Classical Political Economy and the War on Sloth

The classical political economists joined in the chorus of those condemn- ing the sloth and indolence of the poor. Although they applauded the leisure activities of the rich, they denounced all behavior on the part of the less fortunate that did not yield a maximum of work effort.

Consider the case of Francis Hutcheson—‘‘the never to be forgotten Dr. Hutcheson,’’ as his student, Adam Smith, later described him in a letter to Dr. Archibald Davidson—the same Francis Hutcheson whose Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy in Three Books  seems to have served as a model for the economic sections of Smith’s Glasgow lectures . A later work, his System of Moral Philosophy, exemplifies Dr. Hutcheson’s contributions to that noble field of moral philosophy. After a few brief notes on the need to raise prices, Hutcheson mused: ‘‘If a people have not acquired an habit of industry, the cheapness of all the necessaries of life encourages sloth. The best remedy is to raise the demand for all necessaries. . . . Sloth should be punished by tempo- rary servitude at least.’’ The menacing ‘‘at least’’ in this citation suggests that the never-to-be-forgotten professor might have had even sterner med- icine in mind than mere temporary servitude. What else might the good doctor recommend to earnest students of moral philosophy in the event that temporary servitude proved inadequate in shunting people off to the workplace?

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