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The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie, vol. I of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982).
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Development between editions
Smith made substantial changes to TMS in editions 2 and 6. The most important feature of these changes is a development of his concept of the impartial spectator. An account of this is given by D. D. Raphael in the volume of Essays on Adam Smith (edited by Andrew S. Skinner and Thomas Wilson) accompanying the present edition of Smith’s Works. A summary of salient points will therefore suffice here.
Both Hutcheson and Hume gave prominence, in their ethical theories, to the approval of ‘a spectator’ or of ‘every spectator’, even of ‘a judicious spectator’. This conception helps to bring out the disinterested character of the moral standpoint; the spectator is not personally involved, as is the agent or a person affected by the action. A spectator theory of moral judgement implies impartiality, even though Hutcheson and Hume did not use the adjective ‘impartial’11 in this connection. The originality of Adam Smith’s impartial spectator lies in his development of the idea so as to explain the source and nature of conscience, i.e. of a man’s capacity to judge his own actions and especially of his sense of duty. On this aspect of ethics the theories of Hutcheson and Hume were undoubtedly lame, as was clear to their rationalist critics. Hutcheson himself must have seen the force of the criticism when he accepted, in his later work, the view of Bishop Butler that conscience has ‘authority’, though he did not attempt to explain this in terms of his theory of approval. Smith did, in terms of his own theory.
According to Smith, conscience is a product of social relationship. Our first moral sentiments are concerned with the actions of other people. Each of us judges as a spectator and finds himself judged by spectators. Reflection upon our own conduct begins later in time and is inevitably affected by the more rudimentary experience. ‘Reflection’ is here a live metaphor, for the thought process mirrors the judgement of a hypothetical observer. ‘We suppose ourselves the spectators of our own behaviour, and endeavour to imagine what effect it would, in this light, produce upon us. This is the only looking–glass by which we can, in some measure, with the eyes of other people, scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct’ (III.1.5). The looking–glass requires imagination; Smith’s impartial spectator is not the actual ‘man without’ but an imagined ‘man within’. When I judge my own conduct I do not simply observe what an actual spectator has to say; I imagine what I should feel if I myself were a spectator of the proposed action.
There is an important difference between this view and the more straightforward idea that conscience reflects the feelings of real external spectators. If I imagine myself as a spectator, I may on the one hand fail to overcome my natural partiality for myself as the actual agent, and in this respect ‘the man within’ may be an inferior witness. But on the other hand ‘the man without’ is liable to lack relevant information that I possess, and in that way the judgement of conscience can be superior to that of actual spectators.
This feature of Smith’s account was not made sufficiently clear in edition 1 of TMS. Smith was led to clarify it for his readers, and perhaps also for himself, as the result of an objection put to him by Sir Gilbert Elliot. Elliot’s letter has not survived but we can infer the point of it from Smith’s reply,12 which was accompanied by a draft of a revision that was introduced (with some changes of detail) in edition 2. Elliot’s objection must have come to this: if conscience is a reflection of social attitudes, how can it ever differ from, or be thought superior to, popular opinion? In the revision for edition 2 Smith showed how the imagined impartial spectator can reach a more objective opinion than actual spectators, who are liable to be misled by ignorance or the distortions of perspective. Imagination can conjure up a spectator free from those limitations, just as it can enable us to reach objective judgements of perception.
At this stage Smith still retained the view that conscience begins with popular opinion. He says, in the revision for edition 2, that the jurisdiction of conscience ‘is in a great measure derived from the authority of that very tribunal, whose decisions it so often and so justly reverses’. But by the time he came to revise the work again for edition 6, Smith had become even more sceptical of popular opinion and replaced the passage just quoted by the statement that ‘the jurisdictions of those two tribunals are founded upon principles which, though in some respects resembling and akin, are, however, in reality different and distinct’ (III.2.32). The judgement of the real spectator depends on the desire for actual praise, that of the imagined impartial spectator on the desire for praiseworthiness. Smith maintains the distinction in other parts of the new material added to edition 6, especially in his treatment of self–command.
Although Smith’s special concept of the impartial spectator was developed to explain a man’s moral judgements about himself, the general idea is of course used for other moral judgements too. In Smith’s view, the main stream of ethical theory, which holds that virtue consists in ‘propriety’, has offered only two suggestions for a firm criterion of right action; one is utility, the other is the impartial spectator. Throughout the work he gives reasons for preferring the second. Its central importance for him is underlined by his adding to edition 6 a short paragraph in criticism of modern theories of propriety (VII.ii.1.49).
None of those systems either give, or even pretend to give, any precise or distinct measure by which this fitness or propriety of affection can be ascertained or judged of. That precise and distinct measure can be found nowhere but in the sympathetic feelings of the impartial and well–informed spectator.
Sir Gilbert Elliot was not the only critic to be answered in edition 2. Smith also deals, at I.iii.1.9, with an objection put to him by Hume in Letter 36, dated 28 July 1759. Hume’s objection concerned sympathy and approval. According to Hume’s own theory, the feeling of approval is a special sort of pleasure and arises from sympathy with the pleasure produced by a virtuous action. Smith likewise connected approbation with sympathy but did not limit this to sympathy with pleasure. He wrote of sympathizing with grief and thereby approving it as proper in the circumstances. Sympathy with grief is of course a sharing of a painful feeling. But Smith also wrote, in I.i.2.6, that we are always pleased when we can sympathize. Hume thought there was an inconsistency here. In his reply Smith makes clearer the relation between sympathetic feeling and the feeling of approval. Sympathetic feeling can be either pleasurable or painful. When a spectator does sympathize, in either way, he can also note the correspondence between his own feeling and that of the person observed, and this perception of correspondence is always pleasurable. The sentiment of approval is the second, necessarily pleasurable, feeling, not the first.
A distinction between sympathy and approval is all the more necessary for a passage added to edition 6. As has already been mentioned in section 1(c) above (p. 14), Smith followed Hume in using sympathy to explain ‘the distinction of ranks’ (I.iii.2). We admire the rich and the great because we take sympathetic pleasure in their enjoyments. The admiration or respect is perfectly natural and contributes to the stability of society. By 1789, however, when revising the book for edition 6, Smith was less complacent and followed that discussion with a new chapter (I.iii.3) on ‘the corruption of our moral sentiments’ by the disposition to admire the rich and the great. In it he says that while wealth and power commonly receive respect, they do not deserve it, as do wisdom and virtue. Yet he still thinks that the respect for the rich and the great is both natural and useful. In VI.ii.1.20, again a passage written for edition 6, Smith returns briefly to the rich and the great as contrasted with the wise and the virtuous. He there commends ‘the benevolent wisdom of nature’ in leading us to admire the former so much, his reason being the old one that our natural tendency to respect wealth and power helps to maintain social order. Despite the connection with sympathy and utility, Smith does not wish to class this respect as a form of moral approbation. It is, he says, similar to and apt to be mistaken for the moral respect that we feel for wisdom and virtue, but nonetheless it is not the same (I.iii.3.3).
A major change in edition 6 was the inclusion of an entirely new Part VI. In general this rounds out and clarifies, rather than changes, Smith’s ethical theory. It describes a division of virtue into three categories: prudence; benevolence and justice (both of which concern the effects of conduct on other people); and self–command. Smith always included all of these in his idea of virtue, but the earlier version of his views did not set out so clearly their relative place in the scheme of things and did not say much about prudence. The increased attention to prudence in edition 6 is natural from the more mature Adam Smith who had pondered on economics for so long. The prudent man of TMS VI.i. is the frugal man of WN.II.iii. The Stoic virtue of self–command was highlighted even in edition 1. Edition 6 devotes a substantial section (iii) to self–command in the new Part VI and also adds further reflections in III.3, where self–command is compared with conscience in the fully developed concept of the impartial spectator. The more extensive treatment given to self–command in edition 6 suggests that Smith had now acquired an even warmer regard for Stoicism than he felt in earlier days. This is confirmed both by the more elaborate treatment of Stoic philosophy as such, in VII.ii.1, and by the account of universal benevolence, in VII.ii.3, in terms of Stoic rather than of Christian doctrine.
Other features of the new Part VI reflect the interests and experience of an older man. Descriptions of different characters—the prudent man, the man of system, the magnanimous, the proud, the vain man—follow the model of Aristotle and Theophrastus but also declare Smith’s own scale of values. Unlike Aristotle he did not think that theorizing was necessarily the best form of human life. Indeed he despised the pure theorist who pursued dogma with no regard for practice, and he seems to have admired heroic characters most.
In his strictures on civil faction and the spirit of system (VI.ii.2.12–18), Smith appears to be reacting to the French Revolution. This has led Walther Eckstein, in the Introduction (xlii f.) to his edition of TMS, to attribute to Smith’s old age a conservatism that was not there before. If we did not know from other evidence that Smith was a lifelong Whig, Eckstein says, we might suppose from this section of TMS that he was a Tory. It seems to us, however, that Eckstein’s interpretation is dubious. Most men grow more cautious with advancing years, and Smith was no exception. But his general position in politics does not seem to have changed substantially. He was always a staunch republican in spirit (as Eckstein agrees). There is at first sight some substance in a specific point made by Eckstein. In VI.ii.2.16 Smith commends ‘the divine maxim of Plato’ that a man should not ‘use violence’ against his country any more than against his parents. Eckstein notes (xliii) that this is recalled in LJ(B) 15 (Cannan ed., 11), where Smith says the Tory principle of authority declares that ‘to offend’ against government is as bad as ‘to rebel’ against a parent. (LJ(A) v.124 contains a similar statement.) There is, however, a difference between the two formulations; one does not have to be a Tory to take the TMS view that it is wrong to use ‘violence’ against the state. Eckstein also cites as evidence Smith’s view in VI.ii.1.20 that respect for rank contributes to social stability, and his comparable statements in VI.ii.2.9–10 that attachment to one’s own particular order also helps stability and ‘checks the spirit of innovation’. But such support for the existing social structure is nothing new in Smith. We have already noted that he approved of the respect for rank even more warmly (i.e. without qualification) in edition 1. Further, his approval is on grounds of utility, which in the LJ passage is said to be the principle of Whig, as contrasted with Tory, politics. Smith believed in a careful balance between order and innovation. There is a strong conservative strain in his thinking, but it is not markedly stronger in the edition 6 material of TMS than in the earlier writing. That he should be shocked by the events of 1789 is entirely what we would expect.
There is more of a case for Eckstein’s further suggestion (intro. xlv ff.) that a change in Smith’s religious views can be inferred from revisions in edition 6, especially from the omission of a passage on the Atonement and from the sceptical sound of a single dry sentence that took its place (II.ii.3.12). Less striking indications of such a change can in fact be seen in earlier revisions of the passage. This matter is dealt with fully in Appendix II. Other passages added in edition 6 show that Smith was still imbued with a religious spirit (as Eckstein notes), but it seems reasonable to conclude that he had moved away from orthodox Christianity. There is additional evidence pointing in the same direction, e.g. Letter 163 addressed to Alexander Wedderburn, dated 14 August 1776, which says: ‘Poor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great chearfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any Whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God.’ Smith did not, however, follow Hume into scepticism. All the evidence points rather to a trend towards natural religion, an attitude shown also in the sympathy with which he rearranged and expanded the Stoic passages of TMS.
Relation of TMS to WN
In the light of what has been said in the preceding section about changes in edition 6, there is no need to add much to discussions in the past about the relation of TMS to WN. The so–called ‘Adam Smith problem’ was a pseudo–problem based on ignorance and misunderstanding. Anybody who reads TMS, first in one of the earlier editions and then in edition 6, will not have the slightest inclination to be puzzled that the same man wrote this book and WN, or to suppose that he underwent any radical change of view about human conduct. Smith’s account of ethics and of human behaviour is basically the same in edition 6 of 1790 as in edition 1 of 1759. There is development but no fundamental alteration. It is also perfectly obvious that TMS is not isolated from WN (1776). Some of the content of the new material added to edition 6 of TMS clearly comes from the author of WN. No less clearly, a little of the content of edition 1 of TMS comes from the potential author of WN. Of course WN is narrower in scope and far more extensive in the working out of details than is TMS. It is largely, though by no means wholly, about economic activity and so, when it refers to motivation, concentrates on self–interest. There is nothing surprising in Adam Smith’s well known statement (WN I.ii.2): ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ Who would suppose this to imply that Adam Smith had come to disbelieve in the very existence or the moral value of benevolence? Nobody with any sense. But this does not necessarily exclude scholars, some of whom have adopted the Umschwungstheorie, the hypothesis that the moral philosopher who made sympathy the basis of social behaviour in TMS did an about–turn from altruistic to egoistic theory in WN owing to the influence of the French ‘materialist’ thinkers whom he met in Paris in 1766.
The charge of ‘materialism’ (meaning an egoistic theory of human nature) in WN was made by Bruno Hildebrand as early as 1848 in Die Nationalökonomie der Gegenwart und Zukunft (Frankfurt). It was followed up by Carl G. A. Knies in Die Politische Oekonomie vom Standpunkte der geschichtlichen Methode (Braunschweig, 1853), where the suggestion was first made that Smith changed his views between writing TMS and WN, and that the change was a result of his visit to France. The full–blown version of the Umschwungstheorie, however, was produced by Witold von Skarżyński in Adam Smith als Moralphilosoph und Schoepfer der Nationaloekonomie (Berlin, 1878). Skarżyński’s ideas were sparked off by those of H. T. Buckle in vol. ii of his History of Civilization in England (London, 1861). Buckle put forward a theory of a peculiar relationship between Smith’s two books. Skarżyński saw that this was questionable, but in reacting against it (and against Buckle’s high praise of Smith) he adopted one of Buckle’s chief errors and then added some of his own. Buckle’s view needs to be considered first.
Buckle’s interpretation of Adam Smith is in Chapter 6 of his book, dealing with Scottish thought in the eighteenth century. Buckle had a curious obsession with methodology, and in this chapter he insists that all Scottish philosophers of that period proceeded by the method of deduction and would have nothing to do with induction. Adam Smith conformed to the pattern, according to Buckle, except for one thing; he followed ‘a peculiar form of deduction’ (p. 437) in arguing from premisses that deliberately left out part of the relevant data. The procedure, based on the method of geometry (so Buckle says), was to select one set of premisses and reason from them in one context, and then to take the remaining data as another set of premisses for inference in a different context. Each piece of reasoning, Buckle continues, is incomplete on its own; they need to be seen as supplementing each other. That is how we must view TMS and WN.
To understand the philosophy of this, by far the greatest of all the Scotch thinkers, both works must be taken together, and considered as one; since they are, in reality, the two divisions of a single subject. In the Moral Sentiments, he investigates the sympathetic part of human nature; in the Wealth of Nations, he investigates its selfish part. And as all of us are sympathetic as well as selfish . . . and as this classification is a primary and exhaustive division of our motives to action, it is evident, that if Adam Smith had completely accomplished his vast design, he would at once have raised the study of human nature to a science, . . .
The general theme of this passage has point, but it is distorted by Buckle’s assumption that sympathy and selfishness can be set side by side as motives, indeed as an ‘exhaustive division’ of motives. After asserting that Smith ‘soon perceived that an inductive investigation was impossible’ and therefore adopted his ‘peculiar form of deduction’, Buckle repeats his view of how Smith proceeded in the two books.
In the Moral Sentiments, he ascribes our actions to sympathy; in his Wealth of Nations, he ascribes them to selfishness. A short view of these two works will prove the existence of this fundamental difference, and will enable us to perceive that each is supplementary to the other; so that, in order to understand either, it is necessary to study both.
It is indeed true that the two books complement each other and that the understanding of either is helped by studying both. But Buckle has not taken his own advice. He cannot have ‘studied’ TMS if he thinks that it ‘ascribes our actions to sympathy’. Sympathy is the core of Smith’s explanation of moral judgement. The motive to action is an entirely different matter. Smith recognizes a variety of motives, not only for action in general but also for virtuous action. These motives include self–interest or, to use the eighteenth–century term, self–love. It is this, not ‘selfishness’, that comes to the fore in WN. Smith distinguished the two expressions, using ‘selfishness’ in a pejorative sense for such self–love as issues in harm or neglect of other people. While Smith is ready to couple selfishness with ‘rapacity’ (TMS IV.1.10), he also insists, against Hutcheson, that a proper ‘regard to our own private happiness and interest’ is a necessary element in virtue (VII.ii.3.16). It is therefore impossible to accept the view that there is any difference of substance between TMS and WN on self–interest as a motive.
As for methodology, Buckle may have been misled by WN V.i.f.26, the one paragraph about logic in that work. In describing the divisions of ancient philosophy, Smith says that logic arose from considering ‘the difference between a probable and a demonstrative argument, between a fallacious and a conclusive one’. Buckle may have taken this to imply that probable or inductive argument should be wholly rejected. Smith has something more to say about methodology in LRBL and in the essay on the History of Astronomy in EPS. In LRBL ii.133–5 (Lothian ed., 139–40) he prefers the ‘Newtonian’ method of ‘didactic’ discourse to ‘that of Aristotle’. The first connects together all the relevant phenomena and their explanatory principles, while the latter, ‘the unconnected method’, explains each phenomenon ad hoc. But it is not at all clear that this is a distinction between deduction and induction. For in Astronomy. II.12, Smith represents scientific explanation, including that of Newton, as addressing itself to the imagination by showing regularities in the apparently irregular, and here he is following Hume’s view of inductive reasoning. There is no good reason to suppose that Smith thought ‘inductive investigation was impossible’, let alone that he pursued a special form of deduction, with a ‘peculiar artifice’, derived from geometry. His own habits of reasoning include both deduction and induction, as one would expect. Buckle’s suggestion that he followed the analogy of geometry is particularly inept because it allies Smith with the method of rationalism. Smith was in fact a firm empiricist and had little sympathy with rationalist philosophy. The ‘peculiar artifice’ of distorting the premisses of an argument is Buckle’s own invention, designed to explain the existence of two allegedly inconsistent accounts of human nature.
Skarżyński rightly rejected the idea that an artifice of logic could make inconsistency consistent, but he mistakenly accepted Buckle’s assumption that Smith’s two books gave contrary accounts of conduct. He therefore was led to the conclusion that Smith changed his views between writing them. To this was added the conviction that Smith was not an original thinker: according to Skarżyński, Smith learned all his moral philosophy from Hutcheson and Hume, and all his economics from French scholars. So Smith’s change of mind between 1759 and 1776 was attributed to his visit to France in 1764–6.
Skarżyński knew Dugald Stewart’s ‘Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith’, which contains two important pieces of evidence against the thesis that Smith learned all his economics in France. We have already noted these in section 1(a) above. First, Stewart gives us the report of John Millar that Smith’s lectures on Moral Philosophy included a section on economics that ‘contained the substance’ of WN; and second, Stewart describes a manuscript of 1755 in which Smith claims to have dictated before 1749, and to have delivered from 1750 onwards, lectures that incorporated certain of his leading principles in political economy. For Skarżyński, however, this is not evidence. How unfortunate, he says ironically, that ‘these valuable lectures’ were burned shortly before Smith’s death; mere assertion without written evidence is worthless (pp. 6–7). And when he quotes Millar’s statement that the lectures contained the substance of WN, he adds two exclamation marks to show his incredulity (53).
What Skarżyński would have called genuine evidence came to light eighteen years after the appearance of his book. A Report, copied in 1766, of Adam Smith’s lectures on jurisprudence was brought to the attention of Edwin Cannan and published by him in 1896. We can now say with some certainty that it relates to lectures given in 1763–4. A further Report of the lectures given in 1762–3 has been discovered more recently. Skarżyński would (or should) have found these Reports even more effective than the original notes that Adam Smith asked his friends to burn as he lay dying. If Smith’s manuscripts had not been burned, Skarżyński might have said that they were not necessarily the same as the manuscripts used for lectures in the 1760s; and indeed they may well have been altered. The Reports that we now have are less authentic in one sense, but there is no question of their having been revised by Smith after his visit to France.
A comparison of the two Reports shows that Smith was actively developing and varying his treatment of the subject–matter in the period 1762–4. We also have a manuscript that W. R. Scott called ‘An early draft of part of The Wealth of Nations’ and published in his Adam Smith as Student and Professor. It must have been written before April 1763.13 These documents show that Smith had gone a considerable way in his economic thinking by the time he left Scotland for France in 1764, and that this early material provided a sound foundation for developments which were certainly stimulated by the visit to France but which occupied his mind throughout the period 1764–76. What he took from the Physiocrats is clear, as are his criticisms.
Although Skarżyński did not have access to the manuscripts known today, he could have informed himself more adequately of facts that were available. He says on p. 166 of his book, truly enough, that Smith did not publish anything on political economy before 1776, but he then goes on to assert, in defiance of the testimony of Dugald Stewart, that Smith had ‘probably not once applied himself definitely to the study of political economy’ before his visit to France. Skarżyński evidently had no notion that lectures on economic matters were a recognized part of Moral Philosophy as taught in the Scottish Universities at that time. The tradition stemmed from the treatment of natural law by Roman and medieval writers, and more immediately from the jurisprudence of Grotius and Pufendorf. At Glasgow, Hutcheson’s predecessor in the Chair of Moral Philosophy, Gerschom Carmichael, used his own annotated edition of Pufendorf’s De Officio Hominis et Civis. Hutcheson continued the practice. Smith draws on Grotius in TMS (and on both Grotius and Pufendorf in LJ, though Skarżyński could not have known that). The tradition is common to all the Scottish teachers of Moral Philosophy in the eighteenth century. Skarżyński’s study of TMS seems to have been concentrated on noting Smith’s indebtedness to Hume. He treats the book as merely reproducing from Hume and at times doing it badly (76–7, 94–5). He even says (88) that Smith’s ‘twists and turns’, ‘sophistries and confusions’, could serve very well to obtain for TMS ‘the approval of three bishops and numerous literati’ (Schöngeister), an ironic reference to Hume’s teasing account (Letter 31, dated 12 April 1759) of the success of the book. If Skarżyński had studied TMS more thoroughly, he might have learned that Smith’s ethical theory differs substantially from Hume’s, despite indebtedness. He might even have come to see that Buckle’s interpretation of it was mistaken.
Smith himself provides the best evidence against any idea that there is a conflict between his two works. In the Advertisement to edition 6 of TMS he refers to the final paragraph of the book, which promises another one on law and government, and says that he has ‘partly executed this promise’ in WN. Clearly therefore he regards WN as continuing the sequence of thought set out in TMS. Moreover, as we have said at the beginning of this section, any reader can see that the new material in edition 6 is simply a development of Smith’s earlier position and at the same time reflects some of the interests of WN. Skarżyński was presumably unaware of the Advertisement and the additional matter in edition 6 of TMS. The references on pp. 36 and 48 of his book show that he used the Rautenberg translation (1770) of edition 3, although the main additions to edition 6 were in fact available in the later German translation by Kosegarten (1791–5).
Commentators who have taken the trouble to read TMS with more care reject the view that there was a ‘swing’ or that there is any radical inconsistency between TMS and WN. The scholars who show the most thorough knowledge of the book and of its Scottish background are: Wilhelm Hasbach, Untersuchungen über Adam Smith und die Entwicklung der Politischen Ökonomie (Leipzig, 1891); Ludovico Limentani, La morale della simpatia (Genoa, 1914); Walther Eckstein in the Introduction to his translation (1926); and T. D. Campbell, Adam Smith’s Science of Morals (London, 1971). To these can be added, for acute treatment of the Umschwungstheorie: Richard Zeyss, Adam Smith und der Eigennutz (Tübingen, 1889); and August Oncken, ‘The Consistency of Adam Smith’, Economic Journal, vii (London, 1897), 443–50, and in more detail, ‘Das Adam Smith–Problem’, Zeitschrift für Socialwissenschaft, ed. Julius Wolf, I Jahrgang (Berlin, 1898), 25–33, 101–8, 276–87. See also A. L. Macfie, The Individual in Society (London, 1967).
 It may have been suggested to Smith by Addison’s dedication of vol. i of The Spectator, which begins: ‘I should not act the part of an impartial spectator, if I directed the following papers to one who is not of the most consummate and most acknowledged merit.’
 Corr., Letter 40, dated 10 October 1759.
 Ronald L. Meek and Andrew S. Skinner, ‘The Development of Adam Smith’s Ideas on the Division of Labour’, Economic Journal, lxxxiii (1973), 1103.