What’s Natural about Adam Smith’s Natural Liberty?

property commutative justice just sentiments natural liberty definitions of liberty self-ownership

March 23, 2022

The first essay in our NEW series takes a close look at Adam Smith's language and the implications of those choices for understanding him and the world he is describing.

"Smith often said simply “liberty” but sometimes “natural liberty.” Why did Smith sometimes say “natural liberty”? Maybe he wanted to highlight its “naturalness.” That prompts the question: What is “natural” about Smith’s “natural liberty”?"

Abundantly does Adam Smith use “liberty” in The Wealth of Nations (WN).[1] “Liberty” usually means “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way” (WN 664.3). Smith sometimes adds an adjective, as in “perfect liberty” or “general liberty.” 
And then there is “natural liberty,” which appears ten times. Ten is not a huge number. In fact, there are more occurrences of “perfect liberty”—sixteen. But the occurrences of “natural liberty” are significant. Most famous are those in the penultimate paragraph of Book IV:
All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society. According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to… (WN 687.51, boldface added) 
Four occurrences of “natural liberty” come when Smith points out that in endorsing a restriction on banks against issuing small-denomination notes he is making an exception to the principle of natural liberty: “But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as of the most despotical” (WN 324.94). 
Another comes in his outburst against the Settlement Act: “To remove a man who has committed no misdemeanour from the parish where he chuses to reside, is an evident violation of natural liberty and justice” (WN 157.59). Another comes in a remark: “Both laws were evident violations of natural liberty, and therefore unjust” (WN 530.16). And two come when he says that repealing “encroachments upon natural liberty” would ease the readjustment of those put out of work by free trade (WN 470.42). 
In all ten cases, “natural liberty” means the flipside to commutative justice. Commutative justice is not messing with others’ person, property, and promises due, and the flipside is others—including the government—not messing with one’s own such stuff. Smith pegs natural liberty as the flipside of commutative justice when he says “[b]oth laws were violations of natural liberty and therefore unjust” (WN 530.16, italics added). Smith often said simply “liberty” but sometimes “natural liberty.”
Why did Smith sometimes say “natural liberty”? Maybe he wanted to highlight its “naturalness.” That prompts the question: What is “natural” about Smith’s “natural liberty”?
“Nature” and “natural” loom large in Smith. The words feature in the full titles of his two published works: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, or An Essay towards an Analysis of the Principles by which Men naturally judge concerning the Conduct and Character, first of their Neighbours, and afterwards of themselves.[2] But the meaning of “nature” eludes simple definition. According to A.L. Macfie (1967), “Smith’s ‘Nature’ is like Heinz’s tins—there are fifty-seven varieties” (7). 
The polysemy of “nature” and its cognates was well known. David Hume claimed there is no word “more ambiguous and unequivocal” than “nature” and offered three (among many) possible definitions: that which is opposed to miracles, that which is opposed to the rare and unusual, and that which is opposed to artifice (Hume 2007, 304–5). Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language, lists thirteen definitions of “nature”,[3] along with eight of “natural.”[4] 
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), Smith sometimes plays different ideas of nature off one another, telling how “man is by Nature directed to correct, in some measure, that distribution of things which she herself would otherwise have made” (TMS 168.9). Our natural moral sentiments often lead us to strive against aspects of “nature,” or the way things usually are in the world. Tyranny, domination, monopoly, and coercion are natural, and, naturally, we rail against them (cf. Brubaker 2006; Pack 1995).

Let’s focus on “natural.” Here are four definitions that advance a Smithian understanding:
1.      Existing in the primeval human state, with only primitive language, the most basic forms of property, and no subordination to a political body. Making a contrast with “artificial,” which itself has multiple senses, Hume said:  “Sucking is an action natural to Man, and Speech is artificial” (published in back matter of Hume 2007, 430).
2.      Usual or expected as in “the natural and ordinary state of mankind” (TMS 45.7).
3.      Necessary for the state of human affairs that the speaker presupposes or posits.  
4.      Worth naturalizing, which is to say, worth actualizing such that we get to a state of affairs in which the thing we say is natural would then be expected (sense 2) or necessary (sense 3).

There are yet other meanings of “natural” in Smith,[5] among which we could include: 
(a) essential or definitionally necessary; 
(b) resultant from human action but not human design, as in natural versus artificial (here we have a second sense of “artificial”); 
(c) not resultant from actions of superior beings, as in natural versus supernatural.  

Also, in WN we have “natural” price/wage/rent/rate/proportion/balance and so on. These sometimes relate to expected or necessary; also, sometimes, they might be thought of as outcomes obtaining under a certain set of hypothetical assumptions, as in an equilibrium model.
But put these other meanings aside, and let us continue with the enumerated four senses. 
These four senses launch a dynamic. Evolution generated “man,” in his primeval state, which might be associated with the end of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, namely small bands at the end of the Paleolithic Age (10,000 BC). The primeval maps, in Smith, to the hunter stage of social development. 
Once man—and hence man-in-society—has been posited, whether primeval or beyond, there operates a recursive dynamic of senses 2, 3, and 4. In the Neolithic Age, with agriculture and settlement, new practices and structures develop; new regularities in social life develop, and become expected and therefore natural (sense 2). People also become aware of different societies with different regularities, or of changes in their own society over time, and see that preconditions are necessary to arrive at and sustain certain social arrangements (sense 3). 
Finally, a sense of the common good—in us since the primeval and natural in all four senses—looks to improvement; certain practices thought to advance the good are endorsed. They are thought to be potentialities that ought to be actualized (sense 4). Should they be actualized, they become natural in senses 2 and 3. Sense 4 is “natural” in its becoming sense.
With the four definitions in mind, we again ask: What’s natural about Smith’s natural liberty?
Even in the primeval state, we have ownership of our person and immediate possessions. David Friedman (1994, 14-15) affirms that we have “natural property” in our own person, by virtue of a special knowledge and control of it, and our mutual recognition of one another’s spheres of knowledge and control. Bart Wilson argues similarly in The Property Species: Mine, Yours, and the Human Mind (2020), saying that “no human parents in any community have to teach their child to resist attempts to take things securely within their grasp. Children are natural-born possessors” (9). Wilson propounds the idea that we naturally “emphysicalize the concept of mine” (15), a concept that starts with the most personal of objects, our own mind and body. Hume affirmed the special relationship we have in the “fix’d and constant advantages of the mind and body” (Hume 2007, 314). 
Thus, there is self-ownership in the primeval state. Indeed, hunter-gatherer bands did not have the hierarchy and technology to enslave. A band that did not accord its members self-ownership simply would not survive. A band is best thought of as an association of jural equals. The vision is also true to Smith on the hunter stage.
When Smith then moves to the more advanced stages, of shepherds, of agriculture, and of commerce, he says that property is extended (LJ 10, 16, 19-23, 27, 34, 38, 39, 207, 308, 309, 432. 434, 460, 466, 467, 468). Property in one’s own person is primevally natural, and the principle is subsequently extended to objects that in the primeval state had not yet been propertized.  
Self-ownership, the core of “one’s own” or suum in Latin, is thus natural in sense 1, and one’s own is the basis for liberty, in the main sense in which Smith uses the term. So, liberty has a good claim to being natural in sense 1. Now, can liberty claim to be natural in senses 2, 3, and 4?
Is liberty, in Smith’s time and ours, usual or expected? Yes and no. We will come back to the “yes” in our next essay, but here we highlight the “no.”  Arbitrary political arrangements that yield economic and religious monopolies, burdensome tax schemes and regulations, restrictions on the freedom of movement and expression are the norm. We might say that the unnaturalness of liberty is presupposed by Smith’s entire project. Why write a book like The Wealth of Nations if one believes liberty to be a natural tendency in political affairs? (See Brubaker 2006, 332.)
In his Lectures on Jurisprudence, which crib extensively from David Hume’s History of England, Smith tells of political development in England—which he reckoned the most liberal polity. In France and Spain, “the absolute power of the sovereigns has continu’d ever since its establishment...In England alone a different government has been established from the naturall course of things” (LJ 265). Against the natural course of things, Smith says, England didn’t develop a large standing army; without a standing force, the sovereign had to assemble Parliament to go to war. English Parliament—the Commons in particular—asserted itself against the crown, leading, after great convulsions, to the shoring up of institutions supportive of individual liberty: the limit of royal prerogative, the firming up of the rule of law, the regularization of legal practice. For Smith and Hume, the existence of liberty in Britain, such as it was, was not usual or particularly expected.
The same feeling of the unnaturalness of liberty (in sense 2) runs through WN. Consider, again: “All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord” (WN 687.51). Natural liberty does not simply establish itself of its own accord. Systems of preference and restraint flow ubiquitously from aspects of human nature: partiality, desire for public esteem, limited knowledge, and so on. It is within Smith’s contemplation and judgment that systems of preference and restraint are taken away. Only then, and within such a vision, does the system of natural liberty emerge as obvious and simple.[6] 
Natural liberty is natural because it is worth naturalizing. The system of natural liberty may be taken as “some general, and even systematical, idea of the perfection of policy and law” intended to direct “the views of the statesman” (TMS 234.18). Smith realizes that the expectation that liberty “should ever be entirely restored in Great Britain, is as absurd as to expect that an Oceana or Utopia should be established in it” (WN 471.43). But his work attempts to persuade British political practice into beliefs that will augment liberty. His posture is presumptively in favor of a policy reform that allows individuals greater degrees of freedom to pursue their interest, within the rules of justice, in their own way, although it is possible that Smith will make an exception to the general presumption.[7]
A presumption of liberty is worth naturalizing because it serves the good of humankind. Smith’s economic analysis illustrates how commerce facilitates “the co-operation…of great multitudes” (WN 26.2). But the benefits of the market process depend upon liberty, the “liberal and generous system” (WN 671.24), not the “illiberal and oppressive” measures of mercantilism (WN 584.50). 
Degrees of flourishing require degrees of liberalness in government policy. That shows how liberty is necessary and therefore may be said to be natural in sense 3. Although it is not a usual and expected feature of human history, some degree of liberty is necessary for the flourishing states of affairs described in WN, such as the “higgling and bargaining” dynamics of the price system (WN 49.4).
“Let the same natural liberty of exercising what species of industry they please be restored to all his majesty’s subjects” (WN 470.42). Smith believes that the liberty of each individual ought to be honored, even though it can never be held inviolate, a liberty corresponding to the individual’s society’s conventions of self-ownership and property between jural equals. Smith believes that each ought to be dignified in liberty, the way of better living. Built on the natural property that each soul has in his or her person (sense 1), the goodness of liberty (sense 4) is the principal reason why natural liberty is natural. 
We leave this essay with a plan to continue on “natural.” The next will consider “natural” versus “conventional,” and suggest a concept, natural convention, which combines nature and convention.

The next essay is: "Nature, Convention, & Natural Convention"

Daniel Klein is economics professor and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he and Erik Matson lead a program in Adam Smith. Also in collaboration with Matson, Klein co-directs CL Press and curates Just Sentiments.

Erik Matson is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the deputy director of the GMU Adam Smith program. His personal website is erikwmatson.com.

The above essay is the first entry in a new AdamSmithWorks series, Just Sentiments, curated by Daniel B. Klein and Erik Matson. New essays will be published on the fourth Wednesday of the month. You can read more about the series in this Speaking of Smith post, "Just Sentiments- Welcome!". Klein and Matson lead the Adam Smith Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, in association with the Mercatus Center. In the program, they study big ideas in jurisprudence, politics, ethics, and economics as they were pursued during the original arc of liberalism, especially in the 18th century in Britain.
Brubaker, Lauren. 2006. “Does the ‘wisdom of Nature’ Need Help?” In New Voices on Adam Smith, edited by Leonidas Montes and Eric Schliesser, 330–72. New York: Routledge.
Friedman, David. 1994. “A Positive Account of Property Rights.” Social Philosophy and Policy 11 (2): 1–16.
Griswold, Charles L. 1999. Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Hume, David. 2007. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David F. Norton and Mary J. Norton. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Macfie, A.L. 1967. “The Moral Justification of Free Enterprise.” Scottish Journal of Political Economy, 1–11.
Pack, Spencer J. 1995. “Adam Smith’s Unnaturally Natural (Nonetheless Naturally Unnatural) Use of the Word Natural.” In The Classical Tradition in Economic Thought: Perspectives on the History of Economic Thought: Vol. XI, edited by Ingrid H. Rima, 31–42. Aldershot: Edward Elgar.
Smith, Adam. 1981. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
———. 1982a. Lectures on Jurisprudence. Edited by R.L. Meek, D.D. Raphael, and P.G. Stein. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
———. 1982b. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Wilson, Bart J. 2020. The Property Species: Mine, Yours, and the Human Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] Abbreviations to Smith’s works: References to The Wealth of Nations are to Smith (1981), abbreviated “WN” and followed by page and paragraph number. References to The Theory of Moral Sentiments are to Smith (1982b), abbreviated “TMS” and followed by page and paragraph number. References to Lectures on Jurisprudence are to Smith (1982a).
[2] The full title of TMS has become obscured, in large part because the editors of the Glasgow variorum edition chose to use the abbreviated title, against Smith’s own designation from the fourth edition onwards.
[3] https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/views/search.php?term=nature. Viewed on March 11, 2022.
[4] https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/views/search.php?term=natural. Viewed on March 11, 2022.
[5] Charles Griswold (1999, 311–17) lists seven.
[6] This paragraph and the next draw from Brubaker (2006, 338).