In Book II, Chapter III of his The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith states and explains the distinction he makes between the categories of “productive and unproductive labour.” According to Smith, “there is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed,” namely productive labor, and “there is another which has no such effect,” namely unproductive labor. In addition, Smith holds that the productive laborer makes a greater contribution to a society than the unproductive laborer due to the former’s role in “the growth of public opulence.”
The former, productive, class of labor he identifies specifically with the manufacturing class which produces “some particular subject or vendible commodity.” These laborers, in other words, produce some tangible item which contributes to an indubitable increase in the total material wealth of a society. Smith envisions a society in which, through the profuse production of commodities by the manufacturing class and the consumption of these commodities “in adorning his house or his country villa, in useful or ornamental buildings, in useful or ornamental furniture, in collecting books, statues, pictures; or in things more frivolous, jewels, baubles, ingenious trinkets of different kinds; or, what is most trifling of all, in amassing a great wardrobe of fine clothes,” on the part of the wealthy, greater material wealth is made available to all. Because of the insatiable appetite of the wealthy for new commodities, they will eventually “grow weary” of the items they have purchased previously. As a result, “the houses, the furniture, the clothing of the rich, in a little time, become useful to the inferior and middling ranks of people.” The greater the number of commodities produced, the more available all commodities become to all people. The profusion of material wealth creates a trickle-down economy which increases the material wealth of all in a society. What is necessary to create such a system, Smith holds, is a great number of productive laborers of the manufacturing class working to produce said commodities.
Smith contrasts those whom he terms the “unproductive hands” with this productive group of laborers. Among the unproductive in a society Smith classes “the sovereign . . . with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him” as well as “the whole army and navy.” In addition, “in this same class,” says Smith, “must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.” While these are certainly not without value to a society, Smith classes all of these together as “unproductive” because they do not produce any lasting tangible items, or commodities. “Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician,” says Smith, “the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.”
The distinction that Smith draws between productive and unproductive laborers is quite compelling and insightful, yet fraught with danger for a society which takes it too seriously. On the one hand, Smith admirably rescues the manufacturer and the artisan from the belittlement of the nature of their vocations which had been a mainstay of Western thought since antiquity. Aristotle, who exerted a substantial influence on the Western mind during and following the High Middle Ages, for instance, claimed that “all paid employments . . . absorb and degrade the mind.” To this condemnation, Smith offers a corrective in the form of a reminder of the necessity of these “paid employments” to the material wealth of a society.
It is this material wealth, in turn, which creates the environment which allows the “unproductive hands” of artists, musicians, and men of letters to flourish. A society which continues to exist at a mere subsistence level cannot develop a distinguishable class of priests and storytellers because all hands must be employed in the cultivation and production necessary to the maintenance of biological life. Only with a class of productive laborers of some size and which is capable of meeting and even producing superfluity beyond the basic needs of a society, such as the slave class of Aristotle’s ancient Greece or the manufacturing class of Smith’s 18th century Scotland, does a class of the “unproductive” become possible.
It is not be overlooked, however, that it is this class of the “unproductive” which leads a society beyond mere animal existence. While Smith is right to place great value upon the manufacturing class, it would be a mistake for a society to lean too far in this direction and so devalue the creative and intellectual element. A poverty of thought is as detrimental to human existence as a poverty of the goods necessary to material well-being, a fact Smith would have done well to note.