Study Guide

The Wealth of Nations Primitivity

By Adam Smith

Primitivity

Among the savage nations of hunters and fishers, every individual who is able to work, is more or less employed in useful labour. (I.4)

There are tons of people in modern countries who do nothing but sit around all day and collect money from the properties and businesses they own. But in other societies, almost everyone makes a contribution to the community and has a productive job.

[And] a workman, even of the lowest and poorest order, if he is frugal and industrious, may enjoy a greater share of the necessaries and conveniences of life than it is possible for any savage to acquire. (I.5)

One of the greatest things about free markets in Smith's mind is that they create so much wealth that even the lowest in society are better off than the highest in other societies. At least that's how the theory goes.

And yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages. (1.1.11)

In Smith's mind, the great thing about advanced countries is that even the poorest people in them are still better off than the wealthiest people in primitive societies. This is one of his biggest arguments for allowing free trade and open competition.

In that original state of things, which precedes both the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, the whole produce of labour belongs to the labourer. (1.8.2)

At one point, Adam Smith looks back to an earlier Europe where there were no landowners and everyone who farmed the land kept whatever they produced. But whether we like it or not, private property started existing at one point and it's unlikely we'll go back to that earlier way of doing things.

Had this state continued, the wages of labour would have augmented with all those improvements in its productive powers, to which the division of labour gives occasion. (1.8.3)

Smith thinks that society has progressed because of the division of labor, where every person does a specific job and trades all of their extra product for something they want from someone else. This system ends up creating more wealth for everyone, and it doesn't rely on social inequality the way many people think it does.

The labour of an able-bodied slave, the same author adds, is computed to be worth double his maintenance; and that of the meanest labourer, he thinks, cannot be worth less than that of an able-bodied slave. (1.8.15)

Smith insists that there is no point in enslaving the so-called "primitive" people of the world because it's actually cheaper to pay a regular worker than it is to buy a slave. But people just don't listen because they love the feeling of power they get from owning other people.

Marriage is encouraged in China, not by the profitableness of children, but by the liberty of destroying them. (1.8.24)

Smith plays into the cultural prejudice of his day when he talks about how much the people of China like to murder their babies for fun. It's clear that he's probably getting this opinion from the general racism of his day.

China, however, though it may perhaps stand still, does not seem to go backwards. (1.8.25)

For Smith, China is a poor country with a huge population that doesn't seem to be advancing at all. Talk about China like that today, though, and you'll get laughed out of the room.

In consequence of the representations of Columbus, the council of Castile determined to take possession of countries of which the inhabitants were plainly incapable of defending themselves. (4.7.6)

Once Columbus came back from his first trip to America, he had little trouble convincing the king and queen of Spain to kill the native peoples and take the land over for themselves. That's because people at the time felt that Europe had a natural right to conquer anything that was less advanced than it.

As long as the whole or the far greater part of the gold, which the first adventurers imported into Europe, was got by so very easy a method as the plundering of the defenceless natives, it was not perhaps very difficult to pay even this heavy tax. (4.7.7)

Again, Smith wants to remind his readers that it was morally horrible for the Europeans to colonize America. The fact that they killed off and conquered the native peoples is nothing short of a violation of natural freedom that Smith thinks is more important than anything else.