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October 30, 2006



Mmm, and then Wotsname Young told us in The Rise of the Meritocracy that people who are already of that nature will self-select for that sort of work. Or was that Orwell? Or Huxley? Anyway, I dare say the truth lies somewhere in between. Perhaps television was introduced to ensure that we never ran out of people of that nature?

Gavin Kennedy

Smith on the division of labour, as on many other subjects, presents a more nuanced view of the subject than the simple pin factory and what you describe as ‘stupidity’.

First, the pin factory (WN I.i.3: pages 14-15) he quoted, and the other one he visited, were an example of one aspect of the division of labour; the other example was much richer in content and its implications as an example of the inter-sectoral division of labour, which he illustrated with the many contributors to the production of a ‘day labourer’s woollen coat’ (WN I.i.11 ; pages 22-23 ). This brought scores of people into contact through many transactions across the country and the world.

Second, your references to the ‘stupidity’ problem may be missing the context in which he wrote the quotation (WN V.i.f.50: pages 781-2), namely ‘Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth’ pages 758-81).

In these pages he is advocating an expansion of education provision beyond the levels and extent provided for in England (and to some extent in practice in Scotland) and is marshalling all the arguments he can from the history of Classical Greece and Rome to convince his readers that ‘public expense’ in educating children of the poor is worth the money, if for no other reason that the threat to stability.

As many of the uneducated poor went to work around aged 6+ and not to school, as things stood in the mid-18th century (and ever thus before then) his case (in the tradition of classical rhetoric) is focused on the strategic consequences for national stability if attention is not paid to the problem of a nation in which the bulk of its citizens were: ‘incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation', not 'of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life’, to which he adds further in the paragraph (not quoted) that it ‘renders’ him incapable of ‘the life of a soldier’ and ‘defending his country’.

His view clearly was aimed at loosening the purse strings for education investment from the upper ranks of society to the poorest children, not by the effects on the minds of people involved, but of the consequences of ignorance if nothing was done to deal with it.

In short, it was a colourful case he presented for education using the division of labour at the micro-level as the rhetorical lever. He did not call for an end to the division of labour, because that would reduce Britain to the living standards of before the Roman legions, or even to the savage lives led by the ‘Indian’ inhabitants of North America.

He was well aware being connected through his mother’s family with many farmers and their labourers, the latter not being, what you might say, highly educated, with sharp minds and adventuresome from their labours in the fields.

I think it wholly appropriate that Smith’s contribution of the division of labour as central to his report on what made some nations richer than others, in terms of the annual production of wealth, i.e., the ‘necessaries and conveniences of life’.

He was by no means the first or only philosopher to identify the role of the division of labour (Plato, Petty, and so on), but he made it a major part of his analysis of the nature and causes of wealth.

james higham

I felt he was being honoured more for his clarity of thinking and contribution to economic thought than for anything else.

Bob B

Can we look forward to later bank notes appropriating celebrating Ricardo, Thornton, JS Mill, Alfred Marshall, Pigou and Maynard Keynes?

Paul Evans

Send me any £20 notes that offend you Chris. I'll have a use for them.


I agree with James, and I think it's fantastic that the treatise they chose to highlight considers both the economic and social considerations. I also agree with Paul. I want one.

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