Essays on the History of Economics

Essays on the History of Economics

Essays on the History of Economics

Essays on the History of Economics


'Essays in the History of Economics' brings together some of the foremost scholars in the field to discuss topics including the etiology of Adam Smith's division of labour & how Thorstein Veblen is perceived as an economic theorist.


Warren J. Samuels

Over the years I have written essays on several fundamental concepts in economics. These include cost, coercion, property, rent, the legal-economic nexus, the problem of order, and distribution. Each of these concepts is characterized by the multiple ways it can be approached and formulated. Because no one formulation can deal with all the issues engendered by each concept, this multiplicity is perennial. Also important is the fact that even if, in some sense, these concepts can be treated as referring to something given and transcendent, they are, as we use them, socially constructed tools of analysis (and of policy).

In this volume, several colleagues and I examine four subjects in the history of economic thought, each of which involves fundamental topics. the subjects are identified by their respective chapter titles.

In the chapter on Adam Smith's concept of the division of labor, written with Willie Henderson, we do not consider the concept in the manner so important to Smith and to later economists, namely, the several domains of the division of labor and its good and bad consequences. Instead we consider the sources-the etiology-of the division of labor. Smith, it is most widely known, attributed the division of labor to a propensity to truck, barter and exchange. It remains an open question as to what Smith meant by using all three of these terms. Smith is also known for attributing the propensity itself to the faculties of reason and language.

It turns out, first, that the principal explanation-the division of labor as a function of the propensity to exchange, itself a function of the faculties of reason and language-is not the only explanation provided by Smith. No less than four alternative accounts may readily be found in Smith's writings. One has to do with individuals taking advantage of opportunities open to them. Another has to do with behavior relating to the commercial stage of society. Still another involves the nature of human nature. and the fourth has to do with the individual's quest for social recognition and moral approbation.

It also turns out that this multiplicity of accounts involves numerous interpretive problems. These include: whether certain factors are causal or limiting; conflicting analyses of the relation between exchange and the division of labor; economic versus non-economic foundations of economic development; the relation of commercial society and the division of labor; the respective roles of

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