The Wealth of Nations but not of the world

So I recently started listening to the audiobook of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. It’s an epic 36 hour long audiobook. I’ve got the physical book as well and it’s also an epic tome.

But, within the intro chapter Adam Smith already makes some presuppositions or at least conclusions which irritate me.  For example he explains that the productivity of a nation is influenced by two main factors, the labour force and the environment. Particularly the quantity and quality of the labour force and the access to resources and the environment. Obviously making snow is much much harder in the Simpson desert then it is in Antarctica, yet he deems the ability of the labour force to be the primary factor in any discussion about productivity. There is a supposition there that the environment can be trumped by human (or animal and these days robotic) labour. This idea of being able to control and almost disregard the environment has had profound consequences on our civilisation. Naomi Klein explains in “This Changes Everything” just how dangerous this thinking has become, with sacrifice zones of nearly permanently destroyed environments and a large disregard for human well being. It has now lead to the climate change disaster we are all being affected by, even if some (including myself) have had a far greater hand in causing it.

Adam Smith talks a lot about how pin makers can make a lot more pins by having the 18 different steps of making a pin, such as drawing out the wire, straightening it, cutting, grinding, sharpening, adding the head, all done by different specialised people then those 18 people individually trying to do all the tasks and making their own pins instead of just focusing on a specific task. This specialisation is obviously what Henry Ford took to heart when harnessing the power of the assembly line.

But he then talks about how Agriculture can’t easily be as well specialised because of the seasonal variation of the work. You can’t employ someone in a permanent position to just be seeding or always be harvesting. Apparently because a farmer needs to be hoeing the ground, then laying seeds and later weeding, and at another time harvesting and can’t specialise in any specific task is the primary reason the agricultural industry hadn’t had the major leaps and bounds in productivity that areas like pin making or creating nails have. Of course, making pins or nails is mainly a task based around metal working, it’s not based on growing and fostering complex life. For someone how explains the ecosystem of materials flow and all the different professions which need to work together just for the shirt on your back to be created and get there, he hasn’t yet hinted at any limits to productivity. There’s no hint about a carrying capacity of the Earth.

Of course, I’m only an hour into it, so maybe he does mention it later, but for those lazy Capitalists who only looked at the first couple of chapters, I can see why they love his works. To me it feels more like he was excited about how new technologies and work techniques were able to create such a difference to productivity and were something he could work on and optimise. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, it’s that he couldn’t control it nearly as much, so it isn’t his focus. It’s a very unfortunate bias.


By Michael Kubler

Photographer, cinematographer, web master/coder.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *