Dependence, Freedom & the Structure of Obligation

If human beings are entirely dependent upon one another, as Adam Smith suggests, then how is it possible for them to be free?

Does the state of freedom preclude dependence? Can one be free while unable to exist in isolation? Rousseau and Smith clash on this point because of their distinct views on human nature. For Smith, freedom is a result of fortuitous accidents; it is historically contingent, a product of selfish market forces rather than high-minded political intention. This contrasts with the Rousseauvian vision of a highly intentional social contract, where freedom is built upon a deliberate and considered conversion from self-interested individuals into a body politic. Dependence, in its various forms, is central to the stories that both authors tell about freedom. Rousseau condemns it as humanity’s original sin, while Smith embraces it as, not only natural, but also beneficial. However this apparent tension is, in fact, entirely superficial, stemming from the conflation of two distinct types of dependence, one centralized and the other distributed. Both types of dependence entail a reliance on others, yet the structure of these obligations is different. Centralized dependence, where multitudes are maintained by just a few, corrodes freedom and condemns men to slavery. On the other hand, distributed dependence, characterized by a complex web of mutual obligations between many distinct individuals, not only permits, but also promotes, freedom.
According to Rousseau, human beings, in their natural state, were free because, like animals, they relied upon no one but themselves. Each man, he envisioned, had no “greater need for another man than monkey or wolf has for another of its respective species.” (Rousseau 60). Entirely independent of everyone, Rousseau’s savages were endowed with natural freedom, a primitive type of liberty where man was free to do as he wished, to give in to any passing temptation, to live by himself on the fruits of his own labor (Rousseau 167).
Rousseau, seeing freedom as a property particular to natural man and dependence as the fulcrum that lifts man from this state, believed it to be a corrupting force. He asserts that dependence leads to degeneration, pointing to the physical differences that can be observed between domesticated animals and their wild counterparts: “The horse, the cat, the bull, even the ass … have a more robust constitution … in the forest than in our homes. … [I]t might be said that all our efforts at feeding them and treating them well only end in their degeneration.” (Rousseau 51). By providing a comfortable life for livestock, their natural vitality is diminished. And, he argues, the same must be true for human beings, if not too an even greater degree, as humans preserve comforts for themselves that they withhold from the animals that they domesticate (Rousseau 51).
Ultimately, though these examples of dependence are analogies that Rousseau draws upon to make his political point: “The bonds of servitude are formed merely from the mutual dependence of men and the reciprocal needs that unite them, it is impossible to enslave a man without having first put him in the position of being incapable of doing without another” (Rousseau 68). No one can be compelled to slavery another unless the alternative is to forfeit his life. But true dependence, where one is incapable of surviving without assistance, makes this type of coercion possible. Thus, dependence is the precondition of slavery.
Rousseau is not wrong in this assertion. However, his argument applies to a specific type of dependence. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith helps to draw the distinction between dependence that is “degenerative,” to use the Rousseauvian term, and that, which is both necessary and beneficial. By Smith’s account, feudal Europe was subdivided into territories, each dominated by a “great proprietor.” (Smith 440). By owning land, these proprietors controlled the entire surplus that it generated. Yet, without foreign commerce or finer manufactured goods, the bounty of the land could not be exchanged, only consumed: “If the surplus produced is sufficient to maintain a hundred men … [the proprietor] can make use of it in no other way” (Smith 440). The single use of the surplus meant that great proprietors were necessarily “surrounded with a multitude of retainers and dependents,” who were unable to provide anything in return (Smith 440). The proprietor’s land was already worked and additional labor was unnecessary. Thus, these dependents, maintained entirely by the proprietor’s largess, had to obey his command. Their state of dependence made them slaves to the lord who fed them. This is an example of the corrosive, centralized dependence articulated by Rousseau in his Discourse on The Origins of Inequality.
However, a shift from this state of subjugation, where all men exist either as tenants or dependents of a great proprietor, took place and produced commercial society: where a vast number of differentiated laborers are sustained by many unique customers. In other words, a transition from centralized dependence to distributed dependence. And, ultimately, this transformation can be traced back to the division of labor.
It is through the humanity’s shared instinct to barter that the division of labor originally occurs (Smith 16). Talents are not equally distributed across a population and so some individuals have greater “readiness and dexterity” others. (Smith 16) They are able to produce some output more efficiently than their peers. However, if each individual is entirely independent, their unique abilities would be underutilized. An individual can only consume a finite amount, so, if exchange was impossible, there would be no incentive to produce beyond what was required by a single person. The ability to exchange goods to mutual advantage gives rise to labor specialization or as Smith write: “the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous” (Smith 482).
Smith opens The Wealth of Nations by outlining the steps required to produce a single pin. It is an anecdote which illustrates his understanding of the division of labor: what was once completed by the exertion of a single individual, now requires the work of dozens. The labor required to manufacture of a pin has been fragmented: “One man draws the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top” with the production line continuing ad infinitum (Smith 4). Each person who is required to produce a pin depends on the labor of every individual prior to his step in the process as well as all those who follow him; the former to furnish him with the raw material which he works upon and the latter to continue the process to its conclusion.
By dividing the process into steps, each worker’s task is reduced to “some one simple operation” (Smith 8). And as this single operation becomes the “sole employment of his life,” the worker unavoidably improves his ability (Smith 8). Many more men are required for this type of production, but the labor of each individual is less significant and the skill required by each step more trivial. Smith shows that pins can be produced more efficiently when the effort is divided, however the efficiency gains come with a necessary corollary: dependence increases as well. However, the resulting dependence is distributed evenly as each worker relies equally upon every other. This complex web of mutually advantageous dependence forms the basis of commercial society.
And commerce is what ultimately destroyed the feudal order. The great proprietors of Europe did not maintain their dependents out of kindness, but rather selfish opportunism. The surplus captured by proprietors could not be spent directly on their betterment, so instead it was converted into power over other men. The emergence of foreign trade and fine manufacturing created an alternate outlet for surplus production, by which proprietors could “consum[e] the whole value of the rents themselves” (Smith 444). All men are naturally self-interested, and so upon finding a means of consuming the surplus without sharing it, proprietors did so. This gradually eroded the foundations of the feudal order as “for the gratification of the … most sordid of all vanities, [proprietors] bartered their whole power and authority” (Smith 444-5). By trading in their surplus for expensive baubles instead of sharing it with their retainers, the cycle of dependence on “great proprietors” was interrupted.
In commercial society, unlike in the feudal order, dependence is highly distributed due to the division of labor. The wealthy remain wealthy, but their political power has decayed as now each worker “derives his subsistence from the employment, not of one, but of a hundred or a thousand different costumers.” (Smith 445). In commercial society as a whole, there is a huge degree of dependence in absolute terms, as the sustenance of every single worker requires might require transactions with hundreds of other individuals. But now even the wealthiest contribute “but a very small proportion… of [workers’] whole annual maintenance.” (Smith 445). The centralized dependence that characterized feudal institutions has been replaced and though the a single wealthy individual might contribute to the livelihood of many more workers than before, “they are all more or less independent of him, because generally they can be maintained without him.” (Smith 445).
So, if dependence can, in certain situations, be a wellspring of greater independence, is Rousseau’s understanding of the concept simply flawed? While Rousseau’s language doesn’t make the distinction between centralized dependence and distributed dependence explicit, the conceptual underpinnings of the social contract reveal that he accepted the division between the two.
In On the Social Contract, Rousseau states that there is a point when humanity as a whole can no longer exist without combining forces, and thus becoming mutually dependent. The obstacles standing in they way of progress become insurmountable if they are faced alone (Rousseau 163). So as independent existence is no longer feasible, Rousseau attempts to formulate a “form of association” that minimizes the risk of degeneration that comes with dependence (Rousseau 164). This effort results in the social contract.
The social contract is an ingenious form of association that “defends and protects” every member while each “nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before. (Rousseau 164).” By surrendering one’s property and rights to the entire community, everyone is equal in condition, and because everyone has the same condition, “no one has an interest it making it more burdensome for the others” because they ultimately shoulder the increased load as well (Rousseau 164). In this process, man loses his natural freedom but gains “civil liberty and the proprietary ownership of all he possesses” (Rousseau 167). The ultimate effect is that the social contract aligns each individual’s self-interest with the public interest.
In his articulation of the social contract, Rousseau outlines the logic of freedom through distributed dependence, arguing that “in giving himself to all, each person gives himself to nobody” (Rousseau 164). Rousseau suggests that when the degree of interdependence is so extreme, it loses its coercive properties and becomes an engine of unification.
Rousseau and Smith both believe freedom to be attainable despite human beings’ dependence on one another and, in some sense, because of it. Dependence is not uniform; it comes in various shades and flavors based on the structure of obligations. And depending on the character of dependence, outcomes are different. Centralized dependence leads to slavery and degeneration, while distributed dependence promotes individual freedom and independence. Both markets and social contracts are mechanisms that foster distributed dependence. The first by contract, where each individual cedes his rights and property to the collective and thus all become equally dependent upon every other. The second by self interest: each individual, discovering his comparative advantage, rationally chooses to specializes his labor and, in doing so, becomes dependent on the multitude of other differentiated laborers who perform tasks better than he ever could. Each system of association dilutes the degree of reliance on any specific individual, instead spreading it in roughly equal proportion across society as a whole, each individual depending, reciprocally, upon every other. When dependence is well distributed, no man can be a slave. Though he relies upon a multitude of other — the butcher for his meat, the farmer for his grain — none of them can control him because they, in turn, depend on him.


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