believed that the historical advances of commercial societies were a staging post, a ladder or piece of scaffolding that could be dismantled in the ascent to higher things. While private property remained there would always be dependence and servility: human efforts would be directed away from moral and intellectual improvement toward sordid material pursuits. Nothing less than the abandonment of property (including property in spouses) and the sharing of labour equally would answer. Change was to be effected through reasoned public debate and exposure of error. Godwin’s ideal, then, was an economy of abundance judged not in terms of material goods and services – the need for which would be reduced in a world where uniformity of basic wants was recognised and vanity abolished – so much as in minimum unnecessary labour and the maximum scope for leisure. The master/slave relationship embodied in luxury consumption by the rich would be abolished. Rousseau would be vindicated.
Malthus’s population principle enabled him to claim that pressure of population on resources would remain a feature of the human fate.
It is to the established administration of property, and to the apparently narrow principle of self-love, that we are indebted for all the noblest exertions of human genius, all the finer and more delicate emotions of the soul, for everything, indeed, that distinguishes the civilised, from the savage state; and no sufficient change, has as yet taken place in the nature of civilised man, to enable us to say, that he either is, or ever will be, in a state, when he may safely throw down the ladder by which he has risen to this eminence.
Far from being temporary scaffolding that could be dismantled, the laws of property and marriage which Godwin hoped would wither away provided the only way in which society could cope with the persistent pressure exerted by actual and potential population growth. Only with such institutions could society hope to achieve and maintain the optimal growth path for population, one that kept the hare of population increase in step with, or just behind, the tortoise pace at which food supplies could be expanded.
It is just as vulgar an error to think that Malthus was opposed to population increase, as it is to suggest that he advocated vice and misery as necessary checks. These were actual or predicted consequences rather than preferred solutions. The object of his investigations was to show the conditions for optimal rates of population increase, where the optimum was defined in terms of a reduction in vice and misery as evidenced not only by the conquest of famine and pestilence but by increases in real wages, stable and healthy occupations, reduced hours of work, together with something that often gets overlooked: a reduction in pre-adolescent mortality rates. No wonder then that he repudiated Hazlitt’s mischievous charge that he had found a new way to vindicate Mandeville’s belief in the necessity for vice.
So far, one could say, Malthus was merely rehearsing the Smithian position in more urgent guise. If it was always going to be necessary in a world of scarcity to assign roles in the social division of labour and distribute incomes accordingly, what better, non-coercive way could be found than Smith’s system of natural liberty? Did Godwin really believe that rational forms of benevolence could supplant self-interest as the motive that was capable of moving the many on most occasions, rather than a few of us some of the time? Such arguments would not have had much cogency to a confident believer in an all-powerful state, but they were highly effective against an anarchist like Godwin who professed antagonism to all forms of social and political coercion, and made private judgement and private conscience the jury before which all questions should be laid.
This was the most attractive feature of Godwin’s utopia as far as Malthus was concerned. His own favoured solution to the population problem, namely moral restraint, or delayed marriage accompanied by sexual continence, was based on the same idea. In good liberal fashion, taking responsibility in matters of private prudence was connected in Malthus’s mind with extension of civil and political liberties to the populace at large. A diagnosis that focussed on the causes of poverty among the mass of society was accompanied by remedies that presupposed that human dignity consisted in being released from that condition to become a self-determining agent. In addition to the perverse effects he attributed to the Poor Laws, as currently administered, in reducing wages, it was the invasion of the liberties of the poor, present and potential, that lay at the heart of Malthus’s criticisms. His attack on the legal right to relief as a right that could never be fully honoured was part of a case for the extension of other rights. But those rights had to belong to self-determining individuals: they could not be a right exercised by the poor, as a class, against the rest of society. In blunter terms, Malthus was a self-conscious advocate of the least heroic of social outcomes, the one we call embourgeoisement. He also agreed with Godwin that the present degree of inequality in incomes, property, and the allocation of tasks, was an evil that ought to be tackled, as long as this could be done in ways that did not infringe individual liberty. One reason why the Godwin-Malthus exchanges are so interesting, initially at least, is the fact that they share so many assumptions of this kind – a fact that can largely be explained, I think, by their common roots in dissenting culture.
Although Godwin’s utopianism provided Malthus with an easy target it also enabled him to lay the foundations for most of the arguments later to be raised against alternatives to commercial society, whether advanced by radical liberals or socialists, with questions of agency, incentive, and ownership being placed centre stage. How would Godwin get from here to where he wanted to be, while still claiming that he was giving a realistic account of human nature and eschewing coercion? What chance was there for those whose lives had prevented them from experiencing the pleasures of the mind from giving such pleasures primacy over mere bodily wants? In a society in which so many were victims of poverty, could Godwin really believe that no restraining political and judicial institutions would be needed?
One of the faults to which Godwin later confessed was an underestimation of the role of feeling as opposed to rational judgement in human motivation. In pressing home his criticisms of this feature of Godwin’s earlier position, Malthus maintained that all the passions, bodily and mental, with which God had endowed man were natural and beneficial when held in balance through the pains and pleasures attached to their exercise or abuse. In this respect, at least, Malthus was merely giving a theological utilitarian’s version of what Hume and Smith had taught on immediate sense and feeling as the root of man’s natural sociability. But the simple idea that Malthus was merely advancing a Christian version of Smith’s moral philosophy and political economy does not do justice to the extent of the changes he introduced into the conversation on riches and poverty.
Neither Smith nor Hume had encountered the kinds of fundamental challenge on the subject of inequality that Malthus chose to confront. For Smith, Rousseau was merely an idealistic republican inclined to take such matters too far. When Smith wanted to discuss why schemes for equalising property were irrelevant to modern conditions in his lectures on jurisprudence he had to choose the example of the operation of the agrarian law under ancient conditions, where his case was basically that such devices may have made sense in a society where poor citizens were faced with competition from slaves, but were irrelevant to a post-feudal or commercial world in which vassalage no longer existed and there was now a ‘gradual descent of fortunes’.
Malthus, on the other hand, was faced with the challenge of a variety of forms of economic Jacobinism, of which Godwin’s was the most attractive, yet least likely to become the basis for a popular programme. This was not the case with Part II of Paine’s Rights of Man, or his Agrarian Justice; and it was not true of the ideas of Thomas Spence or Robert Owen’s cooperative forms of socialism. Hume could be greatly exercised by the threat of the London mob during the Wilkes affair. Compared with the threat posed by Luddism and Peterloo this was small beer. Malthus was hardly alone in fearing that economic distress might create conditions for a revolution in Britain that would exceed the French in ferocity. It was another point on which he both converged and diverged from the views of the Lake poets. For while the risks of what Southey called ‘bellum servile’, a revolt of the un-propertied masses, brought the Tory carnivore out in him, Malthus’s reaction was one of herbivorous Whiggish regret that things had come to such a pass. The regret chiefly centred on the way in which such disturbances strengthened the hand of the executive and delayed essential reforms. It made him more rather than less keen to see constitutional reforms enacted; the reverse of Southey and Coleridge’s priorities when Catholic emancipation and the Reform Bill loomed into view.
Such questions of everyday politics apart it is also important to recognise more fundamental differences between Malthus and Smith. Although the idea that population expands when access to subsistence goods improves was an eighteenth-century commonplace, Malthus shortened drastically the period within which population responded and its consequences were felt. Godwin and Condorcet had speculated about what might happen if population pressures threatened their visions, and both had concluded that such pressures were a distant prospect, something that would only become serious when the whole world was cultivated like a garden. Malthus replied that population pressure was always ‘imminent and immediate’: that it had exerted itself throughout human history with varying degrees of savagery and would continue to do so if control over nuptiality was not given priority. If the pressure of population on resources had merely been a potential catastrophe, he would have agreed that there was no reason to postpone efforts to create an alternative form of society. Hence too Malthus’s departure from the pro-populationist assumptions of eighteenth-century debate, according to which rising population was, as Smith had said, a decisive mark of the oeconomy of greatness.
Malthus in his more dogmatic moments sometimes suggested that the downward pressure on living standards was constant. It is more faithful to his general line of thinking, however, to say that he saw it as a cyclical phenomenon proceeding from the lagged response to changes in wages and food prices over time. These cycles might occur around a static subsistence level, but the evidence of such countries as Britain was that the fluctuations more usually took place around a slow and uneven rising trend in real wages. Neither cycle nor trend gave any support to the blither forms of pro-populationist rhetoric, many of which were tainted in Malthus’s eyes by their connection with the demographic politics of offensive war, another ‘liberal’ position that did not endear him to those for whom successful prosecution of the war against revolutionary France had become, as Burke had urged that it should be, the decisive test of patriotism. It certainly confirmed his status as a treacherous ‘peace-monger’ in the eyes of Southey.
But this was only the first of Malthus’s departures from the Smithian model. The second ultimately took the form of the law of diminishing returns in agriculture treated as an historical generalisation which began life as a dubious mathematical proposition stating that food supplies could at best expand at an arithmetic rate of progression. A secular upward trend in the price of wage or subsistence goods, a trend that could only be temporarily offset by improvements in agricultural technology, became the main proposition dividing Smith’s world from that of Malthus, Ricardo, and all those who followed in their footsteps. It also made what was happening to rent, the income from ownership of the one resource that could not be augmented, a highly controversial and divisive issue. (Incidentally, it can also be found in the work of Marx, who, despite abandoning the law of diminishing returns and the doctrine of rent, was also interested in the asymptotic path of capitalism, as revealed especially in his theory of a secular downward trend in profits.)
There was one further innovation for which Malthus was responsible that differentiated him from Ricardo as well as Smith. Its origins can be found in a pair of innocent chapters in the first Essay in which Malthus queried one of Smith’s central conclusions on the subject of parsimony and capital accumulation. What began as a rehearsal of the Smithian position on commerce and manufacturing quickly becomes another version of the paradox of luxury. Was it clear that capital accumulation was an infallible way of ensuring an upward trend in real wages and thereby the happiness and comfort of the mass of the population? Suppose the new investment was concentrated in commerce and manufacturing, rather than agriculture, where the assumption was that manufacturing chiefly consisted of luxury goods: would this not create an imbalance between the growth of the two sectors that could only cheat labour of the benefits of higher wages as food prices rose?
The labour created by luxuries, though useful in distributing the produce of the country, without vitiating the proprietor by power, or debasing the labourer by dependence, has not, indeed, the same beneficial effects on the state of the poor. A great accession of work from manufactures, though it may raise the price of labour even more than an increasing demand for agricultural labour; yet, as in this case, the quantity of food in the country may not be proportionably increasing, the advantage to the poor will be but temporary, as the price of provisions must necessarily rise in proportion to the price of labour.
In terms we do not usually associate with him, Malthus was suggesting that growth might be immiserating, a dramatic reversal of Smith’s position. The simple form of this argument was to develop later into an argument for balanced growth, for retaining a measure of protection to domestic agriculture when the Corn Laws came up for renewal in 1815. But it is also important to recognise that Malthus’s fears about ‘unwholesome’ urban manufacturing activities were ultimately based on a moral and political assessment. The moral dimension arises from Malthus’s belief, very much along Jeffersonian lines, that life in urban manufacturing towns was less stable, less healthy, and less conducive to virtue and happiness than rural life.
Politically too, Malthus’s argument for retaining a measure of self-sufficiency with regard to subsistence goods, particularly during war, is easily seen as an argument based on security. Malthus regretted that a ‘large landed nation’, such as Britain had been throughout much of the eighteenth century, was becoming a net importer of foodstuffs. It may also be worth recalling that the new census evidence forced Malthus, along with many others, to recognise that Britain’s population was growing far more rapidly than originally anticipated. Smith had estimated a doubling every 3 to 500 years; as noted in the previous lecture, the early censuses showed that it was doubling every 55 years in England, and more rapidly in Ireland. Malthus, one could say, was exploring ways in which a world that Smith had been able to take for granted could be reinstated. Hence Malthus’s inability to become an enthusiastic advocate for the manufacturing system in Britain until after Napoleon had been defeated, and until he had begun to see some signs that manufactured comforts, if not luxuries, were being placed within the grasp of the poor. Though beholden to William Paley for his basic position as theological utilitarian, he was not attracted to Paley’s opinion on luxury, namely that the aggregate happiness of society would best be served by a society in which ‘a laborious frugal people ministered to the demands of an opulent luxurious nation’. Malthus was too much of a Smithian to accept such Mandevillian cynicism. For Malthus, rather, it was the diffusion of luxury, the possibility that it might offer an alternative to increasing family size, an incentive to practice moral restraint, that was one of its most hopeful features. Nevertheless, Malthus continued to see maintenance of a balance between agriculture and manufacturing as a major problem for legislators – an unnecessary responsibility that Smith had criticised his Scottish rival Sir James Steuart for espousing.
Only when such points are taken in conjunction with one another can one appreciate the extent to which Malthus had heightened the issues surrounding scarcity, and hence why he applied such a thoroughgoing reductio to Godwin’s post-economic dreams. Inequality was not simply the result of an historic process that might or might not be remediable: it was a necessary feature of the discipline required to fulfil God’s divine purpose. Although most of the weight of Malthus’s advocacy fell on the need to control birth rates in ways that minimized vice, the system he created also served as an account of how progress had been achieved and might be sustained in future as societies solved the basic conundrum. In that respect one can quite properly say that Malthus had his own cautious vision of improvement, one that would rescue the doctrine of progress from revolutionary enthusiasts and show that a union of Newtonian science with Christianity, far from being a contradiction or an obstacle to enlightenment, was the only basis for true enlightenment.
Although Godwin and Condorcet were linked together by Malthus as advocates of systems of equality, Malthus recognised that Condorcet, like himself, was a serious social scientist. This gave special point to his charge that Condorcet was guilty of transgressing the rules of science established by Newton: he had reasoned, or rather extrapolated, from known causes to possible effects, rather than by seeking, as Malthus was doing, to assign likely causes to observed effects. This accounted for Condorcet’s wild speculations on the subject of organic perfectibility, on the possibility that life expectancy could be prolonged indefinitely, almost to the point where death would be a matter of personal choice. This could not be treated any more seriously than Godwin’s belief that mind would establish such control over matter that the sexual urge would wither along with the institution of property and marriage. Malthus’s own education was based on a mutually supportive mixture of Paleyite natural theology with Newtonianism, the best Cambridge could supply to those taking its mathematical tripos.
What Malthus could not fail to notice was that Condorcet, like himself, and, incidentally, Paine, was at heart a Smithian. They were united not only in believing that commerce had been a potent force for social and political change in the recent past, but that the system of natural liberty, once monopolies and special privileges had been removed, was capable of delivering immense benefits to society in the future. Indeed, on this subject, by Smith’s standards, Condorcet and Paine must be accounted extreme optimists, believing that commercial society, when accompanied by republican political institutions, was entirely capable of delivering benefits that Smith had been far too cautious or sceptical to claim. They were certainly far more optimistic than Malthus was prepared to be for the reasons given when pointing out the ways in which Malthus was substituting an asymptotic vision for Smith’s more open-ended one.
Condorcet and Paine for their part were also adding something novel to Smith’s version of the ‘oeconomy of greatness’. The system of natural liberty would, in their opinion, act as an equalising agent, removing the privileges of established wealth on the one hand, and raising standards of living of the mass on the other. It would stop short of complete economic equality because there would still be room for differences of income based on ‘natural’ advantages. But what distanced them from Smith, and certainly from Malthus, was their espousal of overt re-distributional measures of the social insurance variety. Commercial society, even acting under ideal conditions, would still leave some members of society vulnerable to events that were beyond individual control, but against which it was possible for the state, acting as insurance agency, collectivising risk, to protect them. The methods, by which this was to be achieved, rested on the new actuarial information then available and the calculus of probabilities of which Condorcet was a noted exponent.
Hence the surprise that always greets the information that Condorcet and Paine advocated practical social insurance schemes to cover old age, sickness, orphans, and unemployment. These things were not supposed to have happened until Bismarck or Lloyd George or William Beveridge created a welfare state. Since I am not a Whig historian of ideas, however, what seems more important is the following: Paine was responding to Burke’s harsh distinction between the perfect rights of commutative justice and the imperfect right to charity. Participation alongside Condorcet in the Girondin faction in France may also have played its part: republican manners were difficult to establish on the basis of the inequalities left by absolute monarchy. Alternatively, one can say that Smith’s ideas connecting the system of natural liberty with commutative justice were being supplemented by new ideas of economic rights and distributive justice, together with new instrumentalities for implementing them.
It was for this reason that Malthus placed Condorcet and Paine alongside Godwin as exponents of ‘systems of equality’. The manner in which he answered such ideas tells us a great deal about Malthus. The key to his response is given in the following statement:
Such establishments and calculations, may appear very promising upon paper, but when applied to real life, they will be found to be absolutely nugatory. M. Condorcet allows that a class of people which maintains itself entirely by industry is necessary to every state. Why does he allow this? No other reason can well be assigned than because he conceives that the labour necessary to procure subsistence for an extended population will not be performed without the goad of necessity. If by establishments of this kind, this spur to industry be removed, if the idle and the negligent are placed upon the same footing with regard to their credit, and the future support of their wives and families, as the active and industrious; can we expect to see men exert that animated activity in bettering their condition, which now forms the master spring of public prosperity? If an inquisition were to be established, to examine the claims of each individual, and to determine whether he had, or had not, exerted himself to the utmost, and to grant or refuse assistance accordingly, this would be little else than a repetition upon a larger scale of the English poor laws, and would be completely destructive of the true principles of liberty and equality.
Since Condorcet clearly accepted the need for a system of rewards and punishments, the normal mechanisms by which self-interest operated in markets, why could he not see that any scheme of compulsory insurance contributions involved a blatant contradiction, one that was fraught with moral hazard. You increase the risk against which you are insuring by altering the behaviour of those you insure. How then could Condorcet fail to see that his insurance fund removed an essential element in commercial society, the need for punishments as well as rewards? The idle and improvident would be placed upon the same footing as those who were active, prudent, and industrious. What incentive would there be for the spread of habits of self-reliance? Administration of the scheme would require an ‘inquisition’ to distinguish between the worthy and unworthy. It would create something akin to the English Poor Law upon a larger scale and be ‘completely destructive of the true principles of liberty and equality’. When Godwin and Malthus were still on friendly terms, Malthus had made some headway in convincing Godwin that old countries might have population problems. But he was shocked to learn that Godwin’s libertarianism did not have roots as deep as his own. Godwin was willing to contemplate bringing communal pressures to bear on irresponsible parenthood, including controls over family size, and possibly even euthanasia of the newborn poor. Anarchistic post-economic society, it seemed, required plain-clothes policemen to make it work.
The key phrase in the passage just quoted, of course, is the reference to the ‘goad of necessity’, and it gives substance to the idea that Malthus had added fear of falling in the social scale to Smith’s universal desire to better oneself. Not only do markets require punishments as well as rewards, but God’s purpose cannot be fulfilled without them. This explains what otherwise seems like a fundamental contradiction in Malthus’s thinking: how could he be the foremost enemy of pro-populationist arguments while opposing birth control within marriage as not merely immoral, but as removing the spur to industry that was essential to fulfilling God’s plan for cultivating the earth? The moral dimension that Malthus’s Christianity brought to political economy came at a price. Having invested sticks with so much importance, not least for theological reasons, Malthus found it less easy to attribute exclusive power to carrots.
Let me return in conclusion to what I said earlier about the problem the Lake poets had in coming to terms with Malthus. It arises from a powerful commonsense question: how could anyone speak about a population problem in a world that was not as yet fully cultivated, when particularly in civilised societies there were such obvious signs of prodigality and waste associated with luxury? Surely the problem for any wise legislator was to find ways of employing whatever numbers existed, making full use of the powers of the state to create employment, rather than in worrying about whether the rate of increase was too fast. The Lake poets could never escape from the idea that population pressure would only become a problem when the world resembled a fully cultivated garden. Retaining this belief was one of the ways in which they sought to protect their ideal of a truly moral society from the unwelcome invasion of physical necessity and economic scarcity.
According to Malthus’s theory the problem of coping with population as an ever-present threat could not be solved by seeking the maximum level of output from existing resources. It entailed a search for an optimal relationship between population and resources at every moment of time and through time. China and Ireland showed what could happen when maxima were sought at the expense of optima. Malthus had benefitted from learning the theory of fluxions, or calculus, at Cambridge. It was a difficult lesson to preach, and Malthus signally failed with the Lake poets. We would express it today in terms of a contrast between the engineers’ and the economists’ idea of efficiency. That may be easy enough when one is dealing with the textbook example of widgets, but it not so easy when one is dealing, literally, with matters of life and death. We have also found another way of expressing the dilemma, namely the idea of sustainable growth, though whether some environmentalists who use this term would be grateful to be reminded of their debt to Malthus is yet more proof of how these subjects remain inherently emotive.
Arnold Toynbee, Lectures on the Industrial Revolution, 1881-2
The bitter argument between economists and human beings has ended in the conversion of the economists. But it was not by the fierce denunciation of moralists, nor by the mute visible suffering of degraded men, that this conversion was effected. What the passionate protests of Past and Present and the grave official revelations of government reports could not do, the chill breath of intellectual criticism has done. Assailed for two generations as an insult to the simple natural piety of human affections, the Political Economy of Ricardo is at last rejected as an intellectual imposture. The obstinate, blind repulsion of the labourer is approved by the professor... Had Mill and Senior completely emancipated themselves from the influence of [Ricardo], the history of Political Economy in Britain would have been a very different one. Endless misunderstanding and hatred would have been avoided, and some great problems would be much nearer their solution. But it was not to be. Ricardo’s brilliant deductions destroyed observation.
As the epigraph shows, the tendentious title of this concluding lecture is taken from some famous lectures given at Oxford in the early 1880s by Arnold Toynbee. Since this event lies well outside the period with which I have been dealing in previous lectures, this might seem an arbitrary point of departure, a break in the chain of conversations considered so far. Evasively, at this stage, I shall have to say that this is, and yet is not, the case. Toynbee provides both a link and a vantage point from which to look forward to the twentieth century as well as backwards to the cast of the earlier lectures. One of the reasons why Toynbee’s lectures became famous, of course, was his use of ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the title. It was once thought that he had coined the term, though we now know that he merely provided it with its capital letters. It was foreign observers of the British scene who were responsible for the earliest coinages, with Friedrich Engels giving the idea wider currency and more dramatic colouring in his Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844.There it referred to the use of steam power and technological innovations in the cotton industry, and to the resulting emergence of the world’s first industrial proletariat, the harbinger of what Engels and his more famous companion, Marx, hoped would be the next great revolution of world-historical significance.
The study of the industrial revolution, its causes and consequences, whether by such influential foreigners or by those whose domestic upbringing was conditioned by the phenomenon, has undoubtedly left an indelible mark upon the intellectual as well as economic history of Britain. In this lecture I want to say something about the origins of the cultural schism expressed in the opposition between economists and human beings – a schism that could equally well have been expressed in Coleridge’s distinction between ‘persons’ (his concern) and ‘things’ (that of economists), or Southey’s charge that moral economy was being overwhelmed by political economy. This way of putting it would have the additional virtue of bringing to mind one powerful twentieth-century manifestation of the cultural schism, the work of E. P. Thompson and his followers. More specifically it provokes consideration of the way in which an eighteenth-century moral economy based on paternal-deference relations was decisively replaced by a political economy that was, as Thompson said with heavy irony, ‘disinfested of intrusive moral imperatives’ – with free trade in subsistence goods and reform of the Poor Laws providing the turning points of the story.
Toynbee was one of the chief agents whereby some of the moral attitudes struck during the first decades of the century – by Southey and Coleridge, by Thomas Carlyle in Past and Present, by Charles Dicken’s in Hard Times, and by John Ruskin in Unto this Last – were codified for his own generation and transmitted via some influential disciples, notably W. J. Ashley and Beatrice Webb, to the twentieth-century. What Toynbee took from Carlyle and the early romantic commentators was the idea of the industrial revolution as social catastrophe – a train of events that called out for explanation and expiation through dedicated hard work by privileged liberal, middle-class reformers like himself, on behalf of large sections of the working classes whose lives had been blighted by the revolution, and whose aspirations, Toynbee felt, had been mocked by the cold abstractions of political economy.
Toynbee Hall, in the East End of London, was the monument that Toynbee’s friends built to commemorate his short life. It was to become the gathering point, the intellectual base from which many of the significant inquiries into urban poverty were to be conducted during the last decades of the nineteenth century, including the most famous of all, Charles Booth’s inquiry into poverty in London. Bearing in mind my point of departure in these lectures, the historical irony of the destination at which we have now arrived will be apparent. What had been Samuel Johnson’s favourite viewing point in the middle of the eighteenth century for observing the secret concatenation of modern commercial society, had become, by the end of the nineteenth century, the most urgent place from which to conduct inquiry into the lives of those who, despite living at the heart of an extensive commercial empire based on free trade, had become victims rather than beneficiaries of the concatenation. Whether the study of poverty by the new methods of social inquiry pioneered by Booth and others should be differentiated from the earlier interest in inequality, in the moral and economic connections between riches and poverty, is a moot point. But the presence at the end of the century of a number of vocal socialistic diagnoses, from Christian, Tory, Fabian, and Marxian sources, certainly continued to give point to the broader question.
Without a great deal more supportive argument these connections stretching over one hundred and fifty years are rather tenuous. What interests me more about Toynbee’s lectures is the fact that he was one of the first of a generation or two of English economic historians – on this too he had been pre-empted by Marx, writing in German – to combine a study of the industrial revolution with the history of serious economic thinking. Although his statement about economists and human beings was hardly a neutral one, Toynbee’s interest in political economy was not of the kind epitomized by George Eliot’s character in Mill on the Floss, Tom Tulliver, who was said to be fond of birds – that is, of throwing stones at them. Unlike some of the sages and moralists on which he drew, Toynbee was attempting to re-open the conversation between science and morals which they had closed: he was hoping to get beyond a ritualistic exchange of insults. He had learned from and devoted a great deal of attention to the four leading figures in classical political economy: Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill. These four versions of the classical gospel provided the pegs on which he hung his account of the different phases of the industrial revolution, with Smith representing the immediate pre-industrial, or anti-mercantile phase; Malthus’s Essay being a product of the revolution at its height, focussing on poverty rather than wealth; Ricardo adding the laws of distribution of wealth; and Mill heralding the fourth stage by showing that the laws of production and distribution could be separated from one another.
There was no doubt in Toynbee’s mind as to who was the captivating villain of the piece. Not only had Ricardo ‘revolutionized’ parliamentary opinion on economic subjects, and achieved a parliamentary influence greater than that of Smith, but he was responsible for ‘two great text-books of Socialism’, Das Kapital and Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, while at the same time doing more than ‘any other author to justify in the eyes of men the existing state of society’. Ricardo’s Principles, Toynbee said, was ‘at once the great prop of the middle classes, and their most terrible menace’. Perhaps for the first time, though certainly not the last, Ricardo was being held responsible for fathering children on both sides of the blanket – a good strategy for genetic survival, but also a confusing one. For radical liberals of Toynbee’s stamp, it was not entirely clear which of Ricardo’s children was the greater menace. Hence too Toynbee’s extraordinary lament over the failure by those whom he most admired among the later generation of political economists, notably John Stuart Mill, to emancipate themselves from the influence of Ricardo. It was a significant tragedy and the source of social hatred – a demonisation of Ricardo to match that practised on Malthus by the early romantics.
The episode can only be understood, perhaps, by recalling Toynbee’s impassioned plea for forgiveness on the part of the working classes – a plea that Beatrice Webb cited and echoed when she spoke of the ‘class-consciousness of sin’ experienced by her generation of middle-class reformers and social investigators in the 1880s and beyond. As in the case of Keynes’s equally extraordinary lament forty years later – ‘If only Malthus, instead of Ricardo, had been the parent stem from which nineteenth-century economics proceeded, what a much wiser and richer place the world would be today!’ – the underlying belief in the importance of economic theory and its influence on policy and social attitudes now seems as remarkable as the criticism. How could the mild-mannered Ricardo’s theorems on value, rent, wages, and profits, or his parliamentary speeches (described by some as though delivered by a man from Mars), be seen as so malevolent, let alone as so influential?
Toynbee was not alone in his Ricardo-fixation. Marx’s earlier and more profound encounter with classical political economy (bearing in mind that he actually coined this label) resulted in a similar fixation. Ricardo possessed all those qualities of ‘ruthless objectivity’ of which the bourgeois version of the science was capable before the battle between Capital and Labour had forced economists to choose a side, an event that Marx, rather conveniently, placed seven years after Ricardo’s death in 1823. Malthus was assigned the role of apologist for a landowner’s vision of capitalism, the upholder of a static, perhaps even backward-looking vision of agrarian society as an alternative to Ricardo’s more dynamic belief in industrial progress and free trade. The Ricardo fixation has been passed on to several generations of severely neo-classical economists, where the appeal lies in the aesthetic and other attractions of Ricardo’s deductive models. They are so attractive in fact that they have been formulated into a ‘canonical model’ by Paul Samuelson that includes Smith by Ricardianising him, while regretting Smith’s failure to come up to Ricardo’s more precise standards of analysis.
Once more Malthus has suffered most from these procedures: manifestly, he was neither Smith nor Ricardo, and the positions he adopted that were anti-Ricardian displeased not only Ricardo’s followers, including Marx and Mill, forming a powerful pincer movement, but all those who dislike the untidiness that comes from trying to mix political economy with theology, and theory with close attention to changing empirical evidence. Malthus did himself no good by continuing to revise his position on population and the Poor Laws in the light of new evidence over a period of 32 years – though from some points of view that is precisely what we ought to demand of those who purport to be empirical investigators. We should also bear in mind, however, that Malthus was not the isolated figure which his opposition to Ricardo suggests to conventional historians of political economy. Only by ignoring the large school of Christian political economists can this conclusion be sustained.
For a variety of reasons I have come to believe that the aggregating term ‘classical political economy’ has become an encumbrance. At the very least we ought to remember that the term was coined by Marx for his own purposes in displaying his relationship to his chosen predecessors, just as Keynes was to re-coin the same term for similar purposes later. In Keynes’s case it was to describe all those who had assumed that full employment was the normal state of affairs under capitalism. We need the term to understand Marx and Keynes, but their use of ‘classical’ may have little to do with what those being lumped together felt themselves to be doing and were in fact doing. Such remarks are only likely to be of interest to members of the history-of-economics guild in which I served my own apprenticeship as intellectual historian – a guild whose dues I may have ceased to pay. If I also say that another encumbrance when dealing with the so-called classical economists is the idea of an industrial revolution, that may appear to be more iconoclastic, given the traditional historiography. Yet that is my position: the industrial revolution has become a piece of excess baggage which does not help us to understand what is going on in the writings of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo and many of their contemporaries. In defending this position by means of what will have to be, for reasons of time and the limitations of my knowledge, some stylised facts of economic history, perhaps I should remind you that I too have made a convenient choice of an ending date for the earlier lectures in this series: 1834, the year in which the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed as well as the year in which both Malthus and Coleridge died.
If by ‘industrial revolution’ we mean an experience and an expectation of continuously rising living standards for the mass of society, then it could not be treated as an undisputed fact of life before the late 1820s and 1830s, by which time the starker generalisations of Malthus and Ricardo on the population peril were being qualified within the political economy community. The pre-industrial character of Smith’s interests is now well understood, and while we often hear about a consumer revolution taking place during the eighteenth century, its benefits to wage-earners and the populace at large were more the subject of hopes than celebration in the Wealth of Nations. Smith did believe that England had enjoyed two hundred years of prosperity since the reign of Elizabeth, but the most he was willing to claim for those who fed, lodged, and clothed the nation was that the wages of the common labourer were ‘no-where in this country regulated by [the] lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity’. Nor is it clear, by the expectations of the day, that he was saying much or little in making this statement.
Ricardo and Malthus had anxieties about the secular trend of food prices that have no real equivalent in Smith. They could see ways in which this agrarian bottleneck might be eased, but they remained hopes not achievements while the rate of population continued to be as fast as it was in the early decades of the century, and while the Poor Laws were unreformed and the Corn Laws remained in place. While I see no point in calling those who were proposing what they regarded as viable options pessimists, they had good grounds for only expressing qualified optimism. Indeed, since I am proposing the abandonment of a number of features of the old historiography, perhaps the overused distinction between optimists and pessimists should be added to the list. It is never entirely clear, when these terms are used, whether they refer to the reader’s reaction or the author’s position, which means that we get trapped in self-certifying circles when the reader has mistaken the author’s intent. One has to repeat the obvious fact that diagnoses based on worst-case scenarios are not remedies; they are the means, sometimes with polemical elements added, of suggesting viable solutions.
The charge of undue pessimism is a retrospective one based on the failure of Malthus and Ricardo to accord significance to technological change. As Samuelson put it: ‘They lived during the industrial revolution, but scarcely looked out from their libraries to notice the remaking of the world.’ Leaving aside the fact that they did not live their entire lives in libraries, there is the more important question of how they interpreted what they could see around them.
Although I have some quibbles with E. A. Wrigley’s treatment of Smith, Malthus, and Ricardo as a trio singing in tune, he has given what seems to me to be the best answer to this problem. In brief, what he has shown is that their expectations were based on an organic economy in which all forms of energy were animate or land-dependent. In such an economy, the main constraint on rising per capita incomes is posed by unchecked population growth and the possibilities of implementing land-saving technologies – including the ultimate ones of importing food and energy sources from other countries, or exporting people to those countries. Exponential growth in these circumstances proved difficult, perhaps even impossible to conceive, as a regular rather than fitful or highly contingent outcome. Escape from the constraints of such a world, as we know in hindsight, only came with the transition to an inorganic society, in which land was no longer the chief energy constraint. Failure or inability to foresee the possibilities of such an inorganic society, however, was compatible with the observation that Britain was increasingly becoming a manufacturing nation, with a rising proportion of its population living in new towns and working with new machinery to produce goods for foreign markets. But the facts of changing patterns of industry, whether as source of hope or despair, were still capable of being seen within the framework of Wrigley’s organic economy.
For Mill and Marx, and a fortiori, for Toynbee, it is more appropriate to speak of industrial revolution, whether seen as exponential growth, as social catastrophe, or both. Mill certainly saw it in this way in 1848 when he judged that ‘it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made had lightened the day’s toil of any human being’ – they had merely ‘enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes’. His desire to see the agenda shifted from economic growth towards redistribution and greater leisure flowed from this. Toynbee, following Mill, was earnestly seeking an accommodation between history and political economy that would provide the practical answers he was seeking. His early death prevented the union from coming to fruition; and he left a body of admirers whose sense of having sinned may have been as great, but whose interest in political economy was, indeed, of the Tom Tulliver variety. Beatrice Webb, for example, spent a miserable summer trying to come to terms with what, after all, was still the best-established branch of social science in England at the time. But her encounter with Ricardo and Marx left her convinced that something else was needed: a more comprehensive institutionalist science of society within which economics, a body of thinking which she believed was confined to profit-making organisations, would take a subordinate place. In common with a whole generation of later social and economic historians who dedicated themselves to the study of the industrial revolution and its consequences – with Richard Tawney, or J. L. and Barbara Hammond, for example – Beatrice Webb remained largely innocent of, where not actively hostile to classical political economy. The administrative appeal of its interventionist Benthamite partner was to prove far greater when she embraced Fabianism. It followed, though not as a matter of simple logic, that neither she nor Tawney and the Hammonds, fellow catastrophists, were open to conversion in the 1890s by Alfred Marshall’s revitalised, re-moralised, and re-christened version of the science of Economics, with or without its Darwinian or Spencerian trimmings. It also followed, this time more logically, that they were not impressed by Marshall’s related attempt to present the history of English economics as a seamless web stretching from Smith, Ricardo, and Mill to himself.
Despite Toynbee’s claims in the 1880s, therefore, the schism, or fault line, separating economists from the self-appointed spokesmen for human beings was still in being later in the nineteenth century. Southey’s early impressionistic criticisms of the new manufacturing towns in his pseudonymous Letters from England in 1807 acquired more statistical and descriptive detail in the parliamentary inquiries and blue books that were to become the staple diet of reformers and revolutionaries alike. The social costs of the industrial revolution became the focus of attention, as did the decidedly skewed nature of the distribution of its benefits. When Henry George used Poverty and Progress as the title of his work, it was to suggest the most un-Smithian, if not entirely un-Malthusian, of conclusions, namely that they went hand in hand. Whereas George maintained they would continue to do so while the private monopoly of land remained in place, Malthus had argued that they could do so if his diagnosis of population pressure went unheeded. Marx, of course, had reached George’s conclusion by a more profound analysis of the inexorable laws of capitalism that made considerable use of Ricardo’s labour theory of value. What Smith had said about the unequal distribution of efforts and rewards in his most tough-minded treatments of commercial society, minus what he had said about ‘a gradual descent of fortunes’ when comparing it with its feudal predecessor, was now translated into the more emotive language of exploitation and the drier language of statistical inquiry into the mal-distribution of wealth and income.
Malthus had recognised the perennial qualities of any debate about inequality in a world in which it would always be possible to point to trivial luxury at one end of the social scale and basic needs left unfulfilled at the other. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, the debate in Britain had acquired a colouration that differentiated it from eighteenth and early nineteenth-century discussions concentrating on an indolent landed aristocracy engaged, for good or ill, in luxurious and other forms of unproductive expenditure from their rental incomes, those noddy-headed classes who figured more among the spendthrift borrowers than the frugal lenders. Even Malthus, to whom such expenditure patterns were particularly significant as remedies for depression or as a means of maintaining stable growth, had glimpsed the possibilities opened up by the growth of the professional middle classes, fed by upward mobility and the downward movement of younger sons of the landowning classes thrust out by the laws of primogeniture.
The lives of those members of these classes who experienced a class-consciousness of sin, and perhaps especially those who did not, were often very comfortable. Their quality and standard of life depended to a large extent on their command over that most important category of ‘personal services’ at this time, domestic servants. The first generation of beneficiaries had mostly acquired these comforts by means of Smith’s frugality and prudence, the second through inheritance and receipt of rentier incomes derived from accumulated capital rather than land. In the 1890s Marshall could worry about patterns of expenditure which showed that consumption habits were not being matched to professional duties and styles of life. But as his pupil, Keynes, pointed out in the sketch that opened his Economic Consequences of the Peace, one of the extraordinary qualities of the pre-1914 world was that the middle classes had usually carried out their side of the Smithian bargain by reinvesting the results of their thrift productively.
The new rich of the nineteenth century were not brought up to large expenditures, and preferred the power which investment gave them to the pleasures of immediate consumption. In fact it was precisely the inequality of the distribution of wealth which made possible those vast accumulations of fixed wealth and of capital improvement which distinguish that age from all others. Herein lay, in fact, the main justification of the capitalist system. If the rich had spent their new wealth on their own enjoyments, that world would long ago have found such a regime intolerable. But like bees they saved and accumulated, not less to the advantage of the whole community because they themselves held narrower views in prospect.
In contriving to stretch the chain of overlapping conversations on riches and poverty from Mandeville to Malthus and on to Keynes, and thereby back to Mandeville’s bees, I could claim to have fulfilled my self-imposed task of tracing the history of a secret concatenation linking riches and poverty. You will have noticed, however, that I have not yet come to an end. I would like to close this lecture and the series to which it belongs by returning to the cultural schism, to what followers of Michel Foucault would undoubtedly call the ‘discursive rupture’ between human beings and economists, or more broadly between moral and scientific conversations. What I said about the eighteenth-century conversations involving Mandeville, Rousseau, Johnson, Hume, and Smith was meant to show that sharp differences over luxury and the expanding empire of self-interest were compatible with keeping the conversation going: it could take place within an author’s work as well as with other authors. The focus of attention in Malthus and, more especially, Ricardo, might appear to be narrower, but in spite of all the criticisms made of the ‘dismal science’ I would contend that it did not entail a break between moral and scientific concerns. After all, the point of any naturalistic search for laws of production and distribution of wealth was to suggest moral and political remedies, the criteria for which were every bit as humane as those proposed by their romantic opponents and often a good deal better conceived. I have to confess that I share Mill’s judgement that much of what Coleridge wrote on political economy was ‘arrant drivel’, but what I chiefly reject is the romantic claim to have attained automatic possession of the high moral ground on matters that are still not easy to resolve.
The self-conscious invention of ‘rational economic man’ and the firmer application of the normative/positive distinction by John Stuart Mill proved to be one of those defensive moves that misfired. Instead of being seen as an attempt to restrict the claims of the abstract science, it was treated as an imperialistic move to extend the realm of self-interested behaviour beyond its proper sphere. It gave some substance to the critics, though only, I would argue, from those who could not appreciate the role of hypothesis in science.
The case of Ricardo is more difficult. There is an element of truth in Toynbee’s charge that Ricardo’s deductions obscured facts. Ricardo’s hypothesis concerning rational economic behaviour was pretty close to his reading of the facts, as the following quotation from a letter to Malthus on prolonged post-war depression illustrates:
The difficulty of finding employment for Capital... proceeds from the prejudices and obstinacy with which men persevere in their old employments, – they expect daily a change for the better, and therefore continue to produce commodities for which there is no adequate demand. With abundance of capital and a low price of labour there cannot fail to be some employments which would yield good profits, and if a superior genius had the arrangement of the capital of the country under his controul [sic], he might, in a very little time, make trade as active as ever. Men err in their productions, there is no deficiency of demand.
Human error in failing to respond to market signals as speedily as might have taken place on the stock exchange, where Ricardo first learned (and prospered from) practical economics, lay at the heart of problems. Ricardo displayed the same attitude towards the adjustments required in response to tighter monetary discipline. If it were not for some unfortunate associations between Ricardo and Marx, I have always thought that less damage to history would have been inflicted if the Adam Smith Institute had chosen to call itself the David Ricardo Institute.
If I had to supply a date for the origin of the schism, it would predate Ricardo: it would be some time after Coleridge decided that Malthus’s attack on Godwin’s post-economic speculations had to be destroyed as an enemy to any proper conception of what constituted a moral society. After a couple more decades of ritual insults, Coleridge had marshalled some powerful philosophical dichotomies to police the division between his own vision and that of the political economists. The Organicism of the Coleridgean Idea had to be separated from self-interested Individualism, Idealism from Empiricism, the universalism of Kantian Reason from circumstantial Understanding, Platonism from Aristotelianism, Cultivation from Civilisation, Worth from Value, Welfare from Wealth, and so on.
Mill was one of the few persons to attempt a bridge-building exercise across these binary oppositions based on his knowledge of both sides. What is equally apparent, however, is that Mill’s efforts did not result in the building of any permanent bridge capable of bearing traffic across the divide. Where Coleridge and Southey had led, Carlyle, Ruskin, and their nineteenth and twentieth-century admirers followed, often doing so with the same wilful disregard for what their chosen antagonists were actually saying. Mill’s essays on Coleridge and Bentham as the seminal intellects of the age are better read as statements of the difference than as resolutions of it. Indeed, he helped to raise the differences to a new height by speaking of them as a revolt of the nineteenth century, as represented by the Germano-Coleridgean school, against the eighteenth century as represented by Bentham and his father; and since he referred to his father as ‘the last of the eighteenth century’ an awkward Oedipal element has always been suspected.
Mill performed more practical services in his Principles of Political Economy in 1848 by opening up the subject to a number of new ideas that included socialism, while closing the door on the paternalistic version of it espoused by Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and (later) Ruskin. The working classes could not be subjected to the ‘leading strings’ of an aristocratic polity, however humanely exercised. Mill believed that the working classes were more likely to educate themselves for the role of self-management before their social betters were fitted to exercise paternal responsibilities. Mill’s only reward from the spokesmen for the literary or moral side of the schism was to be treated as Ruskin’s whipping boy in Unto This Last. Equally ironic perhaps is the fact that by writing on Coleridge, Mill earned himself a place in the writings of two twentieth-century spokesmen, F. R. Leavis and Raymond Williams, for the literary-moral diagnosis of the industrial revolution as the root of all that was corrupt about a modern ‘technologico-Benthamite’ world. Without this, I doubt if he would have rated a mention, except as yet another dreaded utilitarian, as part of the canon of protest to be found in Leavis’s introduction to Mill’s essay on Coleridge and rehearsed at greater length in William’s Culture and Society.
There are some more straightforward ways of characterising the two sides than those provided by Coleridge’s philosophical dualisms. The simplest of all, and not necessarily the worst, is a division between Whigs and Tories that was eventually to become one between Liberals and Conservatives. Macaulay’s well-known attack on Southey’s Colloquies provides a good marker for this difference:
Mr. Southey’s political system is just what we might expect from a man who regards politics, not as matter of science, but as matter of taste and feeling... Here are the principles on which nations are to be governed. Rose bushes and poor-rates, rather than steam engines and independence. Mortality and cottages with weather-stains, rather than health and long life with edifices which time cannot mellow.... It is not by the intermeddling of Mr. Southey’s idol, the omniscient and omnicompetent State, but by the prudence and energy of the people, that England has hitherto been carried forward in civilisation.... Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment, by maintaining peace, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and by observing strict economy in every department of the state. Let the Government do this: the People will assuredly do the rest.
Macaulay’s contrast is between the gloom and nostalgia of Southey and his own concern with progress and enlightenment: ‘rose bushes and poor rates’ against ‘steam engines and improvement’. But while the charge of nostalgia is most colourfully developed here, it may be that the difference over the role of the state and the promise held out by technical change is more profound. Alternative visions of national greatness and the means of achieving it were what was basically at stake.
Another aspect of the Whig-Tory split that helps to explain what is going on can be found in one of Coleridge’s more interesting accusations against political economy, namely that it not only created class divisions where harmony was needed, but that it had a tendency to ‘denationalise mankind, and to make love of country a foolish superstition’. There is something to be said for that, if only because it captures the cosmopolitan dimension imparted by Smith which served to inspire Paine. Free trade as the pacific and unifying influence on the peoples of the world also became a matter of religion for Richard Cobden and the Manchester School. Even Malthus, though hesitant over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1815, would have shared Ricardo’s belief that it was one solution to the problem of rising food costs. For Tories like Coleridge and Southey, however, cosmopolitanism was denationalising, an enemy of patriotism, of the loyalism they associated with national self-sufficiency, military preparedness, Christian paternalism, and the Protestant ascendancy, for which Conservatism, after Catholic emancipation at least, had become the most convenient label.
The only trouble with a Whig/Tory characterisation of the split is that it leaves out of account the fact that many of Malthus’s Christian followers were liberal Tories. And where does one put an ultra-Tory like Thomas de Quincey, the scourge of the Lake poets on political economy and a fervent admirer of Ricardian logic? Perhaps no scheme could accommodate such a maverick. Strangely enough, another inconvenient fact, that many of the most vocal critics of political economy were decidedly on the left of any political spectrum, is more readily encompassed. Thompson, in his Making of the English Working Class, noted that ‘sparks of fellow feeling’ were frequently exchanged between economic Jacobins and romantic ultra-Tories. Indeed, the Englishness of his own brand of Marxism was closely connected with his sympathies with romanticism. Thompson was equally clear that the sparks were exchanged across a bleak space inhabited by middle-class Whigs and radicals, represented by an indiscriminate, certainly undiscriminated bunch of Benthamites and political economists. I do not accept Thompson’s underlying assumption that the identity of ideas conforms with what can be attributed to them on the basis of class location and supposed ideological import, but he certainly provided another way of describing, and by describing, perpetuating, the schism.
Let me try another tack. Could there be a simple confusion between self-interest and selfishness, or some discomfort about making the distinction? No educated eighteenth-century reader – at least, not those who could see through Mandeville’s teasing sophistry – would be guilty of confusing self-interested behaviour with selfish behaviour. My friend and ex-collaborator, Stefan Collini, has argued in his excellent book on Public Moralists that the Victorians seem to have lacked an earlier confidence that the distinction could be sustained: hence the fear of the stigma of egoism in moral questions which lies behind the enthusiasm with which they adopted Comte’s coinage of ‘altruism’ as its virtuous opposite.
To this can be added another observation based on a different cast: the twentieth century had its own problems in coming to terms with Smith’s assumption that the desire for self-betterment came with us from the cradle to the grave. We appear to have had difficulties in accepting that economic self-seeking is a natural activity, one that may need to be controlled when it leads to anti- or a-social activities, but not something that requires special legitimation. I cited Max Weber’s statement on the subject in an earlier lecture. An English and Anglican version of the same idea underlies Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.
Karl Polanyi, the anthropologist and social historian, in his work on The Great Transformation, treated Smith’s assumption as ‘apocryphal’. Market behaviour was a recent invention in social history – an invention for which Smith was held largely responsible. This lay behind Polanyi’s critical concept of a ‘disembedded’ market society, with the new Poor Law playing a decisive role in creating the market for labour. In more recent times, the French anthropologist, Louis Dumont, in his work on homo equalis, the Western inversion of homo hierarchicus, has also assigned to Smith much the same creative role. It forms part of his argument to the effect that it is merely westerners’ hubris to treat their own form of society as some kind of necessary goal for all societies. The route from status to contract, from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft is not a natural one. Since both Polanyi and Dumont make so much turn on crucial moves in intellectual history seen as an enabling ideology, their interpretations are more open to challenge from people such as myself than they would have been if based on the actual historical and anthropological record. I can only say that the idea of Smith espousing a ‘disembedded’ market society is faintly preposterous, a sign that the Theory of Moral Sentiments has been completely ignored.
Although Smith may not have helped matters by failing to be as explicit about the connections between the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations as we would like him to have been, the original German version of Das Adam Smith Problem is interesting only as an example of how such a mistake could gain credence. Other versions of the problem come and go, but unless one treats Smith as a self-deceiving schizophrenic, one should expect what he says about human motivation in both works to be compatible. What he says about prudence or self-interested behaviour in the Theory of Moral Sentiments is that, while it is far too common a feature of human nature to be problematic, by the same token it merely commands a ‘cold esteem’. Compared with other rarer and more difficult human motives or attributes connected with benevolence, public spiritedness, or the sacrifice of personal interest and safety, it required little explanation and no social reinforcement. As he said, with customary Scottish wryness: ‘We are not ready to suspect any person of being defective in selfishness, this is by no means the weak side of human nature, or the failing of which we are apt to be suspicious.’
A society based purely on mercantile and contractual arrangements was possible, but it was also, unsurprisingly, ‘less happy and agreeable’ than one in which other virtues were cultivated as well. Given Smith’s point of departure, what needed to be explained was how the progress of opulence had been retarded or distorted, rather than how it ever got launched, or how it might be legitimated once launched. Having become social reality, the next move was to draw up a clinical balance sheet of gains and losses so that the losses could be minimized. I am not suggesting that what was unproblematic to Smith should remain so to ourselves, faced with our own forms of the social reality of a market-based society. I am objecting to the business of viewing Smith through the narrower lenses of some of his successors and visiting on him problems to which he could give perfectly cogent answers.
Having made these observations about the schism I must confess to a sense of failure in not being able to put my finger more precisely on the underlying cultural reasons for the long history of misunderstanding which began with the romantic attack on Malthus. We might be able to grasp why Carlyle chose to foster onto the political economists all his dislike of modern Mammonism and a non-heroic world characterised by laissez-faire and the cash nexus, but this does not explain his apparent success in so doing. The messenger being blamed for the message he brings is itself a familiar message, but it does not answer for all that was said, and why it continued to be said so repetitively. Another reason could be found in popular versions of political economy that began with the enormously successful works of Mrs. Marcet and Harriet Martineau, and were continued in the various schoolbook versions of the science that were disseminated. Some responsibility for the public image also attaches to those mid-Victorian politicians who constantly invoked the laws of political economy in unqualified fashion in defence of the status quo. Robert Lowe, Gladstone’s first Chancellor of the Exchequer, is the best example of such a doctrinaire. But any number of such political die-hards of the Lowe variety cannot account for Ruskin’s decision to reward John Stuart Mill’s efforts as attempted intermediary in the way that he did, namely by what often amounts to an exercise in wilful misunderstanding.
My conclusion is that the Nature/Culture borderline cynically opened up by Mandeville and explored with increasing sensitivity by Malthus is one that continues to arouse powerful feelings. Darwin’s appropriation of the Malthusian population principle when propounding his theory of natural selection gave Malthusianism a second life in the biological sciences, and hence, by re-importation, in the social sciences towards the end of the nineteenth century. It also earned him more brickbats, though in the first instance it was Darwin who found himself tarred with the Malthusian brush. One of his early critics, Samuel Haughton, said of the Origin of the Species that ‘this notable argument is borrowed from Malthus’s doctrine of Population, and will, no doubt find acceptance with those Political Economists and Pseudo-Philosophers who reduce all the law of action and human thought habitually to the lowest and most sordid motives’. Neither Darwin nor Malthus can be accused of misunderstanding the essential differences between the natural and moral universes. But the joint attack on them by Haughton created the bond that Darwin recognised in a letter to Charles Lyell in 1860:
What has Haughton done that he feels so immeasurably superior to all us wretched naturalists and to all political economists, including the great philosopher Malthus.... It consoles me that he sneers at Malthus, for that clearly shows, mathematician though he may be, he cannot understand common reasoning. By the way, what a discouraging example Malthus is to show, during what long years the plainest case may be misrepresented and misunderstood.
By a process of transference, the realm of the economic became assimilated to that of Nature as against Culture, more attractive to those who were at ease with the kind of non-exclusive yet clearly naturalistic approach to human affairs exemplified by Hume and Smith. By contrast, it was hated (again, the word is not too strong) by all those, following William Blake’s early example, who regarded any confusion of the world of man with that discovered by Newton, and later by Darwin, as anathema. Naturalism entailed for such critics an abandonment of moral judgement; it could never be what it was for Malthus, a basis for improving such judgements.
But it would be an odd fate if the earlier political economists should suffer from being seen through the narrower vision of later, more professional forms of economic inquiry: a case of the sins of the children being visited on their great-grandparents. Yet it has to be admitted that this could have something to do with the perpetuation of misunderstandings: the professional habits of doctrinal historians writing solely for fellow-economists have not helped matters. The history of economics, written in this fashion, has become, at best, a rite de passage for economists – though, ironically, most of them can now, with some justification, avoid the rite altogether. The consequence is that the history of economics, though not immune from current fashion, has yet to experience fully the liberation enjoyed by historians of natural science once they realised that their subject matter was too interesting to be left to incompetent or retired scientists; that its province was not restricted to what still seemed most relevant, however temporarily, to modern practitioners. It is hard to imagine, for example, that any history of the biological sciences before and after Darwin’s Origin of the Species could be written without reference to Paleyite natural theology. Yet mention of this in histories of economic thought that deal with Malthus, where Paley’s influence is at least as strong, is a rarity, possibly even an embarrassment. A personal anecdote may make this clear: I sent an article on Malthus’s theology to a leading historian of economic theory to which he replied on a postcard saying that I had convinced him that Malthus’s economics could not be understood without reference to his theology, adding, however, ‘So much the worse for Malthus, say I’.
Such attitudes have left the field clear for do-it-yourself accounts of economic ideas written by those whose main sympathies lie with the opposition. It is hardly surprising, then, that one is frequently faced with a choice between two caricatures: a narrowly anachronistic one produced for professional consumption, and a more sinister ideological one that adopts the often mistaken impressions of one group of the historical protagonists. In bending the bow the other way when dealing with my political economists in these lectures, I hope I have not replied in kind. Although historians are under no obligation to resolve past disputes, there does appear to be a need for a form of intellectual history that combines sympathy with enough distance to ensure that we do not simply perpetuate previous misrepresentations. That, at least, has been one of the articles of faith underlying these lectures, to which I would add one final thought: the history of any of the attempts to build social sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is far more amorphous, far more interesting, than you might gather from those accounts which refuse to consider the connections with other forms of inquiry.
John Burrow’s Carlyle lectures, given in 1985, were published as Whigs and Liberals; Continuity and Change in English Political Thought (Oxford, 1985). His remarks on ‘eavesdropping’ can be found in ‘The Languages of the Past and the Language of the Historian; The History of Ideas in Theory and Practice’, John Coffin Memorial Lecture, 1987. Quentin Skinner’s Carlyle lectures on the political theory of Machiavelli, given in 1980, were published as Machiavelli (Oxford, 1981). One convenient source of his views on the historiography of political ideas can be found in J. Tully (ed), Meaning and Context; Quentin Skinner and his Critics (Oxford, 1988). As indicated in the Preface, a fuller version of the argument in these lectures, together with detailed bibliographic references, can be found in Riches and Poverty; An Intellectual History of Political Economy in Britain, 1750-1834(Cambridge, 1996). All quotations from the main authors are taken from the authoritative editions of their collected works: for example, the Glasgow edition of Adam Smith’s writings, the Yale edition of Samuel Johnson’s, and the Royal Economic Society editions of Malthus, Ricardo, and Keynes.
Lecture 1. Overhearing Conversations, Political and Social Scientific
Coleridge’s distinction between his concern with ‘persons’ and the political economists’ concern with ‘things’ can be found in his Lay Sermons. Southey’s contrast between ‘political’ and ‘moral’ economy was first expressed in his Common-Place Book. How a nineteenth-century science of politics survived the advent of more deterministic social sciences is one of the themes explored in Collini, Winch, and Burrow, That Noble Science of Politics (Cambridge, 1983). Marx’s remarks on Burke can be found in Capital, as can his accusation of plagiarism against Smith. Smith’s definition of political economy as ‘a branch of the science of statesman or legislator’ comes at the beginning of Book IV of the Wealth of Nations. Frank Ramsey’s talk on ‘Is there anything left to discuss?’ can be read as part of J. M. Keynes’s essay on Ramsey in Essays in Biography, The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes (Cambridge for the Royal Economic Society, 2010), [JMK below] volume X.
Lecture 2. Mandeville, Rousseau and the Paradox in Favour of Luxury
Mandeville’s writings are contained within F. B. Kaye’s classic two-volume edition of The Fable of the Bees (Oxford, 1924). Of the many secondary works on Mandeville the two that have most influenced my own understanding are E. J. Hundert’s The Enlightenment’s Fable; Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society (Cambridge, 1994); and Dario Castiglione, ‘Excess, Frugality and the Spirit of Capitalism: Readings of Mandeville on Commercial Society’, in J. Melling and J. Barry (eds), Culture in History; Production, Consumption and Values in Historical Perspective (Exeter, 1992). Hayek’s recovery of Mandeville is reported in the Proceedings of the British Academy, 1967. Johnson’s confession of having had his eyes opened by reading Mandeville is reported in Boswell’s Life. Hume on assuming that we are all knaves in politics can be found in his essay ‘That Politics may be Reduced to a Science’. On modern French social scientific appreciations of eighteenth-century authors see Emil Durkheim, Montesquieu and Rousseau, Forerunners of Sociology (Michigan, 1960); and Claude Levi-Strauss, ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau, fondateur des sciences de l’homme’, Anthropologie structurale II (Plon, 1962).
Lecture 3. Adam Smith and the Oeconomy of Greatness
The importance of approaching Smith via Hume was first clearly argued by Duncan Forbes in Hume’s Philosophical Politics (Cambridge, 1975) and was followed up by Donald Winch in Adam Smith’s Politics; An Essay in Historiographic Revision(Cambridge, 1978); and by Knud Haakonssen in The Science of a Legislator; the Natural Jurisprudence of David Hume and Adam Smith (Cambridge, 1981). The issues raised by Smith’s treatment of ‘mental mutilation’ and ‘durable magnificence’ are discussed in Adam Smith’s Politics.
Lecture 4. Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Factious Citizens
The quotations from Burke are mostly taken from the Oxford edition of his writings and speeches edited by Paul K. Langford. The book by David Willetts mentioned here is Modern Conservatism (London, 1992). Smith’s private advice on the likely outcome of the American Revolution was contained in a letter to Alexander Wedderburn, Lord North’s Solicitor General in 1778, reprinted in the Glasgow edition of Smith’s Correspondence. The work by John Pocock mentioned here is ‘The Political Economy of Burke’s Analysis of the French Revolution’ in his Virtue, Commerce, and History (Cambridge, 1985). The closing remarks on comparisons between the role of political economy in Britain and the United States were prompted by Joyce Oldham Appleby, Capitalism and the New Social Order (New York, 1984).
Lecture 5. Malthus, Godwin, and Condorcet: Inequality and Post-Economic Society
John Stuart Mill’s speculations about a zero-growth society can be found in his Principles of Political Economy (London, 1848), Book V, chapter 6. Keynes’s ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’ is in his Essays in Persuasion, JMK, volume IX. For Coleridge on ‘permanency’ and ‘nationalty’ see his On the Constitution of Church and State(1830). Hazlitt’s essay on Malthus can be found in Spirit of the Age (Oxford, 1904). Marx’s views on Malthus are collected together in R. L.Meek (ed), Marx and Engels on Malthus (London, 1953). For Keynes on Malthus see his Essays in Biography, JMK, volume X. For studies of Christian political economy see Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement; the Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785-1865 (Oxford, 1988); and A. M. C. Waterman, Revolution, Economics and Religion,(Cambridge, 1991).
Lecture 6. Economists versus Human Beings
More detail on some of the bibliographic sources used in this lecture can be found in the appendix on ‘Mr Gradgrind and Jerusalem’ in Donald Winch, Wealth and Life (Cambridge, 2009), especially on F. R. Leavis, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson. The work cited on ‘moral economy’ by Thompson can be found in Customs in Common (London, 1991), but The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963) is the main source of the argument. Beatrice Webb’s confession of sin was made in My Apprenticeship (Cambridge, 1979). Keynes’s comparison of Malthus and Ricardo can be found in his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) in JMK, volume VII. Paul Samuelson’s overarching model was expounded in ‘The Canonical Classical Model of Political Economy’, Journal of Economic Literature, 16, 4, 1978. E. A. Wrigley’s interpretation of the industrial revolution can be found in ‘The Classical Economists and the Industrial Revolution’, in People, Cities and Wealth (Oxford, 1987); see too his Continuity, Chance and Change (Cambridge, 1988). The quotation from Keynes comes from his Economic Consequences of the Peace in JMK, volume II. Mill’s judgment on Coleridge can be found in his essay on him; see too his Autobiography on the contrast between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinking. On ‘leading strings’ see ‘On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes’ in his Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, chapter 7. For Ricardo’s letters see the Royal Economic Society edition of his Works and Correspondence (Cambridge, 1952-1973), volumes 6 to 9. Macaulay’s review of Southey’s Colloquies can be found in most editions of his Essays. Ruskin and Marshall are considered as late nineteenth-century contributors to the quarrel between economists and human beings in Wealth and Life.
Donald Winch is Emeritus Professor of Intellectual History at Sussex University, where he taught from 1963 to 2000. He was educated originally as an economist, first at the London School of Economics and then at Princeton University, returning to Britain to take up posts, first at Edinburgh University, and then at Sussex.
Intellectual history was a distinctive undergraduate major at Sussex. Research in the field was greatly enhanced when John Burrow became the first holder of the chair in the subject in 1969, supported during the 1970s and 80s by Stefan Collini. For about two decades they were Winch’s closest colleagues and collaborators. As a trio they wrote That Noble Science of Politics (1983), a work based on their collaboration as teachers that was widely regarded as the manifesto for a ‘Sussex School’.
Winch has written on the history of economic thought during the ‘classical’ period and during what might be called the Keynesian era in the twentieth century, chiefly Economics and Policy; An Historical Study (1969) and (with Susan Howson) The Economic Advisory Council, 1930-1939 (1976). The emphasis in these works was mostly on the connections between theory, policy, and public debate. Since then, however, he has written on a wider range of themes, beginning with Adam Smith’s Politics (1978) and a study of Malthus (1987) as demographer and political moralist.
In retirement Winch completed an ambitious project for writing the intellectual history of political economy from the middle of the eighteenth century to the outbreak of the First World War. The first installment had appeared as Riches and Poverty (1996). It was followed by a volume edited with Patrick K. O’Brien entitled The Political Economy of British Historical Experience, 1688-1914 (2002); and the sequence was completed by Wealth and Life (2009).
Winch was elected to Fellowship of the British Academy in 1987 and served as its Vice-President in 1992/3. In 2007 he was elected as a Distinguished Fellow of the History of Economics Society and in 2012 as an Honorary Member of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought.
Copyright © 2015 Donald Winch
This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence. This licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared with others, as long as attribution is credited to the original. The content may not be re-used commercially or altered in any way, including re-use of only extracts or parts. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/.
First published April 2015.
Rounded Globe is an open access publishing venture situated on the border between scholarly research and the reading public. Our goal is to disseminate accessible scholarship beyond the borders of the academic world.
Accessibility has two sides: our ebooks are free from jargon and narrow disciplinary focus; and they are released under a legal license that allows readers to download an ebook for free if they cannot afford to purchase it.
For a list of our titles please visit our website, roundedglobe.com.