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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

WAS ADAM SMITH A LIBERTARIAN? OR HOW DO INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIETAL INTERESTS INTER-RELATE IN HIS WORK?

Today's Buggy Topic

 Set out in clear fashion in the subject-title here, that topic --- which is dealt with in a lengthy bugged-out post at Economist's View --- appears in a thread at that web-site that deals with the controversy surrounding Adam Smith's two best-known works.   The first: The Theory of Moral Sentiments  published in 1759 when Smith held the chair in moral philosophy at Glasgow University.  The other is The Wealth of Nations, which appeared about two decades later.

Every educated person knows that the Wealth of Nations sets out the framework of a free-market economy, along with the necessary public goods that only government can provide: a legal system, the protection therefore of private property and persons, the police, and national defense.  In the process, the book shows how the pursuit of self-interest is guided by market signals --- call them the price system (Smith called it the "Invisible Hand") --- in ways that maximize societal interests . . . in particular, maximizes the wealth of a country.   Free-trade at home and with other countries needs no other governmental direction than what these minimal public goods, supported by limited taxes, provides. 

The Result: Free Reign Given To Individual Self-Interest Within A Society of Limited Night Watchmen Government Will Also Maximize Societal Well-Being , Or So . . .

. . . libertarians claim today, more than two centuries later.  Enter the problem of this view though. 

For The Theory of Moral Sentiments --- a lengthy philosophical discourse on human nature and ethics --- offers a different view of individual human nature than the Wealth of Nations:  in it, humans appear as greedy, wretched, quarrelsome, and prone to exploit one another.  True, they can develop the ability to cooperate with others in society and even nurture certain "moral sentiments", but the sphere of such morality and empathy ("shared sympathy") is very limited in individual relations with others . . . in particular, dependent fully on self-interest and self-command and, outside of friendship and family, is overwhelmingly instrumental ---- which is to say how each other's pursuit of self-interest relates to his or her own pursuit..   

In such a view, there's little evidence that such individuals --- pursuing their strict self-interest in economic life beyond what we would now call, presumably, reciprocity ---- would simultaneously maximize societal well-being, however defined.

The prevailing libertarian view --- which has been around since the end of the 18th century --- is that Adam Smith therefore changed his views about stark individualism and how it relates to societal benefit between the two books.  Not so . . . at any rate, not so in the view of Alec L. Macfie, who held the Adam Smith chair in political economy at Glasgow University in the 1950s, and in whose honor a new chair was created after his retirement.

Enter the Buggy Post

Click here for the relevant thread and post.  Please be sure to read the entry on Smith's work that starts the thread before you look at the buggy post and, if you're interested, the other posts left there too.