Did He or Didn’t He? (He Did!)

Prof. Gavin Kennedy, of Heriot-Watt University (emeritus) and Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, has called my attention, indirectly, and Paul Walker, of  Anti-dismal, directly, to an error in Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. On page 40 of that book, I assert that Adam Smith never visited a pin factory. The full paragraph reads this way:

The first three chapters and the plan of the book provided the whole kernel of what today we would call a theory of growth. Much stress has been laid over the years on the significance of the description of the pin factory. In fact Smith never visited one. Apparently he based his account on an article in an encyclopedia. Never mind that Smith was widely traveled and sharply observant everywhere he went. His failure to expend much shoe-leather in this case has occasionally been cited to discredit him. Such cavils entirely miss the point.I say indirectly, because it was Tim Harford of the Financial Times who unfortunately was on the receiving end of Kennedy’s indignation. Harford is the author of a new book, The Logic of Life: the Rational Economics of an Irrational World, in which he applies economic reasoning to various realms of everyday life. He tells me that he depended on my assertion when writing this passage in the run-up to a discussion of the advantages of specialization in marriage: Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, traveled around Europe as tutor to the Duke of Buccleuch. (His employer was the Duke’s stepfather, the British chancellor Charles Townshend, a man who set a political time bomb by imposing tea duties on America and appointing a customs commissioner to Boston.) But despite his travels, Adam Smith never actually visited a pin factory. While sitting at home in Kircaldy, he was inspired by an entry in an encyclopedia. The passage is no less important for that.Prof. Kennedy, on the other hand, draws our attention (and yours) to this passage in the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations (emphasis added): To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day.Clearly, Smith visited a factory of some sort. He was not the sort of man to make things up. How did I commit my error?I am pretty certain that, when I wrote that passage, I was thinking in a general way of my old and dear friend Charles P. Kindleberger, from whom I first learned much of what I know about various controversies of historical economics. Specifically, I was remembering an essay that he wrote for Thomas Wilson and Andrew Skinner to commemorate the bicentennial of the publication of the appearance of Smith’s great work in 1776.As usual, Charlie set out his thesis concisely and joyfully in the first paragraph of “The Historical Background Adam Smith and the Industrial Revolution:”

An early version of this paper focused on the dispute, if one may call it that, between historians of economic thought who sometimes seek to demonstrate that Adam Smith was fully aware of the industrial revolution taking place around him as he wrote The Wealth of Nations, and economic historians who think he was not. It is true, as Samuel Johnson put it, that “in lapidary inscriptions, a man is not upon oath,” and piety demands that the guest of honour be given the benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless, I propose to dismiss this question quickly, with an open-and-shut verdict for the economic historians.I am, however, pretty certain that it was the recollection of this zinger a few pages farther on that caused my fingers to slip. CPK was nothing if not memorable: It may well be true, as Viner says, that “Smith was a keen observer of his surroundings and used skillfully what he saw to illustrate his general argument”…. But it is surely going too far to say with Max Lerner in his introduction to the Modern Library Edition: “Smith kept his eyes and ears open… Here was something that gave order and meaning to the newly-emerged world of commerce and the newly-emerging world of industry… Smith took ten more years. He could not be hurried in his task. He had to read and observe further. He poked his nose into old books and new factories.” That last sentence is half right.Prof. Kennedy wonders if perhaps Harford or I were the victims of Murray Rothbard’s famous essay “The Myth of Adam Smith,” republished a few years ago by the Ludwig Von Mises Institute in An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, and ably rebutted by Kennedy himself in a vigorous series of posts (go to the January 2006 archives and read from the bottom up, starting with January 13). Far from it, at least in my case, and, I am pretty certain, in Tim’s.When I wrote those words about Smith’s acuity, I was in fact thinking of the historian’s inevitable tendency to disparage theorists – the longest-running and most fruitful argument with Charlie that I had. You remember these things pretty clearly when contradicting your favorite teacher (though I was his friend, technically, never his paying pupil), even if he is not around any longer to argue back.

That Smith relied on secondary sources to some extent for his discussion of the pin factory is well established. His authority for the eighteen distinct pin-making operations apparently was the entry in the 1755 Encyclopédie of d’Amlembert and Diderot, whose seven volumes he bought for the Glasgow University Library before June of 1760. W.B. Todd, textual editor of the Oxford University Press edition Wealth of Nations, mentions in a footnote that a passage “very similar” to the one that eventually appeared in The Wealth of Nations is to be found in an early draft of the book, composed before April 1763 – before, that is, Smith traveled to France with the Duke of Buccleuch.

In that draft, Smith conjectured that “where the processes of manufacture are divided among 18 persons, each should in effect be capable of producing 2,000 pins in a day,” or 36,000 pins (according to the footnote on p. 15 of my facsimile of the 1976 Oxford edition.) The same numbers are employed in the two versions of the Lectures on Jurisprudence, 1762-3 and 1766, he says.

So where did Smith visit his “small manufactory,” and when? What accounts for the discrepancy in numbers? – 18 men making 36,000 pins a day in the early accounts, apparently hypothetically, to judge from his grammatical construction; 10 men making 48,000 pins a day in the later, eyewitness version, published in 1776. In an earlier post, Prof. Kennedy wrote:

We know there were nail manufactories close by his mother’s house in Kirkcaldy, Fife, any one of which could have had a small workshop attached that specialized in pins, and was distinguished from the “18 operations” in Diderot in France (“25” according to Murray Rothbard in “England”) by the precise number of “10” labourers in Fife, Scotland, some of them doing “two or three operations’.”Perhaps then it was a nail factory that Smith visited. From the second half of his sentence, though, it certainly sounds as though the ten men he saw there, with their indifferent machinery, were making pins — twelve pounds of them, or around 48,000, in a day, at least when they were operating at full capacity. Was the market broad enough to sustain this level of activity for long? Where could you sell that many pins? Perhaps Prof. Kennedy, a lively and energetic scholar, will further investigate Smith’s field trip and write up his findings.(If he does, he’ll probably want to be in touch with Jean-Louis Peucell, of the University of Reunion Island, France. In “Adam Smith’s Use of Multiple References for his Pin Making Example,” in the December 2006 issue of the European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Peaucelle hints darkly that perhaps the reason Smith wanted sixteen volumes of unfinished manuscript burnt days before he died in 1790 was to cloak the sources of his discussion of the pin factory. He mentions Smith’s assertion that he had visited a factory in passing, mainly in order to dismiss the possibility that the Scot had obtained his numbers there. [“His childhood in the nail making town of Kircaldy may have influenced his choice of a metallurgical activity.”] Instead, Peaucell writes, “another hypothesis is now developed.” He spends 22 pages arguing the Smith had obtained 1776 values from one French source and his 1763 numbers from another [and the very expression “division of labor” as well]. Here the detective outlines his case:

Having examined how each text may have contributed to Adam Smith’s writings, we can now piece together their sequence. To begin with, Smith knew of the concept of the division of labour through his readings of classical Greek authors and past English scholars. It is likely that he regularly read scientific journals as they were published. He would have discovered the description of the production process in the Journal des sçavans. The example would stand out given his previous readings. He may have then spoken about it with Adam Ferguson. Smith would have sought additional references on the matter. In Duhamel’s text he would discover the term division de ce travail. In Diderot’s Encyclopédie all 18 activities were clearly set out. He would have had all the information he needed to prepare his Glasgow lectures. During a later trip to Paris he may have found and purchased Macquer’s Dictionnaire. The pin making article would have been of great interest. He would now be ready to write The Wealth of Nations.Plagiarism? “It would seem not,” is Peaucelle’s verdict. But “Smith should have listed his sources.”)In a more serious vein, Clifford Pratten, of Cambridge University, wrote a deft history thirty years ago, “The Manufacture of Pins,” which appeared in the Journal of Economic Literature in March 1980. In the early eighteenth century, Pratten wrote, pin “manufacturies” – of which he estimates there were a hundred or more in the United Kingdom – were concentrated in London, Bristol and Gloucestershire. By mid-century, “much pin production was located in workhouses and organized as a cottage industry.” And by the early years of the nineteenth century,, advances in machine production were causing rapid changes in industrial structure. In 1820, fully a fifth of the workforce in Gloucester was engaged in making pins in eleven factories; fifty years later, the industry was gone, having moved to Birmingham, where fifty pin companies were operating as late as 1900.)

Whether my error is serious or trivial depends on the business you are in. It is, I suppose, a calumny on Smith to say that he never saw to a pin factory, even if in the same breath I gave him credit for getting out and around. Certainly I deeply regret the error. It is still the case that Kindleberger was correct in the essay that made such an impression on me: Smith failed to report a lot of stuff that was going on right under his nose. The great figures of the early Industrial Revolution – Wedgewood, Arkwright, Boulton and Watt – are mostly missing from The Wealth of Nations. But does that demonstrate that Smith was ignorant of the industrial revolution that was going on around him? I don’t think so.

There are many paths to discovery in economics: experimental, mathematical (and statistical), empirical, historical. Practitioners routinely make exaggerated claims for the primacy of each. The point I sought to make in my book – its subtitle was A Story of Economic Discovery – was that the most important insights have derived from some combination of theoretical coherence checked against observations of the real world. That’s the portrait of Smith I sought to convey – gregarious and curious one moment, prone to long silences the next, time he spent not reading or poking his nose into factories, but rather “thinking, thinking, tracing through the long chains of causation.” When these were finally described in The Wealth of Nations, they produced a model, an “imaginary machine,” that convinced a substantial community of thinkers to stop writing as philosophers and begin behaving like scientists.

 But I digress.

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