From Scotland to Buenos Aires: Adam Smith, Juan Hipólito Vieytes, and the Role of Self-Interest

Alvaro Perpere Viñuales for AdamSmithWorks

March 10, 2021

Hispanic culture did not seem very compatible with this praise of self-interest, which at first glance sounded excessively selfish and contrary to the religious moral maxim to love thy neighbor.
Between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Adam Smith's ideas were received in America in the English and Spanish colonies. Although certainly in the former the reception was much warmer, the universality of the principles proposed by the Scotsman also drew the attention of various Hispanic-American intellectual and political leaders who felt attracted to them and tried to apply them in their communities. This reception of Smith in Spanish America has received relatively little attention from scholars. However, a fresh look at this period allows us to rediscover many interesting elements and a deeper connection between Adam Smith and Hispanoamerican intellectuals. In the particular case of Buenos Aires, then belonging to the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, the figure of Juan Hipólito Vieytes should be highlighted.1 Vieytes was the editor of a journal called Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio that was published between 1802 and 1807, and was one of the first people in Buenos Aires to openly declare himself a follower of Adam Smith’s ideas. He even had, according to testimonies of his contemporaries, an English edition of The Wealth of Nations (WN), something certainly rare in those distant lands.
His interest in Adam Smith’s ideas was not merely academic. Over the years, in numerous articles published in the Semanario, Vieytes repeatedly argued that the territory of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata should initiate a profound social and economic transformation in order to achieve greater development and well-being. In his opinion, it was necessary to draw on new ideas that mainly came from Europe, but also from North America (in fact, he was especially attracted by Benjamin Franklin´s ideas among the United States intellectuals). Of all the authors he read and studied, who were certainly numerous,2 Vieytes had no qualms about openly pointing to "the sublime Adam Smith"3 as the most important writer in the field of economic ideas.
For Vieytes, the economic principles indicated by Smith were the best way through which the territory of Buenos Aires could develop and increase its wealth. However, he considered that it was imperative to rethink Smith’s economic ideas and adapt them to the particular situation of the Viceroyalty. Without this task of adaptation, the notions that were proposed in WN would not be understood by the people and the community leaders, and therefore, the economy of Buenos Aires would not flourish, or it would do so much more slowly.
One of the ideas to which he paid special attention, and which I would like to develop in this short essay, is the importance that Smith places on "self interest." Vieytes was deeply attracted by this concept and the social and economic effects that Smith derives from it. That famous quote in the second chapter of WN, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest"4 condenses a very profound intuition regarding how to order society. Vieytes found in Smith’s analysis both a moral and an economic validation of the pursuit of self-interest as a genuine motivation for human action, especially in social life. This vindication of self interest resulted in allowing society to develop and in helping people to live better lives, so it should be strongly recommended.
Vieytes was deeply drawn to this way of understanding human action, but he was also aware that this idea might sound strange, even scandalous, to his compatriots. Hispanic culture did not seem very compatible with this praise of self-interest, which at first glance sounded excessively selfish and contrary to the religious moral maxim to love thy neighbor. For this reason, Vieytes was especially didactic and concrete when trying to transmit it, aware that its acceptance was crucial if he wanted to see that desired social and economic change. Therefore, this defense and explanation of "self interest" was constantly approached with prudence and tact through all the years that the Semanario was published.
When dealing with this question, Vieytes agreed with Smith on the essential point: people act seeking to satisfy their self interest. They will have a greater incentive to act, then, when what is sought is more closely related to their self interests. For example, in a public letter published in the Semanario, he wrote: "You must firmly believe that as long as each individual does not have his interest as his sole focus, one must not expect him to ever make the slightest effort to advance the interests of others,"5 And thus, it is not surprising that, in his proposal to get out of this “generalized laziness," as he describes the situation of Buenos Aires, there was no other way but to appeal to people's own interests: "so that man banishes inaction and laziness, there is no other way known than to expose the lure of interest to him, and to smooth out the obstacles that may prevent him from achieving it ."6
Like Smith, Vieytes understood that the self interest he promoted was not something with effects limited exclusively to the person who sought them, but that it also had a positive and beneficial social impact. For the Argentine, as for the Scotsman, a society of people who pursued their self interests was not something conflictive or problematic, but on the contrary, it was the means that would help them achieve the general development to which they aspired, and in a much faster and efficient way than any other route: "as the sum of individual interests constitutes the general interest, see here how useless the paths taken to build the later without the former."7 Similarly, Vieytes emphatically pointed out that self interest was not something that dissociated people, but on the contrary, something that united and improved each and every one of the members of society: “the general convenience is so intimately united to the individual convenience that can never be neglected without the former suffering to the point of a moral convulsion.”8
But Vieytes faced a particular challenge. It seemed that this thesis which stated that everyone sought his self interest and constantly tried to achieve better standards of living did not apply to the people of Buenos Aires. At the beginning of 1800, it seemed that economic life there had been in a stationary state without growing for decades. Because of this, Vieytes considered it necessary to make some clarifications regarding the strength of self interest in people. Smith had pointed out that there was "a certain propensity in human nature (...) to truck, barter and exchange," that this propensity was "common to all men"9 and that it tended to general opulence. Vieytes also believed that this propensity was something that was in every human being, since for him there was "in the heart of man always imprinted a keen desire to possess and provide all the comforts of life,"10 and so it was part of our human nature. However, for Vieytes, this self interest that moved people to improve and exchange might be "numbed" due to certain social and cultural situations. In his opinion, this was the situation in Buenos Aires. Two of the elements that could numb this self interest stood out in his texts: first, the natural abundance provided by the lands of Buenos Aires, which were so generous that they allowed access almost effortlessly to essential goods, such as beef (a situation that Smith himself mentions in WN11!), and secondly, the lack of a clear and solid notion of private property. The combination that occurred between this abundance of basic goods and the lack of an institutional framework that recognized private property and its fruits meant that men did not work or develop all the possibilities that the land gave them. To solve this problem, Vieytes said that first “you have to increase the number of their desires, limited today for the most part of them only to get food”12 and the best way to do this was to appeal to their self interest: "the lure of interest," he said, is the "only spring that must be touched at any cost to get them out of inertia."13 In other words, for him it was enough to awaken this self interest that was in everyone by nature, and that moved people to a more opulent way of life. This would result in a major increase of wealth in Buenos Aires.
This effort to enliven the self interest of his compatriots was in his opinion a patriotic duty, which the social and political leaders of the colony had to fulfill. Without this effort, the situation would not change in the short term. Even te Catholic priests should do this in their Sunday sermons and also during their everyday conduct with parishioners. After all, Vieytes pointed out, what all men desired, and what the Catholic religion especially promoted, was the pursuit of happiness, and that could not be achieved by acting against these principles. Anyone who truly cared about eternal happiness should also care about temporal happiness, which was only achieved if self interest was accepted as the driving force of human action. So, he said, the priests should “add to their pastoral task” the undertaking of teaching people how to occupy themselves, because they certainly wished “the increase of the empty patrimony of their parishioners”14 as part of their happiness. Interestingly, Vieytes saw no problem with the idea that Catholicism or and even a Catholic priest should embrace these ideas of Smith, a fact that challenges Weber's thesis from decades later.
But Vieytes lived in difficult times. A few months after his last and most emphatic defenses of Smith’s thesis his journal ceased to appear (1807). In 1810, with the May Revolution, a tumultuous social and political time began in Buenos Aires. From that moment on, the urgencies obliged everyone to postpone these great debates. Just five years later, in 1815, Vieytes passed away. His project of receiving and adapting Smithean ideas in order to help his compatriots to increase their wealth and well-being was stopped. However, although with less intensity than in the English colonies, thanks to intellectuals like Juan Hipólito Vieytes the works of Adam Smith started to be known and spread in the south of America at the very beginning of the 19th century.

Related Links:

Jimena Hurtado, Adam Smith in Hispanic America in the 19th Century (also available in Spanish)
Alvaro Perpere Viñuales, The Early Reception of the WN in Buenos Aires: 1797 (also available in Spanish)
Lauren Hall, Self-Interest Rightly Understood

  1. For example, Carlos Rodriguez Braun "Early Smithian economics in the Spanish empire: J. H. Vieytes and colonial policy," The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 1997, vol. 4, 3, pp. 444-454; Ricardo M. Rojas, El pensamiento económico de Juan Hipólito Vieytes, Buenos Aires, Fundación San Antonio, 2010.
  2. Félix Weinberg, Estudio Preliminar a los Antecedentes económicos de la Revolución de Mayo, Editorial Raigal, Buenos Aires, 1956, p. 18
  3. Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio V,114.
  4. WN I, ii, 2 (p. 26-27)
  5. Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio IV, 340.
  6. Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio I, 16
  7. Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio IV, 340
  8. Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio IV, 339
  9. WN I, ii, 2 (p. 25)
  10. Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio I, 24.
  11. WN I, xi, m, 6 (p. 247)
  12. Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio I, 24.
  13. Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio IV, 340
  14. Semanario de Agricultura, Industria y Comercio I, 15.