From Smith to Darwin

The notion that all the contingencies of human history can be rendered down into law-like principles is the greatest reflection of the human desire for order and understanding. Adam Smith appears in that mirrored pool alongside Karl Marx and, in his original form, even Charles Darwin. That’s only the beginning: Freud, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hegel, and a host of others are reflected there in varying, and transitory clarity.

Adam Smith is a iconic case, as I discovered reading Adam Smith’s View of History: Consistent or Paradoxical? by James Alvey. The paradoxical component arises from a merger of a belief in the inevitability of commercial society and, at various points in Smith’s intellectual development, a cynicism about the probability of forward progress towards that goal. Ever behind the curtain, however, was the invisible hand represented by a kind of teleological divine presence moving history and economics forward.

The paper uncovers some of the idiosyncrasies of Smith’s economic history:

[T]he burghers felt secure enough to import ‘improved manufactures and expensive luxuries’. The lords now had something beside hospitality for which they could exchange the whole of their agricultural surplus. Previously they had to share, but ‘frivolous and useless’ things, such as ‘a pair of diamond [shoe] buckles’, and ‘trinkets and baubles’, could be consumed by the lords alone. The lords were fascinated with such finely crafted items and wanted to own and vainly display them. As the lords ‘eagerly purchased’ these luxury items they were forced to reduce the number of their dependents and eventually dismiss them entirely.

The lords ultimately have to trade off economic freedom of the artisans in exchange for more diamond shoe buckles. Odd, but perhaps reflective of the excesses of the wealthy in Smith’s era–something that needed explanation.

And what is the connection to Darwin? Darwin, in the automaticity expressed by that invisible hand (and the progress of history), saw a way to explain the natural order of the biological world, and this argument has continued to this day.

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