May 19, 2015
Adam Smith’s Criticism of Government: Hubris
Adam Smith argued that hubristic “men of system” shouldn’t be trusted to arrange society. Decentralized government or private action is to be preferred.
Although much more could be said about how and why Smith was skeptical of government intervention, I will end this series by looking at his most serious criticism of politicians and politics: hubris. Hubris is the hallmark characteristic of politics and government officials. Smith points out that for an official “to insist upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spite of all opposition, every thing which [his] idea may seem to require, must often be the highest degree of arrogance.” Arrogance corrupts moral judgment and encourages destructive actions. Its inherent ties with politics is yet another reason that Smith should be seen as an advocate of liberty, not of big government.
In a previous post we saw how Smith condemns politicians who presume to direct individuals in their lives or use of their property. Their hubris comes partly from self-selection into politics and partly from the incentives and insulation of politics. Smith’s explanation of the roots of morality, which relies on sympathy, propriety, and an impartial-spectator procedure to humble our self-love and cultivate fellow-feeling and humility, does not work very well in political contexts.
Smith clearly associated partisan politics with severe faction and fanaticism. Rather than promoting open discussion and moderation, politicizing issues creates and empowers violent partisans. Smith describes them as men of system:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it….He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon the chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it…If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
The man of system thinks he is “very wise” but he is not really wise; he is only conceited. He is “enamoured” by his “ideal plan” and he “imagines” that he can “arrange” society however he wishes. Besides ignoring the motives, desires, and goals of individuals, the man of system has the illusion of knowledge and a corrupted moral sense.
The man of system, however, is not limited to politics. Philosophers are similarly liable to creating grand plans for how societies and human beings should live. Nor are men of system found only on the left side of the political spectrum. Many libertarians advocate a total overhaul (or abolition) of government without concern for the “confirmed habits and prejudices of the people.” They sometimes give one-sided presentations of issues. Smith opposed fanaticism and hubris, even in defenses of liberty. That partly explains why, I think, he moderates his advocacy of the perfect and simple system of natural liberty.
Although the hubris is palpable in the man of system, Smith was less concerned about such a man’s excessively high view of his own importance—graveyards are full of such “indispensable” people—than he was about their lack of concern and fellow-feeling with the people affected by their actions. Besides lacking feedback of the effects of their actions, political officials stand aloof from the daily lives of citizens. One reason they create so many rules and regulations, day after day, that make the common worker’s life more difficult, is that they do not bear the costs of compliance themselves. And they are not aware of many of the costs their new rules have created.
Smith criticized the hubris of government officials who created the poor laws and restrictive guild apprenticeship laws, and condemned the suffering and injustice they caused. The poor laws violate man’s natural liberty because: “to remove a man who has committed no misdemeanour from the parish where he chuses to reside, is an evident violation of natural liberty and justice.” Smith makes a similar claim about the injustice of apprenticeship laws:
The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable….to hinder [the poor man] from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of this most sacred property.
Government officials, through hubris, poor knowledge, and corrupted moral judgments, have abused many people, especially the poor. They frequently neglect the injustice and other evil consequences of their policies.
Smith’s responses are two-fold. First, he recommends decentralizing political authority. We can see this in his treatment of public works:
Even those publick works which…cannot afford any revenue for maintaining themselves, but of which the conveniency is nearly confined to some particular place or district, are always better maintained by a local or provincial revenue, under the management of a local or provincial administration, than by the general revenue of the state, of which the executive power must always have the management.
Second, Smith argues that most issues should be left largely to private citizens. Even in his views on education, which left Smithians hold up as one of the most modernly liberal of his proposals, Smith seems to think that, although subsidizing education to defray its expense might be necessary, the issue remains open. Here are his final words on the subject:
This expence, however, might perhaps with equal propriety, and even with some advantage, be defrayed altogether by those who receive the immediate benefit of such education and instruction, or by the voluntary contribution of those who think they have occasion for either the one or the other. (Emphasis added)
Smith thought widespread education was important for a flourishing commercial society. So important that some public funding and some government requirements might be warranted. But then again, that education perhaps ought to be supplied entirely privately.
Smith tolerated, even supported, government intervention in cases of overwhelming public interest. But that hardly makes him skeptical of markets and private enterprise. England in his day was a far cry from a state of perfect natural liberty. So Smith often suggested slow and modest reforms of current government interventions for pragmatic reasons. But he was not in doubt as to the ideal: “All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord.” The presumption of liberty is at the core of Smith’s view of politics.