It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people. (Smith, Wealth of Nations. 22)
If it wasn’t obvious, this is a quotation from Adam Smith’s magnum opus The Wealth of Nations or the full title (minimum word count) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The quotation is an interesting one. It is contained within a lot of conditions for this ultimate outcome.
For the first part “It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour,” the key phrase is the division of labor. Running the phrase through a simple Google search brings up a simple definition “the assignment of different parts of a manufacturing process or task to different people in order to improve efficiency.” It’s more than this. It is every different job and facet of society. The farmer feeds the carpenter so the carpenter does not have to and can focus on being a carpenter. People have different jobs, which all come together to create the society that we have today. Another quotation just below the previous states as much,
Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. (Smith, Wealth of Nations. 22)
The first part of the block states something fundamental about how the division of labor affects us; we can’t compute how it does. It’s effectively the butterfly effect in that we cannot possibly predict nor can we accurately compute or comprehend the effects of our actions in the world. We must remember that it was one Soviet naval officer who refused to start World War III.
We can now skip, temporarily, to the last part of the first quotation, “that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.” What Smith is talking about is that the economy produced by the division of labor is such that everyone will be able to get what they need. Need being the operable word. He did not expect society to ever be produced wherein everyone was fabulously wealthy and didn’t need to work, but he did think it is possible to create an economy and society that would have a pretty high floor on the economy. As another quotation states,
Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must no doubt appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of a 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 absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages. (Smith, Wealth of Nations. 24)
To a pretty great degree, the modern West has achieved this standard of universal opulence. A recent article from David Harsanyi makes the apparently forgotten fact that America is not poor. As the journalist/commentator Tim Pool likes to frequently quip, in America, our homeless people are fat.
Numbers here are not exactly pertinent so much as how we got to those numbers. This is where we get to the middle part of the quotation in question, “in a well-governed society.” This is the most important part of Smith’s formulation of economic and societal success. The division of labor is present in every society. The problem for hunter-gatherer societies or subsistence farming societies is that this division is not divided enough or rather it cannot be so divided. In hunter-gatherer societies, the preoccupation for survival is such that specialization, let alone surplus product, is a fantasy. They live day by day on what they can, well, hunt or gather. In subsistence agriculture, a similar problem arises, the yield of your crop determines whether you and your family lived or died. Civilization has developed only in so much as food surpluses have increased. Suddenly the old quip of “first give me food, then we’ll talk morality” makes sense.
What Smith means by ''well-governed'' is, to quote Michael Hauben, “Smith equates a well-governed society as one where the whole of the people gains from the society's production.” Everyone from a populist to a Marxist can insert whatever they want here (how can they not with words like society and production?) However, I take a different track. That is that a well-governed society is a peaceful one, with a consistent administration of justice, where laws and social norms, and morals are understood and followed. Here the society is not as the libertarians or Marxists would have based merely around money. It is a society, with trust, tradition, and dare I argue, religion.
We don’t have to go far to find societies where these things aren’t present. Why can’t third-world countries get out of their third-world status? That is a complicated question. A lot of it is colonialism. But certainly not all of it. The symptoms that these countries exhibit are no social cohesion, no meritocracy, crumbling hierarchies, and a government that cannot provide a decent monopoly on violence. Even if places like Somalia were to have no regulation on the market, Somalia would still be a terrible place because they barely have a society, much less a government. Smith understood that society needed structure and strength to succeed and honestly, we need to thank God every day (I’d recommend literally) that our society works.