Contra the a certain fetishisation of Adam Smiths thought he wrote:

The vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves and nothing for other people.

I'm assuming that this is from his Magnus Opus, The Wealth of Nations. Is this correct? What is the context in which he felt he had to make such an observation?


1 Answer 1


This (paraphrase) appears in Book III, Chapter IV of The Wealth of Nations. Smith is discussing how, in his opinion, towns engaged in commerce and manufacturing have contributed to the improvement and cultivation of their country.

Specifically, the quote appears in the context of a discussion about feudalism, and kings being unable to control the violence of feudal lords on page 448 (line breaks and emphasis mine for clarity):

But what all the violence of the feudal institutions could never have effected, the silent and insensible operation of foreign commerce and manufactures gradually brought about.

These gradually furnished the great proprietors with something for which they could exchange the whole surplus produce of their lands, and which they could consume themselves, without sharing it either with tenants or retainers. All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

Smith continues:

As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons. For a pair of diamond buckles, perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged the maintenance, or, what is the same thing, the price of the maintenance of 1000 men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them. The buckles, however, were to be all their own, and no other human creature was to have any share of them; whereas, in the more ancient method of expense, they must have shared with at least 1000 people.

With the judges that were to determine the preference, this difference was perfectly decisive; and thus, for the gratification of the most childish, the meanest, and the most sordid of all vanities they gradually bartered their whole power and authority.

So, Smith seems to be making a greater historical observation about civilization while specifically discussing the concentration of power, greed, and wealth as it was in feudal society. Hopefully this helps explain the context of the observation a bit.


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