Eighteenth Century Economics: Turgot, Beccaria and Smith and Their Contemporaries

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

22

Adam Smith and thedivision of labour

A bicentenary estimate 1

The 9th of March 1976 saw the two-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and the development of a new, separate science which is now generally described as economics. 2 That this anniversary needs celebration among economists, who can all be described as the heirs of Adam Smith, does not have to be stressed. Many of these celebrations have been organised across the world, 3 including, on a more limited scale, in Australia. In writing a paper to celebrate this anniversary, an author is faced with a difficult problem of choice. Should he concentrate on a formal analysis of Smith’s doctrines, as was so brilliantly done in the 150th anniversary festschrift, 4 or should he analyse the research of Smith scholars in the last fifty years, to use the model adopted by W. R. Scott in 1940? 5 Perhaps a solution to this problem is obtained by combining aspects of these two approaches with that adopted by Professor Recktenwald in a recent paper 6 which emphasises the relevance of the Wealth of Nations for ‘today and tomorrow’.

Such a combination is perhaps best achieved by concentrating on a particular aspect of Adam Smith’s doctrine, by assessing the more recent research of Smith scholars in this area, and by looking at its relevance for today and tomorrow, not only for the historian of economics but also for the economic historian and the economic theorist. What better topic to select for this purpose than the topic particularly close to Smith’s heart and which, at the same time, provides the foundation for his model of economic growth? I am referring of course to the division of labour, the starting point of Smith’s inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, a subject on which a substantial number of papers have been published in the last decade or so, 7 while in addition, Smith’s treatment of this subject raises new questions for the economic historian, 8 and for the economic theorist. 9

This chapter will therefore concentrate on several aspects of the division of labour as the best manner of paying tribute to the sagacity and lasting relevance of the views of the author of the Wealth of Nations. The first section of the chapter briefly outlines the importance of the division of labour to the Smithian system; the second looks at the importance of Smith’s treatment of the subject in connection with education; the third examines the questions raised by the

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