Today I took the ETS business field test. ETS exams are “assessments designed to measure the critical knowledge and understanding obtained by students in a major field of study,” according to their Web site. It’s a standardized test taken across different universities to measure, among other things, the success of the school’s core curriculum within a specified field. Everyone in the College of Business is essentially required to take the exam in their last semester. It really has no effect on the student, unless they do exceptionally well, in which case it may look good on a résumé because the test is taken among AACSB-accredited universities. Whether or not other colleges within the university also take an ETS exam for their respective field, I do not know. The topics covered in the business field test included, for the most part, accounting, financing, international business, business law, ethics, marketing, economics, statistics, and management. Some areas were emphasized more than others; for example, there were maybe three questions on ethics and perhaps 35 or so questions on accounting and financing, within the 120-question exam. The first question on my exam was about economics, which I thought was a good thing. The actual question itself, however, I did not think was so great.

I don’t remember the wording of the question exactly or or all the supplied answers (and they say I’m not allowed to reproduce any of the material from the exam), but the question was about Adam Smith and his seminal work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The question, if I remember correctly, was asking what Adam Smith advocated in The Wealth of Nations as something to increase the productivity of labor. There were four choices, and it was obvious enough that “division of labor” was the “most appropriate” answer. Everyone knows Adam Smith’s famous exposition of the division of labor in a pin factory. It’s how he begins his magnum opus. “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour,” writes Smith in this popular Edwin Cannan version of The Wealth of Nations (5th ed.). This is the Adam Smith everyone praises with all sorts of accolades.

Not very many people know the real Adam Smith, the one who wrote a few hundred pages later that the division of labor will cause people to have “no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.” The result, the real Adam Smith says, is that the division of labor will causes people to become “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” This “torpor of the mind,” he says, makes “him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.” This brutal effect “renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues.” He concludes that these are the natural consequences of the division of labor, that is, “unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”

Obviously enough, this Adam Smith does not get very much attention. Part of this, I suppose, is because not very many people read this Adam Smith. They read how he opens The Wealth of Nations, but don’t get much further. Another reason might be because it doesn’t suit the interests of those who wish to wield Adam Smith’s name in defense of their economic ideology. Writes Gavin Kennedy, one of the foremost scholars on Smith, “[Adam Smith’s legacy] has been stolen by modern economists to service their ends of legitimising their equilibrium mathematical models.” It might not be convenient for them to talk about the real Adam Smith who railed against greed, who never believed in an “invisible hand,” or who lambasted the “merchants and manufacturers” whose interests had “been most peculiarly attended to” by extorting “from the legislature for the support of their own absurd and oppressive monopolies” (in other words, corporations and their influence on politics, e.g., through unlimited “donations”).

It is true Adam Smith exposited that the division of labor increases productivity, but also that it leads to people becoming “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” This is why I found the question in the ETS exam to be a little naïve. Was he advocating or was describing? I think he did more of the latter than the former.

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