Once More On Chomsky
From Lost Legacy (May 2009);
From Noam Chomsky: Education is Ignorance (2 May) in W.E.A.L.L.B.E. here:
“Noam Chomsky: I didn't do any research at all on Smith. I just read him. There's no research. Just read it. He's pre-capitalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. What we would call capitalism he despised. People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits."
I reproduce this quotation from the post I made on Lost Legacy in May 2009, because there is a persistent, and persisting, amount of comment on my comments on Chomsky’s quotation from several people, the most recent a couple of day ago, criticising my challenge to Chomsky, all whom appear to be in contact with Chomsky. Its as if these exchanges are going the rounds – in a tutor’s class notes? And this starts off a new exchange regularly. I am grateful for the attention but would prefer if critics kept up to date with the Blog when posting their repetitive comments, if only to save me looking so far back through the files to find the original.
Here is Chomsky’s quotation as presented by Andrew in 2009:
A reader, “andrew”, kindly offered this quotation:
"Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976 (original 1776). An excerpt (Book I, ch. X, p. 111):
“The whole of the advantages and disadvantages of the different employments of labour and stock must, in the same neighbourhood, be either perfectly equal or continually tending to equality. If in the same neighbourhood, there was any employment evidently either more or less advantageous than the rest, so many people would crowd into it in the one case, and so many would desert it in the other, that its advantages would soon return to the level of other employments. This at least would be the case in a society where things were left to follow their natural course, where there was perfect liberty, and where every man was perfectly free both to chuse what occupation he thought proper, and to change it as often as he thought proper.”
I replied, as did other commentators, that Chomsky confused equality, as in modern distributive justice theories, which was not agenda in mid-18th-century philosophy, nor meant as such by Smith. The quotation from Wealth Of Nations referred explicitly to equality of incomes from certain types of labour in a locality, compensating for adverse circumstances or types of labour.
“From Noam Chomsky... ’I… took the trouble to check the reference I cited, which says exactly what I said it did. You don’t have to be a Smith scholar to see that my paraphrase of the passage I referenced is exactly accurate. If you read the other comments you’ll see that they are trying to evade the fact by claiming, falsely, that I was confusing differentials with income equality. Nothing of the kind. I simply cited Smith accurately, giving the source so anyone could check. The rest is just the usual childish slanders that deface the internet."
Well, I checked the source that Chomsky quoted and confirmed it did not confirm Chomsky’s interpretation.
In the other quotation from Chomsky referring to the division of labour and Chomsky’s interpretation of what Smith meant, I have also commented on Lost Legacy that the reference in Book V on the negative affects of the division of labour is at variance with Chomsky’s.
Basically, Chomsky jumps to a conclusion that Smith was of the view that the government should prevent the division of labour from continuing to “its limits”:
Chomsky notes: ‘But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be.’
Now, some parts of this sentence are fine, some parts woefully wrong, and almost all of it out of historical context. I have no idea how Chomsky concludes what he does.
The relevant section reference is ‘Article ii’, ‘Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth’, pages 758-88, of Book V of Wealth Of Nations, and the relevant page is 782 (from the Glasgow Edition, Oxford University Press):
“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” (WN V.i.f: 782).
The education of youth is a long and important part of Wealth Of Nations. In it Adam Smith presents a detailed description of the history of education from classical times to its then state in Britain. The first notable feature was that only boys were formally educated for a few years, if at all; girls were left to their parents to ‘home educate’, which for the majority meant no education at all (the majority of parents were likely to be illiterate and general ignorant).
Across Britain the picture was patchy. England was backward educationally. It had two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, but local schools were rare except for some charity schools. In Scotland, there were four universities, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and 'Aberdeen'. Local provision for education since the 17th century was managed by ‘little schools’ in most parishes, paid for by a mixture of charitable sources, local parental contributions and donations. Most male children spent a year or more, some ‘bright’ children up to age of 14. Middle class boys tended to stay longer than the children of the poor, most of which were sent to work from about 8, their parents being near destitute.
Smith describes this in Book V. In fact, he offers the ‘little school’ system in Scotland as suitable for England too (a much larger country in population and wealth than Scotland). He envisages all children spending some time learning the ‘read, write and account’ to extend literacy and numeracy across the majority of children (he left open the question of education for girls, but clearly they could be accommodated in the ‘little school’ system).
Book V is about government expenditure and revenue. How was education to be funded? The government would have to play a serious role in such a project, which meant taxation of a relatively narrow taxation base. At the time taxation was a sensitive subject (it was ever thus) and the people who would have to consent to such an additional expense (‘little schools’ would need to be built, which with 60,000 parishes was no mean line item in a budget) where the legislators, mainly representative of the agricultural aristocracy and few ‘improving’ landlords.
If Chomsky re-reads the paragraph quoted above he will note two themes in his argument. The first, which Chomsky has focused upon, is that of the deleterious effects of the division of labour, which were of longstanding antiquity (the division of labour preceded commerce by many millennia back into pre-history).
Farm labourers were marginally ‘better off’ than the fewer primitive factory labourers, hauliers, seamen, servants and soldiers, and etc. But be clear, outdoor farm labourers were not all dancing around May Poles and living as ‘happy families on the prairy’. Theirs was a hard life, short too, with infirmities and early deaths from disease, incapacity, accidents and starvation.
Into this background Smith identifies the ‘man whose whole life is spent performing a few simple operations’ and the consequences in his stupidity and ignorance. He does not raise the spectre of millions living their awful rural lives in similar terms – his appeal is to the support of the few rich men who owned the farms and dominated parliament.
He also turns his argument neatly as his second theme. If the sources of finance for education (mainly the aristocrats) were not inclined to support the ‘little schools’ from their usual selfish inclinations to prodigality, then it would be prudent to appeal to their fears of disturbances to their sheltered lives – also, to the steady decline in martial prowess of the uneducated mass of poorer men (Smith knew how to write persuasively for his intended audience – he lectured in rhetoric).
For the indigent labourer whose ‘torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life' could be written as a major threat lurking everywhere. Moreover, ‘Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war.’ If not inclined to rebellion, his services in defence of the island country could be useless.
These concerns were meant to strike a chord with that class of taxpayers who were fearful of weak armies and of easily misled labourers who might become rebellious (such rebel ‘mobs’ were forcing the British army out of the American colonies, by later editions of Wealth Of Nations).
In short, Smith was 'spinning', as we say today, a case for increased taxation to pay for public institutions regarded as deficient in 18th-century Britain. That he was doing so 768 pages after the ‘pin factory’ was deliberate, Few of his readers would have the faintest idea of what went on in a factory (Marx never visited one) and his prose was powerful because it pushed all the right buttons to rouse the rich readers from their complacency – and not a little hostility to more taxes – about the plight of the children of labourers.
Chomsky has not considered this context. Hence, he can decry the division of labour and assert with conviction that it ‘will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be’, but not with much credibility. He apparently has no idea of how ignorant were the members of the majority of ordinary labouring families in the 17th and 18th centuries, let alone the millennia before then.
Empirical evidence beats speculation. Was the result of the division of labour, even through the horrors of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, a nation of people who were turned into ‘creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be?’ The division of labour did not cause the lack of education, but the lack of education risked, deleterious consequences unless the government took measures to remedy the lack of education. Realistically, no government could prevent the division of labour. Smith didn’t advocate that they did. He identified a problem and suggested that “little schools” were the appropriate response.
Moreover, the division of labour continued unabated. Productivity continued as pin making, for example, became mechanised. By the 19th century, thousands of pin-making firms were consolidated, and by the 20th century, one or two manufacturers undertook the entire national output of pins in fully automated batteries of machines both in the UK and the USA. Working men commonly do a lot more than basic ‘reading, writing, and accounting’. The horror of worker zombies drawn by Chomsky from these passages in Wealth Of Nations never happened. But the Education Acts implied in Book V were passed eventually, as were Technical Schools for employed workers, on of which, the Edinburgh School of Arts, founded in 1822, eventually became Heriot-Watt University in 1966, a few hundred yards from where Smith lived from 1788-90 in Panmure House.
By exaggerating his case with colourful prose, few facts, and no history, Chomsky undermines those parts of his case that are worthy of our attention.