Was Adam Smith an Advocate of Consumerism?
Angus Sibley, writing the Distributist Review, falsely attributes to Adam Smith a desire for “unrestrained competition”:
We cannot all persist in producing and consuming more and more. It should therefore be obvious that redistribution, combined with reduction in wasteful consumption, is the only possible route to a just overall distribution of the planet’s finite resources.
But libertarians are blind to this fact. They stick to their view that the only way to eliminate penury is to press ahead with economic growth, to provide ever more goods for the infallible free market to distribute. We have seen how Smith’s classical economics called for unrestrained competition to encourage more and cheaper production. But that strategy has run into the buffers of global sustainability. It has ceased to be relevant, yet still it dominates our thinking and practice.
Sibley also apparently believes Smith was an 18th century advocate of modern-style consumerism:
This attitude [an obsession with competition] can be traced back to Adam Smith, who lambasted the anticompetitive craftsmen’s guilds of his day. Without them, he argued, “the wages of the workmen would be much lower…the trades, the crafts, the mysteries, would all be losers. But the public would be a gainer, the work of all artificers coming in this way much cheaper to market”.
His dream was to make everything cheaper, so that we could all (apart from the impoverished workmen) buy and consume more.
In reality, Smith rightly condemned collusion between business and government that would generate monopoly profits and lower wages. Smith was not obsessed with competition but he did prefer it to the anticompetitive trade barriers businessmen sought (and often obtained) from the British government. That, in fact, is what Book One, Chapter 10 of the Wealth of Nations (from which Sibley has taken this quote) is all about. To argue that Smith’s “dream” was to make everything cheaper so that everyone except the poor workmen could buy more is a mischaracterization. In fact, Smith railed against rent-seeking merchants who would suppress wages and artificially raise their prices.
And far from advocating low wages, Smith thought that asymmetries in the wage bargain between workers and employers could artificially suppress wages and distort justice:
Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate.
Nor was Smith a hedonistic advocate of consumerism as Sibley implies. One only has to look to his Theory of Moral Sentiments for evidence of that:
How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.