The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

TWoN Chapter 11 Part 2


Page 171: “Human food seems to be the only produce of land which always and necessarily affords some rent to the landlord.”

Page 172: “Land in its original rude state can afford the materials of cloathing and lodging to a much greater number of people than it can feed.”  I wonder if this is true of, for example, desert land.  I am inclined to think it is.

“In the present commercial state of the known world, the most barbarous nations, I believe, among whom land property is established, have some ferign commerice of this kind [in animal hides], and find among their wealthier neighbors such a demand for all the materials of cloathing, which their land produces, and which can neither be wrought up nor consumed at home, as raises their price above what it costs to send them to those wealthier neighbors.  It affords, therefore, some rent to the landlord.”  I would love to see documentation on this.  I may be wrong, but it certainly seems to me that nations in such a state as to produce such hides did not have land property established, and hence there were no landlords and no rent.  Maybe someone with better knowledge of history can correct me on this.

Page 174: “Countries are populous, not in proportion to the number of people whom their produce can cloath and lodge, but in proportion to that of those whom it can feed.”  It should be added the question of how many people land can feed is not only geographical, but also a function of technology, as he hints at below:

“But when by the improvement and cultivation of land the labor one family can provide food for two, the labor of half the society becomes sufficient to provide food for the whole.  The other h alf, therefore, or at least the greater part of them, can be employed in providing other things, or in satisfying the other wants and fancies of mankind . . . The rich man consumes no more food than his poor neighbor.  In quality it may be very different, and to select and prepare it may require more labor and art; but in quantity it is very nearly the same.  But compare the spacious palace and great warderobe of the one, with the hovel and the few rags of the other, and you will be sensible that the difference between their cloathing, lodging, and household furniture, is almost as great in quantity as in quality.”

Page 175: “The number of workmen increases with the inreasing quantity of food, or with the growing improvement and cultivation of the lands and as the nature of the their business admits of the utmost subdivisions of labor, the quantity of materials which they can work up, increases in a much greater proportion than their numbers.”

He gets into the economics of mining, to show that the fertiiliy of the most fertile mine determines the price for all of them, such that some can provide no rent, but must be worked by their owners if they are to show a profit.

Later he discusses precious metals and stones, observing that because of their high value relative to their weight, the effective market is the entire commercial world.

Page 183: “With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eye is never so complete as when they appear to posess those decisive marks of opulance which nobody can posess but themselves.”

Page 185: “Whatever increases the fertility of land in producing food increases not only the value of the lands upon which the improvement is bestowed, but contributes likewise to increase that of many other lands, by creating a new demand for their produce.  That abundance of food, of which, in consequence of the improvement of land, many people have the disposal beyond what they themselves can consume, is the great cause of the demand both for precious metals and the precious stones, as well as for every other conveniency and ornament of dress, lodging, household furniture, and equipage.”

Continued in next post


Author: corwin

Site administrative account, so probably Corwin, Felix or DD-B.


  1. Some of Smith’s sentences make my head hurt, but he’s much more sensible than his most fervid capitalist fans would have us think, and I’m really glad you’re doing this.

    That said, “The rich man consumes no more food than his poor neighbor” is stupid, even for his day, unless the rich guy’s effectively a vegetarian like the poor of Smith’s time. It now takes something like four times as much land to produce beef as it does to produce a vegetarian diet; I suspect that ratio wouldn’t be significantly different then, ’cause cows have got to eat. It’s possible that the cow of his day was less effective for creating beef, so the ratio would be worse.

    When you finish this, I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend Jack Weatherford’s Indian Givers. He’s got a page or so on Marx and Engels and The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which is now higher on my to-be-read list.

  2. “the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which […] is never so complete as when they appear to posess those decisive marks of opulance which nobody can posess but themselves.”

    Is that Smith anticipating Veblen?

  3. Will, it is worth pointing out that in most cases then (and even some now), land that was useful for raising cattle was not useful for raising food for human consumption. And it is certainly incorrect that the poor of his day had a vegetarian diet; they were the market for the poorest cuts of meat, usually about once a week, if I recall correctly.

    I think he’s right about the quantity of food: not every rich man is fat. More significantly, the quantity of food eaten by the rich (ie, pound for pound) is NOT significantly more than that eaten by the poor.

  4. Regarding the exporting of furs, I have to agree with your skepticism. I can’t think of a time prior to fur-farms, which are a relatively recent development, when there was significant trading in fur that didn’t come from ‘the wilds’.

  5. Steve, by “effectively” vegetarian, I meant poorer cuts, small amounts in stew now and then, etc. Sort of like what some people now call flexitarian. I agree the rich didn’t all eat more in calories than the poor, but what they ate took a greater toll of the land. If there was little grain going to livestock then, it’s true the equation would be much less dramatic than it is today. Huh. More to research, darn it.

  6. Will: I didn’t include those parts, because they aren’t relevant to what I’m looking for; but Smith does spend a fair amount of time discussing the transition between raising cattle (cattle defined, I believe, as any animal raised for meat) on open range unusable for cultivation, and growing feed specifically to feed cattle. Apparently this transition was constantly going on at the time he was writing, with major consequences in the price of butcher’s meat and rent.

  7. Smith’s p. 174 re barbarous nations & rent:

    Are you sure you’ve got the syntax right? Try taking out “I believe,” and see if the sentence makes more sense.

    Anbd I am so not posting the comment I have here on the diets of rich vs. poor….

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