Bargaining with the Butcher, Baker, and Brewer: A New Look at Smith’s Most Famous Sentences

adam smith "speaking of smith"

Jacob Sider Jost for AdamSmithWorks

Our desire to persuade each other is not reducible to our pursuit of self-interest in a narrow material sense; it is rather a deep feature of human nature, one we share with the men and women whom we rely on for our food.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Adam Smith was at best an indifferent Kirk of Scotland churchman, but he would have known these words, which Jesus prescribes to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, very well. The Lord’s Prayer speaks to one of the most basic questions of human survival. How will we be fed? Where is the next meal coming from?
 These questions were important to Smith. His answer to them appears in what Samuel Fleischacker has called “the most famous sentences [Smith] ever wrote,” in the opening chapters of the Wealth of Nations:  “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.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages” (WN 1.27). [i]
 Much separates Jesus’ prayer from Smith’s political economy. For one thing, the eighteenth-century Scotsman imagines a more opulent dinner than the first-century Judean, accompanying our daily bread with beef and beer. Yet I wish to suggest that they are more similar than we have often recognized. For Smith, as for Jesus, the important thing about getting food is that we need to ask for it.
 Smith’s famous sentences about the butcher, brewer, and baker have often been taken to place interest (often silently emended to “self-interest”) at the root of human activity. Gregory Mankiw’s widely used introductory economics textbook glosses them in just this way: “Smith is saying that participants in the economy are motivated by self-interest.”[ii] Smith could have said this. His famous sentences might have read “The butcher, brewer and baker provide us with dinner not out of benevolence, but out of self-interest. They act not out of humanity, but out of self-love, and seek their own advantage.”
But this is not what Smith wrote. Verbs of judgment and reflection (“expect,” “regard”), as well as persuasive communication (“address,” “talk”) distinguish Smith’s actual argument from the simpler alternative I have just given, and from Mankiw’s paraphrase. For Smith, getting dinner means talking to people, specifically about “their advantages.” [iii] These verbs of communication are not empty flourishes; rather, they reveal a larger line of thought which is merely implied in this passage but is spelled out at greater length in Smith’s discussion of the role of interest in retail market transactions in the Lectures on Jurisprudence:
If we should enquire into the principle in the human mind on which this disposition of trucking is founded, it is clearly the natural inclination every one has to persuade.  The offering of a shilling, which to us appears to have so plain and simple a meaning, is in reality offering an argument to persuade one to do so and so as it is for his interest.  Men always endeavor to persuade others to be of their opinion even when the matter is of no consequence to them.  If one advances any thing concerning China or the more distant moon which contradicts what you imagine to be true, you immediately try to persuade him to alter his opinion.  And in this manner every one is practicing oratory on others thro the whole of his life… In this manner they acquire a certain dexterity and adress in managing their affairs, or in other words in the managing of men… This being the constant employment or trade of every man, in the same manner as the artizans invent simple methods of doing their work, so will each one here endeavor to do this work in the simplest manner. This is bartering, by which they adress themselves to the self interest of the person and seldom fail immediately to gain their end. (LJ 352)
In other words: people feel a deep need to persuade other people, even when the subject is a remote one, like China seen from the perspective of Scotland, or even the moon (a topic about which Smith in fact sought to persuade others, in his “Essay on Astronomy.”) Money is a modern labor-saving device for doing the work of persuasion, analogous to the windmills and automatic boiler valves whose efficiency Smith celebrates in the opening chapters of the Wealth of Nations
Money, for Smith, is an “argument.” Sometimes it is the right argument, and sometimes it is not.  Smith exemplified the absent-minded professor stereotype, but no memoirist preserves any record of him reading a paper to his baker in hopes of persuading him to furnish the Smith household with bread, nor of offering Jeremy Bentham a guinea to change his mind about usury. As the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres make clear, Smith knew that effective persuasion required awareness of genre, and he saw the conventions of different modes of persuasion as distinct: “No one ever made a bargain in verse” (LRBL 137). 
Thus we impoverish Smith’s statement about the butcher, brewer, and baker if we reduce it to “participants in the economy are (often) motivated by self-interest,” although that is a claim with which Smith—and many others who see material interest as one among a plurality of human motivations—would agree. Smith’s principle might be more accurately paraphrased thus: “people naturally desire to persuade each other—it’s an impulse at least as basic as speech and reason itself—and have discovered through practice and over time that participants in the eighteenth-century commercial economy can be persuaded by appeals to their interest.” Seen this way, the exchange based on self-interest between vendors and customers is not a paradigm for understanding all human interactions, any more than all human beings use windmills or boiler valves. Rather, such exchange is one case out of a wide class of phenomena that belong under the more general heading of the “natural inclination… to persuade.” It is an important case, because it promotes the beneficent effects of the division of labor, and it therefore assumes an outsized importance in the Wealth of Nations, the part of Smith’s project that considers those effects in great detail. But it is a single case nonetheless.
Why is it important to understand the human “disposition of trucking,” a phrase revised to the more famous “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange,” when Smith composed the Wealth of Nations, as a “necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech,” and an expression of the more fundamental “desire to persuade” (WN 1.20; LQ 352)? There are many possible implications, but I’ll close by noting one of special relevance here: Smith’s insight here offers a mirror in which scholars, researchers, and writers of all kinds can see themselves. I have written this essay because I believe that it presents a persuasive reading of Smith’s thought, and I therefore desire to persuade you to understand Smith as I do. Indeed, the fact that I’m writing this piece is an (admittedly modest) piece of evidence in favor of Smith’s claim—and so is every other piece on this site. Our desire to persuade each other is not reducible to our pursuit of self-interest in a narrow material sense; it is rather a deep feature of human nature, one we share not only with each other but also with the men and women whom we rely on for our food. “Give us this day our daily bread”: Jesus instructs his followers to pray to God in order to be fed. The more worldly Smith likewise believes that food comes from speech, but he suggests that we will instead need to talk to the baker.

[i]  Samuel Fleischacker, On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 90.
[ii]  Gregory Mankiw, Principles of Economics, 7th ed. (Stamford, Ct.: Cengage, 2015), 10. Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 186 concurs both with Fleischacker in calling these sentences the “most famous and widely quoted passage from the Wealth of Nations” and with Mankiw in taking them to reduce the motivation for economic exchange to self-interest.
[iii] See Pierre Force, Self-Interest Before Adam Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 129-30.

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