Adam Smith: a man of the left or right? (updated)

By Paul Walker 18/04/2013


I shall put aside the obvious response that since the left/right distinction developed from the political divisions of the French Revolution and Smith died in 1790 it is somewhat pointless to think about Smith in terms that had no meaning in his time and concentrate instead on the recent trend in Smith studies that concerns itself with the extent to which Smith’s ideas can be distanced from the more vociferous of his free market admirers such as Milton Friedman, James Buchanan and F.A. Hayek. In the field of political economy there has developed a line of argument that sees Smith’s ideas associated not with the right or liberal (or libertarian for any Americans reading this) concerns but with the contemporary left’s concerns with fairness, equality and social justice.

In a forthcoming article (“Adam Smith: Left or Right?”) in the journal Political Studies well-known Adam Smith scholar Craig Smith writes

Amartya Sen (2009) has drawn inspiration from Smith in developing his own theory of social justice and Samuel Fleischacker (2004) has made the case for reading Smith as a precursor of modern notions of social justice. Iain McLean (2006), on the other hand, makes the stronger claim that Smith’s true legacy lies, not with the libertarian economists of the Adam Smith Institute, but rather with the social democrats of the John Smith Institute. In all three cases the broad claim is that there are grounds for associating Smith with the modern egalitarian idea of social justice understood as the state-backed redistribution of wealth to ameliorate the effects of poverty.

Smith expands on this by saying,

Fleischacker offers perhaps the most detailed version of the argument under consideration. He admits that Smith wrote in a period prior to the modern notion of distributive justice and that this leads Smith to consider justice in the commutative sense favoured by the natural law tradition, but he goes on to argue that Smith helped to point the way towards the notion of distributive justice that animates the contemporary left (Fleischacker, 2004, p.213).Fleischacker accepts that there are both libertarian and egalitarian themes in Smith’s work and that he can thus be read as providing a legacy fo both contemporary positions (Fleischacker, 2004, p. 19), but in his view Smith’s abiding concern for the poor brings him closer in spirit to the contemporary left (Fleischacker,2004,p.265). Fleischacker’s argument is based on the idea that Smith does not operate with an absolute and pre-social, moralised notion of property rights and that as a result of this Smith has no principled reason to consider it unjust to use ‘redistributive taxation to help the poor’ (Fleischacker, 2004, p. 145). What replaces the principled objection in this reading is a case-by-case assessment of the likely success of particular government attempts to alleviate poverty with a presumption against the likely success of such activity drawn from Smith’s distrust of the political process. This leads to a‘Smithian’state which,while unlikely to be as extensive as the modern welfare state (Fleischacker,2004,p.236),is nonetheless open to the use of politics to pursue the goals of egalitarian distributive justice. Fleischacker then argues that the contemporary left has much to learn about the pursuit of its goals from Smith’s criticism of state bureaucracies and his stress on competition.

Craig Smith argues against those who would claim Adam Smith for the left, in terms of an adherence to social justice, by explaining,

[…] that not only would Smith have been dubious about the modern conception of social justice, but that he actually takes care to draw a conceptual distinction between his notion of justice and the sort of redistributive and welfare programmes that we understand under the vague catch-all notion of social justice. My point is not that Smith was unconcerned with the situation of the poor; it is rather that he makes a quite clear philosophical distinction between this concern and the concept of justice. I want to claim that we should not dismiss this distinction as merely a feature of the language that Smith inherited from his predecessors. Instead I want to take his attempt at conceptual clarity seriously and suggest that the normative distinctions Smith draws might prove to be a further lesson for the contemporary left in addition to the empirical and social theoretical points that Fleischacker concedes (Fleischacker, 2004, p. 226). Put another way, for the purposes of this article it does not matter how much of a role Smith allowed for deliberate attempts to ameliorate the effects of poverty; what matters is that he does not conduct this discussion in terms of justice.

In the conclusion to his paper Smith argues that in Adam Smith’s ideas we see the existence of a sphere of devolved (local level) human activity distinct from the political concerns of the state. Craig Smith continues,

The proper conceptual vocabulary for this sphere then is clearly distinct from the vocabulary both of justice and of beneficence. Justice has its place in Smith’s vision of society, but that place is specific and limited and this must surely give us pause in attempting to relate Smith’s thought to modern conceptions of social justice. Indeed, at least one conclusion that might be drawn from the reading presented here is that, far from offering us a theory or even an inspiration for a theory of social justice, Smith actually gives us good grounds to want to keep some conceptual distance between ideas of justice, police and beneficence. That he is wary of any automatic reliance on the political process and the state to pursue our social objectives is admitted even by those such as Fleischacker who want to reclaim Smith for the left. As Fleischacker (2004, p. 241) also admits, this points us toward a presumption against the state and a presumption in favour of private action by voluntary associations of individuals. But if this is the locus for the exercise of beneficence and the provision of public works then we are dealing with something very different from the modern debates about intra-national transfers or even international transfers and distributive patterns.

Craig Smith goes on to say that what this implies for a ‘Smith-based’ notion of distributive or social justice is clear,

we should take more seriously Smith’s silence on modern distributive justice, his desire to place conceptual distance between beneficence and justice, his distrust of the political process and his temperamental distaste for utopianism. And we should pay more attention to his localist, prudential category of police and his desire to press a normative distinction between strict principles of justice and political or beneficent decisions guided by expediency. These are not accidental aspects of Smith’s thinking, however imperfectly they are carried over into his own policy prescriptions. They suggest a very different understanding of the normative ideal of justice and one that might actually give us good reasons to doubt the efficacy of thinking about our moral obligations to the poor and welfare provision in terms of social justice.

When thinking of our moral obligations a related question about Adam Smith’s thinking is raised by Maria Pia Paganelli in a chapter forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook on Adam Smith. Paganelli asks why Smith promotes free markets and argues that he promotes them for at least two reasons: efficiency and morality. In terms of morality Paganelli argues that Smith thought that markets can foster morality just as much as morality can foster markets. Paganelli concludes her chapter by noting,

Adam Smith favours commerce on grounds of both morality and efficiency. Commerce is intertwined with morals, it supports moral development and at the same time it is supported by it. Commerce requires morals for its functioning and gives the conditions under which people can live, can live freely, and can live morally.

Returning to the question of whether Adam Smith was “left or right” James Otteson writes in the epilogue to his 2011 book Adam Smith,

He [Smith] was instead an old-fashioned liberal: favoring individual liberty, endorsing state institutions to protect this liberty, and, where they conflicted, favoring the individual over the state as a default. But he was also a sceptical empiricist. He favored free trade, free markets, and a government robust but limited to the enforcement of a few central tasks not because they comported with a priori principles but because they seemed to work.

It is worth noting that this sceptical empiricist approach to markets, trade and government rather than an a priori principle approach would most likely disqualify Smith as a libertarian, at least of the Radian or Nozickean kind.

Otteson goes on to say,

Smith’s concern with the poor leads some commentators to suggest that he must have been a proto-“progressive” liberal, since, as some believe, only progressive liberals care about the poor. Samuel Fleischacker, for example, argues that Smith’s concern for the poor is one reason to see him as “left-leaning” rather than “right-leaning” . Concern for the poor is, however, hardly the exclusive provenance of the political left. And Smith’s strong arguments in favor of decentralization of power, competition, and free markets would seem to put him rather on the right of today’s political spectrum than on the left.

Otteson’s conclusion is that Smith is a classical liberal, which is consistent with the arguments made above, but if accepted this does mean Smith is not a man of the left.

Update: Adam Smith scholar Gavin Kennedy comments on this post at this Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy blog.