Adam Smith and the Presumption of Liberty
March 11, 2019
Adam Smith was no anarchist. Smith did have a strong presumption of liberty, but this presumption was not absolute. Under certain conditions, a jural superior (such as a sovereign or magistrate) could violate this presumption of liberty and impose a policy that would break the rules of justice.
There may be good policy in retaliations of this kind, when there is a probability that they will procure the repeal of the high duties or prohibitions complained of. The recovery of a great foreign market will generally more than compensate the transitory inconveniency of paying dearer during a short time for some sorts of goods. (page 467.39)
To judge whether such retaliations are likely to produce such an effect does not, perhaps, belong so much to the science of a legislator, whose deliberations ought to be governed by general principles which are always the same, as to the skill of that insidious and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician, whose councils are directed by the momentary fluctuations of affairs. (page 467.39)
When there is no probability that any such repeal can be procured, it seems a bad method of compensating the injury done to certain classes of our people to do another injury ourselves, not only to those classes, but to almost all the other classes of them. This may no doubt give encouragement to some particular class of workmen among ourselves, and by excluding some of their rivals, may enable them to raise their price in the home-market. Those workmen, however, who suffered by our neighbours prohibition will not be benefited by ours. On the contrary, they and almost all the other classes of our citizens will thereby be obliged to pay dearer than before for certain goods. Every such law, therefore, imposes a real tax upon the whole country, not in favour of that particular class of workmen who were injured by our neighbours prohibition, but of some other class. (page 467.39)
* Jon Murphy is currently an economics PhD student at George Mason University specializing in Law & Economics and Smithian Political Economy. He has previously worked as an economic consultant in New Hampshire. Mr. Murphy’s interests include environmental issues, international trade, political economy, and sports economics. He blogs at www.jonmmurphy.com.
" Are there aspects of human life where a presumption of liberty would be undesirable?"
I cannot think of one. It is a "presumption," which means the person asking that liberty be infringed must make a convincing argument as to why that presumption should be overcome. I think that threshold to overcome the presumption should be quite high.
Agreed that the threshold for overcoming the presumption of liberty should be high (and Smith would agree as well).
But are there, possibly, some aspects of life where a presumption of liberty would be undesirable? What if there's an actual national emergency (ie, invasion by a foreign power)?
I do not believe that the presumption of liberty is undesirable in any situation. In case of an actual national emergency (i.e., invasion by a foreign power), the presumption of liberty may be overcome by how dire the national emergency is. That is why the founders noted that war was the greatest danger to liberty. And, it is why so many politicians claim that every issue is a national emergency (i.e., "climate change is our World War II"). They want to overcome that presumption of liberty to by creating fake national emergencies to impose their will on others.
Very good point, Greg. Smith seemed to share your concern ("They want to overcome that presumption of liberty to by creating fake national emergencies to impose their will on others"), and thus the strong presumption of liberty
Jon, thanks for pointing out that Adam Smith addressed that issue of fake national emergencies. To think back, I probably got the idea from Smith when I read "The Wealth of Nations" and "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" when I was studying at the university. Good to remember that. It is amazing how much of what I read in college has become such a part of me that I now think those ideas are my own.