As my previous post concerned Francis Hutcheson, a personal mentor of Adam Smith’s, it might be worth mentioning another major influence on Smith’s work: David Hume.
Last time I relied heavily on Hutcheson’s work in the form of excerpts from Ronald Meek’s Precursors of Adam Smith, an excellent survey of the literature that Smith would’ve been drawing from at the time when he was working on The Wealth of Nations1, and Hume also gets a spot in this line-up. What is somewhat interesting about Hume and Smith, especially when dealing with Meek’s work, is their relation to the Scottish Historical School.2
Meek places Hume as a predecessor to this school, noting in particular, regarding Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence (of which Meek was later to edit)3, that “Hume, with his interest in the origins and foundations of society, his rejection of speculative fictions such as the social contract, and his realistic evolutionism, was another obvious influence, both personally and through his writings.”4 This is suggested quietly,5 and he quickly forgets about Hume so that he can deal with the work of John Millar.6 This was obviously Meek’s interest in writing the piece, as it clearly was not supposed to simply be an essay on Hume’s relation to Marx, but it does seem to tiptoe around Hume’s significant influence, not only on Millar, but on Smith himself!
As Meek says years later,7 “Smith apparently read a paper on some of Hume’s ‘essays on commerce ’ to the Glasgow Literary Society very soon after their publication, and there is no doubt that he appreciated their quality.” Meek goes on to mention specifically “The essay Of Commerce [which] is interesting, first, because of Hume’s historical-cum-sociological approach”, that Meek traces back to Cantillon (at least through implication).
He quotes Of Commerce here in the introduction to the extracts from Hume’s Political Discourses,
The bulk of every state may be divided into husbandmen and manufacturers. The former are employed in the culture of the land; the latter work up the materials furnished by the former, into all the commodities which are necessary or ornamental to human life. As soon as men quit their savage state, where they live chiefly by hunting and fishing, they must fall into these two classes; though the arts of agriculture employ at first the most numerous part of the society. Time and experience improve so much these arts, that the land may easily maintain a much greater number of men, than those who are immediately employed in its culture, or who furnish the more necessary manufactures to such as are so employed.8
Meek then comments on the passage:
The stadial view of the development of society … and the associated idea that ‘manufacturers’ are maintained ‘by that superfluity, which arises from the labour of the farmers’, were destined to become in one form or another the common property of almost all the great economists of the latter half of the century, whatever the particular ‘paradigm’ they professed.
The second interesting feature of the essay is the way in which the economic (and military) potentialities of the nation as a whole are visualized by Hume in terms of the disposition of its labour force. ‘Every thing in the world’, we read, ‘is purchased by labour’. The ‘labour of the farmers’ produces a surplus which maintains those who labour in producing manufactured commodities, and many of the latter can if and when necessary be converted into soldiers. Thus ‘the more labour … is employed beyond mere necessaries, the more powerful is any state; since the persons engaged in that labour may easily be converted to the public service’, from which it follows that ‘trade and industry are really nothing but a stock of labour’.9
Put in this way, not only does Hume sound like Smith here, but also a good deal like Marx. This does not end here. Meek continues on to talk about the 2nd extract in the text, Of Interest:
High interest, Hume proceeds to argue, ‘arises from three circumstances: A great demand for borrowing; little riches to supply that demand; and great profits arising from commerce… Low interest, on the other hand, proceeds from the three opposite circumstances.’
Each of these three determinants, Hume goes on to claim, depends in its turn upon the ‘habits and manners’ which prevail among certain economic agents, and which themselves change as society develops and ‘industry and commerce’ increase. When a people emerges from the savage state, ‘there must immediately arise an inequality of property’, so that ‘the landed interest is immediately established’. The ‘habits and manners’ of this landed class are such that ‘the prodigals among them will always be more numerous than the misers’, so that the ‘demand for borrowing’ will be great and the rate of interest high.
The second determinant, too—’the great or little riches to supply the demand’—depends upon ‘the habits and way of living of the people’. When society consists only of landlords and peasants, the stock of money in the country, however great or small it may be, is never ‘collected in particular hands, so as to form considerable sums, or compose a great monied interest’. Thus the ‘riches to supply the demand’ are low, and interest remains high. Soon, however, ‘another rank of men’ arises—the artisans, who work up the materials supplied by the agricultural classes; and this increase in ‘men’s industry’ eventually leads to the rise of yet another class—the ‘merchants’, among whom ‘there is the same overplus of misers above prodigals, as, among the possessors of land, there is the contrary’. Through its ‘frugality’, this merchant class acquires great power over industry and amasses consider able sums of money, so that the increase in commerce ‘by a necessary consequence, raises a great number of lenders, and by that means produces lowness of interest’. And as a further consequence, it ‘diminishes the profits arising from that profession’, thereby giving rise to ‘the third circumstance requisite to produce lowness of interest’. The main idea here is that when commerce has become ‘extensive’ the increased intensity of competition between merchants lowers the ‘profits of trade’, so that when they leave off business and seek ‘an annual and secure revenue’ the merchants will ‘accept more willingly of a low interest’. Low interest and low profits, Hume argues, ‘both arise from an extensive commerce, and mutually forward each other. No man will accept of low profits, where he can have high interest; and no man will accept of low interest, where he can have high profits’.10
Again, you can see elements of both Smith and Marx in this outline. Meek immediately chimes in to say, “Smith accepted and incorporated into the Wealth of Nations a number of the elements of this account,” however he does acknowledge a crucial difference:
But in the Wealth of Nations the question of what determined the rate of profit became one of great importance in its own right, rather than a mere appendage to the problem of what determined the rate of interest—and it was not merely the profits of the ‘merchants’ (at any rate in the narrower sense of that word) which were a matter of concern. From the point of view of the shaping of the Wealth of Nations, indeed, it is arguable that the main influence of Hume’s essay Of Interest lay not in any of its specific arguments but in the ‘sociological’ methodology lying behind its general approach.11
This methodology, Meek suggests, is extremely important when talking about Smith’s place in the history of economic and sociological thought.
Smith was by no means consistent in his adoption of this kind of approach, of course; few pioneers can afford the luxury of consistency. But even if we cannot properly ascribe the materialist conception of history to Smith, we may certainly be able to ascribe to him a materialist conception of history which was not without considerable influence on later writers.12
The later writers he has in mind here obviously include Millar and Marx. Roy Pascal, in his 1938 article, ‘Property and society: the Scottish contribution of the eighteenth century’13 which Meek is in dialogue with, and which he admits had a huge impact on him and his thoughts regarding the Scottish School,14 speaks of Smith’s ‘new interpretation of society which is undoubtedly materialistic, and which his contemporaries and disciples … elaborate’.15
Andrew Skinner, in his commentary on Meek’s essay,16 mentions, “The first article which might be seen to build upon the basis provided by Pascal, but without adopting a Marxist stance, is Duncan Forbes’s ‘Scientific Whiggism: Adam Smith and John Millar’, published in the Cambridge Journal for 1954-5.”
Skinner notes, “As early as 1954, Forbes was arguing that the attitudes which Smith and Millar adopted to matters of contemporary debate were informed by an understanding of underlying historical processes,” before quoting Forbes himself:
The ‘scientific’ nature of the Whiggism of Smith and Millar is thrown into relief when it is contrasted with other historical attitudes, especially liberal ones, in England in the later eighteenth century. In relation to the appeal to history by the political reformers of the 70s and 80s, for instance, it may almost be said to stand as Marxian to pre-Marxian socialism, so crude, utopian and mentally parochial is one, so wide in the sweep of its historical survey, and so self-consciously ‘scientific’ is the other.17
Skinner follows this with the statement, “But whereas Forbes’s first contribution to the debate pursued an analogy with Marx, Meek’s opening article of the same year reflected a growing conviction that the Scottish contribution to Marxist sociology was ‘greater in degree, and to some extent different in kind, from what has commonly been imagined’. In developing this theme, Meek neglected the ‘political’ dimension of Pascal’s essay, while starting from the point at which he had left off, namely with the statement that ‘Marx’s first thorough exposition of historical materialism, the German Ideology … builds on the groundwork laid by Smith and his contemporaries.'”18
Smith’s “contemporaries” obviously included Hume, who mostly continues to fly under the radar, but undoubtedly leaves his mark on the literature. In fact, years later, Meek would bring up Hume’s influence on Smith in his introduction to Lectures on Jurisprudence, where he spoke of the editors’ ability “to go farther than Cannan in our detection of the probable sources upon which Smith drew… For example, whereas Smith’s use of Montesquieu is clear from LJ(B), his dependence on Hume’s History and Essays is more pronounced in LJ(A).”19 Meek goes on to mention further parallels between Smith and Hutcheson, completing the thought with the statement, “Another point of almost equal importance is that Smith’s use of the four stages theory as a kind of conceptual framework within which much of the discussion is set, and his constant acceptance of the more general ‘environmental’ or ‘materialist’ approach which underly the four stages theory, are more clearly evident in LJ(A) than they are in LJ(B).”20
So here we have a statement from Meek implying that the part of the work which Smith drew heavily from Hume is also the one where we can clearly pinpoint the “conceptual framework” of the four stages theory (here described as “materialist”), implying that Hume’s work was related to this outcome. This is, of course, exactly what we would expect based on Meek’s earlier assertion that Hume’s Of Commerce had a major hand in shaping “the‘ sociological’ methodology lying behind its [Wealth of Nations] general approach”.21
From all of this, it is clear to me that we can draw a very real line from Hume to Marx, despite the literature’s occasionally implied placement of Smith as an obstacle or unsatisfactory mediator between them, unnecessarily distancing the two, as if Marx didn’t read Hume and as if Hume didn’t have a tremendous influence on Smith. I admit Hume can be interpreted in many ways, as the debates I’ve mentioned ought to make obvious, and certainly I do not wish to make any claims about Hume’s politics as being somehow proto-communist, but I will conclude this with one last quote and some final thoughts:
Let us suppose that nature has bestowed on the human race such profuse abundance of all external conveniencies, that, without any uncertainty in the event, without any care or industry on our part, every individual finds himself fully provided with whatever his most voracious appetites can want, or luxurious imagination wish or desire. His natural beauty, we shall suppose, surpasses all acquired ornaments: the perpetual clemency of the seasons renders useless all clothes or covering: the raw herbage affords him the most delicious fare; the clear fountain, the richest beverage. No laborious occupation required: no tillage: no navigation. Music, poetry, and contemplation form his sole business: conversation, mirth, and friendship his sole amusement. It seems evident that, in such a happy state, every other social virtue would flourish, and receive tenfold increase; but the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of. For what purpose make a partition of goods, where every one has already more than enough? Why give rise to property, where there cannot possibly be any injury? Why call this object mine, when upon the seizing of it by another, I need but stretch out my hand to possess myself to what is equally valuable? Justice, in that case, being totally useless, would be an idle ceremonial, and could never possibly have place in the catalogue of virtues.22
Here you have Hume suggesting that if we could have all our “external conveniencies” provided to us, then there would be no reason to believe that property would’ve ever arisen. Of course, he is writing this before the industrial revolution and dealing with a utopian order where it is the natural world doing all the work, but imagine an alternate version where these things come from the labor of machinery, minimizing human contact with the production process itself. Imagine that we could essentially realize many of the possibilities that exist in the utopia which Hume clearly believes to be impossible and unreachable. He is correct in that belief, but only in how he pictures it. There is a very real possibility, although we may not be destined to achieve it, for a similar type of society where it might never cross our minds to be territorial in claiming objects as our own property when we can just as well reach out and claim another exactly like it. Hume suggests that, in such a society, “justice” wouldn’t “have place in the catalogue of virtues.” I believe he is right (whether his intentions behind the statement match the way in which I read it or not), but that this “justice” must be done away with, rather than it simply being a matter of history unfolding without it, due to the naturally perfect conditions of the earth and the species.
Hume is essentially asking us, “What if the economic problem had never arisen?” Marx reacts in turn by considering the root and abolition of the economic problem itself and its eventual replacement by what might be considered a non-economy: communism. It is here that Hume and Marx politically diverge where they otherwise find much to agree on.23