The 2 Most Influential Works of English Non-fiction

Perhaps in no other living language than German have seminal non-fiction works flourished as in English.  (I limit the observation in this way to exclude scholarly or ecclesiastical Latin works from the mix.)  Why that is the case I don’t pretend to know.  But if you consider the works of Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Orwell, Wiliam James, Herbert, Spencer, Emerson, Bentham, Jefferson, Paine, Blackstone, Locke, Hobbes, Bacon, More, and many others, you see that it would be foolish to pick out the two most infuential works of English non-fiction.

Quickly occupying the field where angels fear to tread, let me suggest them: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection … (1859) and Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

I suspect that there would be near-universal agreement with the selection of Darwin’s work.  As a work of pure argument, it is breath-taking:  superbly constructed, intellectually honest, supported by meticulously selected details from seemingly unrelated fields, and written in that patient Victorian style (now an acquired taste for most, who consider it plodding) with old-fashioned respect for the intelligence of the reader.  As for the thesis, it presents one of the most elegant theories ever proposed for any field.  It is of the kind that once you see it, you understand its novelty, its predictive power, its testability.  And you wonder why you hadn’t seen it before.

I won’t dwell on Darwin here because he demands careful and many looks.  I will, however, suggest one thing:  his theory is itself partially an outgrowth of the other work I selected.  In fact, a case can be made that the intellectual river from Smith to Malthus to Darwin is the reason the English and not the Germans came on natural selection as a mechanism for change.  And that is because Darwin could see that groups behaved in certain ways as a result of the cumulative actions of individuals, acting for reasons of individual interest and not to conform to an ideal imposed by categorical thinking.  Germans, who possibly had the more careful scientists and more wealth of biological detail, were mired in the thinking of Hegel, whose approach dominated fields well beyond the metaphysical and whose hold lasted a long time and with wide berth.  You need only read Alexander Herzen’s memoirs to see Hegel’s hold on liberal and revolutionary thought in Russia in the 19th Century.  (Herzen is a project for a later post.)

Smith would perhaps be less universally regarded as presiding over Hobbes or Locke or Paine.  It is true that post-Reagan conservatives in the US regard his observations about self-interest as being the supreme touchstones of moral philosophy, more trenchant than the maxims of either Jesus or Kant.  I suspect, however, they came to this position not so much from considering Smith’s argument, but rather from consulting their own greed first and looking up supporting quotations later, most likely from quotation lists.

Smith’s work was published just as the Age of Revolutions was beginning.  Although he was routinely quoted in newspapers and pamphlets in America during the founding period, and while his approach to trade meshed entirely with the interests of American merchants aroung the turn of the 19th Century, his entire framework was not immediately accepted as a whole, nor did it provide any step in the chain leading to the various revolutions around the world or even help inflame them.

The odd thing about the reception of the original framework for classical free market thinking is that it was not adopted by the conservatives of the time or the monied classes or the aspirants to wealth creation.  Alexander Hamilton, the original hero of the American right wing, and the person most credited by them for creating the American economy and the original proponent of high finance capitalism, never bought into the Smith approach.  In fact, in his Report on Manufactures (1791) (a later (1913) Senate printed version is digitized by Google here) expressly adopts the approach of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, whose protectionism and subsidies to domestic manufacturing were among the chief evils that Adam Smith sought to combat.  It is an interesting side note to see how Hamilton’s approach became a pillar of the Republican Party’s orgin and later political dominance in the US, until it was ultimately rejected by them.  (The hard right now calls it socialism.)  That history of an idea shows how the interests of a social class can dispose of its intellectual foundations as easily as the Soviet Union used to dispose of the history of its former supporters.

What is relevant to Smith’s importance today, is not so much how it was treated at the time, nor how it provided cover or impetus for particular policies, but rather how it explains the inevitable spread of “liberal” capitalism, despite the consequences.  And the key to that is found in the first chapter of Wealth of Nations.  Much like Darwin’s work, which begins with the fancy pigeons, Smith’s work starts off with a part usually ignored and, when not, often ridiculed — the example of the pin makers.  How that relates to my point will be left to a later post.

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  1. I remember reading this when I first joined the blogosphere in 2013, DK. Then, as now, I was hesitant to comment. I am in awe of the depth and breadth of your scholarly knowledge. Yet today, I wanted to let you know that I appreciate the clarity and elegance of your connections and arguments. Darwin’s work fascinated me in my early years of college, but alas, I chose not to pursue a degree in ecology. The links to Smith are important and so relevant to these times.

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