Adam Smith in the Narrow Corridor

system of natural liberty anti-liberalism liberty narrow corridor fate of liberty

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks

Adam Smith understood that freedom is not the natural order of things. Do we?
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2021 AdamSmithWorks newsletter. If you would like to sign up to receive these monthly updates, you can do so here.

James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu know a thing or two about liberty and the state. Authors of Why Nations Fail, the duo returned in 2019 with another book-length investigation of the societal and institutional conditions that meaningful freedom requires. That book is called The Narrow Corridor.

Liberty is what fits within the narrow corridor, and Robinson and Acemoglu understand very well the forces that hem that corridor in. On the one side we find the despotic, authoritarian, and tyrannical state, which by its crushing weight and far-reaching force precludes individual freedom and choice. On the other side we find the ineffectual state or straight-up anarchy, arrangements which approximate the Hobbesian state of nature, a “war of all against all.” In both extremes—living under the excessively strong state and within the effectively non-existent one—individuals lack guarantees about what can and cannot be done to them, which in turn affects calculations of what they will choose to do or not do. The whims of those in power, be it the state or the best-armed bandits in town, will prevail over the protest of defenseless innocents and threaten the safety and prosperity of even the best connected and protected.

The alternative to these extremes is the limited, liberty-supporting state. We could very well call this the Smithian state because Adam Smith understood and articulated the indispensable role that good government plays in guaranteeing justice, enforcing contracts and law, and providing for general welfare services like defense, education, and basic infrastructure. You can find all of that in The Wealth of Nations.

"According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings: first, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society." (WN, pp. 650-651; online here)

In his own day, Smith advocated for a state and for a social system that would remain within the narrow corridor. Today, the heirs of Smith’s project largely continue to do the same. Yet other social and political projects have sprung up since Smith’s lifetime, and not all of these are so concerned about the maintenance of the narrow corridor (or the "system of natural liberty"). Some would deny that a powerful state is necessarily a threat to freedom. Others would question whether freedom is a desirable goal for a society at all.

Where do you come down? Do you accept the conceptual premises of the "narrow corridor" idea, or do you see the extremes of the state as presented here as a false binary? Might the corridor be a little bit wider (or narrower) than Robinson, Acemoglu, and Smith suppose? As ever, the comments section awaits your thoughts.

Related Links:

From the Archives: Adam Smith on Liberty
Smith and Marx: Vision and Analysis