Adam Smith on the illegitimacy of using force to promote beneficence (1759)

Adam Smith

Adam Smith (1723-1790) argues that force should never be used to make people be beneficent to others:

Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes to no punishment; because the mere want of beneficence tends to do no real positive evil. It may disappoint of the good which might reasonably have been expected, and upon that account it may justly excite dislike and disapprobation: it cannot, however, provoke any resentment which mankind will go along with.

In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Smith has a very important section in which he talks about the best ways to promote the two virtues of beneficence and justice towards others. The former should be promoted and encouraged by means of “advice and persuasion” and never by the use of force. The reason he gives is that the failure to be beneficent towards others causes “no positive hurt to any body.” We may find such behavior worthy of criticism but it is no grounds for the government or other individuals to use force to punish that behaviour. To do so is “improper” and demonstrates “the highest degree of insolence and presumption” towards our fellows. On the other hand, the virtue of justice should be “extorted by force” because violations of justice cause “real and positive hurt” to others. (This will the subject of another Quote in the future.) There are two things to note is this passage: firstly Smith uses his idea of the “impartial spectator” to make his argument; and secondly, the similarity of his distinction between benefice and justice to that of Lysander Spooner’s concerning “vices” and “crimes.”