From the Archive: Smith on Liberty

Shanon FitzGerald for AdamSmithWorks
The Amagi, Liberty Fund's logo, is the earliest known symbol for liberty.

In this post, section editor Shanon FitzGerald rounds up some of the top “Speaking of Smith” essays on Adam Smith and the idea of liberty.
What is liberty? Following the recent Liberty Matters discussion, “Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin,” at the Online Library of Liberty, we here at Liberty Fund have been considering the meaning of this important term across our sites. For this post, I’ve selected five pieces from the “Speaking of Smith” archives that in some fashion touch upon the idea of liberty as it is discussed in the works of Adam Smith. 

In one of the very first Speaking of Smith posts, George Mason economics PhD candidate Jon Murphy outlines Adam Smith’s view on liberty and its relationship to the state. Murphy explains that while Smith was no anarchist, he did favor a limited state with a presumption of liberty, even as he also articulated certain conditions under which he was comfortable with the state acting in ways that might limit or impinge upon individual freedom. Jon leaves the reader with some questions, as well, including, “Are there aspects of human life where a presumption of liberty would be undesirable?”

What is deregulation? Usually by this we mean the movement away from government or administrative oversight of a project, company, or industry, and the implied ensuing movement toward competition within a less-rule-filled marketplace. As author DelliSanti explains, however, this way of thinking about deregulation makes it seem as if, once deregulated by the state, firms are free to act as they wish. This is not the case; demands by customers within the competitive context of the marketplace have their own ways of regulating the behavior and outputs of the firm. Once these pressures are understood, one can see how in the final analysis, there is no such thing as complete deregulation. Even under conditions of significant liberty, consumer behavior will continue to regulate the behavior of the firm. 

“The liberty producing institution” probably is not what you expect. Even careful readers of Smith might imagine Neily is referring to the state itself, or to the courts of law in general. But no: Neily is talking about juries, and why that “civic body” is indispensable to the proper administration of justice. As he points out, “The American Bill of Rights devotes more words to this institution than any other subject, yet we have almost completely purged it from our system of government.” Neily stresses that this is a significant factor behind America’s notoriously high rates of incarceration. In the absence of jury trials, plea bargains carry the day, and few defendants (5% or less in his account) actually have the opportunity to make their case before a jury of their peers. Can juries be reformed as an institution to allow more defendants to have their voices heard by a panel of their fellow citizens? Would this advance the cause of liberty?

This piece by economist Steve Horwitz has several Smithian tie-ins. The first is the already-mentioned idea of the presumption of liberty. As Horwitz notes, in the early months of the pandemic, before there were COVID vaccines and as hospitals reacted to credible fears of being overwhelmed, mask wearing (and mask wearing mandates) were justifiable intrusions on individual liberty. Yes the presumption goes in liberty’s favor, but as Horwitz states clearly, the costs of masking (including to liberty) were outweighed the benefits to life and to health. Of course, the situation is different now in the late-pandemic world (at least in the US and a few other places), but the piece remains a thoughtful example of negotiating certain limits to liberty under special circumstances. The other main Smith connection is the idea of mutual appreciation, or sympathy, which of course masks (by blocking our faces) make harder. But as Horwitz predicted, we did adjust to the practice of masking, and I share his view that we should understand that as an example of liberty conceding (temporarily and within lawful limits) to an enlightened sense of personal responsibility. 

Finally, a piece by Yours Truly, author also of this humble collection. (Which hopefully will be the first of a few!) I wrote this piece just before the 2020 US general election, in a social and political climate characterized by strong partisanship and an almost relentless focus on politics across media and institutions. Pressures abounded to take sides and to espouse the “correct” views once sides were assigned or chosen. Of course, much of this remains. I wondered, what would Smith have to say about this picture? The short of it is, he would have found it ugly. Liberty is a psychological state (of being “free to choose”) as much as it is a physical guarantee against coercion; Smith understood that factional dynamics and factional fanatics ran the risk of undermining liberty by making partisans blind to the world as it is. When ideology reigns supreme in one’s mind (or is hegemonic in one's environment), one is only “free” to follow the party line or the group (or mob) consensus. Measured sympathy becomes impossible. What kind of “freedom” is that?

Related Links:

Liberty Matters Forum, Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin [Lead Essay by Daniel B. Klein]
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