Smith, Tocqueville, and Foucault on the Temptation of Enlightened Despotism

man of system physiocrats alexis de tocqueville michael foucault political science

 Eric Schliesser for AdamSmithWorks

"What Foucault helps us see is that within the liberal tradition as originally articulated by Smith and, later developed by French liberals, including Tocqueville, there is a self-awareness that one-sided and imprudent reliance on claims to exactitude and precision, including in the human sciences, as potentially dangerous to liberty."

August 2, 2023
There is a persistent strain in liberalism to be mistrustful of politics and to be impatient with the political process. The problem is that if you turn your back on politics you end up being tempted by very bad political options. For example, you can be tempted to put your faith in transitional ‘enlightened’ dictators (as some neo-liberals were in response to General Pinochet and the Latin American crises during the 1970s).1 Or, as is more common in our age, a technocracy that disguises the sectorial and special interests it promotes behind jargon and the authority of science as a means to silence others. There is an important connection between these two examples and that impatience with politics that I illustrate using the writings of Adam Smith, Tocqueville, and Foucault.
The enduring nature of this illiberal temptation among those who understand themselves as grasping truth is undoubtedly the reason why Michael Foucault starts his lecture series published as The Birth of Biopolitics (hereafter: BoB) with the observation that until political economy, which understands itself as authoritative knowledge, becomes genuinely liberal (which he associates with a stream emanating from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and another from David Hume) its natural tendency is despotic.2 Foucault illustrates this, especially in the third lecture of 24 February 1979, with a careful analysis of this despotic tendency among eighteenth century physiocrats. To simplify: these promote a scientific politics in which a recognizably modern conception of science is authoritative in political life by appeals to what is ‘natural.’ Of course, the physiocrats were not the first to ‘naturalize’ a top-down political program by way of modern science; Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and René Descartes’ Discourse on Method offer alternative exemplars—but neither has a liberal character (although Hobbes bequeaths non-trivial features to liberalism).
When I first started reflecting on these matters, I was inclined to treat physiocracy, and the tendency to which it gives rise, as not really liberal. But, I realized that I was falling victim to the so-called “no true Scotsman” fallacy, even though an authentic Scot, Adam Smith, was repeatedly telling me in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, that physiocracy is a species of liberalism; he treats physiocracy as a “liberal and generous system” (WN 4.9.24, 671; see also 4.9.17, 669.)
For, physiocracy genuinely promotes free markets and free trade, and it does so, in part, by advising state rulers to remove internal and external barriers and to learn to avoid meddling in the economy. And like many more recent despotic, ‘liberalizing’ regimes today, physiocrats favored what we would now call ‘shock therapy’. In fact, in the Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault treats Anne Robert Jacques Turgot’s 1774 liberalization of the French economy as the paradigmatic case of shock therapy (BoB, p. 80).
So, while I still claim that physiocracy and (say) the ‘Chicago boys’ are a false kind of liberalism, it’s wiser for liberalism to recognize its own potential tendency toward a species of political violence—when a certain kind of scientific image is accompanied by state violence—and thereby domesticate and prevent it.3 That it is a false kind of liberalism is also revealed by the fact that like the contemporary despots, the physiocrats do not really trust individual behavior and do not promote impartial government.
In fact, the physiocrats favored landed interests because they thought it was the only productive source of surplus value and, so, a country’s wealth. (The structure of their argument has anticipations of Marx’s views.)4 As Smith notes with an appeal to the old proverb – “If the rod be bent too much one way, says the proverb, in order to make it straight you must bend it as much the other” (WN 4.9.4, 664) – this was partially a strategic corrective to mercantile favoritism of the interests and economies of towns. But it was also an effect of their over-reliance on mistaken purported scientific knowledge. They were (and this is crucial for my argument), thereby, not promoting individual liberty, but the kingdom’s or the body politic’s health (WN 4.9.28, 674) that is, wealth and power.
Smith is a relatively gentle critic of the physiocrats. Most of his criticism of them is largely scientific in character (that is, he thinks they do not have the right understanding of the sources of modern economic growth). But there is also an important political dimension: Smith thinks that by conceptually favoring countryside over town, even when promoting free trade among them, they are not properly impartial as the state should be. (This prefigures many liberal critiques of special and sinister interests.) Smith also thinks the physiocrats are imprudent and inhumane by embracing what we now call ‘shock therapy.’ Policy should promote gradual change because during a major social transition those adversely effected by policy must be compensated and/or have opportunities to adjust autonomously.5 In fact, their preference for shock therapy is the effect of their scientific vision. As Smith notes, they “imagined that [the political body] would thrive and prosper only under a certain precise regimen, the exact regimen of perfect liberty and perfect justice.” (WN 4.9.28, 674, emphasis added.) They tried to elevate their own conception of truth even at the expense of everything else without trust in “the natural effort which every man is continually making to better his own condition.” (WN 4.9.28, 674) In fact, the wording of these quotes (from WN 4.9.28) show that in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith’s famous criticism of the ‘man of system’ is directed especially against the physiocrat: “The man of system…is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it.” (TMS, 233-234).6
Let me develop this Smithian insight by drawing on Foucault’s analysis of the physiocrats as despotic which is more thoroughgoing than Smith’s, and, I suspect, indebted to the aristocratic liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and Revolution. Book II, CHAPTER XV: How the French Sought Reform Before Liberties.7 Foucault does not mention Tocqueville in context. But my argument for Foucault’s indebtedness to Tocqueville is four-fold.8
First, when in the Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault introduces the physiocrats for the first time, he explicitly links them to despotism and reminds his audience “you know” (“vous savez”) that this is common ground ("The first political economy was, of course, that of the physiocrats, and you know that from the very start of their economic analysis the physiocrats...and this is what they called despotism.") And while this can be a rhetorical affect, I think it's also a way of alluding to work with presumed canonical status among educated Parisians.9
Second, Tocqueville suggests that while the physiocrats were relatively obscure their writings reveal the true nature of the French Revolution. Tocqueville explicitly and at length links physiocratic despotism with the idea of public enlightenment. This Foucault echoes in the third lecture, when he treats the "physiocratic conception of enlightened despotism" (BoB, 24 January, 1979, p. 24) as the main exemplar of "governmental naturalism."10
Third, echoing Smith’s recommendation, Tocqueville attributes governmental naturalism explicitly to Pierre-Paul Le Mercier de La Rivière (“The state must govern according to the laws of natural order (règles de l’ordre essential)”.11 Tocqueville also emphasizes the significance of the absence of counterbalances. Mercier de La Rivière is clearly one of Foucault’s implied sources.12
Finally, Tocqueville anticipates Foucault in identifying the complex, reflexive nature about the relationship between the future, which is supposed to shape (an as of yet not existing) social reality, and the underlying existing social reality as a source for the homogenizing effects of a model.13 Admittedly, Foucault does not say this about the physiocrats as such, but he posits it as a general property of governmental practice at the start of the first lecture.14 That is, Foucault is treating Tocqueville's characterization of the physiocrats as common ground between his audience and himself. And while it is surely possible that he and Tocqueville were struck by the same issues in physiocracy, it's also highly plausible that Tocqueville directed Foucault's attention in these sources.
The significance of this is not just biographical. What Foucault helps us see is that within the liberal tradition as originally articulated by Smith and, later developed by French liberals, including Tocqueville, there is a self-awareness that one-sided and imprudent reliance on claims to exactitude and precision, including in the human sciences, as potentially dangerous to liberty. Foucault’s (1975) Discipline and Punish argues this point in brilliant fashion in exploring the entanglement of medicine, criminology, psychiatry, and state power.
For liberals this danger of sliding into overreliance on a scientific politics is hard to avoid because political economy is one of the means of actualizing the liberal program and liberals are instinctively on the side of science and enlightenment. Because liberals recognize that political compromise is easier when economies are growing wealthier, and many of our own meaningful choices are facilitated by our ability to pay for them or the trade-offs involved, liberals have a natural tendency to favor efficiency and growth promoting policies. But despite these instinctive commitments, the liberal tradition has discovered (hence my narrative from Smith to Tocqueville and Foucault) that rather than trusting in its own good intentions and scientific expertise, a liberal art of government favors the individual to make their own meaningful choices. By contrast, a scientific politics or technocracy does not allow for substantive disagreement because no compromise over truth is possible. This stance raises obvious challenges in the context of public institutions that are partially constituted by scientific expertise (think of central banking, public health, flood control, etc.) or where science points to clear externalities that individuals may be powerless to correct (the environment). But that’s for another occasion.

  1. Sebastian Edwards (2023) The Chile Project: The Story of the Chicago Boys and the Downfall of Neoliberalism Princeton: Princeton University Press
  2. Foucault, Michel, Arnold I. Davidson, and Graham Burchell. The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. 2008. Quoted by page-number.
  3. Schliesser, Eric. (2010) "Friedman, positive economics, and the Chicago Boys." The Elgar companion to the Chicago school of economics Edited by Ross Emmett. (2010): 175-195
  4. Gehrke, Christian, and Heinz D. Kurz. "Karl Marx on physiocracy." Journal of the History of Economic Thought 2.1 (1995): 53-90.
  5. Schliesser (2017), Adam Smith: Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. The point is not sufficiently well known, but it has been noted before, see Lorenzo Infantino (2014) Individualism in modern thought: from Adam Smith to Hayek. Routledge, 2014, p. 33. On my view Smith is not against the prudent use of system in politics, see Schliesser (2017), op. cit., and Schliesser, Eric (2021). “Adam Smith on Political Leadership.” In R. J. W. Mills & Craig Smith (eds.), The Scottish Enlightenment: Human Nature, Social Theory and Moral Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Christopher J. Berry. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 132-163.
  7. Samuel Taylor Coleridge may even be the original source of connecting physiocracy with despotism, see his Essay, “The Friend.”
  8. I do not mean to suggest that there couldn’t have been intermediary sources. The conservative ordo-liberal, Wilhelm Röpke, who Foucault studied before he lectured on The Birth of Biopolitics, treats the physiocrats as characteristic ‘modern economocrats’ who homogenize society. Röpke cites the very material from Tocqueville I am also using. A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market.
  9. It's, of course, not obvious everyone in the audience would have recognized that Foucault is alluding to Tocqueville's L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution. After all, the very erudite editors of Foucault's Birth of Biopolitics don't mention it. In addition, Behrent denies that Foucault was "inspired by the political liberalism of Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, or Francois Guizot, whom other intellectuals were busily dusting off at the time." But this at least suggests that Tocqueville was in the Parisian air in the late 70s.” Quoted from Behrent, Michael C. "Liberalism without humanism: Michel Foucault and the free-market creed, 1976–1979." Modern Intellectual History 6.3 (2009): 539-568.
  10. In fact, that the physiocrats exhibit a kind governmental naturalism is even more explicit in Tocqueville's French: “Ils sont, il est vrai, très-favorables au libre échange des denrées, au laisser faire [Pg 266]ou au laisser passer dans le commerce et dans l'industrie;” (the English translation is ‘They were in favor of the removal of all restrictions upon the sale and conveyance of produce and merchandise is not so eloquent in comparison’).
  11. Smith writes the “best connected account of this doctrine is to be found in a little book written by Mr. Mercier de la Riviere…intitled, The natural and essential Order of Political Societies. (WN 4.9.38, 679.)
  12. See the editors BoB, p. 24 n. 12
  13. Tocqueville writes: "They were not satisfied with using the royal power to effect social reforms; they partly borrowed from it the idea of the future government they proposed to establish. The one was to be, in some measure, a copy of the other. The state, said the economists, must not only govern, it must shape the nation. It must form the mind of citizens conformably to a preconceived model.")
  14. Foucault writes, "I tried to locate the emergence of a particular type of rationality in governmental practice, a type of rationality that would enable the way of governing to be modeled on something called the state which, in relation to this governmental practice, to this calculation of governmental practice, plays the role both of a given—since one only governs a state that is already there, one only governs within the framework of a state—but also, at the same time, as an objective to be constructed. (BoB, pp, 3-4).