Adam Smith, Rationalized

Recent years have seen a veritable renaissance in Adam Smith scholarship. Most is devoted to revising a previously widespread image of him, especially within libertarian circles, as an advocate of unbridled capitalism and of correspondingly minimal government. Instead, much recent Smith scholarship has sought to portray the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher as having been far more communitarian-minded and favourably disposed towards more than the minimum government provided by the legendary night-watchman state.

The latest Smith scholar to join in this revisionary project is Jack Russell Weinstein, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Dakota and director of its Institute for Philosophy in Public Life. What distinguishes Weinstein’s Smith from that of other recent expositors of his thought is how much of a precursor of latter-day pluralism he portrays Smith to have been. By ‘pluralism’ in this context is meant that concerted societal response to diversity that respects and values its presence without being prepared to sacrifice or compromise social or political unity for its sake, as multiculturalists are all too prone to do.

Weinstein presents the central thesis of his book at the start of it so:

Smith offers a theory of pluralism that prefigures twentieth- and twenty-first century theories of diversity… Smith’s theory can be used to cultivate social and political unity in the face of the cultural, religious, economic, ethnic, gender, and racial differences that have so preoccupied our most recent liberal debates… Smith develops a sophisticated account of otherness that is able to cultivate social unity despite the presence of significant differences.

Weinstein readily admits that Smith himself was neither overly nor even much concerned about the various issues pertaining to diversity that so preoccupy many of us today. He writes:

I am a twenty-first-century philosopher investigating texts written in the eighteenth century. What I find useful about these texts is influenced by my personal, political, and philosophical commitments. I therefore take certain things for granted that Smith might have not. For example . . . I emphasize issues related to gender, race, and class.

Later, he acknowledges:

It would be anachronistic to suggest that Adam Smith offers an explicit theory of pluralism in any contemporary sense. The first published reference to the term as a theory of diversity is found in 1924 in Horace M. Kallen and Stephen J. Whitfield’s Culture and Democracy in the United States, one and a half centuries after his death.

Despite Smith’s lack of concern with, or even awareness of, many issues surrounding diversity that so preoccupy present-day philosophers and political pundits, it is to Smith that Weinstein turns for insight about them because: ‘a particular account of human rationality underpins his moral psychology and political economy . . . complex and context-dependent, allowing for its usefulness not only in economic circumstances but in the full range of human experiences.’

On first acquaintance, Weinstein’s claim that Smith provides an account of rationality can seem paradoxical, given the primacy Smith attaches to sentiments as against reason, as also can Weinstein’s other claim that Smith’s rationality provides the key for thinking about and resolving issues associated with diversity. The technical problems surrounding both claims immediately dispels, however, once one appreciates the somewhat idiosyncratic manner in which, following Amartya Sen, Weinstein construes rationality: namely, as ‘the discipline of subjecting one’s choices – of actions as well as of objectives, values and priorities – to reasoned scrutiny’.

So argued, it immediately becomes clear how and why Smith can be conceived as having offered an account of rationality, as well as how this concept is relevant to issues connected with diversity. The connecting link between rationality and diversity that Weinstein posits is forged through the explanation Smith gives of sympathy and the role he assigns it in the formation of our moral sentiments as well as in our deliberations as moral agents. Weinstein explicates the linkage so:

[M]y argument is not that Smith offers a full-fledged pluralism, only that he anticipates this type of political system in many ways . . . Rationality is, for Smith, a response to . . . pluralism . . . Smith presumes not only that there is more than one mind, but that each has more than one motivation . . . [T]he rational capacity, for Smith, is that which allows an individual to act on multiple motivations at once . . . .

Smith identifies . . . compromise between an individual’s self-regarding tendencies and concern for others as a natural disposition . . . Sympathy is the capacity designed to negotiate these two [types of] desires, and . . . how well we reconcile them is based, in part, one our capacity to interpret . . . relevant information.

The natural human propensity to sympathise with the predicament and feelings of others, including with the imaginary spectator who inhabits the human breast, otherwise known as conscience, whom we imagine as scrutinising our own, leads us to survey and respond approvingly or disapprovingly to our own inclinations and feelings as well as conduct. When combined with appropriate information, sympathy, thus, enables us to integrate our various self-regarding and other-regarding desires into coherent wholes of which we can approve. It, thus, turns out that the propensity to engage in sympathy, as Smith conceives of it, forms a vital constituent of human rationality understood in the manner Weinstein does.

We can now see how and why Weinstein is able view Smith as a precursor of present-day pluralism, as we also can see how education fits into Smith’s schema for securing it. Weinstein writes:

[F]or Smith, while socialisation and education cultivate difference, they also help to bridge it because they enable spectators to enter into the experience of others. Imagination is the bridge between people that creates community… thinking for oneself . . . he argues . . . allows an individual to be constituted at least in part by others, even if persons, are at root, fundamentally separate.

The linkages between sympathy, rationality, and education that Weinstein posits and explores constitute ingenious and novel moves in Smithian exegesis. They deserve being taken very seriously by all Smith scholars, as they do by all who share in Smith’s appreciation of the benefits of free markets and all the other freedoms that classical liberals extol, as well as of the several moral hazards that accompany these freedoms, of which Weinstein and many others rightly claim Smith himself was all too acutely aware.

Most importantly, if it turns out that, as Weinstein rightly claims was Smith’s view, free societies depend for their viability on the rationality of their members, and their rationality depends on the preparedness of their societies to ensure that they become such through provision of suitable schooling for all, then those in favour of free societies must also be prepared to countenance, as indeed was Smith, the public provision of schooling to ensure all societal members can and do develop the requisite degree of rationality. As Weinstein carefully explains in what are, perhaps, the most original and valuable chapters of his book:

It is Smith’s argument that education . . . is the security that ensures that students remain virtuous: an inadequate education results in the deprivation of moral capabilities . . . Smith is making the point that a child’s education benefits everyone . . . that education is one of the preconditions for the successful functioning of the invisible hand . . . Thus, Smith argues, the sovereign must . . . subsidise public education to help those who . . . cannot help themselves . . . For him, education provides a benefit to the state for little cost and, therefore, funding of public educational institutions for the young is a well-regarded trade-off.

The sovereign must ensure that all people have access to at least a minimum schooling. Education, is, for Smith, a basic good – a necessity of human life . . . Differing classes are entitled to equal minimal education but not to identical experiences. In this respect Smith’s commitment . . . is like Rawls’ maximin principle: the goal is to raise the bottom rung, not to create an equality of result . . . . Smith’s philosophy of education is both a theory of pluralism and a means to cultivate rationality. It argues that the more one develops rational abilities, the more one can create unity in the face of difference.

To say that Smith favoured public provision of education is not to say that he would have condoned, let alone applauded, the present systems of public provision in western liberal democracies where whole populations are subject to effective monopoly supply without any choice or benefits of competition that only effective consumer sovereignty brings. No one was a fiercer critic of monopolistically supplied education in which providers were insulated from competition than was Smith, having had to endure such a system for many years as a student at Oxford. To safeguard against these dangers, Smith proposed an element of financial contribution by parents as well as of parental choice of school.

Weinstein is by no means the first recent expositor of Smith to have argued for Smith’s economic theorising in the Wealth of Nations to be read through the lens of Smith’s wider moral and social philosophy contained in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. However, few others have connected the dots as well as Weinstein between these two works, and in drawing out the full implications of these connections for liberty. His book is to be commended to all with a serious interest in liberty and in the social and political conditions needed for it to flourish.

David Conway

David Conway is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Westminster-based social policy think-tank Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

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