Drawn to Industry and Idleness: Hogarth and Smith

arts & culture jurisprudence self-interest approbation love of virtue william hogarth painting tom idle francis goodchild rent seeking apprenticeship

James Stacey Taylor for AdamSmithWorks

March 3, 2020
A viciously brilliant satirist, William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) skewered the pretensions and hypocrisies of eighteenth-century society. The corrupt, the sexually promiscuous, the nouveaux-riches, the avaricious, the foolish—Hogarth’s paintings and engravings depicted a bonfire of the perennial human vanities. But, like most satirists, Hogarth’s work wasn’t intended only to mock. He frequently produced series of works that, taken together, told a story that drove home a moral point. 

This is the case with the series of twelve engravings entitled Industry and Idleness. These engravings follow the differing fortunes of two weaver’s apprentices, Tom Idle and Francis Goodchild. The first engraving sets the stage for the rest of the story. Goodchild is at work on his loom, neatly dressed and smiling, happy in his work. Above his head is tacked a ballad celebrating the life of Dick Whittington, who rose from being an apprentice to being Lord Mayor of London. At his side is a copy of “The Prentice Guide” open to show his willingness to learn. By contrast, Tom Idle is asleep at his loom, disheveled from the night before. Above his head is tacked a copy of Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe’s confessional novel detailing the exploits of Moll,  who “was Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife, Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia”—although she “at Last Grew Rich, Lived Honest and Died a Penitent.” A beer tankard is propped on Tom Idle’s loom, a tobacco pipe wedged into its workings, and by his side rests a mangled copy of “The Prentice Guide.” Over the next eleven engravings the story unfolds. Goodchild is industrious and prospers. He helps his master grow his business, attends church with his master’s daughter and eventually marries her, becomes his master’s business partner, and becomes Sheriff—and then Lord Mayor—of London. Idle, alas, is not only idle but wicked, gambling on a coffin outside the church rather than attending the service within. Sent away to sea by his master he soon returns, housed in a squalid garret with a prostitute, supplementing her income with petty theft. Theft accelerates to murder, and the (relatively low) price on his head is sufficient to tempt the prostitute to betray him. Taken by the Watch he is impeached by an accomplice and sentenced by Sheriff Goodchild to hang at Tyburn. 

The Virtues of Prudence and Justice
But while Idle is idle Goodchild is, well, a good child. In contrast to the dissolute Idle who indulges his present desires for pleasure and recreation with no thought for the long-term consequences of his actions, Goodchild is diligent and restrained. He exhibits, in Smith’s terms, the virtue of prudence. Unlike Idle, whom Hogarth first depicts as asleep at his loom and then as gambling on top of a coffin outside the church during “divine service”, Goodchild is depicted as working assiduously at his loom, and then singing piously from a hymnal in church with his master’s daughter. As indicated by Hogarth’s reference to Dick Whittington in the first plate of Industry and Idleness Goodchild is focused on his long-term success rather than on the short-term momentary pleasures that so beguile Idle. In the “steadiness of his industry and frugality, in his steadily sacrificing the ease and enjoyment of the present moment for the probable expectation of the still greater ease and enjoyment of a more distant but more lasting period of time” (TMS VI.i.11) Goodchild’s actions would, Smith notes, receive the moral approval of any well-informed and impartial spectator. Since this spectator is impartial he will not privilege one part of a person’s life over another—all would receive equal consideration. The impartial spectator, notes Smith, thus “does not feel himself worn out by the present labour of those whose conduct he surveys; nor does he feel himself solicited by the importunate calls of their present appetites” (TMS VI.i.11). Instead, “[t]o him their present, and what is likely to be their future, situation, are very nearly the same: he sees them nearly at the same distance, and is affected by them very nearly in the same manner” (TMS VI.i.11.) But the impartial spectator realizes that to Idle and Goodchild their present and future situations are very far from being the same. The ready pleasures of the moment call to them with far stronger voices than do the merely possible pleasures of the future. This leads the impartial spectator to “approve, and even applaud” Goodchild’s “proper exertion of self-command” which enables him to behave as though his present and future situations affect him “in nearly the same manner” as they affect the impartial spectator. 

But prudence isn’t the only virtue that Goodchild displays. This is just as well, for Smith does not consider it to be “the most endearing, or of the most ennobling of the virtues." (Indeed, he notes that while it “commands a certain cold esteem” it does not seem “entitled to any very ardent love or admiration.” [TMS VI.i.14].) After his wedding Goodchild is appropriately benevolent, distributing the remains of the wedding feast to the poor that throng outside in expectation of this bounty. Later, in his capacity as Sheriff, he exhibits “a sacred regard to the rules of justice” (VI.i.15) condemning—justly—his former fellow apprentice to hang for his crimes, despite his obvious distress at this being his duty.

For Smith, however, virtue is not its own reward—nor vice its own punishment. “What,” he asks, “is the reward most proper for encouraging industry, prudence, and circumspection? Success in every sort of business…. Wealth and external honours are their proper recompense, and the recompense which they can seldom fail of acquiring” (TMS III.v.8). So far, so Hogarthian—Goodchild’s virtue does indeed bring him the appropriate rewards. But Smith recognizes that “industry, prudence, and circumspection” could sometimes be put to evil ends as well as good—Milton’s Satan is a classic example of this. This is not the case in Industry and Idleness—here we see a neat symmetry between virtue rewarded and vice punished.  But when “fraud, falsehood, brutality and violence” are coupled with the productive virtues and accordingly receive “those advantages which they may in some sense be said to have merited” Smith notes that the “scorn and abhorrence” which they excite rouses our indignation at their success (TMS III.v.9) . Not only do we “desire to heap upon them every sort of disgrace and disaster”, but we “should” do so. Idle’s fate, for Smith, is a consummation devoutly to be wished. 

Rent-seeking Apprenticeship
It is not surprising that part of the moral message of Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness finds expression in Adam Smith’s discussion of the virtues in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). But aspects of Hogarth’s depiction of Idle as an apprentice would also resonate with Smith’s work in The Wealth of Nations

The tankard propped on Idle’s loom in Hogarth’s first engraving is marked “Spittle Fields." Now called Spitalfields, during the time of Hogarth and Smith this area of East London was the hub of England’s silk-weaving industry. In the 18th century this was an important industry—and one that was notoriously protective of its trade. Smith notes in The Wealth of Nations (WON) that the silk-weavers had “scarce been incorporated a year” before they passed a by-law “restraining any master from having more than two apprentices at a time” (WON I.x.ii.6). The aim of this law was not to ensure that each master would only have two apprentices so that he could pay a lot of attention to each of them and train them to be master weavers. As Smith notes, the apprenticeship system had no effect on the quality of the work of the people who had been trained in it. Indeed, he observes that in some cases the apprenticeship system might have led to the production of goods of lower quality. If the apprentice’s master, and not the apprentice, secured the value of the goods that the apprentice produced the apprentice would have no incentive to produce high quality items. This, in turn, might lead the apprentice to gain a sub-optimal training in his craft and hence go on to produce lower-quality items as a master. Smith’s observation was that the apprenticeship system (like occupational licensing today) was simply an anti-competitive measure that was intended to restrict entry into a trade and so keep wages up. Limiting the number of apprentices that a weaver could take on limited the number of future weavers. Moreover, as Smith also notes, the longer the required apprenticeship the more costly the education. This expense served as a further barrier to entry, restricting competition and imposing unnecessary costs on consumers.

But laws such as this were not, Smith notes, an unmitigated good for the professions and trades that imposed them. While they might keep wages high in periods of high demand they also had the unintended consequence of depressing some artisans’ wages below what they could have earned without those laws. These laws restricted the mobility of artisans, both geographically and between professions. A London silk-weaver, for example, would find it difficult to move to another location where his skills were in demand if the local guilds did not recognize the legitimacy of his apprenticeship. Similarly, the widespread existence of such laws could result in a silk-weaver, for example, being unable to work as a haberdasher (a person who traded in silk and velvet) solely because he had not undergone the appropriate apprenticeship. If the demand for silk-weaving waned the unemployed silk-weavers might have to take an unskilled job (e.g., that of a porter) that paid less than haberdashery even though his silk-weaving skills would allow him to transfer easily to this other occupation. Such laws would thus not only have unintended consequences but would prevent people from doing work that they were qualified to do and that others would be willing to pay them for. 

Surprisingly, however, even though Smith’s discussion of the drawbacks of the apprenticeship system comes in The Wealth of Nations rather than in The Theory of The Moral Sentiments his primary objection to it is moral, not economic. Smith holds that “[t]he property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable” (WON I.x.ii.12). As such, to “hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of this most sacred property” (WON I.x.ii.12). And Smith roundly rejects the rather disingenuous argument that many guilds offered in favor of apprenticeship—that it was necessary for the protection of the consumer: “The affected anxiety of the law-giver lest they [the consumer] should employ an improper person, is evidently as impertinent as it is oppressive.” And, in any case, as Smith observes, consumers are only concerned with the quality of the goods they purchase, not with the qualifications of those who make them. 

The original law that limited the number of apprentices that a silk-weaver could have in London was no longer in force in the 18th century, having been struck down by Charles II in 1670. But Hogarth’s depiction of only two apprentices could be taken to show that weavers were still under informal pressure from the “corporation” to restrict the number of apprentices they took on. And deliberately identifying Idle’s tankard as a silk-weaver’s tankard serves as a sly (and Smithian) reminder that even idle workers could find employment in protected industries if they had the right connections. Hogarth’s implied criticism of the corporation-based business of the time is repeated more openly in the scene depicting the feast celebrating Goodchild’s installation as Sheriff of London. Although the prudent Goodchilds are shown sitting in state they are relegated to the background of the scene which is dominated by the gluttony of their fellow diners. Not everyone who becomes wealthy does so through exhibiting the same virtues as Goodchild, and the wealthy are still liable to squander and waste.  

The Rewards of Virtue
The above discussion of the Smithian aspects of Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness has noted three ways in which self-interest could lead someone astray: It could lead to corporations conspiring to restrict competition, it could lead to industry in the pursuit of vice, and, when uncoupled from an impartial concern with all of the times of one’s life, it could lead to the pursuit of momentary pleasures. But Smith is well-known for his approbation of self-interest—indeed, one of the  most famous quotations from The Wealth of Nations is that “[I]t 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” (WON I.ii.2). Smith is quite clear that 

Regard to our own private happiness and interest, too, appear upon many occasions very laudable principles of action. The habits of œconomy, industry, discretion, attention, and application of thought, are generally supposed to be cultivated from self-interested motives, and at the same time are apprehended to be very praise-worthy qualities, which deserve the esteem and approbation of every body. (TMS VII.ii.iii.16)

Given the discussion above it’s not surprising that Smith includes the caveat that “[r]egard to our own private happiness and interest appear upon many occasions very laudable principles of actions”—as we’ve seen they are not always harnessed to praiseworthy ends. But, for Smith, it’s no accident that they often are. Right after noting that “wealth and external honours” are the “proper recompense” for virtue Smith notes that in addition to desiring these material rewards people desire “to be beloved,” and rejoice in “being trusted and believed.” Indeed, Smith believes that the desire to be respected, “of deserving and obtaining this credit and rank among our equals, is, perhaps, the strongest of all our desires, and our anxiety to obtain the advantages of fortune is accordingly much more excited and irritated by this desire, than by that of supplying all the necessities and conveniencies of the body, which are always very easily supplied to us” (TMS Vi.i.3).

Although Hogarth gives no indication in Industry and Idleness that he believes that persons have a stronger desire to be beloved than they do for material rewards he agrees with Smith that part of the “proper recompense” for virtue is “to be beloved."  Goodchild’s rewards are not merely material. Rewards like his partnership in the firm, wealth enough to be magnanimous to the poor, and the possession of high office in London are also social. Hogarth portrays the relationship between Goodchild and his master’s daughter as one of genuine affection. Whenever they appear together they are close to one another and smiling pleasantly. By the third time we encounter Goodchild he is described as the “Favourite” of his master. His master has entrusted him with the care of his purse, is instructing him in the business rather than merely teaching him to weave, and has his arm around him affectionately. In a foreshadowing of their prospective partnership as equals, rather than as master and apprentice, Hogarth depicts two gloves clasped hand-in-hand together on the countertop. Their relationship is becoming close. As Smith observes, “[c]olleagues in office, partners in trade, call one another brothers; and frequently feel towards one another as if they really were so” (TMS VI.ii.i.15)

By contrast, Idle’s viciousness bars him from any genuinely human relationships. Although Hogarth frequently depicts him as being at the center of groups (gambling outside the church, being rowed out to the ship on which he is to work, in the night-cellar dividing up the spoils of the murder he committed) the interactions depicted all have an underlying sense of menace, as though violence will break out at any moment—if it hasn’t done so already. (The gamblers’ faces show their mutual antagonism while the beadle raises his crop to lash Idle. The men on the boat mock him by showing him a rope used for beating and by gesturing towards a gibbet.  And even as he divides up the spoils the prostitute he was living with is betraying him to the Watch.) Unlike the relationships that Goodchild voluntarily enters into and that make his life better, those that Idle voluntarily enters into make his life worse. He is sold out to the Watch by the prostitute he lives with and is then betrayed by his partner in crime who testifies against him.

But these betrayals are not the only ways in which Idle’s taste for low company hurts him. It makes him even more vicious than he otherwise would have been. Smith points to “the contagious effects of both good and bad company” (TMS VI.ii.i.17). He notes that just as association with “the wise and the virtuous” will lead a man to at least acquire respect for wisdom and virtue, so too will someone who “associates chiefly with profligate and dissolute people” at least “lose all his original loathing of profligacy and dissoluteness." 
At this point we might feel rather sorry for poor Idle—he seemed never to have had a chance. But this isn’t the lesson that either Hogarth or Smith would want us to take away. Hogarth produced Industry and Idleness as a morality tale, showing the different results that could be expected from choosing a life of virtue over one of vice. There would be little point to such a tale if he didn’t believe that the persons to whom it was directed had some choice over which path they would pursue. (Even Moll Flanders was able to turn her life around, become rich, and die a penitent.) Smith, too, rejected the old saw that “Character Is Destiny,” famously noting that “The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education” (WON I.ii.4). Idle doesn’t deserve our pity—he deserves our just disapprobation and contempt.

In another series of paintings, Marriage a La Mode, Hogarth depicts a bankrupt Earl attempting to revive his aristocratic family’s fortunes through marrying his son to the daughter of a merchant. (As you’d expect from Hogarth, things do not go well.) But the rise of commerce and the slow decline of the aristocracy was merely a symptom of the major social, economic and political changes that were affecting the United Kingdom in the eighteenth century. Hogarth and Smith reminded their contemporaries that despite these changes human nature was the same as it ever was. People still desired material comfort and (even more) the respect of their fellows, and this could be secured through following the path of virtue, not vice.