Antiurban political economists in Scotland after Smith

James Anderson on
town and country

Image: Painter William Wylde’s
Manchester, from Kersal Moor (1852)

A couple days ago I somehow found myself reading Adam Anderson, Dugald Stewart, Arthur Young, and James Anderson, all lesser economists of the Scottish Enlightenment. This was part of my background reading on the antithesis between town and country.

Last week I posted some classical bourgeois views on the issue. While James Steuart and the French Physiocrats idealized the countryside somewhat, assigning it priority over the emerging commercial and industrial centers of modern Europe, Smith stressed a kind of harmonious reciprocity or equilibrium between the two. Smith stood virtually alone in advocating for the city. His successors in fact opposed his position.

I’m reposting a section of James Anderson’s 1794 article “Of Manufacturing and Agriculture” here to give a sense of the deep conservatism of antibourgeois, anti-liberal aristocrats after Smith. Not until Ricardo and Sismondi were the main lines of Smith’s argument extended in any measurable way. Even then, Ricardo was never as keen on the novelty of capitalist conurbations, and Sismondi succumbed at times to romanticism in favoring “territorial wealth” (agriculture, the countryside) over “commercial wealth” (industry, the town).

The radicalism of Smith’s economic theory comes through especially sharply when contrasted with tracts like this.

William Hogarth's Harlot's Progress, Plate II (1732), in which Molly seduces a depraved Jewish urbanite

William Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress, Plate II (1732),
in which Molly seduces a depraved Jewish urbanite

Of manufacturing and agriculture

James Anderson

Manufactures are subjected to great variations in the demand at market. Sometimes the orders for those of one sort are so great, that the highest exertions are required for supplying that demand. During this period every thing assumes the most inviting appearance. The master manufacturers have it in their power to enhance the price or diminish the quality. Their profits are great. Every one is anxious to obtain as great a share as possible in this gainful business; he tries to obtain as many hands as possible; journeymen, of course, become scarce, and obtain higher wages; this induces more persons to enter into that business. All is life and bustle; and smiling prosperity brightens every countenance. The lower classes of the people are enabled to pick and cull the nicest viands; for rearing which the farmer gets great prices, so as to enable him to abandon more common articles of produce. But in a short time a change of fashion, such a trifle as a shoestring being adopted in place of a buckle, or a clasp instead of a button, makes a total stagnation of this once flourishing business. The master manufacturers, finding no more demand for their goods, cannot keep their journeymen longer; and, as these in general work by piecework, it costs him but a word to discharge one or two hundred persons; who are thus thrown at once out of employment, and consequently experience the greatest distress, till they can find some other means of subsistence. The luxuries which the farmer used to rear for their use are now allowed to remain upon hand. He, depending on these sales, is reduced also to distress; and complaints are loud and universal. No such changes can ever be experienced by men who follow agriculture. Neither the encouragement, nor the discouragement, are nearly so great. So that this political malady, which is one of the severest that can affect a state, is never experienced.

Other evils that are the consequences of it, are equally guarded against. Men in the lower ranks of life, when they are enabled to earn more wage than is necessary to subsist themselves in the way they have been accustomed to live, usually become idle and dissipated; they spend their superfluous earnings in drunkenness and debauchery. One person seduces another; their morals become corrupted, and their manners irregular. Persons of this description are, of all others, the worst to manage in a state. While they enjoy the sunshine of prosperity, they are disorderly; when they experience difficulties, they become riotous and factious. Ever ready to run into extremes, they become the willing tool of every desperate man who wishes: to raise disturbances in the state…Such persons are, of all others, the most unfit to bear those checks and reverses of fortune to which manufacturers must ever be subjected. Hence it happens, that manufacturing towns become such fertile nurseries of mobs, tumults, thefts, robberies, and every species of depredation. These dissipated persons become a charge on the parish, or they go to the highway or the gallows.

Such excesses are never experienced in rural situations is, where men follow the peaceable employment of agriculture. Their labour is constant and equal; they are never overdone, and never idle; their sustenance is equally certain, uniform, and moderate; they do not associate together in such numbers, and are, by consequence, less liable to be seduced by the contagion of bad example. Being actively employed in the fields during the whole week, Sunday becomes a day of rest; and divine service is to them a pleasing exercise. Every mind that is not corrupted by vicious habits is fond of being informed. On this principle they become interested in the duties of religion, and attentive to the discourse of their pastors. In short, it is scarcely possible for a person who has not had access to, behold it nearly, to form an idea of the immense difference that there is between the innocent simplicity of heart of the inhabitants the country, compared with the irreligion and immorality of the lower classes of people in towns. I hence conclude, that a state which contains a given number of people, chiefly employed in agriculture, affords to the natives a greater share of domestic happiness and infinitely more stable, less subject to distress, arising from tumults and disorders of every sort, than one where manufactures furnish the chief employment of the people.

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