Great Antidote Deep Dive: Daniel Klein on Adam Smith's Justice

beneficence adam smith commutative justice distributive justice social justice public policy estimative justice

Juliette Sellgren and Daniel Klein

Adam Smith (and guest Daniel Klein) help Great Antidote host Juliette Sellgren think through her obligations to her friends, neighbors, people distant from her, and lawn chairs. 
In this episode of The Great Antidote, guest Daniel B. Klein and host Juliette Sellgren discuss Adam Smith’s ideas of justice (commutative, distributive, and estimative), how that relates to modern conceptions of social justice, and what should individuals do differently in their lives if they take Smith ideas about justice seriously? Questions they discuss include: 

  • What is Smith’s conception of justice? 
  • How is Smith’s understanding of commutative justice like the rules of grammar? 
  • Is Smith’s conception of justice too thin? 
  • Does enforcing beneficence change the nature of the act (perhaps making it no longer beneficence?)
  • What does Smith say that people need government for?

Klein is a professor of economics at George Mason University, the chief editor of Econ Journal Watch, the co-leader of the Adam Smith Program at GMU, and an expert on Adam Smith.

Sellgren begins with her classic opening about what one thing people in her generation should know that they don’t. Klein’s answer is very Smithian. Klein wants young people to know that the moral and cultural effects of “governmentalizing” social affairs are maybe even worse than the financial and economic impoverishment it can cause (and those are pretty bad).

Klein and Sellgren begin by talking about the tri-layered conception of justice that Smith has in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. The TL; DL version is: 

  1. Commutative - Don’t mess with other people’s stuff (person, property, promises due/contracts). Juliette shouldn’t take her neighbor’s lawn chairs.

  2. Distributive/Beneficence - Use yourself and your own stuff well. Juliette should make a becoming use of herself and resources when buying lawn chairs, taking care of them, and inviting her friends and family over to enjoy them. 

  3. Estimative - Judge things (poems, pictures, public policies) carefully and when cool. Juliette should reflect impartially and speak mildly on the beauty of law chairs and on whether they should be subsidized by the government. 

Klein makes the point that some things like slavery or restrictions on freedom of movement are offensive to commutative justice and deserve Smith’s strong condemnations. Other policies like those regarding the best way to provide schooling are appropriately milder.

Klein is also concerned about a phenomena he sees where people “poach” the strong emotions due to violations of communicative justice and appropriate them for their opinions on things that concern estimative justice which should be treated differently. Treating someone advocating liberalizing kidney markets the same way you would treat someone advocating slavery is inappropriate and unproductive. It shuts down discussion and erodes mutual respect. 

Key Quote: 
“Smith will tell you, “Look, you are not better able to help parts of this world better than you can help your own parts because that’s where you have the most knowledge and control over how things turn out.” It’s also where no one else is better than you at doing it so there’s a lot of moral authorization in Smith to focus on your interests close to you, close to home.” 

Their discussion of social justice begins around 23:50 with Sellgren questioning whether criticisms about Smith having “a thin conception of justice” are accurate. Klein talks about why he disagrees with that but also why he thinks people (wrongly) have that impression and how to give Smith his due. He also reminds us that Smith was not a libertarian anarchist. Smith himself accepted and advocated some violations of commutative justice by using other important notions of justice. He uses examples of taxation and the banning of small denomination notes by banks. 

Klein also stresses that it’s important to remember that definitions of different kinds of justice don’t in themselves tell us what to think about a particular situation. Generally, we shouldn’t violate commutative justice but sometimes it may be estimatively just to do so. The impartial spectator might approve such a violation of commutative justice because it depends on the circumstances. 

Key Quote: 
“Smith’s general view on the good government question is not destinational...He’s not defining what the exact, proper role of government is and what a just society looks like. He’s got more of a sense of practical politics... We’re in a time and place. Our conversations are always situated. Our politics are always situated. And it’s kind of a question of which direction to go in. And he’s generally in favor of the liberal plan - allowing every man to pursue his own interest in his own way”. 

As Sellgren gets close to wrapping up she asks Klein how we should apply Smith’s different types of justice to our own lives? 
  1. Don’t mess with people’s stuff. Keep your promises. Frown on friends that forget that. 
  2. Think about your duties to people you are connected with and how to do them. Not forgetting to take care of yourself as well. 
  3. Evaluate things carefully. Whether to do something about something is also an evaluation. When you get to politics, notice when policies violate commutative justice and your perspective should be more like someone advising a governor than someone talking with your neighbor.

Key Quote: 
“Smith’s whole ethics are very much patterned after benevolent monotheism. The impartial spectator in the highest sense of the term is like God or a lot like god in many important respects.” 

One thing you believe but changed your mind on? 
I later developed a view about religion that I didn’t previously particularly think or feel…I now believe quite strongly that ethics properly done is patterned after benevolent monotheism and I actually think that people who are brought up theistically have in some sense better intuitions about how to do ethics and how to be ethical than people who aren't. 

I also generally think that benevolent monotheism, in particular Christianity, made liberalism possible. This is along the lines of Larry Siedentop’s book. And so generally I’ve become much more of a Christian hugger and generally favorable to religion even though I don’t consider myself theistic, I’d call myself agnostic. That’s something that developed late. Definitely I did not feel earlier and in the last 10 years say especially. 

The guest

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Resources compiled by Christy Lynn