Adam Smith on Justice and the State

I’m currently doing some work on Adam Smith for a couple of conference papers in the early part of this summer. This includes quick reading (often re-reading) of just about everything by Smith and more considered reading of the most significant passages for my current purpose, which are Smith on distributive justice and Smith on colonies. This post, and maybe another one, pick up on what is in Smith lectures in belles lettres, history of philosophy and science, rhetoric and at greatest length on jurisprudence. That is a rather dis0rganised body, or work, in that it is acquainting students with a series of key points, rather than presenting exposition of theories,  and it is correspondingly difficult to say anything very organised about it. The books Smith published, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, provide their own focus.

Without any attempts at referencing I will go through some thoughts that come out those lecture materials.

On Colonialism.

Smith refer to the greatness of Ancient Greek culture, emerging initially in the colonies rather than the homeland. He is particularly aware of the Greek philosophers from Ionia (western Anatolia) and Greater Greece (Sicily and southern Italy). He refers to the greatness of Athenian culture as arising during the conflict with the Persians, and certainly most of what we think is great about Ancient Athens comes from the period after the Greco-Persian wars. It does not seem to me that Smith explains why, but the implication is that conflict creates culture while comfort does not. This would fit in oddly with a Scottish Enlightenment view of history in which the world is divided between fierce poor warrior nations and nations which combine wealth and culture, and there isa cycle in which poor fierce nations conquer wealthy cultured nations, become cultured and wealthy, and then become conquered. The point may be that greatness of culture comes from some kind of confrontation and tension. The Greeks of the colonies of western Anatolia, Sicily and souther Italy, have awareness of neighbouring peoples who even in the most peaceful circumstances speak different languages, worship different gods, have different cultures and who will co-exist with Greeks in some spirit of mutual suspicion. The tension could be complicate and further intensified by coalitions between Greeks and non-Greeks against other Greeks. Cultural greatness requires some level of commercial wealth and luxurious living, but with some great tension so that cultural sophistication reaches levels of greatness. A tension that is difficult to maintain long term since there is either cultural retrogression or stagnation in which culture becomes mediocre, and there is a conquest by a fierce poor nation. The issue of colonialism, or empire, intrudes here since luxurious weakness is associated with colonialism and the wealth that moves from colonies to the centre.

Colonialism interacts with the self-government of Greek city states in ways which restrict the citizen body in those states. Self-government is paid for by slavery and the wealth that comes from colonies, since that wealth is what enables citizens beyond the aristocracy to participate in decision making, because they can have leisure and receive attendance fees from the state. That itself reinforces a spirit of mistrust of new citizens, since they increase the expense of maintaining the political system, they compete for the resources available from slavery and colonialism, and generally make the trust between people who know each other in the Greek style of permanent participatory democracy. Rome provides a different model from Greece, since it incorporates neighbouring territories into the states, and settles surplus population, particularly military veterans, in those territories. That creates a model of colonialism where colonies are integrated with the originating state rather than the very loose bonds which existed between Greek colonies scattered over the Mediterranean and Black sea, and states back in Greece itself. The Roman model allowed new citizens, particularly in the city of Rome, since poverty was resolved through more direct relations with colonies and there was less emphasis on direct democracy. As Smith notes, the Romans tended to delegate democratic powers to the Senate and then to the Emperor.

Distributive Justice

Colonialism is an issue deeply lined with distributive justice then. The two kinds of colonialism include different kinds of distributive justice to maintain the state, and prevent it breaking up between factions based on wealth and poverty. Rome does this better than Ancient Greece, at least in the sense of maintaining the state and making it more powerful in relation to other states. The large amount of slavery in Italy however creates the basis for servile revolution and tends to reduce citizens to debt related slavery. That is, the large amount of slavery undercuts demand for free labour, leading peasant and urban labourers into great debts with the aristocracy, leaving the increasing possibility of enslavement as compensation to creditors.

Smith’s view of distributive justice early on in Lectures on Jurisprudence, where he invokes Aristotle and Grotius to discuss the distinction between commutative justice and distributive justice. Commutative justice refers to what cannot be taken from us or attacked, because it rightly belongs to us, or is part of us. It is a very strong form of justice relative to distributive justice. Commutative justice is enforced through the state legal system, distributive justice is a matter or morally preferably outcomes in which we prefer to see wealth going to those in need rather than those who already have many luxuries. Smith never directly says that all distributive  justice should become a voluntary matter never enforced by the state, though that might seem to follow. He also refers, as we have seen, to the relation between politics and issues of ideals of distribution, the inevitability of the ways that the state tries to maintain itself though distributive strategies. Smith may think that distributive justice is in a middle position between the institutions of criminal justice which enforce commutative justice (strictly speaking) and the purely individual voluntary nature of charitable giving. Distributive justice is something pursued by the state for the sake of social peace, and the maintaining of itself, as a precondition for social existence, but not a matter of absolute justice.


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