The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 15, 2017

Smith, Adam
Ian Crowe - 05/17/12
Lifespan: (1723–1790)

Adam Smith was, and saw himself as, both a scientist and a philosopher. As a scientist, he was an acute interpreter of natural phenomena; as a philosopher, he sought to uncover an intelligent pattern through the systematization of his material. His beliefs regarding moral philosophy and political economy are to be found not only in his famous Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth of Nations (1776), but in posthumously published material on jurisprudence, belles-lettres, and the history of science. Taken together, these works indicate how an advanced commercial society may reconcile natural liberty with ordered justice through the application of historically rooted principles that combine a belief in an unchanging human nature with an acceptance of dynamic social change. Consequently, Smith offers some pointers on how conservatives might resolve tensions deep within their own tradition—how to conserve essential values while accepting needed change, and how to defend principles while avoiding ideology.

Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, on the east coast of Scotland, in 1723 and studied at the University of Glasgow (1737–40) and at Balliol College, Oxford (1740–46). On returning to Scotland from Oxford, he lectured on rhetoric in Edinburgh “under the patronage of Lord Kames,” until his appointment, in 1751, as professor of logic at Glasgow. The following year, he was elected professor of moral philosophy there, a position he held for eleven years, during which time he achieved fame with the publication of his Theory of Moral Sentiments. In 1764, Smith took up a position as tutor to the duke of Buccleuch and in the same year traveled to France, where he met Voltaire and leading Physiocrats such as Quesnay and Turgot. It was at this time that he began the work that was eventually published in 1776 under the title An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. From 1777 until the year of his death, in 1790, Adam Smith held the position of commissioner of customs, in Edinburgh, but he never published a third, projected work on the history of jurisprudence.

Smith’s analytical system, which shows the strong influence of the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and of the new school of “philosophical” history in particular, is a powerful response to the problem of the lacuna between empirical fact and binding principles of law that also shaped the work of scholars such as David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and Thomas Reid. In his claim that the human faculty of imagination brings coherence to diverse empirical facts and sensations, and in his methodological combination of inductive and deductive techniques, he steers clear of the skepticism of Hume and the egoism of Mandeville, on the one hand, and of the more sharply metaphysical doctrines of natural law and a passive belief in Providence on the other.

The key to understanding the workings of this imaginative faculty lies in the basic human impulses that, Smith observed, shape both our moral and our material existence. The strongest of these impulses is sympathy—a complex, instinctive referral to “the other.” In Smith’s thought, the sympathetic instinct may be found at the root of both the development of moral awareness and the material well-being deriving from an appreciation that one’s own needs (or self-interest) require cooperation and integration with the needs of “the other.” These two branches are covered, respectively, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, and it is important to remember that they have a common, philosophical-scientific root. We should also keep in mind that Smith had not completed this systematic and integrative analysis at the time of his death.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments places Smith firmly among the thinkers, such as Hutcheson and Hume, who emphasize the role of aesthetics and the natural human passions in the shaping of principles of moral philosophy. In the way he links sympathy, imagination, and ambition, however, he moves beyond his contemporaries in two main respects. First, in developing the “sympathetic” link between the impartial spectator and the individual conscience, he injects an objective quality of imagination into the impulse of sympathy (in which sense Smith might be seen as a “philosopher of the normal,” a term used by Dr. William Campbell to describe the political economy of Wilhelm Röpke). Secondly, his treatment of the motive of “self-love” reveals a subtle combination of utility and benevolence that passes between Hutcheson’s reliance on a separate moral sense and Bentham’s utilitarianism. Both of these concepts, conscience and self-interest, reveal the powerful influence of Stoicism on Smith’s thought, and are vital in appreciating how Smith linked the natural and the moral—motive and judgment—within his system.

In the Wealth of Nations, Smith examines the stages of the development of systems of political economy but concentrates on advanced commercial societies to show how public benefit can emerge from the private pursuit of self-interest and how government can foster social harmony through the promotion of natural liberty among its subjects. It is the introduction of the division of labor that creates the conditions for opulence and a commercial society that reflects an advanced and natural (though not inevitable) form of mutual cooperation. The wealth of nations, then, is to be measured in terms of productive capacity and not in bullion—a point that leads Smith to an extended demolition of mercantilism and its interventionist policies (with reference to the exploitation and economic health of colonies and the impoverishing effect of wider restrictive factors such as monopolies and inappropriate forms of taxation). Smith then delineates the proper role of the public power—again, emphasizing areas that will promote the free exchange of goods and the mobility of labor in particular.

We are, however, not presented with a simplistic parallel between material and moral progress. On the contrary, in the final sections of the book, perhaps as a prelude to his unfinished third work, Smith issues warnings about the moral impact of opulence and the division of labor (seeing, for example, a legitimate role for government in ensuring the provision of basic education at a parish level) and emphasizes the need for governors to guard against purely sectional pressure from the mercantile and manufacturing interests.

For conservatives, one of the most attractive aspects of the Wealth of Nations lies in the link between “natural liberty” and economic practice, with its consequent skepticism about the beneficial effects of government planning; but the implications of Smith’s thought require an awareness of the nature and significance of the links between political economy and his moral philosophy. These links have often been simplified or overlooked by conservatives in their preoccupation with the struggle against socialism and the planned economy, while their enemies, in their assaults upon capitalism, have tended to ignore the distinctions that Smith attempted to maintain between the principles of motivation and those of judgment. In particular, Smith’s famous image of an “invisible hand” conjuring common benefits from self-interested actions should not be interpreted either as a mechanical truth of human existence or as the working out of an unfathomable Providence.

Regarding Smith’s broader analytical method, the naturalness of his system and the underlying, empirical contingency of its principles are also attractive to conservatives, as is Smith’s integrative method, which produces a blend of attention to circumstance and diversity while recognizing the cohesion and unity of human nature under its Creator. More problematic, however, has been the historicist ingredient within that system. Furthermore, Smith’s dynamic faith in progress seems to leave little room for the aristocratic practices and communal patterns of the past, and his idea of true patriotism, mirroring his critique of mercantilism, subordinates the historic claims of political sovereignty to the broader benefits of free trade.

Further Reading
  • Muller, Jerry Z. Adam Smith in His Time and Ours: Designing the Decent Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Smith, Adam. The Essential Adam Smith. Edited by Robert L. Heilbroner. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987
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