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April 2015

Adam Smith’s Presumption of Liberty

Adam Smith argued for a general presumption of liberty, with exceptions requiring justification.

How much did Adam Smith value liberty? Social democrats, moderates, conservatives, and libertarians all want to claim the patron saint of economics as their own. Did he see liberty as just one value among many competing values? Was it the only value for judging government policy? Or did Smith see liberty as the most important value among a few others?

I have argued that Smith cannot be characterized as a rights-based libertarian for whom liberty is the sole guiding principle. After all, he advocates many exceptions that violate liberty. He also does not fit in the liberty-only camp because his moral philosophy precludes systems built on a single ideal. In the last part of The Theory of Moral Sentiments he criticizes Epicurus and other philosophers for over-simplifying the world to fit a single principle.

But neither should we think of Smith as treating liberty as simply one among many values like equality, utility, propriety, order, prudence, or prosperity. Left Smithians tend to interpret Smith this way and thereby water down the importance of liberty. They have nothing against liberty, of course, but only as long as these other values are being satisfied. They miss that liberty, and its duty of commutative justice (“abstaining from what is another’s”), is the most widespread and important theme in Smith’s works—both by the number of times he talks about liberty and by his eloquence in doing so.

The third alternative is that Smith thought liberty was the most important value, but had to be weighed against other important values. Although liberty was essential, Smith was willing to restrict it in a few limited instances. He presumed that liberty was the default. Contravention of it requires compelling evidence and strong arguments. That “presumption of liberty” runs throughout Smith’s work and remains an attractive political philosophy today.

But what warrants this presumption of liberty? There are three main postulates. First, a firm belief that individuals will generally pursue their own interests and improvement, as well as that of their family and friends, on their own initiative. Smith took it as a given that people will seek to better their own condition. Second, a belief that markets generally bring about a prosperous spontaneous order. “[W]ithout the assistance and cooperation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided” with basic food, clothing, or shelter. Third, a deep skepticism of the knowledge possessed by and incentives facing politicians and bureaucrats.

Let me stress the word “generally” in the first two warrants. The problem with making the liberty principle axiomatic, that is not having any exceptions, is that it becomes brittle. A single successful counter-example undermines the entire position. One major advantage of treating the liberty principle as a maxim (a presumption), is that it leaves room for exceptions. We can still take a strong stance in favor of liberty without having to argue that people always make wise choices or that markets never create problems or unpleasant side effects.

Smith argues that individuals have the best knowledge and incentives for taking care of themselves and those they care about: “Every man, as the Stoics used to say, is first and principally recommended to his own care; and every man is certainly, in every respect, fitter and abler to take care of himself than of any other person.” We have habitual sympathy towards those who are near us, either physically or relationally. Although many people are fond of saying that they will the good of all men equally, and that we should actively work to improve everyone’s life through government, Smith thinks they are misguided:

the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension; the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country.

By our nature we are better at caring for ourselves and those close to us than we are at improving everyone else’s lives. Smith’s list starts with the individual and moves to one’s country, not vice versa. Recognizing the natural interest and ability individuals have to take care of their own supports a presumption of liberty.

The second warrant involves appreciating the usefulness, dynamism, and robustness of free markets. Smith is well known for the idea that an “invisible hand” coordinates market activity. The power of this phrase comes from its useful description of market coordination and its allegorical representation of the beneficence and cooperation engendered by markets. But Smith himself only used the “invisible hand” once in TMS (occurring in the dead-center in the volumes of the final edition) and once in the WN (occurring in the dead-center of the first edition). These uses, in both cases phased as “led by an invisible hand to,” being singular in each work and in the center, seem unlikely to be coincidence or chance—especially considering how carefully Smith wrote. He tells his publisher that “I am a slow a very slow workman, who do and undo everything I write at least half a dozen times before I can be tolerably pleased with it.” Unpacking the significance of the placement and meaning of the “invisible hand” would require a separate paper. But it is sufficient to note that the idea of beneficent spontaneous order arising unintentionally through individuals’ choices of exchange and production in free markets is a key part of Smith’s thought.

The final warrant of a presumption of liberty is a deep-seated skepticism of the knowledge available to politicians and bureaucrats and of the incentives they face. Smith was wary of both politicians and politics. He describes how politics breeds faction and fanaticism, which in turn corrupt people’s moral judgment:

A true party-man hates and despises candour; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectually disqualify him for the trade of party-man as that single virtue. The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties.

In a similar vein, Smith criticizes the “man of system” who arrogantly tries to impose his utopian ideal upon society:

The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

Politicians cannot be trusted to direct private individual’s capital as well as they would themselves. As Smith puts it elsewhere, the man of system is “enamoured” by his “ideal plan” and “imagines” that he can “arrange” society however he wishes.

In light of these three warrants, you may wonder how Smith could have supported any government intervention. Here are a few points to keep in mind when evaluating Smith’s exceptions to liberty. First, Smith recognized that liberty was not the only important value. It might be outweighed by some public interest, such as the prevention of massive harm by fire, disease, or invasion; the extreme usefulness of roads, canals, and harbors; or general welfare of an educated public.

Second, there may be tension between direct and overall liberty. Contravention of direct liberty might in some cases end up indirectly augmenting liberty overall. There is a lot of subtly and nuance in weighing these considerations. But a few areas where there is most likely to be some disagreement between direct and overall liberty include: issues of pollution, military defense, and defusing some forms of private coercion. The important point is not that there are many examples of how violating people’s direct liberty augments liberty overall, but that there is some room for ambiguity and gray areas with respect to which policies or rules best advance a free society.

Finally, the presumption of liberty is a very pro-liberty position! It requires that a certain burden of proof be met in order to justify government intervention. Much like we presume someone to be innocent until proven guilty, we should presume liberty until enough evidence and argumentation is presented to warrant an exception. So although the presumption of liberty allows some exceptions and qualifications, it generally promotes a free society. Smith’s presumption of liberty requires a standard of proof much higher than that of most Americans. He would not have been satisfied with the justifications for most of the welfare and regulatory state. Adopting his position on liberty would make the United States a much freer and more prosperous society.

Next week, I’ll discuss Smith’s exceptions to the presumption of liberty.

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