The Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith’s famous attempt to explain the nature and causes of the wealth of nations rests on several crucial assumptions about human nature which in turn rely on false universalism and questionable dichotomies.
To begin with, Smith makes roughly three claims about human nature. Primarily, Smith assumes that self-interest is inherent in all human beings. As opposed to animals which rely on benevolence, in opposition to natural pity (Rousseau p. 53), the human “will be more likely to prevail if he can interest [others’] 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, p. 18). Smith later relies on this “self-love” to ground his arguments on the steady base of human nature. More subtly, the “faculties of reason and speech” play a crucial role in Smith’s treatment of human behavior. Although he never openly lists these “faculties” as essential to human nature, his argument relies on this assumption. The step from having some goods and needing others to trading with those who have the needed goods and want the overabundant ones cannot be warranted without a presumption of a rational actor. Similarly, every development towards improved efficiency, if these are anything more guided than random evolutionary steps, require such an actor to instigate it. In the case of the arrowmaker, Smith must assume some force driving the arrow maker to save time and maximize profits. Of course, the concepts of barter, trade, and the rest require speech, or some kind of communication. Finally, Smith instills “a certain propensity in human nature; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” (Smith p. 17). This, he suggests, may simply be an extension of reason (Smith p. 17). It is this final, and most specific, propensity of human nature that ensures a vague sense of self interest, coupled with reason and speech, produce a very particular kind of economic system, which he describes in the rest of the book. The three assumptions for the subject as self interested, rational and communicative, and inclined to truck and barter lay the foundations for Smith’s exposition on capitalism.
However, the very formula of suggesting a model of human nature, with as few elements as possible, and from that deriving a full account of the creation and justice (or injustice) of modern society is fundamentally flawed. Initially, the dichotomy of “natural” and “cultured” humans treats the specific as universal. The opposition is not culture versus nature, but our culture versus someone else’s “nature”. Rousseau makes this false neutrality evident with his references to the “natural” Caribs and Negroes (Rousseau p. 41,44,46), and Smith with discussion of landlocked and backward peoples (Smith p. 2,25). The racism inherent in the dichotomy makes it clear just how impossible it is to determine which human behavior is foundational and which is...