H.G. Wells should have read Adam Smith: Do the Eloi and Morlocks Trade?

division of labor propensity to truck, barter, and exchange science fiction hg wells

February 28, 2023

Wells imagines this future without trade by imagining the division of labor becomes so acute that trade is no longer necessary. But, as Smith again would note, Wells has the causality backwards... The division of labor is the result of the impulse to trade, not the cause of trading."
“I grieved to think how brief the dream of human intellect had been. It had committed suicide.” That is the traveler in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Leaping forward in time, the traveler discovers a world in which the pastoral Eloi are living lives of rustic comfort, eating the fruit of the land with nary a bit of toil or sweat. Meanwhile, the terrifying Morlock, using vast machines to provide air to their subterranean lair, venture forth under the cover of darkness to feast on the Eloi.
            Wells’ earth of the future is a rather unattractive place. That is, after all, his intention. As is his wont, Wells uses this science fiction tale to moralize about the evil economic system in Britain in 1895. Enraptured by the ideas of the Social Darwinists, Wells’ sets his mind wandering over how both humans and society will evolve in the global survival of the fittest. One of the most well-known socialists of his age, Wells unsurprisingly imagines a future where the lifestyle of the rich become ever more indolent and the wretched poor are gradually forced out of sight into the underground to work the machines. The Morlocks eating the Eloi is little more than a morbid revenge fantasy. A century and a quarter later, it is rather obvious Wells’ Social Darwinist predictions were comically wrong.
            He should have known better. One of the oddities of Wells’ fantasy is that Social Darwinist evolution is more determinative than mere biological evolution. Both the Eloi and the Morlocks are physically smaller and weaker than the 20th century time traveler and their intellectual ability is even smaller. The internal incoherence of Wells’ evolutionary tale comes when the question is asked: Are the Eloi and the Morlocks humans? Wells clearly wants us to think they are, that this is just the natural evolution of humanity. The correspondence however is simply an assumption that any anthropomorphic being is human, an assumption that is easily disproved by a quick trip to a zoo. A group of a dozen humans from 1895 could easily dominate the entire world of the future. Because Wells was so fixated on Social Darwinism, his idea of biological Darwinism ends up with a survival of the least fit.
            The devolution of humans into subhuman creatures is actually necessary for Wells’ vision to make any sense at all. If Wells had paid a bit more attention to Adam Smith, he would have realized that his future society is not one that could have ever evolved among actual humans. 
            In chapter 2 of The Wealth of Nations, Smith notes “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another…is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts.” One of the most distinguishing features of humans is that they are, as an Liberty Fund video series puts it, an animal that trades. There is no trade at all in Wells’ future society. The Morlocks provide food and shelter for the Eloi, but the relationship between them is akin to the relationship between farmers and the livestock they slaughter for food. The Eloi do not trade with one another, and there is no evidence that the Morlocks have a functioning economy either.
            Wells imagines this future without trade by imagining the division of labor becomes so acute that trade is no longer necessary. But, as Smith again would note, Wells has the causality backwards: “As it is by treaty, by barter, and by purchase, that we obtain from one another the greater part of those mutual good offices which we stand in need of, so it is this same trucking disposition which originally gives occasion to the division of labour.” The division of labor is the result of the impulse to trade, not the cause of trading. Remove the impulse to trade, and there would be no division of labor.
            How then does Wells imagine his future world evolved? At what point did humans stop trading with one another? Like many a socialist utopian, Wells seem to think there could come a day when humans have everything they could possibly want, that trade will no longer be desired because all wants are satisfied, and people will just while away the days idly watching the river flow past. Technological innovation will cease and there will be no new things to design to make life richer and fuller. In Wells’ society even the innovations of the past are abandoned; at some point there is a massive technological regress because not a single human deigns to wander into a rather large museum and learn about all the things which have already been invented.
            Wells’ future is not a future of humanity at all. To sell his message, he has to erase the humans from his world and then hope that nobody notices. Repopulate Wells’ world with creative humans who engage in trade with one another, and it won’t be long before the Morlocks are routed and civilization rises from the ashes.

Want More?
H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was a part of a recent AdamSmithWorks virtual reading group. You can see the other readings here.
Other pieces by James Hartley: Star Trek and Adam Smith: Sympathy of the Vians; Hidden Revolutionaries: Tristram Shandy and Adam Smith; Money, Wealth, and Whuffie
An Animal That Trades video series
Brianne Wolf's Why does the Division of Labor Matter?