Adam Smith Was Never an Adjunct

Every single one of the explanations that Adam Smith offers—in Book 1, Chapter 10, Part 1, of The Wealth of Nationsfor the difference in wage rates between various kinds of labor is discomfirmed by the example of adjuncts in the academy.*

Turns out: work that is harder, more disagreeable, more precarious, riskier as a long-term career opportunity, of lower social standing, and that requires more time and training to enter into and more trust from society to perform, does not in fact pay better.

*These explanations have to do with what Smith calls “inequalities arising from the nature of the employments themselves.” These explanations are to be distinguished from those having to do with government policies or the forces of supply and demand.


  1. aaronagostini October 2, 2013 at 1:15 pm | #

    Rookie question, then: that’s what’s meant by the term “political economy”? That which sits outside of market forces and policy?

    • freegirard October 2, 2013 at 4:07 pm | #

      political economy was what they called economics until roughly 1888, when Alfred Marshall–John Maynard Keynes mentor–invented the word economics and got the world to accept the new term.

      • Glenn October 2, 2013 at 11:49 pm | #

        The “political” was stripped from political economy because of its connotations of being a consequence of human decisions. Economics has physics envy; it emulates and presents itself as a consequence of laws of nature, more so than of man.

        Therefore, no one is to blame for its condition any more than gravity would be and all are helpless and blameless in the face of what, of necessity, must be.

  2. Roquentin October 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm | #

    Can I be really honest and say I don’t have much interest in Smith or his ideas? People ridicule Marxists for being utopian idealists with lofty dreams detached from reality, but everything I’ve heard from Smith (which admittedly isn’t much) makes him seem like the pinnacle of viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. As if capitalism had a ghost of a chance of playing out like he wanted it to….. It would bother me less if I didn’t see so much of it today, even coming out of the left, even from people who should know better. As much as I admired the theme and spirit of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” it was caught up in this mindset. The crony finance driven capitalism we have now is not an aberration, not a fall from grace, but the logical outcome of the system.

    • Hank October 2, 2013 at 10:30 pm | #

      Smith is hardly held up as a progressive… What makes him interesting is that he was one of the first people to think about these things AT ALL.

    • Finn44 October 4, 2013 at 5:12 pm | #

      Smith wasn’t as utopian as you suggest, not to say that he wasn’t enthralled with the capitalist system of production. However, he does admit the negative effects of the division of labor and the manner in which it shapes people, narrowing their view of the world and robbing them of a capacity to think critically. This is why in Book V, chapter I, section part iii, he talks about the need for the government to support education at all levels of society, encouraging intellectual, social, and martial virtues (his terms). Smith strikes a note similar to Adam Ferguson here and indicates the limits of what the market can do for the “public good.” Of course, whether this characterizes his outlook as a whole is a different matter.

      Some people like David McNally argue that Smith is not the patron saint of neo-liberal, non-interventionist, “free” market ideologues that many wish him to be. Instead, they see him more as an “agrarian capitalist” who believes the stability, health, and good of any nation is found in the land, not the market. This reading places him more in a classic civic (still elitist) tradition than free market. In short, Smith’s a mixed bag and full of contradictions. That’s what makes him interesting.

  3. Stephen Zielinski October 2, 2013 at 8:36 pm | #

    Margaret Mary Vojtko recently became the symbol of the pro-adjunct movement. She died after Duquesne University, a Spiritan institution, had super-exploited her labor for 25 years. She had been an adjunct professor of french at Duquesne and, because of her tenuous relationship with the University, barely made ends meet in the best of times. Duquesne terminated its employment relationship with her because her extreme poverty and failing health had so diminished her quality of life that she needed to supplement her university pay with work at a local restaurant chain and by sleeping in her university office. She never earned pension money or health care while at Duquesne. She was buried in a cardboard box.

    Duquesne currently fights hard with the US Steelworkers over adjunct unionization. It seems to prefer charity for the poor in its employ, not justice. As an atheist, I invoke God’s name as a thought experiment: What judgment would the Christian God make about Duquesne University and the treatment of some of its employees? We may already have an answer to the question: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

    • Glenn October 2, 2013 at 9:50 pm | #

      And I, as a theometrist, concur.

  4. foppe October 3, 2013 at 2:44 am | #

    Posting to point out an article that points out some of the issues with ‘prestige tv’ series that seems up your alley:

    It’s a compelling argument, but it misses an important aspect of the genre, which is its aggressive and resentful masculinity. At a recent appearance in New York, the novelist Norman Rush observed that, over the last half-century, men have steadily lost many of their “prerogatives.” A man can no longer control his wife’s finances, for example, nor can he feel up the pretty secretaries who work for him, at least not without [risking] being sued. At the same time, men continue to dominate the legislatures of every country on earth, and they also control the vast majority of the world’s wealth. This dual phenomenon, Rush said—the loss of many smaller, everyday privileges, combined with continued possession of all the bigger ones—has enormous psychological consequences. Prestige television hints at what these consequences might be. Many of the genre’s flagship programs are organised around a man who remains angry and unhappy despite the power he wields over every other character in the show. Tony Soprano, the head of a criminal empire, sees a therapist because of family anxieties. Walter White, in becoming a drug kingpin, puts his family in extraordinary danger, and he justifies his actions on the grounds that he is simply trying to protect his family.

  5. Finn44 October 4, 2013 at 5:26 pm | #

    One other note on the original post about adjuncts. What’s interesting about this is to me is the role of tenure that contributes to the working conditions of adjuncts in complicated ways. Basically, being tenured puts you beyond the market forces that Smith thought determined wage rates but it also negatively impacts those working in the same industry with the same job qualifications and requirements. One might be tempted to think that getting rid of tenure and opening all those jobs to “the free market” would create more competitive wages and benefits for people working as adjuncts. I seriously doubt this would be the case and think tenure, while flawed, does protect “academic freedom” or whatever the hell is left of it to some degree.
    However, the larger point is that the example of adjuncts gives lie to the distinct categories of government policies, supply and demand, or those inequalities in the nature of jobs “themselves.” What determines wages in any industry is a complex network of social relations not reducible to any of those categories. Tenure is just one example of this type of complex social relation.

  6. KINETICS June 18, 2014 at 11:17 am | #

    The Irish famine was one of the great examples of those disasters of the modern era that are not crises of scarcity, but of distribution. The United States is now the wealthiest country the world has ever known, and has an abundance of natural resources, as well as of nurses, doctors, universities, teachers, housing, and food — so ours, too, is a crisis of distribution. Everyone could have everything they need and the rich would still be rich enough, but you know that enough isn’t a concept for them. They’re greedy, and their 30-year grab for yet more has carved away at what’s minimally necessary for the survival and dignity of the rest of us. So the Famine Memorial couldn’t have been a more appropriate place for Occupy Wall Street to begin.

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