The Mysteries of Adam Smith

Virtue and Vice

The many Adam Smiths.


Adam Smith is not who you think he is. Long hailed as the founder of modern economics and the father of capitalism, the 18th-century Scottish thinker was not only an economist and the author of The Wealth of Nations; he was also a moral philosopher and the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith considered his work in moral philosophy every bit as important as his work in economics (if not more so), and he continually revised The Theory of Moral Sentiments even after he’d completed The Wealth of Nations. In the sixth and final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1790, Smith even added a peculiar chapter about the psychology of wealth. Writing about the tendency of so many people to admire the rich and neglect the poor, he denounced this disposition as “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

How to make sense of the two Adam Smiths has bedeviled scholars for well over a century. In the mid-1800s, long before he became the mascot for the University of Chicago’s style of free market economics, Smith was the subject of a debate among his German readers, who struggled to find a way to reconcile his picture of human nature as naturally sympathetic in The Theory of Moral Sentiments with his picture of the self-interested butchers, bakers, and brewers in The Wealth of Nations. The discovery of Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence in 1895 only deepened the question: The Lectures clearly showed that Smith was formulating many of the ideas in The Wealth of Nations a few years after he’d published The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

One way to solve the puzzle of the two Adam Smiths is to combine them. In her 2017 book Private Government, the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argued that Smith’s vision of a market-oriented society in The Wealth of Nations had a moral impulse behind it. Smith sought to promote social relations that encouraged freedom and equality. Instead of relationships of dependency, subservience, and domination, as under feudalism, he believed that the market had the emancipatory and egalitarian potential to create relationships based on independence, mutual recognition, and equal standing. In another rendering of this argument, articulated by the political theorists Dennis Rasmussen and Ryan Hanley, Smith’s deep concern about economic inequality is linked to our capacity for sympathy and the cultivation of virtue, as he delineated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For Smith, Hanley explains, commercialization and the disparities of wealth that come with it “inhibit our most distinctively human trait, namely our capacity for sympathy.”

These combined Smiths let us have our cake and eat it too. We can have free markets, and we can also have morality. We can have economic freedom, but that freedom rests on an orientation—if not a commitment—to one another as moral equals. A capitalist society can’t survive on markets alone; it needs moral defenders as well.

In his new book, Adam Smith Reconsidered: History, Liberty, and the Foundations of Modern Politics, Paul Sagar argues that combining the two Smiths in this way is a mistake. Casting Smith as a moral theorist who was also, ultimately, a defender of commercial society misunderstands him as a thinker, Sagar writes. The Theory of Moral Sentiments was not Smith’s philosophical justification for the political and economic system he described in The Wealth of Nations. Nor was The Wealth of Nations normative in its intent; instead, it was descriptive. The effort to combine the two Smiths also misidentifies the nature of the problem posed by commercial societies. The problem with them is not moral in nature, Sagar asserts, but political.

To make his argument, Sagar offers a portrait of Smith not as an economist or a moral philosopher but as a political thinker par excellence. This is an extraordinarily difficult task, given how crowded the field of Smith studies has become and how contested the meaning of his politics has been since the first wave of revisionist scholarship. Donald Winch’s landmark book Adam Smith’s Politics (1978) may have rescued Smith from his neoliberal Chicago captors, but it also retrofitted him in some of the then-fashionable attire of civic humanism and the classical republican tradition. In more recent scholarship, contending versions of a “left” and a “right” Smith have created even more Adam Smiths to reckon with. Those championing a “left” Smith emphasize his humane vision of commercial society, its emancipatory relations, and his willingness to use the state to promote or even enforce the aims of distributive justice; while those endorsing a “right” Smith underscore the beneficial unintended consequences of self-interested behavior, his skepticism of government expertise, and his faith in local knowledge.

A continuation of Sagar’s first monograph, The Opinion of Mankind: Sociability and Theories of the State From Hobbes to Smith (2018), the new book wisely eschews these conventions of labeling; instead, Sagar wants his readers to recognize Smith as a political thinker whose central preoccupations were power and domination. To put it bluntly, this is Adam Smith as a political realist. This is a Smith whose contributions to the study of modern politics cannot be reduced to appeals to his moral philosophy, a Smith who saw politics as a distinctive realm of human activity marked by perennial conflict and violence, and one therefore ill-suited to utopian theorizing. This is a Smith who was concerned first and foremost with questions of order and stability, not distributive or social justice. Finally, and perhaps most important, this is a Smith whose politics is characterized not so much by a substantive political position (left versus right; liberal versus conservative) but rather by a distinctive orientation toward the nature of politics itself.

Part of the problem with the many Adam Smiths is that we want Smith to speak to us and even for us, especially when we encounter passages that appear to vividly capture our questionable sympathy with the rich or our endless travails in pursuit of material possessions. “When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colors in which the imagination is apt to paint it,” Smith writes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state.” Enchanted by this imagination, a poor man’s son labors day after day “with the most unrelenting industry” to “acquire talents superior to all his competitors,” but only in his “last dregs of life, his body wasted with toil and diseases,” does he realize that “wealth and greatness are mere trinkets of frivolous utility.” Surely Smith is warning us here about our fascination with wealth and the insatiable desire to keep up with the Joneses. Surely these are the inevitable moral consequences of living in a society with seemingly endless possibilities for production, consumption, and exchange—that is, the consequences of living in a commercial society.

In an exacting rereading of these passages, Sagar contends that scholars have by and large misinterpreted (or, at the very least, overinterpreted) Smith’s concerns about the moral corruption, vanity, and deception produced by the delusive pursuit of wealth. That people have a disposition to admire the rich and neglect the poor and to devote themselves “for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness” is not a debit on the balance sheet of commercial society. Rather, Sagar asserts, Smith is arguing that this is a universal feature of the human psyche. That we are enthralled with the wealthy is not an endemic pathology of modern commercial societies but, as Smith observes, the complaint of “moralists in all ages.” The poor man’s son is not a parable about capitalist avarice; instead, on Sagar’s reading, it is about a “quirk of human psychology” and a “quirk of rationality.” Like the poor man’s son, we are enthralled by the notion of obtaining all our wants and satisfying all our pleasures. We obsess over the idea of acquiring the latest iPhone, the luxury at-home exercise bike, the trendy trainers, but as soon as we’ve expended inordinate amounts of money and energy to do so, we begin to crave the next utility-promoting thing.

Sagar’s mode of argument here can be unrelenting. He boldly positions himself against other Smith commentators, whose interpretations he dismisses as “subtly misconstrue[d],” “distorted and anachronistic,” “universally incorrect,” or “all wrong,” and he rests his case on an extensive and almost painstaking exegesis of the text. The book’s first chapter, on “Commercial Society, History, and the Four Stages Theory,” sets the tone: In it, Sagar parses the many distinctions in Smith’s use of the terms “commercial society,” “commercial nation,” and “age of commerce.” For Sagar, each term conveys something theoretically precise. “Commercial nation” denotes a nation engaged in external trade with other countries, while “age of commerce” belongs to Smith’s theoretical model of how human society developed under idealized circumstances. “Commercial society,” meanwhile, refers only to the “internal relations of individuals to each other when it comes to the securing of both the necessities and luxuries of life.” Importantly, the term “commercial society” is both politically underdetermined and connotes nothing about the normative status of its social, economic, and political arrangements.

Sagar pays such scrupulous attention to these kinds of textual details for two reasons: first, so that we are more cautious about reading passages from The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a prescriptive commentary on commercial society, much less capitalism. Sagar is adamant that we should not see Smith as echoing the lamentations of his near contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that infamous arch critic of commercial modernity. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, though full of bracing descriptions of the human condition that clearly resonate with life under modern capitalism, simply does not provide us with the textual resources necessary to regard it as an ethical defense of commercial society. Instead, it sets out to do what any text in 18th-century moral philosophy does—namely, to propose an explanation for our various ethical stances. Smith was responding to immediate predecessors like Francis Hutcheson and to contemporaries like David Hume on fundamental questions about human nature (are we selfish or altruistic?) and the source of morality (is it reason or sentiment?), not the specific content of morality and the demands of justice.

Sagar has a second reason to conduct such a fine-grained reading of Smith’s work. By repudiating the notion that Smith saw commercial societies as resting on presumably problematic grounds—vanity, amour propre, the desire for superior status—Sagar shows that Smith’s primary concern was not with the morality of commercial society but with its politics. For Smith, commercial societies were uniquely capable of fostering relations of mutual exchange and economic growth, but they were also uniquely vulnerable to new forms of capture and domination.

Civil government,” Smith writes in Book V of The Wealth of Nations, “so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” Like many passages in The Wealth of Nations quoted without context, this is one that can easily catch a reader off guard or reinforce preconceived notions of what Smith believes. But for Sagar, the quotation illustrates one of the central features of Smith’s political thought: The nature of politics is marked by persistent conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and its gravitational pull is not toward moral consensus and justice but toward a reconfiguration of wealth and power that enables the “renewed domination of the weak by the powerful.”

In Sagar’s reading of Smith, history—not a priori reasoning or moral consensus—provides the material for the analysis of modern politics. History informs theory and the establishment of economic principles. It is also primarily about power and domination. The politics of Europe was never the result of a slow, peaceful extension and evolution of the ancient republics in Greece and Italy, but the legacy of the more immediate experiences of repeated Gothic invasion and histories of plunder. War, not commerce, was the motor of political change, and politics was an arena of domination in almost all societies (not just in Europe) for most of human history. Moreover, opulence often followed violent domination. Tartar shepherding societies and their Eurasian descendants were characterized by vast inequalities in property (livestock, for example), a near absence of laws (or, if laws existed, they the were used as instruments of oppression), and what Sagar calls the “extensive domination of the many by the few.” The persistence of slavery even in rich and culturally polished nations illustrates how the history of economic growth and freedom was also “synonymous with the violent mass subjugation of huge numbers of people,” something Smith found ethically abhorrent and economically nonsensical.

All of this reveals, according to Sagar, how concerned Smith was with the question of domination and its antithesis, liberty. At its core, liberty was the absence of domination, or the threat to one’s person and property by social and economic superiors. But for Smith, liberty—and specifically modern liberty—was much more than that: It was realized in the political prerequisites that secured our “deliverance from the spectre of domination,” most significantly the rule of law. Feudal Europe was devoid of this kind of liberty, with warmongering barons constantly attacking their enemies and plundering the countryside to increase their own wealth. With the introduction of foreign luxuries, the barons gradually traded away their own power over their direct dependents for “trinkets and baubles,” but this erosion of local baronial power was not enough to secure modern liberty, particularly for the masses. Only with the emergence of systems of laws and the rise of independent judiciaries, Smith argued, could security from arbitrary power—whether from the crown or the clergy —be guaranteed. The settlement after England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a major historical achievement in this regard. The separation of powers and the innovation of checks and balances was the exception, not the rule, in that it transformed the law itself into an instrument of liberation rather than oppression.

Yet the rule of law wasn’t a failsafe, in Smith’s view. New threats to liberty arose in the modern commercial societies of Western Europe, in the form of a new kind of special interest group: the merchant class. Political officeholders, according to Smith, were particularly vulnerable to capture by the merchant class because of the nature of political authority in modern European societies. More specifically, the psychological mechanisms by which wealth established its authority made commercial societies susceptible to systemic corruption. Wealth was a uniquely wily source of authority, not only because it was more immediately visible than more “traditional” sources of authority (such as age or abilities), but because it also allowed those who were traditionally outside of power—those not born into the ruling class or clan, for instance—to use their wealth to either influence or reconfigure power entirely. Wealth infiltrated the mind. Thus, by using their wealth “as a psychological lever with which to dazzle those who made state policy,” Sagar argues, the merchant class—from the itinerant burghers of early modern Europe to the members of the East India Company during Smith’s time—was able to achieve more, not by replacing those in power but by working through existing political officeholders and within the framework of the rule of law. The commercial societies of modern Europe were therefore the perfect breeding ground for this kind of political corruption. Mercantile elites leveraged their structural advantage to sway policy-makers and force them to do their bidding; legislators were not mere dupes but confederates of this mercantile conspiracy to rig markets in their favor, often with violent consequences.

Smith’s famous—or, rather, infamous —metaphor of “the invisible hand,” in Sagar’s reading, therefore gestures not to the “overweening governmental administrators” but to the private merchant class that colludes with and captures state power. For Smith, the antidote to this two-way corruption—politics corrupting economics and economics corrupting political processes—is not to scale back the state and hope that private actors do the most public good, as some of his libertarian admirers are eager to claim. But he doesn’t offer much solace to his left-wing readers, either. Instead, in Sagar’s view, Smith deliberately offers us no answers in this regard: At best, he is “less than sanguine” about the possibilities of disentangling wealth from power in commercial societies—and at worst, he is despairing.

Can Smith still speak to us if he ends up offering a vision of political realism that does not commend one set of actions over another? For Sagar, he can, though only faintly and from a distance. Sagar’s Adam Smith does not loudly proclaim the virtues or vices of the market, but he does beg us to consider what kind of commercial society we live in. Does the rule of law guarantee our basic security of life and possessions from the violent domination of private actors, either individuals or groups? What happens when wealth and power align in the lawmaking process? What kind of politics do we want in a commercial society?

Thinking with Smith the way Sagar has in this volume is sobering. The politics of our commercial society render modern liberty a fragile achievement, constantly threatened by the corruption of politics by private economic interests or the manipulation of the economy by political interests. Commercial societies can prosper or perish at the hands of merchants. The politics of commercial societies must therefore take seriously the ways in which political domination entrenches itself through inequality, and it must confront the fact that we too often rely on the political judgment of a few officeholders to harness the economic power of corporate interests without bending society to their will. In Smith’s view, such a capacity for wisdom and good judgment will always be in short supply. This may not be the Adam Smith we want, but it is certainly the one we need.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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