Misreading Adam Smith (and, why we love technology)

Adam_smithSorry not to have posted yesterday.  I am in Pasadena for a conference and only narrowly survived JetBlue passage from JFK.  It is 6 hours in the air, 9 all together and it took awhile before powers of thought and speech returned.

I had the occasion to observe how powerfully the JetBlue brand manages to make the best of a bad situation and very close quarters.  And I have never been so grateful for the good company of bad TV.  But there is a limit to what even great brands to do, and over 6 hours, the press of fellow passengers makes the whole thing feel like steerage, or, possibly, that we have been kidnapped and stuffed in a trunk.  My advice: use this airline only for shorter flights, and then be careful to sit in the back of the plane where there are two extra inches of room.

I also had occasion to read a little Adam Smith, specifically passages from The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  (I don’t care how crowded the plane, there’s always room for the other Scottish philosopher.)  As an anthropologist interested in economics, you would think that I know my Smith left, right and center.  The truth is otherwise. 

Too bad.  Because here I discovered Smith offering a very anthropological account of why we care about technology.  The second paragraph could have been written to describe any one of us, burdened as we usually are by a laptop, PDA, cell phone, and Blackberry.  As Smith says, we "walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles."

A watch, in the same manner, that falls behind above two minutes in a day, is despised by one curious in watches. He sells it perhaps for a couple of guineas, and purchases another at fifty, which will not lose above a minute in a fortnight. The sole use of watches however, is to tell us what o’clock it is, and to hinder us from breaking any engagement, or suffering any other inconveniency by our ignorance in that particular point. But the person so nice with regard to this machine, will not always be found either more scrupulously punctual than other men, or more anxiously concerned upon any other account, to know precisely what time of day it is. What interests him is not so much the attainment of this piece of knowledge, as the perfection of the machine which serves to attain it.

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.

Now, its clear that Smith wants to make this argument to take issue with ideas of utility he wishes to correct, and it is clear that to use this argument for my own purposes, I am misreading it, or at least removing it from its proper rhetorical and logical context.

But, hey.  (Now that’s a nice little anthropological moment, isn’t it?  You know exactly what I am doing with "but, hey" [telling you that I am going to do what I know I should, strictly speaking, not do] but you are capable of that interpretation only because you have occupied this culture for the last 20 years.  Mr. Smith, on the other hand, would be mystified.) 

It is as if Smith is saying that there is something about the object that serves as an expression of its use, that it works, when we look upon it, as an anticipation of itself, as a kind of prediction of its efficacy.  It’s as if Smith is saying that we treasure the object, that we take pleasure in the sight of the object, because it is a time machine showing us what it can do. 

The view of the object (watch or PDA) treats it as a statement of the owner’s enablement or potentiality.  And clearly the other Scottish philosopher was on to something.  Objects add enablement to the owner.  Without apology or hesitation, we claim this enablement as our own.  Nice work, Mr. Smith.   The utility is not (only) the function.  The utility is not (only) the enablement.  The utility is (also) that new confidence that in a world of astonishing complexity and dynamism, we are enabled. 

The trouble with anthropology and economics is that they meet only at an intersection, and then proceed, without a second thought or a fare thee well, in different directions.  So it’s charming when we may suggest, however dubiously, that this was not always so, that a founding economist saw us whole. 


Smith, Adam.  1759. Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation Consisting of One Section.  Part IV of The Theory of the Moral Sentiments.  Available on line here


Thanks to Virginia Postrel for bringing this passage to my attention.  See Virginia’s website here.

6 thoughts on “Misreading Adam Smith (and, why we love technology)

  1. 139

    Not much content to offer here as I’m ‘on my way out’ (the door that is, not into the grave.) But I wanted to let you know I’ve been really enjoying reading this blog.

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  3. Peter

    As someone who spent a lot of years as a management consultant, I have to admit that I saw many clients who purchased management consultancy for similar reasons. A company calls in McKinsey or Bain, not only to advise on a problem that the company (perceives) it has, but to create (and advertise to the world) a new sense of enablement in an uncertain world, a sense which arises from being advised by such clever people. And often, this new capability was indeed created, merely by having consultants: Sparring with the unremitting Jesuits of McKinsey did, indeed, increase the abilities of the company’s managers even when — perhaps, especially when — the consultants’ advice was not adopted.

    My company had repeated engagements with a client who almost always ignored our advice. When I asked him about it once, he said that it was the dialectical process of disagreeing with us that he found most valuable, not our advice.

  4. Ed Brenegar

    As a consultant, I agree with Peter. Part of the enablement that I’ve begun to recognize is the rise in self-confidence my clients gain. I think it comes from someone from the outside who comes in, and sees the value, the opportunities and the potential. The excitement I get gets translated to the client. Of course, that only happens when they want more than a sounding board.

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  6. PippaLyons

    The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a good read, although in my opinion, The Wealth of Nations was far more influential. The ideas outlined in this book laid the foundation for the free market economies of the 21st Century, and although conceived over 300 years ago, adam smith’s ideas are as significant and relevant today as ever.

    You are able to view a free online version of this masterpiece at http://www.adam-smith-wealth-of-nations.co.uk

    I hope this is of some use to you

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