Adam Smith on the Country-City Debate
September 23, 2019
by Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks
The great commerce of every civilized society, is that carried on between the inhabitants of the town and those of the country. It consists in the exchange of rude for manufactured produce, either immediately, or by the intervention of money, or of some sort of paper which represents money. The country supplies the town with the means of subsistence, and the materials of manufacture. The town repays this supply by sending back a part of the manufactured produce to the inhabitants of the country. The town, in which there neither is nor can be any reproduction of substances, may very properly be said to gain its whole wealth and subsistence from the country. We must not, however, upon this account, imagine that the gain of the town is the loss of the country. The gains of both are mutual and reciprocal, and the division of labour is in this, as in all other cases, advantageous to all the different persons employed in the various occupations into which it is subdivided. The inhabitants of the country purchase of the town a greater quantity of manufactured goods, with the produce of a much smaller quantity of their own labour, than they must have employed had they attempted to prepare them themselves. The town affords a market for the surplus produce of the country, or what is over and above the maintenance of the cultivators, and it is there that the inhabitants of the country exchange it for something else which is in demand among them.
- Who do you think is currently winning the debate about the “best place” to live--the country or the city?
- In one of the passages quoted above, Smith says that the country serves as a market for the surplus of the town, and that everyone is enriched by the existence of the city. In another, however, he says that “A city might in this manner grow up to great wealth and splendor, while not only the country in its neighborhood, but all those to which is traded, were in poverty and wretchedness.” Is Smith contradicting himself?Is the existence of cities good or bad for the country?
- How does Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mudtime” relate to the point about the country and the city, and work and leisure, in the last paragraph of this piece?
The city seems to be winning as the "best" place to live if we look at numbers (and I am including suburbs as part of cities). As of the most recent Census, something like 3/4ths of Americans live in an urban area. Revealed preferences suggest that people like the convenience of urban living over the rusticness of the country.
I think that while it is easy to note the economic advantages of city life, it is difficult (but important) at times to empathize with those who have a genuine preference for a country lifestyle. Although being in a well-off position in society allows us to engage in activities for leisure like fishing, there are many fishermen who weigh the cost/benefits and decide to stay out on their boats. Even with all of the associated difficulties. And for these people, the rapid growth of cities might mean the loss of not only their jobs but also their livelihoods, as well as creates an inability to pass on the virtues and traditions they grew up with to their children. Children who will in many cases swept away into cities for the opportunities they can find there. These opportunities are positive in many regards, but there is a certain sadness present with the loss of a particular way of life, that even if we cannot understand it, we ought to keep in mind throughout these conversations.
I think we like to live in cities and towns, but are desperate to keep in a kind of nostalgic touch with rural life. This is, after all, the season of hay rides, bonfires, and apple picking. We (most of us) don’t want to have to do it for survival any more—but for Instagram?! Bring it.
It’s really fascinating how romantic we make the rural lifestyle. Certainly hayrides and apple picking, but also an association with the virtues people who live that life hold. Working hard from dawn to dusk, not taking anything for granted, caring for your friends and your family, living off the land. It sounds lovely, but is also heavily idealized.