Let’s think about Adam Smith

Chapter 2 of The Commons of Soil by Patrick Noble

Having lived anachronistically by the fossilised product of ancient soils, we have simultaneously lost the skills and virtues which had historically been cultured from living soils. While coal and oil describe commodities about which we have no need to be specific, soil is always specific in quality, topography and culture.

It is specific to this gardener at a turn of his spade, or to that farmer’s footsteps across her particular field. It stimulates the personal through sensuality, curiosity and ingenuity, and also by pleasure in its fruits and suffering for their scarcity. Soil cannot be owned. It is the source (since it is our provider) for commons of rights and responsibilities. After all, rights and responsibilities have evolved within the cultures of settlement. It is historical and so can overrule transient hierarchies. It is contemporary and follows laws of physics and biology as they change with time. It grows spirits of place and gods of harvest. It buries prime ministers with farm workers in the commons of decomposition! And the composition of the complex proteins of prime ministers and farm workers is given (in minerals and salts) by her providence.

We can think of soil as the mother of commons. And we can think of commons as the heart of social systems.

Individuals within social systems have stolen a goose or two from the Common. Others have stolen Commons from the geese. Modernism is unique in stealing the idea of Commons from the social system. Moreover, because ingenuities rise from solitary heads, if we lose the idea of the Common, we also lose the ingenious heart of society. We’ve been goosed by the bread and circuses of consumer choosing (the sharing of circus seats).

A farmer whose rights of ownership have him restlessly and rightfully pacing fenced borders has little time for the measure of virtue, which is his soil. Soil, which he cannot own provides crops for his community and therefore his honourable function within the community. It feeds trees, hedges and the air we commonly breathe. Distribution of responsibilities for distribution of produce and the nature of that distribution combine as the primary dynamics of society. Since cities are emergent properties of the efficiencies of agriculture, the ethics of the citizen must be founded in the enduring qualities of soil and in the just distribution of its produce. I am not suggesting soil worship, but acknowledgment of our umbilical connection to soil biology. We’ve grown fat on the fossil proteins of ancient soils. Now we must live in our own time, responsible for and responsive to our mutating spaces and by living soil. Particular soils are particularly cultural dynamos.

This brings me to Adam Smith. Although he lived at the time of a massive enclosure of agricultural commons, he also lived before the arrival of the steam engine and the industrial revolution. He foresaw a time when the exchange of the comparative advantages of differing skills and resources would lead to the rising prosperity of trading partners. What he’d have traded were the comparative advantages of differing cultures. The exchanged values were of skill and terrain. Adam’s free market would stimulate skills; not remove them.

His free market was revolutionary in undermining tired hierarchies and the stupidity of kings. Its dynamo was the ingenuity of the trades. He is akin to Milton professing upwards below the blind mouths of bishops. Ethically, he is much closer to the Seventeenth Century than to the imperial hubris of the Nineteenth. After all, without resource value and the assumption of virtue in soil and human dexterity, comparative advantages of trade are meaningless. It is those skills and resources which are traded. Of course Adam’s trade was by the most efficient transport: sailing boat, just as ours will be (if we follow physical laws). He would undermine inefficient hierarchies by the virtues of skill and terrain, whereas later, Marx (looking to history and finding no other way) would do so by violence. Both assume the central values of both vernacular skills and vernacular resources. They are vernacular in that skills are specific to terrains. Modernity, in both neo capitalism and neo communism, came to forget them. For example, burning harvests in aviation fuel, or removing the established skills of a peasantry from its fields are of advantage to none but a transient hierarchy. The idea of comparative advantage, rather than that of direct competition between kingdoms needed revival in Adam’s time. It had been widely and internationally/tribally practised as far back as the Bronze Age (literature) and certainly before. Now similarly, comparative advantage could be revived to undermine the struck attitudes of unresponsive Trade Blocks and corporations.

Alastair McIntosh speaking of capitalism says, the system only stacks up through the competitive economics of comparative advantage that degrades biodiversity and mines natural capital. (Foreword to Future Ethics, 2010 www.alastairmcintosh.com)

How could comparative advantages do such things? No. Traded values remain in the hands of the cultures which grow them. Why should countries or communities accept disadvantage?

It is the abandonment of an economy for a casino, (which measures only spending) which has mined our natural capital. Adam Smith would remove the unresponsive manipulation of protectionist and in our case moneyed hierarchies (which protect the hierarchy) to allow the dexterity of the skilled freedom to prosper. Furthermore, ecological restraints are identical to economic restraints in a skilled society.

Of course extreme division of labour as in Adam’s manufacture of pins leads to efficiency of pin production, but also leads the labourer away from his breadth of knowledge, from his ingenuity, from his ability to respond to change and from happiness. That is a new and contradictory line of thought, which undermines comparative advantage, since our pin manufacturer can reduce his price in a competitive pin market. This is not a world of comparative advantages (since our pin labourers have been disadvantaged) but the opposite. It is a commodity market in which skill and terrain have become less important than price. It erodes both labour and resource capital in a world more familiar to our Neo Capitalist Adam Smith Institute (who replace capital with price). It also has no response to diminishing resources, beyond that of competition for scarcity (price rises).

Competition for resources forces prices to rise at the arrival of scarcity and not before, when the scarcity was first created. Competitors see the competition and the price. They respond to scarcity and not to the physics of the resource. Their ingenuity is concentrated on the human weaknesses and strengths of competitors and the human weaknesses and strengths of their own work-forces. The physics of human settlement are disregarded. It is no co-incidence that some neo liberal thinkers have come to believe in the End of History: a social system which ignores laws of physics has no physical imperative to change.

In the matter of pins, the labourer is not better paid, but the workshop owner has a temporary advantage in the pin market. In his new world nothing is secure and all is temporary. Moreover the skills of the pin worker have not been rewarded. He receives the same wage for more pins. Resources of fuel and ore are (as Alastair says) removed without valuation and are disadvantageously depleted. Neither Resource Capital nor Labour Capital has been considered by our temporarily successful and ephemeral pin manufacturer.

I distinguish between these two lines of thought, because I think that a renewed perception of comparative advantage leads to a renewed perception (and so valuation) of skill and resource. Adam’s valuation of both resource and labour capital frees dexterity and allows physical laws their true economic effects. Such valued capital is considered protectionist and anti-capitalist by Twenty-First Century neo capitalist hierarchies. They have been freed, by oil, from the finity of capital and have fostered the cult of a “scientific” transcendence. Their science has been reduced to a simplistic physics of oil.

Skill and resource share common soil. It is a once and future soil, beyond ownership. I hope that future soil becomes a civic hope. As Ivan Illich suggests we can enrich or deplete it with our traces and so fluctuations in the health of the soil which grows the city, become measures of chosen paths to and from civic virtue and so civilization.


This is an excerpt from Feasta member Patrick Noble’s new book, The Commons of Soil. We’ll be publishing a final excerpt next week. The book is available at www.bryncocynorganic.co.uk for £7.00.

Patrick Noble is an organic farmer from Dinbych in North Wales. He writes that “the book’s cover photograph shows Bryn Cocyn’s fields: meats, vegetables and fruit destined for local farmers’ markets. Family labour for a self-reliant, but convivial future!”


Featured image: Flora’s mallewagen, by Hendrik Pot, 1640. Allegory of the Tulip Mania. The goddess of flowers is riding along with three drinking and money weighing men and two women on a car. Weavers from Haarlem have thrown away their equipment and are following the car. The destiny of the car is shown in the background: it will disappear in the sea. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flora%27s_Malle-wagen_van_Hendrik_Pot_1640.jpg

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