Adam Smith as a pioneering labour economist

Adam Smith anticipated much of labour economics by basing it on his principle that individuals invest resources to earn the highest possible return. All uses of a resource must yield an equal rate of return adjusted for relative riskiness for otherwise reallocation would result.

The whole of the advantages and disadvantages of the different employments of labour and stock must, in the same neighbourhood, be either perfectly equal or continually tending to equality.

If in the same neighbourhood, there was any employment evidently either more or less advantageous than the rest, so many people would crowd into it in the one case, and so many would desert it in the other, that its advantages would soon return to the level of other employments.

Smith used this insight on  be equality of returns to explain why wage rates differed. Workers care about the whole aspects of the job, not only the cash wage payment: it is the “whole advantages and disadvantages” of the job that is equated across jobs in a competitive market, not wage alone. Smith set out criteria that determined how wages compensated or were discounted for the different characteristics of specific jobs:

  1. the agreeableness or disagreeableness of the employments themselves: better for more enjoyable working conditions will lead an individual to accept lower wages for their labour. Likewise, unpleasant work will have a higher wage. Wages vary with the ease or hardship, the cleanliness or dirtiness, the honourableness or dishonourableness of a job.
  2. The easiness and cheapness, or the difficulty and expense of learning them: jobs that are difficult or time-intensive to learn will pay more. Those who invest the time are being compensated for their additional effort with higher wages. The opportunity cost of forgoing the time-spent in training will be compensated for through higher wages. The difference between the wages of skilled labour and common labour is founded upon this principle.
  3. The constancy or inconstancy of employment: workers who face only partial or inconsistent employment throughout the course of the year, such as seasonal workers of agriculture, must be paid more for their labour. Their wages carry them not only during times of employment, but also during times of unemployment.
  4. The small or great trust which must be reposed in those who exercise them: individuals who have high levels of responsibility  in their jobs will be compensated with higher wages.
  5. The probability or improbability of success: this is an entrepreneurial element in wages. Employment where the chance of success is high will be paid lower than those who take more risks. If individuals were not compensated for risk, there would lack an incentive to seek employment that may not be successful.

The supply and demand for labour in different industries  determines relative wages and the relative numbers of employees in different occupations. Individuals are willing to make a trade-off between less desirable occupations and increased income. Smith spoke of how these five circumstances  listed above  lead to considerable inequalities in the wages and profits.

George Stigler thought that the second greatest triumph of Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations was his famous list of cost factors that generate apparent but not real differences in rates of wages and profits because of training, hardships, unemployment, risk and trust. This list was quoted almost verbatim by his successors  down to this day and is the direct ancestor of both Alfred Marshall’s famous chapters on wages and of the modern theory of human capital.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

JONATHAN TURLEY

Res ipsa loquitur - The thing itself speaks

(macro)Economics live from London

Franck Portier's professional page

Catallaxy Files

Australia's leading libertarian and centre-right blog

Climate Audit

by Steve McIntyre

The Secret Barrister

Independent Blogger of the Year, The Comment Awards 2016 & 2017

Notes On Liberty

Spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed

Michael Sandberg's Data Visualization Blog

Getting people excited about their data one visual at a time™

StephenFranks.co.nz

A New Zealand lawyer, ex-MP, farmer and enthusiast for life opines on law, politics and the universe

Friends of Science Calgary

The Sun is the main driver of climate change. Not you. Not carbon dioxide.

Books & Boots

reflections on books and art

Legal History Miscellany

Posts on the History of Law, Crime, and Justice

No Punches Pulled

Laughter – the best medicine

The Dangerous Economist

Celebrating humanity's flourishing through the spread of capitalism and the rule of law

Sex, Drugs and Economics

Celebrating humanity's flourishing through the spread of capitalism and the rule of law

Economic Growth in History

Nuno Palma's economic and political history blog

The Logical Place

Tim Harding's writings on rationality, informal logic and skepticism

The Long Run

the EHS blog

The Undercover Historian

Beatrice Cherrier's blog

Vincent Geloso

Economics, History, Lots of Data and French Stuff

Climatism

Tracking Anthropogenic Climate Alarmism

Science Matters

Reading between the lines, and underneath the hype.

Point of Order

Politics and the economy

FREEcology

Libertarian environmentalism

Doc's Books

A window into Doc Freiberger's library

Newmark's Door

Celebrating humanity's flourishing through the spread of capitalism and the rule of law

Media Myth Alert

Calling out media myths

Uneasy Money

Commentary on monetary policy in the spirit of R. G. Hawtrey

European Royal History

Exploring the History of European Royalty

Tallbloke's Talkshop

Cutting edge science you can dice with

Marginal REVOLUTION

Small Steps Toward A Much Better World

THE COLUMBOPHILE

The blog for those who LOVE Lieutenant Columbo...

The Risk-Monger

Let's examine hard decisions!

NOT A LOT OF PEOPLE KNOW THAT

“We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert”. - J Robert Oppenheimer.

STOP THESE THINGS

The truth about the great wind power fraud

Trust, yet verify

Searching for the missing pieces of climate change communication

Roger Pielke Jr.

professor, author, speaker

commentisfreewatch.wordpress.com/

Promoting fair and accurate coverage of Israel

Economics in the Rear-View Mirror

Archival Artifacts from the History of Economics

%d bloggers like this: