Exploiting the Good Earth

Paul Schwenessen for AdamSmithWorks

June 8, 2020


The word exploit has now come to be synonymous with theft, which is a pity because it allows so much of what works in the world to be lumped in with what doesn’t.
“Exploit” is not a pretty word in modern conversation.  Bernie Sanders says that Disney “ruthlessly exploits” its workers, and he doesn’t mean it as praise for management.  The phrase “exploited landscapes” immediately conjures denuded wasteland.  I have been told by my Marxist professor that I am “exploiting” my hired farm help no matter what I pay them (because there’s a power imbalance, you see…).  The word exploit has now come to be synonymous with theft, which is a pity because it allows so much of what works in the world to be lumped in with what doesn’t.

It wasn’t always thus.  Though now invoked in modern diatribes against modern capitalism, and generally associated with its failures, the word “exploit” deserves a bit of exegesis. In farming parlance, exploit has (or least had) a generally positive connotation: opening up new ground, plowing more land, extracting greater production from the herd—in short, mobilizing resources toward more useful human ends.  

Adam Smith rarely uses the term “exploit” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. When he does, he uses it only as a noun meaning  ‘a remarkable deed.’ However, Smith was keenly attuned to the causes and consequences of the natural human desire to exploit—indeed one might argue that he saw it as the engine of all progress, the thing which “…rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.” (TMS, 318)  This desire to exploit, or what Smith might have understood as “cultivate,” is the practical motive force toward which humans aim to improve their condition.

“Exploit” gains its modern unsavory associations, however, in Smith’s corollary: “It is this which prompted [mankind] to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and invent and improve all the sciences and arts which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains…”  

The intervening two and half centuries have not been kind to this vigorous portrayal of humanity’s global interventions.  The steam engine had barely been invented in Smith’s day, and dark Dickensian hellscapes were a hundred years in the offing.  Smith was enamored of humanity’s capacity to industriously create something out of nothing – to “exploit” was a natural, positive, and proper impulse.  We maintain vestiges of this positive view when we say that someone “exploits her every advantage.”  Like cultivating one’s talents, we consider it virtuous (or at least wise) to make the best of what we have.

Of course, it is one thing to maximize or exploit one’s natural advantages, it is quite another to rob or steal resources from someone else.  It is this recognition that has moved the term from its organic, semi-agrarian roots towards its modern association with coercion.  

This is where the genius of Smith comes bubbling, as usual, to the surface.  He properly recognized that the desire to improve, cultivate, and exploit was a selfish trait, but that this trait held tremendous social benefit.  Greedy exploitation, the darker twin of tender cultivation, was in no way a moral impediment to social welfare—in fact it was the reverse.  “It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them.  The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him.  The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant.”  

Exploit all you want, he admonishes, for counter-intuitive as it may seem, your exploitation in fact helps others.  You can only consume so much.  After the greedy titan has got his fill, “[t]he rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of…”  In other words, those ultra-exploiters who are so easy to vilify in our minds are in fact helping to create a general prosperity and those tangible benefits “…which [we] would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice.”  

This of course prefigures Smith’s “invisible hand” notion—that irrespective of our “selfishness and rapacity,” our aggregated self-interest creates collective, social benefits.  Immense benefits.  Benefits so unimaginably vast that the end of poverty may well be in our lifetimes—where even the least among us has access to sufficient food, clean water, and suitable shelter to live long, robust, dignified lives.  It is a miracle of world-historical proportions.

This, I know, does not square with prevailing views about what constitutes exploitation. While the world may be better off in absolute terms, we concede, it must be exploitation that causes any lingering miseries, and accounts for the inequalities we can so readily see around us.

But Smith leads us to think beyond such emotional superficialities.  In the context of farming and food production, he notes that the rich “consume little more than the poor.” This is of course true if you think about it… neither Jeff Bezos nor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consumes fifty million times more calories per day than you or I.  Indeed, in this obesity-plagued era, it may actually be reversed—the rich probably consume less.  Oh, I can hear the rejoinder now: “we’re not talking about food these days, we’re talking about all the other stuff in the modern world—think of all those yachts, the private jets, the lavish parties.”  And yes, there is something decidedly despicable (and maybe enviable) in all that conspicuous consumption.  But short of some hoarding (Imelda Marcos’s three thousand pairs of shoes), the rich don’t really actually consume that much more than the poor.  The smug guy in first class has a seat that is maybe three inches wider than mine back in steerage.  Paris Hilton in her heyday could maybe drink two or three glasses more of champagne than I on a given night.  Granted, they expend vastly larger sums for these high-end consumables, (“the rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable”) but that is far from the same thing as actually consuming more.  The first-class ticket price helps pay the rent for a flightline crewchief.  The gallons of Veuve-Clicquot spilt on the carpet help keep a Polish vine-trimmer employed in Reims and a steam vacuum company in business in Beverly Hills.  Even Marcos’s shoes are apparently creating some value, if you read the link to the end… The rich alter the heap, but they do not consume it.

In agriculture, “exploit” has traditionally meant deriving utility from the earth.  In the rest of the world, “exploit” now means something akin to slavery.  But slavery means force, coercion, and lack of choice. So let’s not get confused:  as long as there is a sliver of choice in human transactions, then the world “exploit” needs to be understood in its old-fashioned way.


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