Adam Smith and the Tyranny of the Self

self-command classical liberalism human flourishing

October 18, 2022

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"Liberals, as believers in individual rights, should oppose all institutions and constructs that inhibit the flourishing of the individuals. What, then, of the tyranny of the self?"
The liberal tradition has opposed all manner of tyrannies since John Locke. This includes hereditary privilege, corporate collusion, the institution of slavery, patriarchies that deprive women of the right to property and political rights, and all manner of centralized economic planning – left or right – that ignores individual action. Liberals, as believers in individual rights, should oppose all institutions and constructs that inhibit the flourishing of the individuals. 

What, then, of the tyranny of the self? To what extent are human beings as individuals hindered by their own choices and tendencies? It may appear paradoxical, as individual choice is the foundation of liberal thought and has been celebrated ever since Adam Smith declared that human beings, through individual action and an “invisible hand,” regularly do contribute to the public interest without the need for guidance. 

Smith also wrote, however, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments about the virtues of “self-command” and how these are the virtues that mark the difference between an adult and a child: 
A very young child has no self-command. ... its anger is the first and, perhaps, the only passion which it is taught to moderate. By noise and threatening they are, for their own ease, often obliged to frighten it into good temper; and the passion which incites it to attack, is restrained by that which teaches it to attend to its own safety. When old enough to go to school, or to mix with its equals, it soon finds that they have no such indulgent partiality. ... Regard even to its own safety teaches it to [gain their favor, and to avoid their hatred or contempt]; and it soon finds that it can do so in no other way than by moderating, not only its anger, but all its other passions, to the degree which its playfellows and companions are likely to be pleased with. It thus enters into the great school of self-command, it studies to be more and more master of itself, and begins to exercise over its own feelings a discipline which the practice of the longest life is very seldom sufficient to bring to complete perfection. 
The idea that self-interest is ultimately beneficial and that self-command is a virtue were not only once seen as being at odds, they sparked discussions of the “Adam Smith problem,” in which philosophers (particularly of 19th century German schools) who claimed that Smith’s view of human nature, as expressed in Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations were contradictory. However, this wrestling with the ideas found in two different books written two decades apart has, itself, been wrestled with and since shown to be far less profound than it might have once appeared. In the words of Maria Pia Paganelli: 

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, self-interest is a force at the foundation of the self-regarding virtues, that is to say, that the virtue of prudence is based at least in part on self-interested considerations.

She goes on to note that, far from being an ode to pure self-interest, The Wealth of Nations has as much more to say about its dangerous excesses:
In the days after its publication, part of its fame stemmed from its attacks against self-interest rather than from arguments in favor of it. Smith criticizes the rapacity of merchants and manufactures and, to a minor extent, the abuses of self-interested university professors and priests.
The maintenance of a liberal society is, as much as anything, about finding a balance; achieving a state of proper self-rule. To some extent this battle over the self can have no real winner, lest the liberal society either collapse, or cease to be liberal at all. On one extreme, North Korea infamously expected its citizens to spend eight hours per day studying the doctrine of Juche when they were not working (and possibly on their wedding night). Hitler, as Orwell noted in 1940, wanted nothing so much as a country where the Germanic peoples had plenty of “living space,” where “essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder.”

However, among the primary arguments that proponents of the liberal society advance are that, in the absence of external authority, self-interest can still ensure success, and even flourishing, beyond that which a centralized authority ignorant of their individual circumstances may ensure. In that sense, Smith’s two best-known works advance a complementary vision, as a discerning and sufficiently disciplined individual who values her/his reputation will not require a dictator to keep him/her on task.

However, the aggregate decision-making of the populace, encouraged by poor incentives and policies, does not reflect self-rule, the results can be undesirable – and lead to a longing for illiberal policies, even though these rarely benefit the public at large. 

Smith himself describes self-command, the ability to moderate one’s appetites, as a virtue in and of itself: 
In the command of those appetites of the body consists that virtue which is properly called temperance. To restrain them within those bounds, which regard to health and fortune prescribes, is the part of prudence. But to confine them within those limits, which grace, which propriety, which delicacy, and modesty require, is the office of temperance.
Much has been made of our present illiberal moment, how we liberals might restore trust and preserve our liberal institutions. Among the challenges as we make these efforts will be the promotion of healthy self-rule, and self-command, thus reducing the temptation to call for a leader to do it for us. Effectively combatting the tyranny of the self will prevent other tyrannies down the road.

Want to Read More?
Leonidas Montes' essay "The Importance of Self-Command" at AdamSmithWorks
Don Coursey's "Vernon Smith, Economic Experiments, and the Invisible Hand" at Econlib
Caroline Breashears' "The Fairy Godmother and the Invisible Hand: Jane Marcet's Economic Tales" in the Reading Room at the Online Library of Liberty
Brent Orrell's "The Common Ground of Human Dignity" at Law&Liberty