Polanyi on Adam Smith

By | November 15, 2010

No less a thinker than Adam Smith suggested that the division of labor in society was dependent upon the existence of markets, or, as he puts it, upon man’s “propensity to barter, truck and exchange one thing for another.” This phrase was later to yield the concept of the Economic Man. In retrospect it can be said that no misreading of the past ever proved more prophetic of the future. For while up to Adam Smith’s time that propensity had hardly shown up on a considerable scale in the life of any observed community, and had remained, at best, a subordinate feature of economic life, a hundred years later an industrial system was in full swing over the major part of the planet which, practically and theoretically, implied that the human race was swayed in all its economic activities, if not also in its political intellectual, and spiritual pursuits, by that one particular propensity. Herbert Spencer, in the second half of the nineteenth century, could without more than a cursory acquaintance with economics, equate the principle of the division of labor with barter and exchange, and another fifty years later, Ludwig von Mises and Walter Lippmann could repeat the same fallacy. By that time there was no need for argument. A host of writers on political economy, social history, political philosophy, and general sociology had followed in Smith’s wake and established his paradigm of the bartering savage as an axiom of their respective sciences. In point of fact, Adam Smith’s suggestions about the economic psychology of early man were as false as Rousseau’s were on the political psychology of the savage. Division of labor, a phenomenon as old as society, springs from differences inherent in the facts of sex, geography, and individual endowment; and the alleged propensity of man to barter, truck, and exchange is almost entirely apocryphal. While history and ethnography know of various kinds of economies, most of them comprising the institution of markets they know of no economy prior to our own, even approximately controlled and regulated by markets. This will become abundantly clear from a bird’s-eye view of the history of economic systems and of markets, presented separately. The role played by markets in the internal economy of the various countries it will appear, was insignificant up to recent times and the changeover to an economy dominated by the market pattern will stand out all the more clearly.

In The Great Transformation, pages 43&44.

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