The Wealth of Nations: Adam Smith – Part One

Wealth of Nations

Book I: Of the Causes of Improvement in the productive Powers of Labour
Of the Division of Labour: Division of labour has caused a greater increase in production than any other factor. This diversification is greatest for nations with more industry and improvement, and is responsible for “universal opulence” in those countries. Agriculture is less amenable than industry to division of labour; hence, rich nations are not so far ahead of poor nations in agriculture as in industry.

Of the Principle which gives Occasion to the Division of Labour: Division of labour arises not from innate wisdom, but from humans’ propensity to barter. The apparent difference in natural talents between people is a result of specialisation, rather than any innate cause.

That the Division of Labour is Limited by the Extent of the Market: Limited opportunity for exchange discourages division of labour. Because “water-carriage” extends the market, division of labour, with its improvements, comes earliest to cities near waterways. Civilization began around the highly navigable Mediterranean Sea…

Of the Origin and Use of Money: With division of labour, the produce of one’s own labour can fill only a small part of one’s needs. Different commodities have served as a common medium of exchange, but all nations have finally settled on metals, which are durable and divisible, for this purpose. Before coinage, people had to weigh and assay with each exchange, or risk “the grossest frauds and impositions.” Thus nations began stamping metal, on one side only, to ascertain purity, or on all sides, to stipulate purity and amount. The quantity of real metal in coins has diminished, due to the “avarice and injustice of princes and sovereign states,” enabling them to pay their debts in appearance only, and to the defraudment of creditors.

Of the Real and Nominal Price of Commodities, or of their Price in Labour, and their Price in Money: In the first two passages Smith gives two conflicting definitions of the relative value of a commodity. Ricardo responded to one of Smith’s inconsistencies in the Preface of his “Principles”:

The writer, in combating received opinions, has found it necessary to advert more particularly to those passages in the writings of Adam Smith from which he sees reason to differ; but he hopes it will not, on that account, be suspected that he does not, in common with all those who acknowledge the importance of the science of Political Economy, participate in the admiration which the profound work of this celebrated author so justly excites.
Adam Smith defines the value of commodities by the labour embedded and also by the labour a good commands. Ricardo agrees with the first definition:

“The real price of every thing,” says Adam Smith, “What every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What every thing is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it, or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people. That this is really the foundation of the exchangeable value of all things, excepting those which cannot be increased by human industry, is a doctrine of the utmost importance in political economy.”

For Ricardo, the value of reproducible commodities and services reflects the relative difficulties of production counted in labour units: direct labour plus the dated labour of the past embedded in inputs (capital) and corrected by interests. This differs from Smith’s[3] second definition of value:

“The value of any commodity … is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.”
Ricardo disagrees:

“Adam Smith, who so accurately defined the original source of exchangeable value … speaks of things being more or less valuable, in proportion as they will exchange for more or less of this standard measure. … [N]ot the quantity of labour bestowed on the production of any object, but the quantity which it can command in the market: as if these were two equivalent expressions…”
Smith’s second definition pleases neoclassical economists, who determine value by the utility that a commodity provides a person rather than cost of production as do classical economists.

Of the Component Parts of the Price of Commodities: Smith argues that the price of any product reflects wages, rent of land and “…profit of stock,” which compensates the capitalist for risking his resources.

Of the Natural and Market Price of Commodities:

“When the quantity of any commodity which is brought to market falls short of the effectual demand, all those who are willing to pay… cannot be supplied with the quantity which they want… Some of them will be willing to give more. A competition will begin among them, and the market price will rise… When the quantity brought to market exceeds the effectual demand, it cannot be all sold to those who are willing to pay the whole value of the rent, wages and profit, which must be paid in order to bring it thither… The market price will sink…”
To paraphrase Smith, and the first part of this Chapter, when demand exceeds supply, the price goes up. When the supply exceeds demand, the price goes down.

He then goes on to comment on the different avenues that people can take to generate a larger profit than normal. Some of those include: finding a commodity that few others have that allows for a high profit, and being able to keep that secret; Finding a way to produce a unique commodity (The dyer who discovers a unique dye). He also states that the former usually has a short lifespan of high profitability, and the latter has a longer. He also notes that a monopoly is essentially the same as the dyers trade secret, and can thus lead to high profitability for a long time by keeping the supply below the effectual demand.

“A monopoly granted either to an individual or to a trading company has the same effect as a secret in trade or manufactures. The monopolists, by keeping the market constantly understocked, by never fully supplying the effectual demand, sell their commodities much above the natural price, and raise their emoluments, whether they consist in wages or profit, greatly above their natural rate. The price of monopoly is upon every occasion the highest which can be got. The natural price, or the price of free competition, on the contrary, is the lowest which can be taken, not upon every occasion, indeed, but for any considerable time together. The one is upon every occasion the highest which can be squeezed out of the buyers, or which, it is supposed, they will consent to give: the other is the lowest which the sellers can commonly afford to take, and at the same time continue their business.”
Of the Wages of Labour: In this section, Smith describes how the wages of labour are dictated primarily by the competition among labourers and masters. When labourers bid against one another for limited opportunities for employment, the wages of labour collectively fall, whereas when employers compete against one another for limited supplies of labour, the wages of labour collectively rise. However, this process of competition is often circumvented by combinations among labourers and among masters. When labourers combine and no longer bid against one another, their wages rise, whereas when masters combine, wages fall. In Smith’s day, organised labour was dealt with very harshly by the law.

Smith himself wrote about the “severity” of such laws against worker actions, and made a point to contrast the “clamour” of the “masters” against workers associations, while associations and collusions of the masters “are never heard by the people” though such actions are “always” and “everywhere” taking place:

“We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate […] Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy till the moment of execution; and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people”. In contrast, when workers combine, “the masters […] never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen.”

In societies where the amount of labour exceeds the amount of revenue available for waged labour, competition among workers is greater than the competition among employers, and wages fall. Inversely, where revenue is abundant, labour wages rise. Smith argues that, therefore, labour wages only rise as a result of greater revenue disposed to pay for labour. Smith thought labour the same as any other commodity in this respect:

“the demand for men, like that for any other commodity, necessarily regulates the production of men; quickens it when it goes on too slowly, and stops it when it advances too fast. It is this demand which regulates and determines the state of propagation in all the different countries of the world, in North America, in Europe, and in China; which renders it rapidly progressive in the first, slow and gradual in the second, and altogether stationary in the last.”
However, the amount of revenue must increase constantly in proportion to the amount of labour for wages to remain high. Smith illustrates this by juxtaposing England with the North American colonies. In England, there is more revenue than in the colonies, but wages are lower, because more workers flock to new employment opportunities caused by the large amount of revenue— so workers eventually compete against each other as much as they did before. By contrast, as capital continues to flow to the colonial economies at least at the same rate that population increases to “fill out” this excess capital, wages there stay higher than in England.

Smith was highly concerned about the problems of poverty. He writes:

“poverty, though it does not prevent the generation, is extremely unfavourable to the rearing of children […] It is not uncommon […] in the Highlands of Scotland for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two alive […] In some places one half the children born die before they are four years of age; in many places before they are seven; and in almost all places before they are nine or ten. This great mortality, however, will every where be found chiefly among the children of the common people, who cannot afford to tend them with the same care as those of better station.”
The only way to determine whether a man is rich or poor is to examine the amount of labour he can afford to purchase. “Labour is the real exchange for commodities”.

Smith also describes the relation of cheap years and the production of manufactures versus the production in dear years. He argues that while some examples, such as the linen production in France, show a correlation, another example in Scotland shows the opposite. He concludes that there are too many variables to make any statement about this.

Of the Profits of Stock: In this chapter, Smith uses interest rates as an indicator of the profits of stock. This is because interest can only be paid with the profits of stock, and so creditors will be able to raise rates in proportion to the increase or decrease of the profits of their debtors.

Smith argues that the profits of stock are inversely proportional to the wages of labour, because as more money is spent compensating labour, there is less remaining for personal profit. It follows that, in societies where competition among labourers is greatest relative to competition among employers, profits will be much higher. Smith illustrates this by comparing interest rates in England and Scotland. In England, government laws against usury had kept maximum interest rates very low, but even the maximum rate was believed to be higher than the rate at which money was usually loaned. In Scotland, however, interest rates are much higher. This is the result of a greater proportion of capitalists in England, which offsets some competition among labourers and raises wages.

However, Smith notes that, curiously, interest rates in the colonies are also remarkably high (recall that, in the previous chapter, Smith described how wages in the colonies are higher than in England). Smith attributes this to the fact that, when an empire takes control of a colony, prices for a huge abundance of land and resources are extremely cheap. This allows capitalists to increase his profit, but simultaneously draws many capitalists to the colonies, increasing the wages of labour. As this is done, however, the profits of stock in the mother country rise (or at least cease to fall), as much of it has already flocked offshore.

Of Wages and Profit in the Different Employments of Labour and Stock: Smith repeatedly attacks groups of politically aligned individuals who attempt to use their collective influence to manipulate the government into doing their bidding. At the time, these were referred to as “factions,” but are now more commonly called “special interests,” a term that can comprise international bankers, corporate conglomerations, outright oligopolies, trade unions and other groups. Indeed, Smith had a particular distrust of the tradesman class. He felt that the members of this class, especially acting together within the guilds they want to form, could constitute a power block and manipulate the state into regulating for special interests against the general interest:

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.”
Smith also argues against government subsidies of certain trades, because this will draw many more people to the trade than what would otherwise be normal, collectively lowering their wages.

Chapter 10, part ii, motivates an understanding of the idea of feudalism.

Of the Rent of the Land: Rent, considered as the price paid for the use of land, is naturally the highest the tenant can afford in the actual circumstances of the land. In adjusting lease terms, the landlord endeavours to leave him no greater share of the produce than what is sufficient to keep up the stock from which he furnishes the seed, pays the labour, and purchases and maintains the cattle and other instruments of husbandry, together with the ordinary profits of farming stock in the neighbourhood. This is evidently the smallest share with which the tenant can content himself without being a loser, and the landlord seldom means to leave him any more. Whatever part of the produce, or, what is the same thing, whatever part of its price, is over and above this share, he naturally endeavours to reserve to himself as the rent of his land, which is evidently the highest the tenant can afford to pay in the actual circumstances of the land. Sometimes, indeed, the liberality, more frequently the ignorance, of the landlord, makes him accept of somewhat less than this portion; and sometimes too, though more rarely, the ignorance of the tenant makes him undertake to pay somewhat more, or to content himself with somewhat less, than the ordinary profits of farming stock in the neighbourhood. This portion, however, may still be considered as the natural rent of land, or the rent for which it is naturally meant that land should for the most part be let.

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