Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Adam Smith on Education

I gave a talk last week at a local college called "What is living in the thought of Adam Smith and dead as a doornail in modern economics." One focus of the talk was this passage from Book V of WN:

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but 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. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

Notice the rationale for government intervention here: this has nothing to do with correcting a market failure, nothing to do with efficiency; the argument is that the great body of the people produced by a commercial society with a refined division of labor would otherwise be, as he goes on to say, "deformed in an essential part of their humanity." And this is most emphatically not education as "human capital." Tellingly, when I ask my history of economic thought students to write about Smith on the Division of labor, after we have looked at the first three chapters and the passage from which the quote above is lifted, and I ask were they any qualifications Smith made to his enthusiasm for the DOL in the opening chapters, students will cite this passage and say that here Smith is saying that The DOL may in fact make people stupid and so less productive after all!!! Obviously they have completely misread this passage. Why? They have already been so indoctrinated by their study of economics that they cannot think about what Smith thought was crucial - the way in which economic institutions shape character and preferences, for ill (as in this passage) or for good (there is lots in Smith of course about the way markets promote the virtue of prudence, eg). The further implication that one cannot evaluate economic institutions without evaluating the preference they promote or hinder is again simply unthinkable for someone who has received the standard education in economics, where the idea of evaluating preferences is a veritable contradiction in terms - since the efficient satisfaction of exogenous preferences is the sole evaluative criterion countenanced, and anyone who thinks otherwise is committing the grave sin of paternalism.


Robert said...

Off-the-cuff comment:

Very interesting links here to Giddens' structuration theory ... the duality of agency and structure forming maintaining (and changing) the social structures of a society. The more your specialised labour is predictably rewarded the more you do it, the less you learn and the less likely you are to go away and create different structures (with your agency).

I am thinking that the person in the position of paternalist will only advocate change if maintaining the status quo is not in their interest. They will not advocate change for the sake of the labourer's personal well-being. Traditional economics is unlikely to want to shake up the status quo of a economic system. The students are looking to benefit from its predictability (so than their exogenous preference can be fulfilled by repetition of the craft).

I agree with Adam Smith. I suspect the students will be in for a rude shock if they don't also learn to grow veges.

Have I missed the mark here?

Gavin Kennedy said...

I have posted (at www.adamsmithslostlegacy.coma) a longer comment on Adam Smith's purpose in kinking the absence of education institutions for the children of the poor in 18th -century England using the Scottish model of the 'little schools' in each Parish as a way to tackle ignorance and political unrest as illiterate and innumerate poor young grow up to become labourers in industry. Ignorance was not created by the division of labour, but by the absence of education, which he suggested was a government-led duty to correct, funded as it was in Scotland since the 17th century.

The misreading of his message is widespread among economists -even leading scholarly writers in the history of economic thought.

kevin quinn said...

Gavin: yes, I like the way you put it - Smith thought education would mitigate the stultifying effects of the DOL.

Robert: I hadn't thought of Giddens here, but yes: Smith saw the way the structure creates agents as well as the reverse; modern economics sees structures as created by agents with no feedback.

If you read a little further in this section, Smith says that *the government* would gain from educating people - though he says it should be required whether or not the government gains because an uneducated populace will be subject to demagoguery and faction and will bring down any government!
You know, they might go around carrying signs saying "Keep the government away from my Medicare" -that sort of thing. (-;

michael perelman said...

Kevin, Gavin will not agree with this (we like each other though we disagree), but that particular section comes from when Smith is concerned that the people will be insufficiently suited to serving in the militia, which he prefers to a standing army. Mostly, he is echoing Adam Ferguson here.

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