Nearer to Sraffa than Marx: Adam Smith on Productive and Unproductive Labour

Roy Grieve

Research output: Working paperDiscussion paper

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We investigate Adam Smith’s analysis of the properties of what he called “productive” - as against “unproductive” - labour, a concept which commentators have frequently found problematic. Puzzles have been noted and inconsistency alleged. A question arises – did Smith confuse two different concepts of productive labour? We believe that, despite the apparent problems, a coherent reading of Smith’s account of productive and unproductive labour is in fact possible: if “productive labour” is understood to refer comprehensively to labour which not only maintains but, through producing a net surplus, adds to the community’s stock of wealth – as regards either the financial or the real resources which make possible economic growth – the difficulties with Smith’s treatment largely disappear.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationGlasgow
PublisherUniversity of Strathclyde
Number of pages28
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • productive/unproductive labour
  • basic/non-basic goods
  • surplus production


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