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Society's Productivity

One crucial dimension of this emerging view of society is the recognition of the economy as a distinct sphere from that of government - a recognition that leads, in the Scottish Enlightenment - to a fundamental re-reading of the relationship between government, wealth creation and social happiness.

One of the most important works of th period is Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations - a text that is often (mis)read wholly as a celebration of the free-market economy. That characterisation needs substantial qualification, and that in turn raises question about the character of early nineteenth century political economy.

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter 1: -

See also, the much more didactic version of Smith relayed by Harriet Martineau in her Illustrations of Political Economy (1832) which can be accessed here:

At the same time we need to remember that Smith was writing at the height of the slave trade - a trade in which humans were bought and sold in the market place, not just their labour. It is worth looking at what Smith says about this - but it is also worth thinking about how that trade operated, and the nature of the exchanges undertaken, and how exchange might have been conceived of by those with whom traders traded. There is important background to this trade in ch. 2 of John Thornton's Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (2nd ed.) CUP 1998. But it is also worth reading (and thinking about the comments of Craig Muldrew cited in the 8th lecture of term 1 about embeddedness) the essay by Jane Guyer 'Wealth in People and Self-Realization in Equitorial Africa' in Man n.s. 28(2) 1993 pp. 243-265 (avail through J-STOR).

Questions to Consider

How does Smith conceive of the responsibilities of government?

What is Smith's account of the development of commercial society?

What assumptions about human nature underpin Smith's theory?

What assumptions are being made in an idea of 'free-exchange'?

How determinate is the idea of 'self-interest'?

Secondary Reading

Willie Henderson, Evaluating Adam Smith: creating the Wealth of nations (2006) - avail as ebook

Eric Schliesser, Adam Smith : systematic philosopher and public thinker (2017) - avail as an ebook

The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith - avail online


But see also, Oliver Goldsmith's 'The Deserted Village'