Liberty Matters

Doing Justice to Adam Smith

Adam Smith would have loved how this forum modernizes the virtual public sphere of the Enlightenment. His personal library—with its copies of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele's Spectator papers—attests to his interest in how we improve society through civil debates. Smith engaged in such conversations in his clubs, his letters, and of course his books, where he responded to numerous philosophers from Frances Hutcheson to David Hume. Our forum does justice to that tradition and the enduring value of Smith's ideas.
Professor Montes expands on an earlier discussion with our own Professor Vernon Smith about the complex meaning of "fair" in The Wealth of Nations. He connects this point with "a kind of marketplace of persuasion," arguing, "if the word 'sympathy' does not appear in WN, the sympathetic process is present as moral exchange." Professor Montes demonstrates how rational trade and the moral basis of exchange rest on "fairness and persuasion," drawing our attention to the uniquely human process:
Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that. (WN I.ii.2)
As Professor Montes observes, Adam Smith taught us that "fair and deliberate exchange" is the basis of a liberal order. Ultimately, "reason and sentiment interact, even when we think about justice and the market." Yet, he observes, linguists have shown that the term "fair" is complex and perhaps untranslatable.
It is possible that Adam Smith used "fair" in the passage quoted above precisely because of the richness of its eighteenth-century English connotations. Smith was fascinated by language, as evident in his "Essay on Languages," and his systematic approach informs his review of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary for the Edinburgh Review (1755-56). While Smith admired Johnson's accomplishment, he regretted that the dictionary was insufficiently "grammatical."
While Smith's review does not analyze Johnson's definitions of "fair," he kept the two folio volumes of the Dictionary, where Johnson identifies a range of meanings, including "pleasing to the eye"; "clear; pure"; "favourable; prosperous"; "likely to succeed"; "equal; just"; "not effected by any insidious or unlawful methods; not foul"; "not practicing any fraudulent or insidious arts"; "open; direct"; "gentle; mild; not compulsory"; "pleasing; civil"; "equitable; not injurious"; "gently, decently; without violence"; "civilly; complaisantly"; "happily; successfully"; "on good terms"; "honesty; just dealing"; and "an annual or stated meeting of buyers and sellers."
Johnson thus associates "fair" with not only a place of exchange but justice, openness, civility, prosperity, and even beauty. These are all qualities Smith promotes throughout The Wealth of Nations, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and his Lectures on Jurisprudence and on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.
The absence of those qualities, as Professor Onuf's essay suggests, raised Smith's ire, particularly in Part IV of The Wealth of Nations. Smith there becomes more explicit in his assault on mercantilism, or what Professor Onuf describes as "state-sanctioned capitalists." Smith's readers would have recognized in his descriptions of mercantilism the opposite of "fair" dealings—indirection, inequity, compulsion—with other countries and of course America.
Adam Smith's emphasis on justice does not stop there. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, as Professor Smith observes, he associates justice with protection from murder, theft, and violation of contracts. As scholars such as Daniel Klein have shown, Adam Smith also attends to distributive and estimative justice.
I am most struck by Smith's final observations on justice in the sixth edition of TMS (1790), which was published shortly before his death. He notes the challenge of achieving justice in all its manifestations, including in the sense Dr. Johnson defines first: "the virtue by which we give to every man that what is his due." What happens when society misjudges us? What happens when our own impartial spectator, the man within the breast, is at odds with the judgment of others?
These were not abstract problems for Smith. He resented misjudgments about his friend David Hume, a religious skeptic, and collected pamphlets on the infamous case of Jean Calas, who was unjustly executed for the murder of his own son (a case Smith addresses in TMS III.2.11). Smith's library contained additional books that addressed the search for tranquility and justice. In his copy of George Anne Bellamy's Apology (1785), one heavily dogeared page concludes a passage in which the author bemoans the cruelty of others. She addresses "goodness" as that "sweet dictator of the human breast," which leads to "happiness here as well as hereafter," and is a "divine influencer of tranquillity [sic]." The hope for justice sustains her.
Justice and tranquility appear with new urgency in Smith's final revisions to TMS Part III. He discusses how society might misjudge a person who then begins to doubt the judgment of his own impartial spectator:
In such cases, the only effectual consolation of humbled and afflicted man lies in an appeal to a still higher tribunal, to that of the all-seeing Judge of the world. . . . A firm confidence in the unerring rectitude of this great tribunal, before which his innocence is in due time to be declared, and his virtue to be finally rewarded, can alone support him under the weakness and despondency of his own mind, under the perturbation and astonishment of the man within the breast, whom nature has set up as, in this life, the great guardian, not only of his innocence, but of his tranquillity [sic]. . . . That there is a world to come, where exact justice will be done to every man . . . is a doctrine, in every respect so venerable, so comfortable to the weakness, so flattering to the grandeur of human nature, that the virtuous man who has the misfortune to doubt it, cannot possibly avoid wishing more earnestly and anxiously to believe it. (TMS III.2.33)
However unjust a society, Smith raises this possibility of a final "exact justice" for each individual. The expectation of this justice is a guardian of our tranquility. He depicts this hope  with beauty and sympathy.
Sympathy is also essential in dealing with hard problems in the present. In WN, Professor Wolf observes, "Smith was very interested in the American case and especially the possibilities for sympathy and consequently moral and political judgment that were lost between the Americans and Britain because of the structure of empire." Rights matter, she observes, but a society must recognize and defend them through the sympathetic process.
The sympathetic process informs all of Smith's teachings, helping us to understand, judge, communicate, and act. It also runs throughout this forum, which extends the eighteenth-century virtual public sphere to the present. Whether we would meet Smith's criteria for good writing—"perspicuity of style," conveying our sentiments "by sympathy," regulating our exuberance and bringing it "to that pitch which will be most agreeable"—might be debatable, but I like to think that Smith would be pleased.