Adam Smith & the Savages

Posted on February 6, 2011

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Among the savage nations of hunters and fishers, every individual who is able to work is more or less employed in useful labour, and endeavours to provide, as well as he can, the necessaries and conveniencies of life, for himself, and such of his family or tribe as are either too old, or too young, or too infirm, to go a-hunting and fishing. Such nations, however, are so miserably poor, that,  from mere want, they are frequently reduced, or at least think themselves reduced, to the necessity sometimes of directly destroying, and sometimes of abandoning their infants, their old people, and those afflicted with lingering diseases, to perish with hunger, or to be devoured by wild beasts. Among civilized and thriving nations, on the contrary, though a great number of people do not labour at all, many of whom consume the produce of ten times,  frequently of a hundred times, more labour than the greater part of those who work; yet the produce of the whole labour of the society is so great, that all are often abundantly supplied; and a workman, even of the lowest and poorest order, if he is frugal and industrious, may enjoy a greater share of the necessaries and conveniencies of life than it is possible for any savage to acquire. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776.

Okay, Mr. Smith, I know you Celts Scots are a clever folk, but you must admit that Scotland is a fair sight away from the folk you so authoritatively describe.  And maybe those who told you those tales which you buy up and retail so readily were not always without motives of their own to—perhaps—libel the people they were dispossessing, as an adjunct to what earlier Europeans called “a just war.”

Well, such “savages” as were described to you don’t really deserve to own land, do they?  Oh, no.

Especially—and here is the philosophic sweetener which you yourself add to the many European voices already crying for Aboriginal dispossession—if those “savages” used the land so inefficiently.

Ah, savagery—and economic crimes, too!

Yet the vast majority of Aboriginal people were in fact agriculturalists at the time of European contact.  And many of the reports sent back by European settlers and colonialists from their settlements in the Americas talked about the lives of the already dispossessed, Aboriginal people who lived on the edges of European settlement without resources precisely because the Europeans had already taken over those resources.

That “savage” living in the woods was likely a former farmer who had been chased off her[1] or his land by the Whites.

First, chase them off their land and then mock them for having nothing to eat.  Now that’s a propaganda victory.

Another thing you should know, Mr. Smith, about true hunters and gatherers, is that at one time they did not merely live on the edges of things, on the marginal, difficult lands which agricultural societies find little use for even in my era, more than two centuries advanced from your own.  At one time, hunter-gathers lived on the good, productive lands as well, and when living on those lands, they flourished just as agriculturalists now flourish on them.  Good land is good land for anyone.

And those gatherers and hunters were a lot better off than the enterprising European peasant you describe, in terms of leisure time, in terms of personal liberty, and in terms of health and nutrition.  There was more to gather on that land.  There was more to hunt.  The weather was better and milder.  And the original transitions from hunting and gathering to agricultural lifestyles, at least as those processes have been tracked in the archaeological record, are inevitably characterized by numerous generations of poorer nutrition and shortened lifespans for those making the switch.

Farming began by making people poorer.

And listen to this, which is a description of gatherer-hunter societies encountered in the twentieth century, societies who had by then already been chased away from the most fertile lands:

The intellectuals who pioneered the work on hunter-gatherers … reached a number of remarkable conclusions on the basis of both detailed field studies and collaborative exchanges of data.  They showed that the routines of the hunter-gatherer way of life allowed more leisure time than those of agricultural systems and secured a good supply of highly nutritious food for most people most of the time….In 1972, Marshall Sahlins published Stone Age Economics, a set of essays about economic anthropology.  The first of these essays, “The Original Affluent Society,” summarized the main discoveries emerging from anthropological fieldwork:  with small populations, low levels of need and expertise in a particular landscape, human beings could eat well, enjoy much leisure and evidence great health of body and mind.  The central stereotype of human social evolution was more than contested and undermined:  it was turned on its head. Hugh Brody, The Other Side of Eden, 2000.

Yes, Mr. Smith, Brody is talking about that same stereotype that you fell for, and that Mr. Hobbes fell for a century before you.

You remember Mr. Hobbes, I’m sure, Mr. “Nasty, Brutish and Short”?

And anyway, were you really being quite honest when you were adding up the wealth of nations?  How much wealth is really being created when so much of it is predicated upon costs to other people—and in my era, in costs to the planet?

You mention enterprising peasants, Mr. Smith, but you fail to mention the people who really stood at the bottom rung of European capitalism, the slaves.  How much better off were they than the “savages” you malign, even according to your misapprehension of those “savages”?  In your era, 4 out 5 settlers in the Americas arrived in the holds of slave ships.  A slave landing in Jamaica, for instance, had a two year life expectancy from the date of that landing.

I’m betting that those particular elements of the great European capitalist enterprise didn’t think they were better off than “savages.”

Dispossessed Aboriginal people should also have been mentioned, Mr. Smith, if you really wanted to make an honest comparison between civilization and “savagery”.  Wasn’t their dispossession, along with African slavery, also part of the cost of creating your “civilized and thriving nations”?

It’s kind of obvious, really, Mr. Smith.

If you want to talk honestly about economics and history and civilization, you have to add in the costs to everybody, not just the benefits to European people.

I mean, really, Mr. Smith.

Oh, and just one last word.  The Earth is finite, as you should realize.  Infinite growth is impossible for any system, including your system, capitalism.

Adam Smith meet Mr. Ponzi.


[1] Among the East Coast nations first encountered by the English and Dutch-speaking settlers, the women took the lead role in agriculture.