Rousseau on the Theories of Adam Smith

Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Theories of Adam Smith

As a renowned Genevois philosopher, I, Jean-Jacques Rousseau feel obliged to comment on the economic theories set forth by my contemporary Adam Smith in an Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. While Smith and I agree on many points, particularly in regard to the connection between economics and human behavior, there are indeed numerous instances in which our paths of thought digress.

The first of these digressions I will dicuss is Smith’s contention that man “man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them” (Smith 15). Clearly, Smith believes that self-interest is the prime motivator behind munificent actions. This is a cynical, although I will admit, realistic view, of the social and economic conditions of our time. However as I have set forth in my Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, pity and sympathy are virtues of man that transcend beyond the mere need for self-satisfaction. When Smith speculates about the innate nature of man to act only in his own benefit, I cannot help but to refer to a passage from my own Discourse. In it, I profess

Were it even true that pity is no more than a feeling, which puts us in the place of the sufferer, a feeling, obscure yet lively in a savage, developed yet feeble in civilised man; this truth would have no other consequence than to confirm my argument. Compassion must, in fact, be the stronger, the more the animal beholding any kind of distress identifies himself with the animal that suffers (Rousseau 48).

Smith and I do agree that economics has a superb capacity for providing insight into the complexities of human behavior. However, when Smith speculates about the so-called “invisible hand” and how it has guided man toward the goal of maximizing the efficiency of his resources, I cannot help but wonder if his perception of humanity is far too narrow.

In my Discourse on the Origin of Inequality I have tried to imagine the human way of life prior to the existence of the social structures and interactions, and I have come to the conclusion that men are seperated by two types of inequality, namely natural and moral. I am convinced that virtue occurs naturally in human beings, but I also acknowledge that it could be lost if people chose to follow other motivations, such as pursuit of personal interest such as property or status.

Smith has no interest in the prior human life as compared to my interest. I, through my work, try to draw the society’s imagination to the ways of life of the societies prior to the existence of a government. For Smith, the existence of government brings along certain restrictions such as trade and importation. These restrictions and sanctions take away the free will of the individuals. The laws passed by the governing authority must represent the good will of the society at large. The purpose of money, according to Smith, is to act as a medium of exchange for the many economic activities of the human race. For there to be exchange, the humans must be on good terms. The need for acquisition of luxury is developed by the existence of a monetary economy.

Smith supports his conjuectures by asserting that many of the vices in society are a product of modernity and human development. Smith, by encouraging the development of personal attributes prior to those of the society, speculates upon the basis that develops these vices. He notes that after the collapse of the Roman Empire, there was some economic stability. The former colonies had to engage in some economic activities in order to maintain their living standards. There was need to develop affluence and class in society. These situations lead to development of social vices such as jealousy and inequality. The end product of such sentiments were criminal activities. Thus Smith looks at social stratification as a mechanism that is set in place to govern the states and the order that society establishes to manage the system.

It is my contention, however, that the cultivation of virtue and morality, or a sense of duty and obligation to other members of a community, is more important for a society than the promotion of personal interest. As such, a political structure in which only one individual or a few individuals hold all the power is devoid of virtue and should therefore be avoided or abolished. This, for me, is the designation of the “social contract.”

I have pursued this notion of the social contract in my own work by the same name, and my Social Contract I inadvertently dismantled Smith’s assertions that maximum utility is not only the premier motivation of the masses, but of the government as well. Specifically, I make the case that “As nature has set bounds to the stature of a well-made man, and, outside those limits, makes nothing but giants or dwarfs, similarly, for the constitution of a State to be at its best, it is possible to fix limits that will make it neither too large for good government, nor too small for self-maintenance” (book 2, Chapter 9).

Smith’s contentions are based on the notion that an individual will always choose the route that will provide him the greatest benefit, even if that benefit is not necessarily understandable to other people. Concurrently, Smith contends that the common wealth or sovereign state has to, in its nature, satisfy the economic and social needs. The state mostly uses the taxation system to earn revenue needed to run the countries duties. There are various individuals elected by the rest of society to represent them in the management of the country’s resources. In the state of nature, there is no opportunity to enslave a similar being since the existence is of a free nature. Thus the state of nature offers more freedom to those that exist under its rule.

It is my own personal belief however, that without equality mankind will lose his inherent virtue and will compete rather than sacrifice for one another. Moreover, they will be willing to let some rule over others, which is the opposite of liberty. Thus despite what Smith may claim, practical knowledge does not contribute to virtue at all; instead it had corrupted people’s morals and virtue, because it had encouraged people to become reliant on others rather than producing all they need for themselves. I consider such a situation to be unnatural, because it inevitably leads to moral, political and economic inequality among the people. My solution and explanation is summed up in my Social Contract as follows:

The public force therefore needs an agent of its own to bind it together and set it to work under the direction of the general will, to serve as a means of communication between the State and the Sovereign, and to do for the collective person more or less what the union of soul and body does for man. Here we have what is, in the State, the basis of government, often wrongly confused with the Sovereign, whose minister it is. What then is government? An intermediate body set up between the subjects and the Sovereign, to secure their mutual correspondence, charged with the execution of the laws and the maintenance of liberty, both civil and political (Rousseau, 1762, book 3, Chapter 1).

It is important to note here that for me, even if the rulers are elected by the ruled, the ruled will still be living under laws they have not made, and which, therefore, will not seem natural to them. In the pursuit of economic development according to Smith, land is rented out. It is in this perspective that I claim that modernity creates a sense of inequality where by some individuals claim ownership of natural resources like land and lease them out to others. I urge that artificial needs created by human beings have made it difficult to have authenticity in human dealings.

Without question, the development of civilization has undergone numerous economic changes and advances over time. Adam Smith reflects and outlines the concept of economic and political status of the society he foresees. In particular, he looks at the societal aspects of economic development such as the division of labor, and value and cost in society. Smith believes that the division of labour has a markedly positive effect on the operations and growth of the society. On the contrary, I proclaim that the division of labour leads to a life of routine that leads the individual to apply very little creativity or effort to their work. In part two of my Discource on the Origin of Inequality, I explain through the development of the nuclear family and practice of agriculture and mining have shown that the division of labour has a linear relation to the development of social inequality.

For Smith, however, the development of a commercial and economic society leads to the existence of a social structure. This social structure is furthermore divided into three classes – the landowners, the capitalists and the laborers. This is considered by Smith to be the three great constituent that exist in every single civilized society. For him, the introduction of social structures like government and economic classes are the major causes of aggression and war.

The idea that economic progress leads to a need to develop dominance over the less privileged in terms of skills or money by the more privileged is not new. Smith, through his writings and concepts, helps to bring an understanding of the connection between economics and human behavior this insightful and illuminating on a variety of levels. However, what Smith fails to acknowledge is that human beings have choices, and those choices are not solely based on maximizing the benefits that feed their own self-interests. Virtue, compassion, benovolance and desire for freedom and equality all contribute to the workings of society in profound ways. Thus, while I agree with Adam Smith on several broad points, I cannot support his lack of attention to the less cynical perceptions of the nature of mankind.

Works Cited

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, the Social Contract, 1762, Available

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Filiquarian Publishing, LLC., 2007

Smith, Adam. 1863. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, University of Chicago Press, 1863/1977

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