Smith, Justice, and the Scope of the Political

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.