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

By Peter Groenewegen | Go to book overview

23

Productivity of labour, thriftand economic progress

Adam Smith’s optimistic view of economic development

It is well known that Adam Smith was a product of the age of enlightenment in the sense that he shared the view of human improvement which was so characteristic of the mid-eighteenth century and its optimistic faith in the potential for the continuous progress of mankind in all its endeavours: social, scientific, political and economic.

This aspect of Smith’s vision is already apparent in the four stages theory of human development he espoused. Smith had included such a theory in his lectures on jurisprudence, insofar as can be ascertained from the records of these lectures as he had delivered them in the session of 1762-3 and 1763-4. Especially from the first of these transcripts, or the ‘Lothian’ manuscript named after its first discoverer (Meek et al., 1978, p. 9), it can be seen that Smith was an important co-discoverer of this view (jointly with Turgot, who had enunciated the theory in France in the early 1750s). The four stages theory argued the materialist position that the mode by which humankind earned its subsistence determined the potential for civilisation such a society could reach, as influenced by the productivity (surplus-creating capacity) of these various modes of production.

As is well known, these four stages of progress were the following: first, that of hunter-gatherers; second, that of the pastoralists; third, that of agriculture; and fourth, and final stage, that of commercial society. Each of these stages, which naturally succeeded each other in the progress of development, can be briefly looked at in turn.

The primitive stage, that of hunter-gatherers or, to use the Rousseauean language in vogue at the time, the state of nature, or that of the ignoble savage (Meek, 1976) In this stage of development, it was difficult to speak of the creation of surplus. Much of the product of the hunt was incapable of prolonged storage. Society was nomadic and property was virtually nonexistent. Exceptions were the implements for the hunt, for the temporary storage of fruits and other gathered products of the soil for clothing and for cover. This stage, in its necessary lifestyle as dictated by the mode of producing its subsistence, was contrary to all trappings of contemporary civilised society.

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