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

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I have recently begun reading Ron Meek’s Precursors of Adam Smith and happened to find some very similar ideas being expressed by Francis Hutcheson in the selections from his 1755 work, A System of Moral Philosophy. At the time of the reading, I was also in the middle of writing up notes to Chapter 3 of Volume I of Marx’s Capital, so Hutcheson’s discussion of value and money complimented a lot of what I was reading in Marx, and in fact I even quoted him a few times.

This isn’t to say I was shocked by this finding; I am well aware that much of this was fairly standard in the literature up to that point, and Meek even states that the piece “is fairly typical for its time and does not contain a great deal that is really original.” I have no problems with this assessment, and I know that the following section on Hume (containing extracts from his Political Discourses) says some very similar things. My attention was caught primarily by the timing of the reading (in tandem with my notes on Marx) and the emphasis he places on certain things, as well as the way in which he talks about them. This, too, is what Meek brings attention to when he says “Some of the individual statements which Hutcheson makes in the course of his treatment, however, may well have impressed Smith.”

Here are some of the examples I noted:

[All page numbers from Meek (1973) and the Fowkes translation of Capital (1976)]

‘Tis the metal chiefly that has undergone the great change of value, since these metals have been in greater plenty, the value of the coin is altered tho’ it keeps the old names.

– Hutcheson (p. 34)

For various reasons, the money-names of the metal weights are gradually separated from their original weight names…

– Marx (p. 193)

In setting the values of goods for commerce, they must be reduced to some common measure on both sides. Such as ‘equal to the value of so many days labour, or to such quantities of grain, or to so many cattle of such a species, to such a measure or weight of certain fruits of the earth, to such weights of certain metals’.

– Hutcheson (p. 31-2)

Let us now take two commodities, for example corn and iron. Whatever their exchange relation may be, it can always be represented by an equation in which a given quantity of corn is equated to some quantity of iron, for instance 1 quarter of corn = x cwt of iron. What does this equation signify? It signifies that a common element of identical magnitude exists in two different things, in 1 quarter of corn and similarly in x cwt of iron. Both are therefore equal to a third thing, which in itself is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is exchange-value, must therefore be reducible to this third thing.

– Marx (p. 127)

The qualities requisite to the most perfect standard are these; it must be something generally desired so that men are generally willing to take it in exchange. The very making any goods the standard will of itself give them this quality. It must be portable; which will often be the case if it is rare, so that small quantities are of great value. It must be divisible without loss into small parts, so as to be suited to the values of all sorts of goods; and it must be durable, not easily wearing by use, or perishing in its nature. One or other of these prerequisites in the standard, shews the inconvenience of many of our commonest goods for that purpose. The man who wants a small quantity of my corn will not give me a work-beast for it, and his beast does not admit division. I want perhaps a pair of shoes, but my ox is of far greater value, and the other may not need him. I must travel to distant lands, my grain cannot be carried along for my support, without unsufferable expence, and my wine would perish in the carriage. ‘Tis plain therefore that when men found any use for the rarer metals, silver and gold, in ornaments or utensils, and thus a demand was raised for them, they would soon also see that they were the fittest standards for commerce, on all the accounts above-mentioned. They are rare, and therefore a small quantity of them easily portable is equivalent to large quantities of other goods; they admit any divisions without loss; they are neither perishable, nor easily worn away by use. They are accordingly made standards in all civilized nations.

– Hutcheson (p. 32)

The money-form comes to be attached either to the most important articles of exchange from outside, which are in fact the primitive and spontaneous forms of manifestation of the exchange-value of local products, or to the object of utility which forms the chief element of indigenous alienable wealth, for example cattle.

 

Only a material whose every sample possesses the same uniform quality can be an adequate form of appearance of value, that is a material embodiment of abstract and therefore equal human labour. On the other hand, since the difference between the magnitudes of value is purely quantitative, the money commodity must be capable of purely quantitative differentiation, it must therefore be divisible at will, and it must also be possible to assemble it again from its component parts. Gold and silver possess these properties by nature.

The money commodity acquires a dual use-value. Alongside its special use-value as a commodity (gold, for instance, serves to fill hollow teeth, it forms the raw material for luxury articles, etc) it acquires a formal use-value, arising out of its specific social function.

 

The technical obstacles to coining extremely minute quantities of gold or silver, and the circumstance that at first the less precious metal is used as a measure of value instead of the more precious, copper instead of silver, silver instead of gold, and that the less precious circulates as money until dethroned by the more precious – these facts provide a historical explanation for the role played by silver and copper tokens as substitutes for gold coins. Silver and copper coins replace gold in those regions of the circulation of commodities where coins pass from hand to hand most rapidly, and are therefore worn out most quickly. This happens where sales and purchases on a very small scale recur unceasingly. In order to prevent these satellites from establishing themselves permanently in the place of gold, the law determines the very minute proportions in which alone they can be accepted as alternative payment. The particular tracks pursued by the different sorts of coin in circulation naturally run into each other. Small change appears alongside gold for the payment of fractional parts of the smallest gold coin; gold constantly enters into retail circulation, although it is just as constantly being thrown out again by being exchanged with small change.

– Marx (p. 183, 184, & 223)

If I read A System of Moral Philosophy in its entirety there would likely be more, but I’ve since moved beyond that bit of Capital and a lot of the ideas expressed by Hutcheson elsewhere in the text (in other extracts), such as his thoughts on interest and luxury, no longer read like Marx.

As someone that’s really into the history of economics, and also as someone, like Meek, that is guilty of projecting radical readings onto texts that are thoroughly bourgeois (or worse), all for the sake of calling this-or-that dead guy a “proto-Marxist”, I dig this sorta stuff and I may post some other parallels I find between Marx and other thinkers. This is my idea of a good time, so expect some more in the future.

 

This blog will basically just be a place for me to put half-formed ideas into words, get some feedback (hopefully), and chronicle my own education and development.

For a bit of background, I am a young neo-Marxian from the United States, currently situated somewhere between the Monthly Review fandom and the vague “surplus approach” of the post-Sraffa world. What I post will probably be informed by this position, but I am still in the process of learning and that will be documented here for all (or none) to see.

I do not claim to be an expert on the subject — at most I might generously refer to myself as an intermediate — but that’s why I feel the need to challenge my own understandings, publish them for all to critique and for me to return to, and chronicle everything here to help me study the literature that I will soon be tackling. It’s going to be a long and painful process (especially at first), but in the end I hope that my journey will at least serve as a starting point for those looking into these things for themselves. If all goes well, there will be something salvageable from this project.

I will try very hard to avoid language that is more complex than necessary and my tone will generally be informal. I have no interest in appearing more knowledgable than I am. To attempt something like this only to fluff myself up from the start would be an utter waste of time.

But that’s enough of an introduction, I think. There are too many things I’d like to talk about and the depressing state of my self-confidence isn’t one of them.