Liberty Matters

Another Propensity of Human Nature in Law and Government?

All the other excellent essays in this forum focus on Vernon’s discussion of the emphasis Adam Smith places on the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange in The Wealth of Nations. As is rightly pointed out, this propensity of human nature is also accompanied by the propensity to sympathize with others. In his essay, Onuf focuses on Smith’s reliance on historical fact rather than proclamations about human nature. Breashears and Montes, however, focus on the important propensities of human nature necessary for trade in Smith’s system. For her part, Breashears focuses on the importance of the faculty of persuasion. Montes’s essay focuses on the role of fairness in a market system as representative of the role of society, encompassing persuasion and morality in trade. Much speculation is made both in this forum and across Smith scholarship about additional works Smith was considering. As Smith writes,
"I have likewise two other great works upon the anvil; the one is a sort of Philosophical History of all the different branches of Literature, of Philosophy, Poetry and Eloquence; the other is a sort of theory and History of Law and Government” (CAS, 286-7).
Smith’s references make one wonder if an additional human propensity would have been posited by these works. Although Breashears has persuaded me that a work about literature and eloquence would likely have focused on the faculty of persuasion and perhaps the faculty of taste (TMS I.i.4), I intend for this essay to explore what propensity would have accompanied Smith’s proposed work on jurisprudence. He defines jurisprudence in TMS:
“The wisdom of every state or commonwealth endeavors, as well as it can, to employ the force of the society to restrain those who are subject to its authority, from hurting or disturbing the happiness of one another. The rules which it establishes for this purpose, constitute the civil and criminal law of each particular state or country. The principles upon which those rules are, or ought to be founded, are the subject of a particular science, or all sciences by far the most important, but hitherto, perhaps, the least cultivated, that of natural jurisprudence.” (TMS VI.ii.1.1)
Smith also provides an indirect definition in WN while discussing the duties of the sovereign:
“The second duty of the sovereign, that of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administrating of justice, requires too very different degrees of expense in the different periods of society.” (WN V.i.b.1)
Onuf makes a compelling point that Adam Smith’s conception of politics focuses on the opinion of the people as a kind of political market force. Indeed, throughout Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith emphasizes “the great body of the people.” He worries about the people’s ability to make political judgments. [1] He also discusses the oft emphasized judgment of the sovereign or legislator (e.g. WN IV.ii.39). But what propensity would animate this participation in a political regime?
In his original essay, Vernon focuses on the pre-civil role of property rights. But what promotes adherence to the law or the conception of government at all? Another possible interpretation of Vernon’s essay is that our Smithsonian political propensity would be to seek justice.
Yet we often see the negative origins of government and politics presented in Smith’s writings. As Vernon suggests, the desire to protect property is foundational to government, especially the wealthy. Smith snidely comments,
“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all” (WN V.i.b.12).
When Smith comments on the benefits of government for the rich, he sounds like Rousseau. After all, Smith’s first publication is a  review of the Frenchman’s “Second Discourse” where Rousseau says something similar:
“The rich above all must have soon sense how disadvantageous to them was a perpetual war in which they alone paid all the costs and in which the risk to life was common to all, while the risk to goods was theirs alone…such was, or must have been, the origin of society and of laws, which gave new fetters to the weak man and new forces to the rich man, irreversibly destroyed natural freedom, forever established the law of property and of inequality, made an irrevocable right out of a clever usurpation, and henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery for the profit of a few ambitious people.”
Onuf’s and Vernon’s essays propose that the government uses the people as a tax base. Indeed, in Book V of WN, Smith emphasizes the propensity of the sovereign to accumulate debt at the expense of the people. But Smith throughout WN disapproves of the use of government as a benefit to the rich. In particular, he railed against mercantilism or, what we might call today, crony capitalism. In a letter to Andreas Holt, Commissioner of the Danish Board of Trade and Economy, Smith wrote that the Wealth of Nations was a “very violent attack…upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain” (CAS, 250).
The impulse for political participation for Smith is a natural love of those closest to us and a preference for their well-being. In Lectures on Jurisprudence, he calls this a propensity toward what is familiar:
“We see that there is in man a great propensity to continue his regard towards those which are nearly connected with him whom we have formerly respected. The sons and particularly the eldest son commonly attract this regard, as they seem most naturally to come in the place of the father; and accordingly in most nations have been continu'd in their fathers’ dignity.” (LJA Iv.46)
In The Wealth of Nations, he writes:
“Civil government requires a certain subordination. But as the necessity of civil government gradually grows up with the acquisition of valuable property, so the principal causes which naturally introduce subordination gradually grow up with the growth of that valuable property.” (WN V.i.b.3)
Smith also identifies four parts of human nature that render us susceptible to rule by others: 1) “superiority of personal qualifications,” 2) “superiority of age,” 3) “superiority of fortune,” and finally, 4) “superiority of birth” (WN V.i.b.5-8). At the same time, because Smith recognizes that “The violence and injustice of the rulers of mankind is an ancient evil, for which, I am afraid, the nature of human affairs can scare admit of a remedy” (WN IV.iii.c.9), I argue that he wants to replace this propensity of subordination with individual judgment wherever possible because “the law ought always to trust people with the care of their own interest, as in their local situations they must generally be able to judge better of it than the legislator can do” (WN IV.v.b.16).
But this judgment must be educated. In a much-analyzed section of Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith details the downfall of the division of labor—the intellectual development of the worker. These insights are best grouped with those of TMS. For Smith, moral judgment develops throughout one’s life by experiencing many situations and engaging in the sympathizing process—both reacting to individuals’ behavior and seeing others react to their own. The ideal endpoint of this process is an individual who no longer requires actual spectators but can judge their own behavior as an impartial spectator would. The division of labor limits what workers will experience in the world, depriving them of adjusting and contextualizing to many different circumstances. They are confined to “performing a few simple operations” and therefore have “no occasion to exert…understanding, or…invention” (WN V.i.f.50). I think the desire to remedy this lack of exposure is one of the reasons Smith emphasizes military training and service. Additionally, Smith wants to be sure that workers can contribute to society not only morally, but also politically. He writes, “Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging” (WN V.i.f.50). However, in other stages of economic development, lack of invention is not a problem and “every man too is in some measure a statesman, and can form a tolerable judgment concerning the interest of the society, and the conduct of those who govern it” (WN V.i.f.51).
As we learned from Vernon’s original essay, our emotional attachment to one another is important for justice. But as the scope of government increases, the mechanism of justice becomes increasingly out of view and the leaders in government less familiar and proximate. As Smith tells us in his “circles of intimacy,”[2] it is hard to sympathize with those who are far away from us. Just as Smith thought that extending sympathy beyond immediate circles was possible in a commercial society where “colleagues in office, partners in trade, call one another brothers.” Smith also thought it was possible to judge sovereignty beyond simple familiarity or habits of obedience (TMS VI.ii.1.15). Therefore, the concern with the government's administration of  justice is the difficulty of being spectators and commentators of an entity far removed “from the great body of the people,” leaving neighboring government officials to work together. Indeed, Smith warns us to guard against corrupt judges who can be bought off and to ensure “that justice should not frequently be sacrificed to, what is vulgarly called, politics” (WN V.i.b.13, 24).
Sentiment was always part of the motivation toward government and rules of justice, but it seems that, as the government increases in size, citizen judgment is also required to check political power.
Works Cited
Frame, Edward. and Michelle. Schwarze (forthcoming) "Adam Smith on Education as a Means to Political Judgment." Political Research Quarterly.
Nieli, Russel"Spheres of Intimacy and the Adam Smith Problem," Journal of the History of Ideas 47, no. 4 (1986).
Oprea, Alexandra. (2022). "Adam Smith on Political Judgment: Revisiting the Political Theory of the Wealth of Nations." Journal of Politics 84(1): 18-32.
Smith, Adam. (1981 [1776]). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Indianapolis, Liberty Fund.
Smith, Adam. (1987). Correspondence of Adam Smith. Indianapolis, Liberty Fund.
Smith, Adam. (1982 [1762-3]). LJ(A). Lectures on Jurisprudence. Indianapolis, Liberty Fund.
Smith, Adam. (1982 [1759]). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indianapolis, Liberty Fund.
[1] For more on the political judgment of the people in Smith’s work see Oprea, A. (2022). "Adam Smith on Political Judgment: Revisiting the Political Theory of the Wealth of Nations." Journal of Politics 84(1): 18-32.; Frame, E. and M. Schwarze (forthcoming) "Adam Smith on Education as a Means to Political Judgment." Political Research Quarterly.
[2] Russell Nieli, "Spheres of Intimacy and the Adam Smith Problem," Journal of the History of Ideas 47, no. 4 (1986).