While Smith thought the state should be restricted to questions of commutative justice, he didn’t think other aspects of ethics were merely matters of taste.
Why all this talk about Smith’s moral theory? After all, what can we really say in judgment of other people’s peaceful and personal choices? As Mises said, “no man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented.” Can’t we libertarians rely on the liberty principle for politics and leave everything else to individual choice? Well, I think Smith would say “no” for two reasons; one public, one private. Firstly, how people choose to live affects others, even when no coercion is involved. From raising children to caring for the elderly, from sponsoring the fine arts to alleviating poverty, our choices have a profound impact on others and on the concatenation of social affairs. Secondly, morality affects our own personal flourishing. Pace Mises, we can, in fact, talk meaningfully about virtue and recommend that others modify their habits.
In the public arena, our social norms and mores affect how we interact with one another. Politeness, honesty, openness, seeking truth, patience, tolerance, and love facilitate better conversations and relationships than norms of rudeness, pride, apathy, political correctness, or manipulation do. Smith writes that:
Frankness and openness conciliate confidence….The great pleasure of conversation and society, besides, arises from a certain correspondence of sentiments and opinions, from a certain harmony of minds, which like so many musical instruments coincide and keep time with one another. But this most delightful harmony cannot be obtained unless there is a free communication of sentiments and opinions. We all desire, upon this account, to feel how each other is affected, to penetrate into each other’s bosoms, and to observe the sentiments and affections which really subsist there. The man who indulges us in this natural passion, who invites us into his heart, who, as it were, sets open the gates of his breast to us, seems to exercise a species of hospitality more delightful than any other.
The virtues of honesty and forthrightness, besides being enjoyable, also foster trust—which many economists identify as an important ingredient in economic growth. Other virtues like respect, integrity, and patience also conduce to social harmony. Morality is not just about us as individuals. It affects the character of our society.
But do the social benefits of moral standards and virtues justify government involvement? Generally speaking, Smith did not think so. He argued that only one virtue warranted government enforcement: commutative justice. As important as many virtues are for having a healthy society, Smith argues that commutative justice remains categorically more important. Although most acts of virtue are “beneficent” in their effect, beneficence:
is less essential to the existence of society than justice. Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it….[Beneficence] is the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports the building….Justice, on the contrary, is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. If it is removed, the great, the immense fabric of human society…must in a moment crumble into atoms.
Upholding commutative justice is essential to the existence of a free society. Without it we have social disintegration and chaos. Governments can do a tolerable job enforcing justice because they have enough knowledge of its “precise and accurate” rules. But the other standards of virtue are inherently vague and evolving in their application—which makes government particularly ill‐suited to enforce them.
But even beyond concern for others and for the character of society, Smith argues that morality promotes our own happiness. He gives two descriptions of why people are happy, one circumstantial and the other internal. As far as a person’s circumstances contribute to their happiness: “What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience?” Smith makes this observation, not to suggest that someone could not be made happier once he met those three conditions, but that any addition would be relatively small in comparison to what he already had.
Smith also considers what internal state of the soul leads to happiness. He argues that a Stoic conception of inner tranquility best promotes happiness, for “Happiness consists in tranquillity and enjoyment. Without tranquillity there can be no enjoyment; and where there is perfect tranquillity there is scarce any thing which is not capable of amusing.” By tranquility, Smith does not mean a peaceful state of the world but a peaceful state of mind and conscience. In this tranquil state one’s happiness is fairly independent of his circumstances. The vagaries of fame and fortune little affect him. How does one achieve a state of inner tranquility? By living rightly in the eyes of an impartial spectator, that is by living virtuously. Smith claims we can be content when we know that we have acted rightly and are worthy of praise—even if we don’t receive it.
Conservative scholars like Russell Kirk have written about the importance of an “enduring moral order” and the necessity of virtue for self‐government. A variety of other conservatives, from Richard Weaver to William Buckley to Wendell Berry, have echoed such ideas. In debates between conservatives and libertarians the two sides are often distinguished as putting different emphasis on morality and virtue—with libertarians being categorized as morally “laissez‐faire” or libertine. But libertarians need not cede this issue to conservative thinkers. A free and flourishing society requires virtue. We cannot assume that once we have limited government to enforce commutative justice that we can sit back and watch society become virtuous. In fact widely‐practiced virtue is necessary to promote and sustain greater liberty. We libertarians must advocate a fuller moral theory, such as Smith’s, that goes well beyond simply leaving each other alone. But we must do it without relying on the State. Living virtuously promotes the well‐being of others. It also contributes to our own happiness.