The Physics and Metaphysics of Liberty: Adam Smith and William Blake

william blake

Richard Gunderman for AdamSmithWorks

"Smith’s moral, political, and economic cases for liberty are compelling, stated as they are in purely practical terms, yet they leave some stones unturned. Enter William Blake, who asks, what if liberty is not only beneficial but also at the core of what it means to be human?"

October 11, 2023
Adam Smith and William Blake were two very different men. Smith was a highly regarded university professor, bestselling author, and father of modern economics. Blake was an impoverished engraver who did not leave his widow sufficient resources to pay for his funeral, sold fewer than 30 copies of his best-known work, and died in obscurity, regarded by many of his contemporaries as mad. Yet these two near contemporaries shared a common interest: liberty. In his 18th-century treatises “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and “The Wealth of Nations,” Smith constructed some of our best moral, political, and economic defenses of liberty in practical terms – what we might call the physics of liberty. Yet it was Blake who links liberty to the transcendent, providing what we might call liberty’s metaphysical defense. In this respect, Blake’s work beautifully complements that of Smith.
One of Smith’s most powerful arguments for liberty has been referred to as the knowledge problem. Simply put, no one person or group of people could ever assimilate sufficient information or understand an economy in sufficient breadth and depth to manage it effectively. When any such person or group presumes to do so, it inevitably introduces inefficiencies and distortions that undermine the economy’s performance and harm people who, if left to their own devices, could make better decisions for themselves. In other words, a highly productive economy will necessarily be decentralized. One aspect of this decentralization is the division of labor, which improves the fortunes of everyone who participates in this dimension of economic life.
If people are to enjoy the greatest degree of prosperity, Smith asserts, they must be free to decide for themselves, acting in their own self-interest as they see fit. Such individuals will be freer to adapt to new economic circumstances, quicker to seize new opportunities, and more creative than those oppressed by a centrally controlled economy. If they invest their labor and capital badly, they will suffer, while if they invest it well, they will be rewarded. They will be rewarded, that is, so long as the market is able to operate freely. Should some other system of incentives, such as mercantilism, begin to dominate the economic landscape, incentives will become distorted, resulting in harm to both individuals and everyone living in such a system. Simply put, special interests can bend incentives to benefit the few at the expense of the many.
Underlying such consequentialist arguments is Smith’s view that the property people acquire through their own labor, “is the original foundation of all other property” and therefore “the most sacred and inviolable.” Hence people should be free to deploy their labor as they see fit and to enjoy its fruits without interference. Those who wish to take on a certain kind of work should be free to do so, and the converse can be said for those who offer employment. For others, such as legislators, to meddle in such free decisions represents a form of economic and political tyranny. Yet Smith is also a realist, recognizing that in at least some cases, individuals may find themselves in circumstances so desperate that they hardly have any choice in the matter and end up adopting courses of action that redound to their own detriment.
Moreover, people can and often do make mistakes. Some people harbor irrational hopes and fears. Some make reasonable decisions but do not get what they deserve. Others make irrational decisions and wind up in difficulty. Some bad people come to good ends, while some good people suffer. Some people are simply placed in tragic situations, where no good options are available. To be sure, an economy and a society will prosper if people are left to their own devices, but some individuals and groups may suffer mightily. The best people can hope for, Smith concludes, is to live as good and virtuous a life as possible, accepting that there is no guarantee that they will prosper to the degree that they deserve to.
Yet the economic and political spheres of life can be organized in such a way that they tend to reward the virtues and punish the vices, thereby promoting the overall prosperity of the people. What is often most called for in this regard is self-restraint. Those in authority must resist the temptation to ignore the character of the people or attempt to remake it in their own image. The overriding virtue is liberty, the prerogative of the people to choose for themselves how they wish to proceed in life. Good education and civic institutions can promote this capacity, but there can be no master plan that supersedes the freedom of the individual. Those who attempt to impose such a plan, however brilliant and well-intentioned they may be, necessarily inflict damage on liberty and its fruits.
Smith’s moral, political, and economic cases for liberty are compelling, stated as they are in purely practical terms, yet they leave some stones unturned. Enter William Blake, who asks, what if liberty is not only beneficial but also at the core of what it means to be human? What if it is integral not only to human nature but also all of creation? What if every creature and every created thing is somehow meant to be free to express itself fully as the kind of thing it is? Such questions take us far from Smith’s largely physical approach, but they also open up new dimensions of meaning and even being. Suppose liberty is knit into the very fabric of reality, as much as color, shape, and mass, though less obviously so. And suppose this transcendent or metaphysical vantage point adds to our understanding of the true worth of every person and every living thing.
The transition from Smith to Blake is a journey from the realm abstraction and generality to the realm of particularities. What interests Smith, the moral philosopher and economist, are moral and economic systems, principles, and general causes and effects. What interests Blake the poet are particular people, events, and narratives. Where Smith constructs an argument, Blake paints a picture and tells a story. In this spirit, we should approach Blake not expecting to encounter abstract principles but rather particular life circumstances, including the stories of his own life. And to honor the tenor of Blake’s life, we turn not to a moment of artistic triumph, with Blake hailed by his contemporaries as a genius, for such approbation was not forthcoming. We turn instead to an especially perilous incident that nearly brought his life to a premature end.
In 1804, Blake, perhaps the greatest poet-artist ever to work in the English language, was placed on trial for sedition. It was a time of great political ferment. Just a generation before, the United States had rebelled against England, establishing itself as an independent nation. More recently, France had attempted a grand revolution, garnering the support of die-hard republicans such as Thomas Jefferson. Still more recently, Thomas Paine had been tried and convicted in absentia for the seditious content of the second part of his “Rights of Man.” William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, had sought to stem further radicalism by passing the “Gagging Acts” of 1795, expanding the range of speech that could be labeled treasonous. Even Blake’s publisher had been imprisoned for selling the radical work of another writer.
The circumstances that led to Blake’s arrest are sketchy. A fight had broken out between Blake and a soldier in his garden. A complaint was filed by the soldier and a comrade, alleging that Blake had damned the King of England. During testimony, Blake and a friend contradicted the soldiers’ account, and Blake expressed privately the suspicion that he had been framed for the radical company he kept. Others had been sentenced to death for similar crimes, and there was reason to suppose that Blake was in serious jeopardy. At the trial, however, the jury concluded that much of the evidence against him had been fabricated, and he was acquitted. If Blake’s true sentiments had been known and documented, the verdict might well have gone the other way.
From an early age, Blake was a radical. As a young man in 1780, he was among those who stormed Newgate Prison and set its inmates free. He knew personally what it was like to be treated unjustly by the law, having been arrested in the same year for spying, because he and a classmate had sketched a river south of London where military forces were stationed. In 1791, he had written an admiring poem about the French revolution that was considered too radical to publish, and he illustrated a book that extolled the virtues of the American revolution. His tussle with the soldier and subsequent trial for sedition were in many respects entirely in keeping with his lifelong fight against oppression and his battle for the free expression of the imagination.
Blake’s love of liberty shines through in his antipathy toward industrialization. In some ways anticipating Karl Marx’s account of the alienation of labor, Blake savaged the substitution of mass production for craftsmanship, the replacement of men by machines, and the devastating impact of rote labor on human creativity. Blake envisioned a world in which the imagination would be the wellspring of change, and creativity would enjoy the freedom necessary to express itself fully. To him, industrialization was just conformity and oppression writ large, a crushing of the human spirit. He held analogous political views, arguing firmly for a republican approach to government that would enable the people to choose their own leaders. To Blake as to Goethe, the individual was ineffable. To Blake, human beings were also sacrosanct.
Blake was, in other words, an ardent proponent of personal liberty. Whether in economics, politics, art, morals, or religion, he argued for the full expression of human creativity. Anything that interfered with its development could be regarded as a form of oppression, imprisonment, and even mutilation, and Blake never tired of inveighing against such “mind-forged manacles.” In “London,” he wrote:
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice; in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
Such seemingly simple lines reveal the great depth of Blake’s radicalism. He invokes not just every man’s cry but every cry of every man, emphasizing the dignity of each individual person. To Blake, the individual and the individual’s experience are far more real than any corporate identity. London is not a machine or a hive. Instead, for Blake, it is the place where one encounters individuals, each of whom is worthy of the encounter – not just passing by unseen, but looking at, listening to, and feeling called to. He notices not the MPs and captains of industry but chimney sweepers, hapless soldiers, and harlots. To Blake, they are as human, in fact more human, than the rich, the powerful, and the famous, those who in chartering rivers would rope them off from ordinary people.
Because the imagination is manacled, Blake implies, humanity suffers. People are so stuck in their rut, so beaten down by deprivation and starved for inspiration that they can see no other way. And yet there are the infants, every one of them, to whom each city and this world will be handed down in years to come. Looking about ourselves, we have reason to fear. How can things get better if the young cannot look ahead or envision a different sort of world, grounded in a renewed vision of life? Blake longs for a new kind of education, expressed in poems such as “Auguries of Innocence,” in which human beings would be educated
To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
We fail to esteem the individual human being, Blake suggests, because we have forgotten what a human being really is. Washed clean of all artificial excrescences, a person is as complex and beautiful a thing as exists in the universe, encompassing all of reality. A grain of sand is so unnoticeable, a wild flower so fragile, a palm of such limited scope, and a single hour so unremarkable a thing that we have bamboozled ourselves into thinking they are insignificant. Yet it is not by the pageantry of courts or the opulence of palaces that we should calibrate our compasses, but by the most quotidian aspects of our daily lives. What seems unremarkable is in fact most worthy of our attention, and it is precisely what is most fragile that is also most precious.
When it comes to liberty, Blake can be counted among its most ardent proponents. Something so small as a robin red breast in a cage “puts all heaven in a rage.” A bird that cannot fly free is a bird in name only, an offense against both nature and the holy. Even something so seemingly trivial as a dog starved at his master’s gate “predicts the ruin of the State.” Why? Because it shows that our natural sympathy has become dulled and corrupted – blinding, deafening, and inuring us to the plight of our fellow sentient creatures, who suffer just as we do. With such political and moral insensibility comes an inevitable erosion in freedom and its defense, for the full-blooded pursuit of liberty requires a keen vision of what we are fighting for.
Blake is, quite simply, freedom’s greatest metaphysician. He loves liberty because only when really free can any creature, including the human individual, become what it is truly meant to be. Blake dissented not because his personal ambitions had been thwarted but because he longed to see nature and God’s purposes fulfilled. Too many impediments to this fulfillment had been erected, too many manacles of the mind had been forged. Whether Blake was truly guilty of sedition or not, the presence of that soldier in his garden must have struck him as a greater intrusion than he or any liberty-loving person could bear. Whether he uttered it aloud or not, he must have at least heard a curse welling up inside his imagination, “Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves.”
Contemporary defenders of liberty, many of whom operate with a strongly economic frame of reference, tend naturally to look to Smith’s works. Smith presents reasoned arguments, seeking to convince. Blake, on the other hand, offers images and tales, seeking to evoke. Smith demonstrates the dire practical consequences of offending against liberty, for both economies and workers and citizens and moral agents. Blake, by contrast, provides a metaphysical defense of liberty, grounded in the very nature of living beings. We are born, he suggests, not to live out our days in cages, but to be free, and any attempt to fetter us represents an offense against the divinely ordered reality. Should liberty’s defenders find themselves languishing for want of inspiration, they would be well-advised to supplement their reading of Smith with Blake.