For a love of false consciousness: Adam Smith on the social origin of scarcity

For Americans, there can be few better lines in the history of philosophy than Locke´s cavalier assertion that ‘in the beginning all the world was America’ (Locke, 1992, p. 753). Taken out of context, it affirms our infamous ‘exceptionalism’ by effectively transforming our country into The Garden that we have always known it to be. Taken in context, it affirms our equally infamous anarcho-capitalism, for herein lies an intricate claim that, whenever not hemmed in by government, our country houses an eternal abundance. Government thwarts our easy access to bliss, casting us out of our Garden and into a world of artificial scarcity that demands endless toil. Thus, embedded within Locke´s logic lies the revolutionary possibility that social equality could be conjured forth in an instant, were we to simply wake up to the true abundance offered by the natural world. Scarcity, according to him, has been produced by mankind and was simply not present in antediluvian America. The foundational ideas of modern economics – supply and demand – turn tail in the face of a world wherein all necessities can be effortlessly plucked from the nearest tree. Given a garden of natural abundance, the equilibrium price of all goods drops to zero. Adam Smith, I will argue, picks up on this Lockean strand in The theory of moral sentiments, but morphs it in significant ways. In so doing, Smith clearly believes that society itself is co-constitutive with the creation of scarcity. For him, there is virtually no ‘natural’ scarcity, save for the market in one keystone good, with which I will conclude. Instead, scarcity is created by mankind in order to achieve very particular and cohesive social goals. Reopening the laissez-faire lineage of the social production of scarcity might not only help us to work through some foundational concepts in the dismal science, which, at least since Malthus, has famously and adamantly insisted that the world is constituted by natural scarcity; it might also allow us to move beyond certain prototypical impasses between the proverbial left and right, by showing that both sides of the political spectrum have a deep grasp of the social origins of inequality.

Article originally published in “Economic Sociology” V. 12 (2011), n. 3. Reprinted with permission.

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