Devoured by Wild Beasts or Drowned Like Puppies? With Markets, Neither

theory of moral sentiments free market infanticide commercial society poverty prosperity wealth creation markets

Maria Pia Paganelli for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith understood that prosperity decreases desperation and spares the lives of many infants, older persons, and vulnerable others who cannot participate directly in production. Have today's critics of markets forgotten this lesson?
Let me indulge in some quotations from The Theory of Moral Sentiments. They give us a sense of Adam Smith’s attitude toward life and the life of a child in particular.
Life is the most important thing we have. This is so much the case that murder calls for the strongest punishment possible:
Death is the greatest evil which one man can inflict upon another, and excites the highest degree of resentment in those who are immediately connected with the slain. Murder, therefore, is the most atrocious of all crimes which affect individuals only, in the sight both of mankind, and of the person who has committed it. … The most sacred laws of justice, therefore, those whose violation seems to call loudest for vengeance and punishment, are the laws which guard the life and person of our neighbor. (TMS II.ii.2)
Parents naturally love their children, often even too much. This is so true that there is no need to have a divine commandment to love our children, although there is one to love our parents. We naturally love our children:
Nature, for the wisest purposes, has rendered, in most men, perhaps in all men, parental tenderness a much stronger affection than filial piety. The continuance and propagation of the species depend altogether upon the former, and not upon the latter. … Nature, therefore, has rendered the former affection so strong, that it generally requires not to be excited, but to be moderated; and moralists seldom endeavour to teach us how to indulge, but generally how to restrain our fondness, our excessive attachment, the unjust preference which we are disposed to give to our own children above those of other people. They exhort us, on the contrary, to an affectionate attention to our parents, and to make a proper return to them, in their old age, for the kindness which they had shown to us in our infancy and youth. In the Decalogue we are commanded to honour our fathers and mothers. No mention is made of the love of our children. Nature had sufficiently prepared us for the performance of this latter duty. (TMS III.3.13)
Parents who are too hard on their children are considered horrible brutes:
The man who appears to feel nothing for his own children, but who treats them upon all occasions with unmerited severity and harshness, seems of all brutes the most detestable. (TMS III.3.14)
A parent without parental tenderness … appear monsters, the objects, not of hatred only, but of horror. (TMS VI.2.I.7)
And we are devastated by the death of a child:
In the eye of nature, it would seem, a child is a more important object than an old man; and excites a much more lively, as well as a much more universal sympathy. It ought to do so. Every thing may be expected, or at least hoped, from the child. In ordinary cases, very little can be either expected or hoped from the old man. The weakness of childhood interests the affections of the most brutal and hard-hearted. … In ordinary cases, an old man dies without being much regretted by any body. Scarce a child can die without rending asunder the heart of somebody. (TMS VI.ii.I.3)
Infanticide can be inferred to be the most atrocious and unnatural crime—the taking of the life of an innocent creature.
How is it possible, then, that in some societies the murdering of children is not only commonly practiced but well accepted? How is it possible, then, that in some countries there are even paid jobs specialized in drowning children like puppies in the water?
Smith’s answer is unequivocal. The root of this horrific practice is poverty. In severe poverty, there are not enough means to support everyone. The weakest in society are the ones that cannot make it.    
He tells us from the very beginning of the Wealth of Nations, in his Introduction and Plan of Work, that there are societies:
so miserably poor, that, from mere want, they are frequently reduced, or at least think themselves reduced, to the necessity sometimes of directly destroying, and sometimes abandoning their infants, their old people, and those afflicted by lingering diseases, to perish with hunger, or to be devoured by wild beasts. (WN Intro 4)
Smith’s language here is telling. He could have said “they expose their children,” but instead he developed this nightmare-like image of abandoning an infant to the side of the road to be devoured, not even “killed”, but “devoured”, by wild beasts. Can you imagine? Your own baby disembowelled and eaten by some animal?!? Not by accident, but by your own choice?
Similarly miserably poor are the parts of China where the practice of drowning children like puppies is so common as to generate its own business (WN I.viii.24). It is extreme poverty that induces us to accept such practices of “destroying” our children. 
Poverty forces us to do horrendous things! 
Rich societies, on the other hand, have enough resources to support the life of everyone, even of the ones who do not work (WN Intro 4). Not only that, in rich societies the working poor even have a better standard of living than a chief in a poor society (WN I.i.11). They are free as well (WN III.iv.12)! And in rich societies, the practice of infanticide is finally abandoned and condemned.  
It may not be an accident that Smith tells us both that countries with a strong economic growth are countries with a high population growth and that these countries are the happiest ones (WN I.viii.43). And that the advent of commerce, which in its turn brought wealth, brought “liberty” and “good government” too (WN III.iv.4). 
The wealth that commerce brings about allows us to rid ourselves of that horrific, but under different conditions quite common, custom of killing our own children. The wealth that commerce brings about is thus much welcomed, despite all its limitations, which Smith is not shy to highlight. But here, the wealth that markets bring about allow for life, meaning the life of everybody, including the most weak and vulnerable. And that, for Smith, is a good thing.

Related Links:

Econlib Encyclopedia Entry: Poverty In America, by Isabel V. Sawhill
Michael Munger talks with Russ Roberts about Slavery and Racism
Maria Pia Paganelli and Anne-Pauline De Cler, Would Adam Smith Protest in a Pandemic?
Maria Pia Paganelli, Adam Smith: Myths and Realities, Markets Dehumanize People
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