What can a scholar in waiting do while anticipating new studies in England? Er, study some more? Right you are! Must keep sharp and not allow the old historical senses to atrophy. Thus, when the mailbox delivered the latest big white volume of American Historical Review (v. 115, no. 5, Dec 2010), I quickly began skimming and dissecting. Since my historical senses are most acute to changes in human economy, I eagerly read Fredrik Albritton Jonsson’s essay “Rival Ecologies of Global Commerce: Adam Smith and the Natural Historians.” I thought I’d sift out some of my observations and post them here on my humble blog – in case anyone is interested.

Of course, the name “Adam Smith” attracted me to the article – but “natural historians,” what was that all about? Turns out, plenty.

According to Jonsson, as European powers colonized the globe, “natural history became a privileged instrument of power…” (Jonnson, 1343). This makes sense in a post-Renaissance world which drew upon the humanist holdover of practicing civic engagement among Western nobles and elites. Historians located in the contemporary Renaissance era sought courtier positions so as to hold the ear of princes and governments as nation-states took hold and navigated within a highly competitive global environment. When the rise of science, otherwise known as the Enlightenment, rose as the Renaissance waned, one of the vestiges from the older regime was the importance of advisory roles. But historians now had competition: scientists. Thus, some historians found it necessary to devote energy toward the learning and teaching of science in order to keep or maintain their advisory roles in European courts of power. Natural History, or the study of resources, became prominent.

Adam Smith

But Jonnson’s essay tosses Adam Smith, the “father” of capitalism, into the story of Enlightenment’s rise. Smith himself loved natural history, belonged to societies that studied field reports from around the world, and utilized such data to write his most famous of books The Work of Nations. Jonnson asserts, however, that Adam Smith acted selectively in analyzing the data and arguments from contemporary natural historians. Smith ignored an enormous wing of natural history, the school of thought then known as “cameralism.” The cameralists argued for state-directed projects to protect, develop and maintain resources. In other words, and here’s the big kicker, the basis of the free market system, the foundations of laissez faire, the entire few centuries of globalized capitalism – which are premised in part on Smith’s Work of Nations – may stem from flawed argumentations put forth by Smith.

In ignoring cameralists, Smith chose or was fascinated by reports from natural historians who explored the wilds of the Americas. Thus, Smith’s attraction to natural history did not involve observations that concentrated on resources: native grasses, timber, fish stocks, mining ores, etc, but rather focused on how nature, if left alone, strikes its own balance. So while most natural historians showed their disgust at the misallocation of resources at the hands of colonial governments and settlers, Smith chose to emphasize optimism, that if allowed to develop on its own a new and more efficient market would develop in the colonies.

But Smith ignored the fact that settlers invaded the natural world and in doing so forever altered the balance of nature. Cameralists insisted that capitalism cannot mirror nature because – as the example in North American settlers proved – mankind’s inherent qualities were to abuse and exhaust natural resources. According to the cameralists, if people insisted on disrupting the natural order, then governments must intervene to maximize natural resources. Further, Jonnson insists that Adam Smith knew of the arguments put forth by cameralists. When Smith sat down to write Work of Nations, the Scottish philosopher simply ignored them. Smith, instead, developed the idea of an invisible hand, a market economy that like nature, would balance itself.

But the market is more like a farm than a wild jungle or forest; both are manmade and unnatural and need care in order to remain viable, something to remember in this current recession/depression. Lack of market oversights allowed the global financial structures to run amok in a very unnatural and global world.