Up-close examination of how Adam Smith and industrial advancement sparked furious debates on the future of the impoverished.
Jones (History/Cambridge Univ.) examines the rise of political economy in England and France after the French Revolution, seeing in early responses to Smith’s writings several unacknowledged precursors of socialism. During the early Industrial Era, many thinkers felt poverty could be eased by technology, were it not for the intractable attitudes of the aristocracy and the notorious Tudor-era Poor Laws, which penalized debtors. The French Revolution’s reverberations led Condorcet and Thomas Paine to call for “socializing” the poor through public subsidy. The response in Britain towards such proposals was severe and, Jones argues, concealed attacks on Smith’s reimagining of labor as a valued commodity. This backlash was epitomized by Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population, loosely interpreted ever since to support various repressive ideologies. As for the French, their early proto-welfare experiment was ultimately destroyed by “Jacobin megalomania.” Jones also explores how the accelerating Industrial Revolution affected the lives of the poor. In Britain, “interest in the possibilities of machinery was overshadowed by Malthusian anxieties about population increase and Ricardian fears about diminishing returns.” As the so-called “entrepreneur class” developed, technology actually widened the “moral and economic breach” between them and the unskilled poor; the ghost of this division seems perceptible in today’s backlash politics. By the mid-1800s, liberals and reactionaries alike concluded that, far from ending poverty, industry and the free market would hobble the “industriousness and frugality” that European observers had admired in the United States. Ultimately, Jones asserts, “it was not Smith but the conservative reaction of the 1790s which produced the divorce between political economy and progressive politics.”
Enthusiastically argued, but so intertwined with original sources and rhetorical mannerisms that it’s not terribly accessible.