The Economics of Jane Austen

But for all of the strides Smith made toward reconciliation, he never quite came to a conclusion about whether a rich man could get into heaven, or even be happy on earth. The ambiguity is more apparent in The Theory of Moral Sentiments than it is in The Wealth of Nations; the latter makes the operation of the invisible hand its subject, but the former inquires about its origins.

Smith turns out to be less than enamored with those origins. In one of the many cases where “sympathy”—so connotatively positive now—is as dangerous as it is necessary, Smith tells us that it is our imaginative sympathies, our way of picturing how much fun it would be to be rich, that do in fact create the wealthy, bustling world around us, but which may deform our moral characters and even our ability to be happy in the process.

Few realize it now, but the first appearance of the invisible hand in Smith’s work occurs in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, not The Wealth of Nations. And that forgetting is part of a radical revision of the way that we tend to regard greed in the modern era.

Greed, for us utilitarian moderns, is dangerous because it prioritizes the individual over the society, accruing benefits to a small number of people at the expense of larger groups. Smith’s concern about wealth and virtue is diametrically opposite. The acquisition of wealth does little good for the individual, but much good for the world around her. To demonstrate, he gives us the parable of the poor man’s son, “whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition,” a man who imagines that it would be a very good thing to have some servants to labor for him, so thus labors his entire life to get some servants, in one of the finest 18th-century examples of economic irony.

This story is a tragedy. “Through the whole of his life [the poor man’s son] pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repos which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquility that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it.”

Smith doesn’t begin to sound like we think Smith should until the next paragraph, when the worm finally turns. “It is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner,” he says, because it is only our self-delusion that it is better to be rich that “rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.” This deception farms the fields, builds the cities, creates the surplus that enables the existence of art and literature, something higher than the hardscrabble for mere existence.

And it is does not simply accrue to the people who falsely believe that they will be happier once they are richer. “The rich,” Smith points out, “only select from the heap what is most precious. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants.” The rich, in getting rich, hurt themselves and help others, individual salvation be (literally) damned.

We can quibble with the truth of this formulation, but there is no doubting that it represented the best of liberal, au courant thought in Austen’s young adulthood. And it is this argument about the relationship between wealth and virtue—the regrettable way that we seek what we already had to begin with, to our great mental and moral harm—that manifests itself particularly in Sense and Sensibility.

* * *

One of the problems of any adaptation that moves Sense and Sensibility forward in time is Marianne Dashwood’s illness. Germ theory tends to get in the way of the story here; young ladies do not get a fever because their hearts are broken by cads, generally speaking. And then there’s the problem of what this episode is even doing for the plot, other than to allow Colonel Brandon to go fetch Mrs. Dashwood as a sign of his devotion: an anomalous contrivance in an author who Walter Scott commends for a “truth in painting” the scenes of ordinary life. Marianne’s sudden fever makes perfect sense, however, when we see it in the light of Smith’s ambiguities about the acquisition of wealth and its impact on personal happiness.

To understand it, we must go back to a certain financial equation set up earlier in the text, in the middle of a seemingly innocuous conversation between the Dashwoods and Edward Ferrars. Edward is a rich man’s son visited with no ambition whatsoever, whose “wishes are all moderate.”

Marianne, the Henry Austen of the moment, takes great offense when her sister Elinor points out that fame of the kind that Edward’s family seeks for him might have little to do with happiness. Wealth, on the other hand, is always useful. “For shame!” scolds Marianne.

But it turns out that Elinor’s idea of “wealth” differs substantially from her sister’s. When Elinor asks Marianne what her idea of a subsistence-level “competence” is, it turns out that it is nearly double what Elinor would consider gross wealth. “And yet two thousand a year is a very moderate income,” she says. “A family cannot well be attained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less.”

Presented by

Shannon Chamberlain

Shannon Chamberlain is doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. She has written for Slate and Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America. 

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