Famine: Adam Smith and Foucauldian Political Economy

Publication Date01 May 2015
Date01 May 2015
AuthorCallum Williams
Callum Williams*
It is often assumed that the attitudes of the early political economists, such as
Smith, to issues of scarcity and famine were dogmatically laissez-faire. This view
has been given fresh impetus by Michel Foucault’s recently published lectures on
the history of political economy. The article challenges this view. By examining
Smith’s texts and analyzing the way that Smith was received by critics in the
century following the publication of the Wealth of Nations, the article argues
that contemporary interpretations of Smith’s views on scarcity and famine must
be nuanced.
The only quarrel [he] had with hon. Gentlemen with respect to
Adam Smith was, that they never would read beyond one page
of him. (Henry Drummond MP, addressing the House of Com-
mons in 1849 [Hansard, 1849])
In his 197778 lectures at the Coll
ege de France, Michel Foucault describes a
change that took place with the coming of the ‘modern period’. This period,
in Foucault’s eyes, is associated with the arrival of classical political economy.
One lecture, in particular, discusses the shift from a “juridical-disciplinary sys-
tem” to an “apparatus of security” (Foucault, 2007, p. 36, p. 46) vis-
a-vis gov-
ernmental responses to food scarcity. In so doing, Foucault develops his
notion of ‘governmentality’ (Foucault, 1991; Gordon, 1991; Rose, 1999),
which Mitchell Dean describes as:
a particular regime of government that takes as its object ‘the
population’ and is coincident with the emergence of political
economy (and its successor, economics). (Dean, 1999, p. 28)
According to Foucault, Western governmental regimes before the rise of
political economy were concerned with the “power of death that symbolized
sovereign power” (Foucault, 1980, p. 140). Central to this discourse was the
Machiavellian notion of a Prince who stood ‘outside’ society, and whose
*University of Oxford
Scottish Journal of Political Economy, DOI: 10.1111/sjpe.12069, Vol. 62, No. 2, May 2015
©2015 Scottish Economic Society.
objective in exercising power was merely to reinforce, strengthen and protect
his [sic] rule (Foucault, 1991). For example, the punishment of criminals was
fundamentally concerned with affirming the glory and power of the sovereign,
rather than with the reformation of the criminal (see Driver, 1985; Foucault,
1977). The mercantilist system was the economic expression of these ‘pre-
modernity’ ideologies (Dean, 1999). Notions of efficiency, economy or rational
planning were not important governmental objectives before the rise of politi-
cal economy (Rose, 1999). Rather, theological and feudal imperatives domi-
nated, with bullionism being the most obvious economic manifestation of this
However, an important discursive shift took place with the transition to the
modern period. During this period, the notion of ‘the economy’, as a particu-
lar level of reality, emerged (Osborne, 1996; Polanyi, 2001 [1944]). Improved
statistical techniques and the progressive integration of global markets helped
to normalize the idea of the economy as “a natural order that is self-constitut-
ing and exists prior to any state of affairs established by government” (Dean,
1999, p. 114). Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, originally published in 1776
(Smith, 1976), is often viewed as one of the first analyses of ‘the economy’ as
a new, supra-societal reality (Dean, 1999; Foucault, 2008). Smith’s (mostly)
dispassionate analysis of the workings of the economy represents an impor-
tant step forward from feudal and mercantilist conceptualizations. Under the
doctrine of political economy, ‘the economy’ was no longer considered to be
“pliable, to be manipulated by enlightened leaders, but [was] the product of
natural laws” (Osborne, 1996, p. 104). It was no longer thought that govern-
ments could simply shape economic processes to their will. Rather, it was
increasingly believed that economies would be better run if individuals were
able to pursue their own interest, given that no one individual could possibly
know how the economy worked. Grenier and Orl
ean succinctly summarize this
new approach:
Etat ne peut pas intervenir de fac
ßon directe et envahissante,
non pas qu’il n’en ait pas le droit ou qu’il aurait pris un
engagement contractual en ce sens mais, bien plus radicalement,
parce qu’il ne sait pas.
(Grenier and Orl
ean, 2007, p. 1180)
A similar discovery took place vis-
a-vis the population, which was also
shown to follow natural laws and regularities. With the discovery of ‘realities’
which stood outside mere politics (Osborne, 1996), governments were required
to take a less interventionist role in managing society. This new imperative is
usefully described by a late eighteenth century edition of the London Evening
[we are] now at a period in the life of society when commercial
knowledge had risen to perfection, and when it was demonstrated
“The State cannot intervene in a direct and invasive manner, not because it does not
have the right nor because it has made a contractual commitment not to do so but, more
fundamentally, because it does not know
Scottish Journal of Political Economy
©2015 Scottish Economic Society

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