Samuel Johnson Saw Benefits of Free Markets

(p. A19) In “A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland,” an account of his travels with James Boswell through the Hebrides in 1773, Johnson vividly described the desolation of a feudal land, untouched by commercial exuberance. He was struck by the utter hopelessness in a country where money was largely unknown, and the lack of basic material improvements–the windows, he noticed, did not operate on hinges, but had to be held up by hand, making the houses unbearably stuffy.

He was even more struck by the contrast between places where markets thrived and those where they didn’t. In Old Aberdeen, where “commerce was yet unstudied,” Johnson found nothing but decay, whereas New Aberdeen, which “has all the bustle of prosperous trade,” was beautiful, opulent, and promised to be “very lasting.”
Johnson also understood that what Smith would later call the division of labor was instrumental for human happiness and progress. “The Adventurer 67,” which he wrote in 1753 at the height of a commercial boom (and 23 years before Smith published “The Wealth of Nations”), delights in the sheer number of occupations available in a commercial capital like London.

For the full commentary, see:
ELIZA GRAY. “Samuel Johnson and the Virtue of Capitalism; The great 18th century writer on commerce and human happiness.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Sept. 11, 2009): A19.

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