Smith, Justice and the Scope of the Political

The intro to the final chapter — by Craig Smith

There was a time when many commentators thought that there was a problem with Adam Smith. The tendency to read Smith’s thought as marred by supposed tensions between the ‘sympathy’ of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and the ‘selfishness’ of The Wealth of Nations (WN) has long since been debunked. Smith scholars are coming increasingly to agree that Smith is remarkably consistent in his views; that he employs a consistent methodology and that this consistency is an indication of the ‘systematic’ spirit of his thought (Phillipson, 2010, p. 4). However, recognising the consistency of approach that Smith adopts does not reduce the potential disagreement among Smith scholars about how best to characterise many aspects of his overall outlook.

One recent area of disagreement represents a sort of revival of the old Adam Smith problem with some arguing that the self-interest and invisible hand of WN is supplemented by the sympathy and ‘helping hand’ of TMS (McLean, 2006, p. ix). The dispute has been over Smith’s relationship to the idea of social or distributive justice. Those who interpret Smith in the light of the tradition of natural jurisprudence (Haakonssen, 1981; Hont and Ignatieff, 2010) stress the distance between Smith’s view on justice and contemporary notions of distributive justice. Others, including Samuel Fleischacker (2003) and Gareth Stedman Jones (2004), have made a case for reading Smith as a thinker who foreshadows modern ideas of social or distributive justice, while still others, including Rudi Verburg (2000) and Amos Witzum (1997) have argued that Smith can be read as a thinker who has his own theory of distributive justice. The third and stronger set of claims involves a reconstruction of Smith’s ‘distributional concerns’ (Verburg, 2000, p. 25) into a ‘theory’ that seeks to understand Smith’s views on government through the lens of distributive justice. This points to an interesting question: What exactly did Smith think was the proper role of government, and how did he conceive of that role’s relationship to the idea of justice? In what follows I want to approach this problem from a particular point of view. My aim will be to show that if we understand a particular methodological commitment that characterises all of Smith’s work, then this helps us to understand the connection between what he has to say about justice and what he has to say about the role of government.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 11.43.44 AM

The Spontaneous Order and the Family

The intro to Lauren Hall’s chapter.

Smith scholarship is conflicted on whether the apparent conflict between self-interest in the Wealth of Nations (WN) and sympathy in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) indicates an intractable problem or is merely the result of a misunderstanding of Smith’s overall system. This chapter is written as a response both to the believers in Das Adam Smith Problem and to those who offer a way of pulling the two texts together. In the first place, I argue that Das Adam Smith Problem highlights the complexity of Smith’s body of work and his belief that the motives for behavior in the private sphere will be different from and sometimes conflict with the rules of the public sphere. Secondly, I argue that the higher level economic order relies fundamentally on norms of behavior and rules of conduct that are nourished by the sympathy fostered in the lower level orders of family and friends. At the same time, the economic order affects these lower orders, influencing in turn the norms of behavior and rules of conduct that support economic activity. Understanding how these different levels of order interact is central to understanding the often murky link between economics and morality. Such an understanding also begs for a reevaluation of the social sciences from the silos of separate political and economic analysis back to a Smithian “moral philosophy” that takes into account human social behavior in its many forms.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 11.43.44 AM

Instincts and the Invisible Order: The Possibility of Progress

The intro to Jonathan Wight’s chapter.

The invisible hand means a variety of things to modern writers, who use the phrase loosely to imply the market, the price system, efficiency, laissez-faire, greed is good, and so on (Samuels et. al., 2011; Medema, 2009; Rothschild, 1994). In some circles the invisible hand is referred to with reverence and in others with mockery. What Smith wrote, and meant, is quite different from current constructions. At first reading, Smith’s three references to an invisible hand appear to be unconnected turns of phrase. One can find ample reason for agreeing with Kennedy (2009) that the expression’s current use has been blown out of all proportion to its author’s original intent and any reasonable extrapolation thereof. On the other edge of the spectrum are authors like Klein and Lucas (2011), who argue that the invisible hand is the central concept of Smith’s work and that Smith consciously placed it at the exact physical midpoint of both his books as a rhetorical pièce de résistance, the most nourishing part of the meal. This proposition is implausible on many levels. If there were such an intended dialectical message it is curious that it remained hidden from all of Smith’s friends and closest colleagues. It is possible to argue a middle ground, however, as in this essay, that the concept behind the invisible hand is central to Smith’s work, but that the phrase itself is only one of many spread out through his work, and that the placement, as well as the exact phraseology, are non-issues. In the wider context of Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, the “invisible hand” represents those unseen instincts of human nature that motivate and direct behavior. When channeled through appropriate human institutions, the invisible hand can generate a spontaneous order that in many cases produces a beneficial social outcome.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 11.43.44 AM

The ‘Invisible Hand’ Phenomenon in Philosophy and Economics

Here is the intro to Gavin Kennedy’s chapter.

This chapter discusses Adam Smith’s rhetorical use of the ‘invisible hand’ in the context of his teachings on metaphors as figures of speech in his lectures on Rhetoric (Edinburgh, 1748-51; Glasgow, 1752-64 (LRBL). After Smith died (1790), a strikingly long-period of silence about his three references to an ‘invisible hand’ followed until 1875, when traces emerged of a Cambridge University oral tradition of debate about ‘Laissez-faire’ and the ‘invisible hand’ that were closer to its modern, ‘selfish’ versions than those used by Adam Smith. That oral tradition eventually leached into print (Pigou, 1922; Gray, 1931). Paul Samuelson (1948), transmuted Smith’s ‘self-interest’ into ‘selfishness’, which flooded across the discipline from the 1960s.

Much of modern analysis of the ‘invisible hand’ remains tenuously connected to Adam Smith’s more modest rhetorical purposes (Nozick, 1974; Grampp, 2000; Petsoulas, 2001; Aydinonat, 2008; Klein, 2009, and Tieffenbach, 2011). Few recent references are close to Adam Smith’s intentions, except, notably and exceptionally, Emma Rothschild (2001) on Smith’s ‘ironic joke’. Moreover, after 1875, intermittent references continued until the 1940s, when the trickle became a flood.

This chapter does not take sides on ideological debates about the merits of free-markets versus government interventions. Its focus is on the variance between Smith’s ideas and modern attributions of them in philosophical ideas and policies widely variant from Smith’s limited use of the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor. The consequential dragging deadlock and failures of unsound policies has heavy social costs in economic performance and public welfare.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 4.13.38 PM

Metaphor Made Manifest: Taking Seriously Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’

The intro to Eugene Heath’s chapter:

Is there any reason to devote time or effort to reading (or writing) an additional essay on Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”? Given the plethora of papers (as well as chapters, comments, and asides) dedicated to uncovering, interpreting, explaining, or contextualizing this notable expression, one could be pardoned for responding that, in fact, no such reason exists. Out of various analyses of this phrase two of the more recent reveal how patience has run thin: it has been argued that Smith’s phrase is deployed as a bit of irony or humor (Rothschild, 2001) and, more recently yet, that this unseen hand holds nothing at all—the phrase is “empty” (Samuels, 2012, p. 135). However, these suggestions need not settle matters. One appropriate avenue of exploration concerns the rhetorical nature of Smith’s famous phrase.

Many who examine or remark on Smith’s phrase point out that this parlance is, in its two main usages, metaphorical. However, in too many cases interpreters do not glimpse the implications of this fact. That Smith employs the phrase as metaphor may alert us to why there has emerged so many and varying interpretations. As one philosopher has characterized these figures of speech, “Metaphor is the dreamwork of language and, like all dreamwork, its interpretation reflects as much on the interpreter as on the originator” (Davidson 1978, p. 31). If the “invisible hand” is metaphor rather than description, if it is meant to suggest and illuminate rather than describe, then the phrase may not depict a univocal referent or specific function at all. Even so, one need not conclude that the usage is ironical, humorous, or empty. Smith’s marvelous metaphor may perform non-ironical and serious things but these need not be understood as the assertion of tidy propositions which together constitute la main invisible. In fact, one of the things yet to be made visible about this hand is how it provides a perspective on the ways in which the intentions of agents have implicit connections to the intentions of others.

To explore these matters it is necessary to revisit, albeit briefly, Smith’s three usages of these notable words. In so doing, there is opportunity to take issue with some recent interpretive claims and to recall as well that the work of Bernard Mandeville would have given Smith some basis for his figurative flourish. In the second section, the analysis turns to Smith’s own account of the justification, structure, and meaning of metaphor, as set forth in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (LRBL). Smith’s portrayal, which bears a surprising surface similarity to his ruminations on the conditions of wonder (as set forth in his essay, “The History of Astronomy,” EPS), also intimates how metaphor may effect, in the listener or reader, a new perspective on a phenomenon. Indeed, Smith’s metaphor is less important for what it says than for what it does. This power to inspire a novel way of looking at things may prove more important than any attempt to discern what Smith’s metaphor means or describes. However, as argued in the third section, the unseen hand hardly presents itself as some kind of ironic joke and certainly not for the reasons that Emma Rothschild suggests (2001). In fact, the phrase offers an illuminating perspective on the way in which the local intentions of individuals prove mutually affecting and, as put into action, bring about outcomes distinct from their originating visions.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 4.13.38 PM

What My Dog Can Do: On the Effect of The Wealth of Nations I.ii.2

The intro to Jack Weinstein’s chapter.

In the midst of one of the most famous passages in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes “nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog” (WN I.ii.2).

In and of itself, this is probably not a noteworthy sentence, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way because I have seen it happen. My late dog Mingus would regularly exchange his bone with his “best friend” Casey, and they would do so without conflict or negative consequence.

Mingus was both very empathetic and emotive. Like many border collies, he was smart, could communicate his desires clearly, and was tremendously attentive to his caregivers’ moods, suggesting, already, many Smithian traits. As many animal behaviorists will insist though, these descriptions may be anthropomorphizations. I loved Mingus dearly and was certainly susceptible to projecting meaning onto his actions beyond his capabilities.

Whether Mingus had intent or not, my designation of Mingus as worth affective consideration is compatible with Smith’s moral psychology. On the one hand, because sympathy is, for Smith, an “illusion of the imagination”—people can even sympathize with the dead—emotions need not actually be present in the observed for the spectator to sympathize with them (TMS I.i.1.13). Under Smith’s schema, my fellow feeling with Mingus would be no less sympathy if he himself did not have the thoughts or emotions I judged him to have. And, while he was likely incapable of the impartiality required for Smithian moral agency on his own, this does not disqualify him from my consideration. He may be designated, in Alejandra Mancilla’s terms, a “moral patient” that we advocate for (Mancilla, 2009, pp. 3, 6).

One the other hand, if Mingus did have intent (which I think is the case) I would have been in the most qualified position to know it. Because sympathy works best with those who are closest to us—those in our inner circle of sympathy—I could best interpret his behavior, facial expressions, and voice. I knew Mingus almost his entire life and he had only the briefest time to socialize to other humans before my wife and I adopted him (we rescued him from a Humane Society when he was a few months old). My family knew his preferences, tendencies, behaviors, and moods, and he knew ours; the entire household dynamic including all the human interrelationships, was significantly affected by his presence. This was painfully and repeatedly confirmed when Mingus died unexpectedly and the sociology of the house had to be renegotiated.

Mingus was family even by Smith’s definition; for him, familial relationships are not biologically defined. “The force of blood,” Smith writes, “exists no-where but in trag­edies and romances.” Familial love is instead the “habitual sympathy” of those “naturally bred up in the same house” (TMS VI.ii.1.5–8). In short, losing him was not like losing a family member, it was actually losing one, and the Smithian framework for intimacy, communication, empathy, and care all support this point of view. As a result, whatever claim Smith makes about dogs and exchange does not extend further than the single assertion about economic capability. It has no consequences for the human-animal relationship.

Nevertheless, even though whether I anthropomorphize Mingus is irrelevant to the question of whether I can sympathize with him, it is indeed relevant to whether or not he was capable of exchange since the latter implies intent. Smith’s claim that dogs do not engage in contract appears to me false, but my belief does not make it so anymore than Smith’s writing confirms it. An empiricist system like Smith’s can be as indeterminate as any behaviorism, and the impartial spectator is fallible enough that even our deepest convictions may become corrupt (ASP 72).

Identifying whether dogs have intent is problematic, especially since there is disagreement as to what content such intentionality would have. Neuroscientists can, of course, photograph brain activity, but materialist descriptions of thinking are also subject to interpretation. Smith’s comment on dogs place us squarely in the classic philosophical problem of other minds and Smith’s corpus does not have the resources to solve it.

Recognizing the metaphysical and philosophical limitations of Smith’s approach, then, my intent in this paper is not to ask whether dogs engage in contract per se, but what happens to Smith’s account of humanity if they can. I will offer more evidence to suggest that the possibility is believable, but my emphasis will be on the text rather than the fact of the matter.

This textual approach is further justified by a commentator who claimed that Smith’s remarks about dogs be considered an essentialist definition of human beings. He claimed that Smith was arguing, not simply that people are the only ones who make contracts, but that making contracts is a necessary part of what it means to be human. If Mingus’s behavior challenges Smith’s veracity, and if the commentator is correct—if Smith defines a human life in this context—then Smith’s error might call his other writing into question as well. My task in this discussion is to ask if it does, and if so, how much. To do so, I engage in detailed exegesis on WN I.ii.2 and argue that this sentence is neither a definition of humanity nor intrinsically connected to the rest of Smith’s work. I conclude by explaining why I think this examination is relevant and important. To these purposes, unless otherwise specified, I will regard exchange and contract as designating the same behavior: consciously giving another creature, in Smith’s words, “this for that” (WN I.ii.2).

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 4.13.38 PM