Distributive Justice and Adam Smith (Istanbul Talk) IV (final)

A model for understanding Smith might be provided by Foucault’s discussion of ‘art of government’ and governmentality in the 18th century, not because Foucault was a a great Smith scholar, or that he was correct in every respect in his understanding of 18th century thought, but because his schema is so good at illustrating the general contours of thought. Foucault thinks of a model of ‘nature’ related to an emphasis on government becoming effective through learning to restrain itself. That self-limitation allows the natural growth of commerce and the emergence of natural man.

The 18th century understanding of the ‘savage’ promotes a natural man who can be the individual of political economy and of contractual relations (as in the political contract which Smith did not advocate, and the importance of voluntary contracts between free individuals, which Smith does advocate). There is an idea of ‘natural liberty’ in Smith which is what allows commercial society, and the benefits that commercial society brings to all classes free of too much design and political schemes.

The influence on Smith of the model of ‘nature’ can also be seen in his tendency to see agriculture as more natural and therefore more important to wealth than manufacture, and to understand financial and banking sectors as less important than either, even if necessary. Similar evaluations can be found in his attitude to countryside and city, particularly the capital city of a monarchy where luxury is concentrated. Smith does have a critical attitude to the maldistribution of economic goods through politically centred concentrations of wealth, but it is the weakening of such impositions on the natural development of trade which is important to Smith, not schemes of redistribution.

There is a theory (largely implicit) of distributive justice in Smith but not a justification of redistribution, and it is important to maintain that distinction. There is a Smithian desire to remove distortions of ‘natural’ distributive justice, with the welfare of the poor in mind and conditioned by disdain for the luxuries of the rich, but no desire to re-arrange property and income distribution through state power, and in general no desire for measures which limit the ‘natural’ growth of wealth except at margins which will not have a major impeding effect, as in the proposal for free education for the poorest or direct taxes on the luxury goods of the rich. Other interpretations of Smith tend to make false equivalences between concern for the welfare of the poor, or criticism of measures which harm the poor, and enthusiasm for state re-arrangement of the distribution of income and wealth.

 

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