The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging; and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance, in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it. Adam Smith Wealth of Nations WN 5.1.f 50
The 'torpor-of-mind-passage' is extremely familiar to Smith scholars. It often gets wheeled out in the context of Smith's partial anticipation of Marx on the alienation of certain forms of labor or it gets mentioned in the context of arguments that show that Smith is not a pure libertarian, but believes in government role in education (among other public goods). Smith is clearly worried that excessive division of labor, and repetitive work consequent of it, clearly can make us robotic. But it is worth noting explicitly the many costs associated with this.
- We became less versatile and flexible workers ("expedients for removing difficulties")
- Our ordinary moral capabilities are undermined ("just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life") That's because
- The cognitive apparatus that goes into ordinary moral judgment is hindered ((i) relishing rational conversation and (ii) the conceiving of many moral feelings)
- Our ability to judge of political/foreign/economic affairs
- Our soldiering capabilities (because we become cowardly, less fit, and mentally inflexible)
Only the first cost is economic. The others are moral, political, and military. What is striking about athis is that Smith thinks that "the education of the common people" can respond to all of these costs. In Smith's scheme this has to occur before children get entirely soaked up by participation in the labor force. That is to say, in Smith's hands education is not a remedy once torpor of mind has taken place, but it is a kind of general purpose vaccine that fortifies minds that children need to acquire before they become robotic workers. Some other time I focus more on the content of such public education.
From the vantage point of moral psychology, the passage clearly shows that Smith thinks one cannot take even minimal common decency for granted in societies with advanced division of labor. From the vantage point of political theory, the passage clearly shows that Smith thinks that if the state does not prepare the citizenry to be good citizens it is de facto undermining itself.
One can also turn Smith's observation around. If citizens in an advanced economy routinely act in base and immoral manner or show lack of judgment in their political choices, then we can conclude government, which in the first instance serves the rich and powerful, has failed in its fundamental task to ensure its own survival.
We reap what we sow.