A Misleading Quotation Exposes the Ignorance of the Quoter
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
In Book V, Smith discusses the origins of civil government and the duties of the ‘sovereign’ or the government in a constitutional monarchy (as Britain was in his day – and still is). I shall quote the reference in full because it illustrates what Adam Smith was writing about, which puts a different slant on what Shawn makes him imply:
“Among nations of hunters, as there is scarce any property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days labour; so there is seldom any established magistrate or any regular administration of justice. Men who have no property can injure one another only in their persons or reputations. But when one man kills, wounds, beats, or defames another, though he to whom the injury is done suffers, he who does it receives no benefit. It is otherwise with the injuries to property. The benefit of the person who does the injury is often equal to the loss of him who suffers it. Envy, malice, or resentment, are the only passions which can prompt one man to injure another in his person or reputation. But the greater part of men are not very frequently under the influence of those passions; and the very worst of men are so only occasionally. As their gratification too, how agreeable soever it may be to certain characters, is not attended with any real or permanent advantage, it is in the greater part of men commonly restrained by prudential considerations. Men may live together in society with some tolerable degree of security, though there is no civil magistrate to protect them from the injustice of those passions. But avarice and ambition in the rich, in the poor the hatred of labour and the love of present ease and enjoyment, are the passions which prompt to invade property, passions much more steady in their operation, and much more universal in their influence. Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it. The acquisition of valuable and extensive property, therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government. Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days' labour, civil government is not so necessary.” [WN V.i.b.2: pp 709-10]· The whole of Wealth Of Nations may be read on-line at the Adam Smith Institute web site:
I have restored some elementary punctuation to Smith’s original from the Glasgow Edition of The Wealth Of Nations, Oxford University Press. You can purchase astonishingly low-priced editions of all of Adam Smith’s Works from Liberty Fund, Indianna, via Amazon.
Smith is discussing the origin of civil government from hunter-gatherer societies (what Adam Smith called the ‘first age of mankind’, Lectures On Jurisprudence, 1762-63, pp 14-16). He was not discussing 21st century (or even post-18th century North America). He found the origins of justice in the invention of property and reported it as a moral philosopher, not a political commentator...
Those hunting societies in Europe and the Near East 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, after the last ice-age, that formed small settled societies, developed civil governments among which problems they faced was who lived where in the settlements. This required the invention of the role of private property. Without such a concept they could never have developed shepherding (Adam Smith’s second age of mankind) to solve the elementary problem of who owned which deer, sheep, pigs or cattle, and they would never have gone on to develop agriculture (Adam Smith’s third age of mankind), from which, as they say, the rest is history.
Now there may be some (I’ve certainly met a few) who regret the long run consequences of that fateful decision of individuals to abandon relying on hunting towards the end of the ice-age and starting mankind, unknowingly and unintentionally, to create the recent history of mankind as we know it. There are even some still surviving who would welcome the end of property, though they wish to retain all the appurtenances of civilisation at the same time. I admire their self-sacrifice of the lives of billions of humans, including themselves, who would never have been born if the ragged survivors of the last ice-age had reverted to hunting as many did in the rest of the world and were found in the same state they were in when the descendants of the pastoral and farming tribes found them from the 15th to the 18th century.