Great Antidote Extras: Mark Calabria on Shelter from the Storm

regulation civil government man of public virtue

Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

Should people who care deeply about increasing freedom work for the government? Let's hear from the affirmative. 
Mark Calabria visits The Great Antidote to give his answer to the evergreen question: Should people who care deeply about increasing freedom work for the government? Calabria is on the side of the affirmative and his new book, Shelter from the Storm (Cato Institute, 2023), is about his work as the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.  

Calabria and Sellgren spend time talking about the Federal Housing Finance Agency, what it is and does and the challenges Calabria faced as a limited government advocate within a government position. And there were many. During the early months of Covid-19's spread in the U.S. in 2020, concern for homeowners and renters led many to call for bailouts similar to the financial crises of 2008. Calabria talks about how he and others who were wary of industry bailouts and subsidies acted and reacted throughout the crises. 

This conversation reminded me of one of my first surprises about Adam Smith. I knew of Adam Smith’s economic work long before knowing anything about his life. My biggest surprise was the revelation about how influential David Hume was and their deep friendship. But my second big surprise was learning about Smith’s careers over his life. (The third biggest surprise was that he had been kidnapped by nomadic Roma people, sometimes called gypsies, as a child but you’ll have to read about that elsewhere). There’s a brief biography of Smith by Jame Otteson at AdamSmithWorks here but the part I want to call your attention to is near the end of his life: Smith becomes the Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh.

If you only know a caricature of Smith this might seem shocking. But Smith has demonstrated how important it is to him over and over that governments be peaceful, just, and keep taxes low. Is it really so surprising that he would take a role that would allow him to attempt that in a direct way? Add to that, the position was well compensated and allowed him to move closer to home and more easily take care of his mother.  

In E.G. West’s biography of Smith, Adam Smith: The Man and His Works, the penultimate chapter, “The Commissioner of Customs,” talks about Smith being offered and accepting the post of Commissioner of Customs in Scotland. In this role, Smith would have considered appeals from merchants, examined petitions from importers, investigated illicit trading and more (West, 221-222). He surely had moments where his personal convictions rubbed against his duties but his strong pre-existing convictions also influenced his work likely for the better. West talks about how Smith worked to make customs duties and tariffs less high and less arbitrary and also how he advocated for expanding trade with Ireland. Clearly, he took principled stands. Is it too much of a stretch to think that those positions would have been far less likely from others?  

Listening to the podcast and learning more about Smith's later life could leave one with more questions than answers. 

  1. It’s possible that some people have the privilege of a job where they are never asked to do anything that walks them towards the lines they have drawn for their personal morality. But for all the rest of us, how should we think about the trade-off between the possible good we could do and the harm of acting in a way that is in conflict with other deep commitments or desires? 

  2. Smith warns his readers against self-delusion and against poorly trained impartial spectators. Are the dangers equal between working in the public and private sector or is one more dangerous for an individual and/or for others?

  3. How responsible is someone for the actions that they may not have agreed with but make easier or attractive? For example, Smith advocated for taxes on manservants, malt, property sold at auctions, and the inhabited-house duty as a better means of raising revenue than other taxes. But in wartime, those taxes were used to increase overall revenue (West, 219). Presumably, it was Smith’s highlighting of those opportunities that brought them to the attention of officials. Is Smith, in some way, responsible for the creation or increase in those taxes? 

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