Adam Smith: Statism and Distributive Injustice in the Wealth of Nations

I’ll be giving a paper at a panel on Adam Smith I convened for the conference Pluralism and Conflict: Distributive Justice Beyond Rawls and Consensus, Fatih University, Istanbul, June 6th-8th 2013. Below is the abstract, which will appear in the conference booklet, as the final paragraph. Preceding paragraphs give the context of debate.

Discussion  of Adam Smith as a political and social thinker tends to be polarised between a minarchist view and a left-liberal/social democratic view. The minarchist view as in the minimal  state position according to which the only public goods the state provides are those of the defence of external frontiers and the maintenance of a criminal justice system to protect individuals against violence, theft and fraud, and in which the state leaves the private economy to distribute income and wealth.. The left-liberal/social democratic view as in the belief that the state can provide public goods of a kind which lead to around half  of national wealth going through state hands, and  the belief that the state should redistribute income and wealth from the richer to the poorer, to reach some predetermined ideal level. That could also be summed up as the difference between the political philosophy of Robert Nozick and that of John Rawls. No one could seriously claim that Smith was a strict minarchist, nevertheless there is a definite tendency for free market libertarians to talk as if Smith did have that view, and remarkably little contribution to the recent growth of interest in Smith as a social, ethical and legal philosopher (Craig Smith is a rare exception,and he is not the most influential Smith scholar around), with many other interests of a cultural, philosophical and scientific kind. Even in the field of institutional economics, the well known book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail, which is a tribute to Smith’s most famous book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in its title and its approach, is centrist in approach rather than libertarian or classical liberal. At a more absurd level we have Ha-Joon Chang in a recent item in The Guardian associating Smith with Karl Marx or Noam Chomsky equally trying to make Smith out to be a very left socialist.

Chomsky and Chang are certainly not stupid, far from it, so more shame on them for talking in a such a misleading way on this issue. Smith like many free market libertarians now, just about everyone who sails under that banner as opposed to the conservative, or sometimes centrist, establishment types, who use market economics since Smith as a defence of the establishment. Smith was not completely an outside with regard to the British establishment (certainly not in the way he would have been if he had been a Chomsky-Chang type leftist, though as they are faculty at very famous universities they are a bit establishment themselves), but he had a very critical view of the way that the state, and the conservative forces allied with it, use it to protect economic privileges. The examples of economic privilege in Smith are very largely to do with state interference in the economy, with anti-competitive behaviour by colluding groups of merchants firmly linked with state power. Smith’s solution is very largely to withdraw state intervention, not expand it. He was not a strict minarchist, advocating for example state involvement in promoting education, though within what he thought should be largely a private education economy (as noted below). The influential economist and social philosopher Amartya Sen interprets this as justification for a ‘public option’ in United States heath care (which despite popular misunderstanding has long been heavily subsidised and regulated by the federal government) within the insurance options provided by ‘Obama Care’, or more properly the Affordable Care Act. Jumping from Smith’s position on education, which is to recommend far less state involvement in education than is now the case in any country, to a growing state role  in health care in the USA is a perverse argument.

There are perhaps some genuine difficulties in understanding how to apply the thought of an 18th century writer to the present day, but it is not a good procedure to insist that someone who preferred less state should be interpreted as demanding more state now. If we look at a very admirable Smith commentator like Samuel Fleischacker (A Third Concept of Liberty: Judgement and Freedom in Kant and Adam SmithOn Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion), we see a tendency to say that Smith must have meant that in the societies of our time which have expanded various areas of state activity enormously since Smith’s time, the state should do more than it is in reducing inequality and other supposed ‘market failures’. Smith was concerned that some forms of inequality flow from manipulation of the political process by the privileged, and had related concerns about balance between geographical  and economic sectors. He was also rather scornful about the luxuries consumed by the rich. However, he never declares economic equality to be an end in itself, and argues for ‘natural liberty’ (liberty as it exists without the state, or maybe through the unplanned growth of institutions) as a basis for the growth of wealth. I can agree with some of the left Smithians that a concept of natural liberty is open to criticism, as if liberty as we know it, and desire it, could exist without any element of state design and sovereign political institutions. However, that is still no reason to say that Smith favoured state designed distributive justice beyond whatever is necessary to support the basics of life (as in the Poor Law of the time which Smith accepted though he did not argue for them), in a civilised society (such as public schemes to promote transport networks, preferably with tolls, as was happening in his time).

There is now a richer and growing ecology of political and social theory between Nozick and Rawls, of which left leaning commentary on Smith is an honourable part. However, for a away of thinking which is as close to Smith as is now possible, it is best to look at what has been labelled variously as Rawlsekiansim, liberaltarianism, Bleeding Heart libertarianism and Arizona libertarianism (various previous posts have explored these, please use search window to find them). That is the growing stream of thought which regards state provided public goods, beyond minarchism, and state action to maintain the living conditions of the poorest, as allowable and desirable, within an overall pattern of economic distribution which comes from the market rather than the state, and where civil society is clearly bigger than the state, and which is suspicious of attempts to always look to the state as the first solution to economic and social problems. Relevant figures here include Jerry Gaus, David Schmidtz, John Tomasi, and  Jacob Levy.

In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith has much to say about distributive injustice. This has two aspects: injustice towards the poor and injustice between sectors of society. In both cases, the cause is largely the activity of the state rather than the results of markets being left free of state legislation and public schemes. Smith sees injustice as resulting from collaboration between merchants in the same sector, but sees this as more the consequence of state intervention than of free commerce. The state enabling, encouraging and even requiring enterprises to form  corporate bodies in the same sector is the biggest reason for merchants conspiring against the public. The great injustices that Smith mentions to the poor come from the way the Poor Law tends to tie those under suspicion that they might apply for public funds to the Parish of birth only, and the way that requirements for seven years of apprenticeship, before practising a craft, limits the chances to the poor to improve their economic situation. Another source of injustice to the poor is the application of taxes on the necessities of life. Smith’s favours taxing luxuries rather than necessities, but he nowhere calls for progressive (graduated) taxes, and only a tortuous interpretation of his work can support such an idea. Public debt results in a distributive injustice for Smith, which rests on the assumption that ‘natural liberty’ is a better basis for political economy than state interventions. Public debt leads to a forced transfer of income from the productive sectors of the economy to creditors, that is the financial sector of the economy. The solution that Smith advocates is reducing debt, which includes reducing public expenditure, particularly on war. There is a welfare, or ethical, aspect to Smith’s political economy which includes a bias towards the interests of the poor, and against wealth that arises from the less productive parts of the economy. However, these aspects of his thought do not lead him to state designed schemes for distributive justice. Rather he demands an end to those state activities which harm the poor, and the most productive parts of the economy. The assumption is that state action is to very limited, and beyond education, which Smith still  believes should be largely private, he does not suggest expanded state activity.

Political Theory and the Law-Legislation Distinction

Law has a dual nature in that is stands above politics and is established through politics. The hope that law can constitute, stand above, and limit political power, is long enduring. That hope begins with a view of law as something divine and in a linked sense deeply rooted in natural order. The sense that political sovereignty should be constrained by such law is expressed in Ancient Greek tragedy, most famously in Antigone. What we also see in Antigone is the role of political will in the constraining of the kind of sovereignty abused by Creon. The play shows Creon first resisting and then conceding the need to listen to other voices in the city, in practice as well as according to the kind of declarations he makes early in the play. Creon acts arbitrarily from the power that political sovereignty gives him, and is restrained by a process which mixes violent human reactions and the likelihood of punishment from the divine. The evolution of Creon towards good king who rules in line with advice, and with the wishes of his people, is itself a process of political reform which leaves the possibility that any politically sovereign individual, or any citizen assembly, might act outside the law given by nature, and by the gods. Ancient ideas of politea and  res publica in political theory, and the constitutional state experiments of antiquity.

The problem remains and adopts new forms with the rise of modern law making elected assemblies, which legislate at a rate and with regard to detail, beyond anything that happened in  antiquity. Eighteenth century thinkers about politics and law, like Rousseau and Montesquieu assumed that law should be simple, limited in amount, and largely unchanging. Hume and Smith thought of law evolving gradually over history in line with changing moral sentiments and social realities. In practice the societies most obviously influenced by such thought expanded the amount of legislative innovation, and took it into unforeseen levels of detail and complexity. This process can be seen as part of the tension between the law as it has existed with a community over time in line with shared customs, and law as innovation imposed on society by majorities in representative bodies which did not reflect any popular will. Some awareness of this can be seen in the Enlightenment, and carries on in to the nineteenth century, when both Marx and Nietzsche noted a struggle between new statue laws and old customs.

The rise of legal positivism, which places the authority for laws firmly in the hands of the political body with makes new laws, is part of that process. John Austin could not have written what he did earlier, drawing as he did on a pre-history of interest in sovereignty which includes early modern republicanism in Machiavelli and Harrington, and contractual theory from Grotius, and theories of civil society in the Scottish Enlightenment. Positivism is not just the expression of  belief that law originates with the political sovereign, but of the breakdown of any belief in the super historical permanence of law, and its origin in a world transcending this one.

Natural law theory of a kind can be found in the growth of normative theory since Rawls. This gives a place to the political process as that which finds the most rational and just set of laws. However, this is political process modelled on an ideal situation in which individuals are able to make purely rational choices about the best principles of liberty and justice. There is still a wish to find the super historical historical and the transcending level of existence at the origins of law. Positivism has developed in the direction of a Realist account of law as what the community has agreed is the law, which also rests on a rationalisation that undermines any idea of political contestation.

What jurisprudence is often concerned with is how law is interpreted rather than how it is made, which explains the emphasis to some degree on interpretative questions that are not obviously connected with the sphere of politics. This very necessary in a pragmatic way, but then it tends to provide the basis of a kind of political theory which reduces to moral principles and rational procedures, that is a depoliticised political theory. This is the problem in Rawls, and though he attempted to account for the less ahistorical and less rational-moral part of politics, in Political Liberalism and The Law of Peoples, he uses the terms ‘public reason’ and ‘ideal theory,’ which bring back the abstractness of A Theory of Justice. 

The law-legislation distinction in Hayek and Schmitt is another version of that drive to find a place of evaluation outside mere politics for political and legal theory. It goes against Schmitt’s vivid sense of politics as existential struggle;  and Hayek’s criticisms of the idea of any kind of unified summary of all the knowledge dispersed amongst social actors. Both have difficulty with the idea that law and political institutions in their foundations are conditioned by the kind of conflicts, uncertainties, as well as tensions between general principles and specific acts. Their law-legislation distinction is valuable but inadequate for understanding the bases of law and of political forms; and the duality of law between absolute principle and changeable rule.

O Fortuna: Foucault, Rawls, Habermas, Nussbaum

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

In Security, Territory, Population, Michel Foucault is concerned, amongst other things, with the way that the early modern state tries to master fortune and chance. I’m not sure if Foucault quotes Machiavelli’s rather notorious suggestion in The Prince that fortune is a woman who needs to be beaten, but he brings The Prince (but unfortunately not The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy) into his discussion on the early modern state, and the issue of the state controlling chance is a persistent one. As Foucault suggests in Lecture II, there is a tendency from the Renaissance to Napoleonic times, to think of nature and history containing uncontrollable fortune of a rather personified, something that could be traced back to earlier ideas of a wheel of fortune. and the work of the fates.

Yesterday I posted on Foucault and the Physiocrats, which really approaches the issue of new attitude to fortune, fate and chance, in which allowing the market to work ends the repetition of famines which had seemed like the results of harsh fortune. Chance of one kind is limited by allowing chance of another kind.

A contrast can be made with John Rawls’ concern with minimising chance in A Theory of Justice. Chance is limited in these ways, and possibly more: the initial situation and veil of ignorance attempt to eliminate chance from the rational design of principles of justice; theoretical equilibrium between intuitions and reasoning aims to ensure that the optimal principles will be revealed; the attitude to inequality is that it should be compensated and eliminated where it is the result of chance, which must be an unfair outcome.

I would not want to reject all that Rawls says, but this urge to minimise and eliminate chance is unsatisfactory for various reasons, including the way it must allow extremes of state intervention in the emergent outcomes of market, and other voluntary, networks of actions and decisions. There could be a strong case for wanting to modify some outcomes, some kind of state supported social minimum is something I would support, but Rawls’ approach inevitably leads to a gigantic and ramifying apparatus of intervention and rectification from above.

It is is important that Jürgen Habermas, though more Marxist than Rawls in his formation, shows concern with this possibility, though not while discussing Rawls. I don’t see that Habermas has a solution, but at least he recognises the problem.

Martha Nussbaum’s case is interesting here. She pushes further than Rawls in an interventionist rectifying direction than Rawls, or further than Rawls mentions in A Theory of Justice where Rawls is trying to accommodate neutral comparison between many designs for justice. In that respect, Rawls does allow chance in, through accepting many possible outcomes of the initial position.

However, in Nussbaum’s ethics, certainly as presented in The Fragility of Goodness, she is very concerned with arguing that strong rational control of chance is not the best option for ethics as it lacks sensitivity to chance and the passions. Something argued largely against Plato, or some moments in Plato, with reference to Aristotle, tragedy, poetry and some moments in Plato.

As far as I can see Nussbaum has failed to apply the lessons of her ethics to her political theory. I think she would probably reply that the complex kind of welfarist interventionism she favours is necessary to respond to the complexity of different kinds of human, and human situation, and she would want to add the complexity of allowing for animal rights as well.

I claim that Nussbaum has overlooked the dangers of too much control of chance in the socio-political sphere. It would be a good idea to reflect on what she has written with regard to her ethics, and with regard to Habermas and Foucault.

O Fortuna. Not in the rigid sense of fortune as an agent, but in the sense of pure chance and indeterminacy in the natural and social universes.

Mill on Equality and Distribution: Political Economy

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

On 7th August I posted ‘Rawls in Relation to Mill, Nietzsche and Sophists’. There, amongst other things I suggested that Rawls engaged in a rather tortuous attempt to turn Mill into an an egalitarian liberal (in the Rawlsian sense which implies restraints on the permissible level of inequality in a society). I am certainly not withdrawing that view, but I have a qualification. Rawls went down the wrong road in thinking that it’s Mill’s ethical theory in Utilitarianism which supports egalitarian liberalism. Rawls jumps from there being a utilitarian concern with the welfare of society as a whole to the idea that this requires egalitarian liberalism.

Rawls would have been better off invoking Principles of Political Economy, and maybe it was in the back of his mind. The Principles suggests that a socialist, or even communist, economical and social system might be possible at some time in the future. Mill argues that distribution of income is a distinct issue from the existence of markets. Income distribution is decided by public institutions rather than the market. This itself rests on separating the discussion of wages from the discussion of costs and prices, and placing the discussion of wages before the discussion of prices. Wages are treated as if they are not a normal cost, and can be changed at will on a political basis. Mill ads detail, suggesting that communism might undermine economic incentives, but that markets as currently organised also deprive the low paid worker of incentives. Mill seems to be arguing for the future possibility of socialism, and in a very hypothetical way, but it certainly undermines any view of Mill as a completely seamless limited state free marketeer, even if most of what he says does lean in that direction. Since Mill thinks that production and prices to the consumers are determined by markets, he is certainly not a seamless socialist or communist. This aspect of Mill does open the way to market socialism, welfare or egalitarian liberalism, social democracy and any other system which might try to combine markets with major state led reallocation of resources.

This seems at odds with what Mill generally says about the role of markets in economics in that book, and is certainly at odds with On Liberty which is not separated from it by a major chronological gap. Principles is not as widely read than On Liberty or Utilitarianism, but the ‘socialist’ aspect of it seems to have influenced a lot of people’s understanding of the two more famous texts, and certainly what Mill says in Principles does justify a search for egalitarianism in the other texts, i just don’t think such a search can succeed. The reason for the influence of the more egalitarian reading may be that the Principles was a major economics text book for some decades. So during that time it must have been at least as widely read as On Liberty and Utilitarianism, and probably influenced the interpretative tradition as it was being formed. Some guess work here, but it looks very likely to me that something like that happened.

How Locke uses Money to Solve the Land Problem

In chapter 5 of his Essay on Civil Government, ‘Of Property’ Locke famously refers to property as emerging from the land mingled with labour. Presumably he would have been rather startled to find that one line of interpretation of that remark leads to Marx’s labour theory of value. What he says about property is certainly very influential. In one aspect, it is an early sketch for political economy, some of what he says anticipates Adam Smith, particularly with regard to currency and trade, and that would be because Smith had read Locke, though he had other sources for those ideas as well.

A major issue is the way land is turned into property, beyond that moment of labouring on the land. At first Locke seems to be relying on the idea that land is infinitely available, and there’s no need to worry about someone having a lot because there’s always more land somewhere. In the end, that somewhere is America, Locke being sadly careless about the rights of existing inhabitants, but he was far from the only one. America made a deep impression on Locke, he did remember Native Americans when claiming that their political structures confirmed his idea of a compact (i.e. contract) at the foundation of political society. The emptiness comes back when he refers to the right to withdraw from a political society and to go elsewhere to help form a new political society with better rules, he is certainly thinking of the New World as the place for that.

Land clearly has some limits. How have those who claim to be heirs of Locke reacted to that in recent years? The most famous ‘libertarian’ would be heir to Locke was Robert Nozick, in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia. As far as Nozick is concerned, land running out is not a problem. The only issues are to do with freedom of contract and markets. Nozick refers to a ‘Lockean proviso’ that taking land should not harm anyone and comes to the conclusion that no harm is done by accumulating land of everyone is still free to buy and sell in an open market, and presuming we are not in some highly unusual situation like a small desert island where one person controls the only fresh water supply. The Lockean proviso is therefore irrelevant outside such peculiar circumstances.

There is a ‘left-libertarian’ response from Michael Sandel in Libertarianism without Inequality, which is that Nozick’s ‘Lockean proviso’ is to weak to capture what is in Locke’s original intuition. This leads Sandel to argue that property should be distributed, and redistributed, so that everyone starts with an equal amount at birth, and that would largely eliminate the need for a complex tax and benefit system administered by a large state apparatus to achieve egalitarian goals. A variation on that is the argument stemming from Henry George for a land value tax, which would be a rent on the collective good of land, and which would pay for basic public goods (things everyone benefits from like freely provided police services). These are attempts to have libertarianism, a minimal state, combined with economic equality.

Strangely both sides of the argument have overlooked the way Locke develops the argument from paragraph 37 onwards in Chapter V. Locke refers to the emergence of money as a way in which everyone can benefit from everyone’s production by having a convenient instrument for swapping the product of my labour with the product of anyone else’s labour. What Locke gets out of this, in relation to the land problem, is that money means that unequal land appropriation is not a problem. So long as the proprietor sells the products of the land, then everyone benefits because the range of things that can be bought has increased and everyone has gained.

What Nozick is essentially doing is appealing to the idea that in Essay on Civil Government, the right to have and increase property is such an over-riding idea that it must override the problem of land running out. There is a more immediate argument to hand which suggests that the land problem is only a problem in a non-money economy. Just the willingness of the proprietor to barter the products of the land is enough for Locke.

That looks like victory for Nozick over Otsuka, though we really should not use exegetical arguments as a substitute for arguments of principle. In these exegetical terms, I think Otsuka does have an advantage overNozick, which is that Nozick underestimates the degree to which there is ‘public good’ in Locke, which is decided by a representative assembly. How far public good can override property rights in Locke is a tricky question from an internal point of view. So let’s introduce an external point of view. Where is Locke coming from politically? Support for the Whigs who where dominant at the time that the Essay on Civil Government was published (1689). Was there a system of the kind proposed by Nozick where the state is purely an agency for enforcing contracts and punishing violence? No, in many ways, and accordingly taxes were much higher than would be acceptable from the perspective of a Nozickian absoluteness about property rights. I would say, we need to interpret Locke as allowing a lot of latitude to ‘public good’, certainly enough to impinge on property rights though not enough to undermine the right to have property and keep it. Locke, and Nozick, are right to believe that in a free trading economy with money everyone benefits from the use landowners make of land.

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!

I said that we should not confuse exegetical arguments with arguments from principle. I will nevertheless say that Locke’s text, with the hermeneutic aid of the political settlement he supported, is against both

restricting the right to acquire property

the notion that property is outside regulation and taxes which benefit the public good.

I presume that from a Lockean perspective that the amount of regulation and taxation should be very modest, and that those proposing such measures need to demonstrate their benefits very clearly. This all seems correct to me, something I would take up in my political perspective, and that this is the right way of taking most taxes in Classical Liberalism, despite what endless numbers of (mostly American) ‘libertarian’ keep claiming about Classical Liberalism leading to almost no state and little idea, or culture, of a public good. I don’t think their readings are worse than Rawls, but I have already addressed that a few times.

Rawls in relation to Mill, Sophists, and Nietzsche

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!

I’ve been looking at ‘Justice as Fairness’ (1958), ‘Distributive Justice’ (1967) and ‘Distributive Justice: Some Addenda’ (1968) in Collected Papers (1999), as a result of thesis supervision work.

I noticed a Nietzsche moment at the beginning of section IV of ‘Justice as Fairness’. He refers to the ‘Sophist’ idea of justice arising from a balance of power between two hostile parties. He refers this to Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic, Book II. Glaucon was Plato’s elder brother and is explaining the Sophist view of power, after the Sophist Thrasymachus storms off in Book I. In some ways this is just setting up a position to knock it down, as Socrates quickly does. We do not have to accept Plato’s apparent dismissal, particularly as I believe Plato is more engaged with Sophist thought than his most brutal remarks would suggest,. I don’t think that’s a terribly new or controversial claim, but it’s a good thing not to forget about that aspect of Plato.

Rawls’ interest here is to take the example of justice arising from an egotistical contest. Rawls wants to pull this into the contractual situation where we agree to obey a common authority independent of our particular interests. But, this seems rather fast and I don’t think Rawls refers to this again in A Theory of Justice (1971), which is where he is heading with those earlier papers. The Sophist moment is a Nietzschean moment, in that Nietzsche somewhere refers to justice only being possible between people with equal power. I’m not going to find that quote right now, but I think I will post on it when I stumble across it. The later omission is not surprising, Glaucon’s attempt to stand in for Thrasymachus just comes too close to a way of thinking Rawls does not want to deal with: a way of thinking in which society is in a permanent state of changeable power relations between individuals, and between individuals and the state. This is a disequilibrium, always changing and does not fit in with Rawls’ rationalism. That would be rather like Foucault, as well as like Nietzsche.

The 1968 essay contains references to J.S. Mill at the ends of sections VI and VII. At the end of VI, Rawls sets up an account of Mill as egalitarian by emphasising the equality between individuals in Utilitarian ethics (ethics which derives rules from calculations of the greatest utility for the greatest number). At the end of VII, the strategy kicks in. Rawls now emphasises that in Utilitarianism, Mill refers to the greater concern individuals have for each other over history, a feeling of unity between persons, in the emergence of a society where everyone’s interests have to be consulted. Rawls now takes the jump into claiming that this is his own ‘difference principle’ (economic inequality is only justified if it maximises he income of the poorest in society compared with any other distribution of inequality).

This is too much too claim. Rawls may think Mill’s Utilitarianism leaves the way open for economic egalitarianism, and suspicions about this have certainly disturbed purist free market liberals like Hayek, and the even more purist Mises. But, Mill’s idea of utilitarianism has ideas of ranking of kinds of utility which would prevent state redistribution of income if it interferes with liberty as ‘free trade’, an important idea for Mill. Mill supports a minimum level for the poorest, but not a reduction of inequality except as a secondary effect of the minimum level. Rawls thinks of inequality as something that has to be justified, Mill thinks of interruption to ‘free trade’ (including free markets in general) as a something that has to be justified and usually there is no adequate justification.

These ideas of individuals becoming more interested in each other are nothing to do with egalitarianism. Mill was an enthusiast for Humboldt’ Limits of State Actions (1792), which has a more extreme position that that of Mill with regard to a minimal state. Humboldt thinks of such a minimal state allowing more free interaction between individuals and growing sympathy, than can be achieved by the machine like associations between people resulting from state intervention. Something similar can be found a bit earlier in Adam Smith and David Hume, who thought human society is moving towards greater unity through increasing moral sympathy, together with the work of free trade. Neither thought that would lead to, or should lead to, state directed redistribution of income beyond what is entailed by relief for the poorest. Rawls brings Kant behind the ‘difference principle’ as well as Mill and some similar reservation apply. He is also trying to do something similar with Hume and Smith.

Rawls account of the ‘difference principle’ is itself quite ambiguous, sometimes the need to let the market economy works seems to be a very strong constraint, sometimes equality for its own sake seems to be the really strong constraint imposing a pattern of income distribution in a designed way, difficult to reconcile with the constant change, feedback and unpredictability of the market.

The instability of power relations and income distribution are both troubling for Rawls. His tendency to try and repress them, he economic side in particular, may explain his tendencies to try to deny the recognition of the unpredictability of interactions between individuals, including economic relations.

Hume, Smith, Rawls, Nietzsche and Heroic Virtues

Primary version of this post is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture, not just link to picture!

Image above is of the Panthéon in France, commemorating republican heroes.

In my last post, I discussed John Rawls on time, but with reference to ethics in David Hume and Adam Smith. One thing we get from David Hume and Adam Smith is an anti-heroic attitude to ethics. They respect the civic virtues suitable for a law governed society of property and cultivation of sensibility. In both his ethics and in his History of England, Hume refers very critically to Oliver Cromwell, the commander of the parliamentary armies in the Civil War between crown and parliament. Cromwell became ‘Lord Protector’ and the effective autocrat of England, Scotland and Ireland. Hume criticises his autocracy, but the criticism is also of the idea of a hero in general and a hero having a political role, and Hume criticises ‘heroic’ virtues like pride which he regards as asocial. Both Hume and Smith associated heroism with earlier peoples lacking in law and culture.

Rawls looks like the heir of Smith and Hume when he criticises Nietszsche in A Theory of Justice, § 50. ‘The Principle of Perfection’. He associates Nietzsche with an extreme and dangerous form of moral perfectionism. Moral perfectionism refers to the wish to follow the highest possible model of excellence in achievement. We might regard it as in contradiction with the spirit of democratic equality, though some democratic theorists now, Like Martha Nussbaum, see it as democratic, and in American history religious and ethical-philosophical (Transcendentalist) perfectionism has been linked with democratic ideas. Rawls chooses to emphasise the anti-democratic aspect and associate it with Nietzsche, who certainly does sometimes say that a society is justified by its greatest members.

Even taking perfectionism in an elitist way, as drawing attention to the example of the greatest individuals, how anti-democratic should we take that idea to be? The democracy of Ancient élites certainly emphasised heroism as an aristocratic attribute, but maybe that only refers to the aristocratic ‘democracy’ which needs to define the superiority of its members over the masses. Even so, aristocratic heroism in the stories of ancient aristocratic republican heroes like Cicero and Marcus Brutus (the leading writer against Julius Caesar and the leading assassin of Caesar), influenced 18th century democratic movements. Certainly Rousseau, a very egalitarian thinker admired antique heroes as much as believers in aristocratic constitutionalism. It was this kind of thing that Hume reacted against in his criticisms of Cromwell and elsewhere.

As we see above, France now and ever since 1791, has held remains of the official heroes of the nation in the Panthéon. This is a way of recognising an élite and the greatness of its members, exemplars for a democratic and republican people. The name itself refers to a Roman temple for the gods, so the Parisian building could be said to hold the gods of a secular republican nation. This is not something unique to French republicanism which is often contrasted with a supposedly less statist American republicanism. The United States has Mount Rushmore for four great presidents carved into a mountainside, the Lincoln Memorial for the emancipator-martyr Abraham Lincoln. Turning to Germany, on 20th July I put the case for remembering Claus von Stauffenberg as a hero. Returning to French style Republicanism, but in Turkey, Kemal Atatürk’s remains are housed in a mausoleum in the Anıtkabir complex, overlooking Ankara, Back in Britain, Oliver Cromwell is commemorated by an equestrina statue outside the Houses of Parliament, This not an anachronism as lazy commentators sometimes assume, it is recognition of the constructive role that Cromwell played in developing the British state, which did become a parliamentary within a few decades of his death. I discussed the liberal historian Macaulay on 6th July, and he certainly had that view of Cromwell though he was no advocate of Cromwell’s autocracy.

I believe that liberal and democratic thinking needs to deal with many of Nietzsche’s concerns, though we cannot say that Nietzsche is an advocate of liberal democracy, something I will return to in a later post. Whatever we might think about Nietzsche’s relation to liberal democracy, his references to a radical perfectionism are not in themselves against the spirit of democracy. Liberal democrats require exemplars, models, a personification of the ideal, they require heroes, A hero is not someone of the kind of modest virtues generally admired by Smith and Hume, but a society which is liberal and democratic, property owning and cultured, needs heroes. After all Smith and Hume are heroes for some, if people praise ‘modest’ virtues in Smith and Hume, they still praise exceptional greatness in such virtues, and heroic struggle with opposition to their ideas. Hume had himself apotheosised in the mausoleum, which I provide a picture of in my post of 12th July.

John Rawls’ Struggle against Political Time

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with Poussin picture, not just the link!

Image above is Nicholas Poussin’s painting The Dance to the Music of Time (1640)

Rawls picks up on the contractual tradition in political theory. The contractual tradition works on the assumption that the political institutions can be traced back to a beginning point which is also the point of legitimacy. We should be able to trace back a series of links from current institutions to some origin, and if the series breaks down we do not have legitimacy. There are complications we could introduce, but this is not the place, we can reasonably assert that a large part of what Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau said is in line with that.

We get acknowledgements from them that the contract is a hypothetical idealised event, but the idea of legitimation through tracing back to the origin is always preserved, in a double move where the rupture with a pre-existing natural order has to be justified. With Kant, we get an apparently more purely abstract hypothetical approach, but in Kant we also get a David Hume-Adam Smith type explanation of the emergence of improving laws, institutions, morality and economic welfare over history.

Rawls claims to progresses in contract theory, by using a Kantian approach by insisting on a very pure abstactionism. Rawls’ version of the original contract in the original position is presented as a purely abstract hypothetical situation in which all aspects can be justified without regard to the fictional situation of the original position, so the original position has a purely heuristic purposes, as an instrument for intellectual clarification. However, we have a backward step in relation to Hume and Smith, who are often invoked by Rawls.

It is important to note how often Rawls refers to Hume and Smith when we consider that it is very normal to contrast Rawls’ as a modern ‘statist’ or ‘progressivist’ Liberal with ‘Classical’ Liberalism in Smith and Hume. That raises issues of how we should interpret ‘Classical’ Liberalism in relation to ‘Libertarianism’, in Nozick and others, and Egalitarian Liberalism (as Rawls approach is often know). I’m disposed to think both are inadequate, but I will address that on another occasion. What I will point out here is that Rawls does not deal with the historical aspect of Smith and Hume, and the way Kant takes it up.

His references to Smith and Hume are all to an impartial or invisible spectator in their moral theory, that is the observer who brings universality into a theory which has strongly subjective tendencies. For Hume and Smith, morality progresses over time, along with other fundamental of civilised and growing existence.

On the post of July 19th, I addressed the way that time enters into the original position, when Rawls justifies the difference principle (inequality is only justified where it benefits the poorest) with reference to forms of rationality which rely on learning from repeated situations. This is a very abstracted kind of time.

Concrete historical time enables us to learn as a society according to Hume and Smith, which partly explains why they do not refer to contract theory. Rawls takes them out of time, referring their moral theory to his system based on atemproal contract, which leaves no room for developing principles through historical experience.

If we take Hume and Smith in the whole, surely we will need to incorporate some kind of historical time for a long term feed back and learning mechanism in the best rules for society. Maybe there are problems with that, maybe their theory involves a tyranny of the past over the future, but then we would still need a theory incorporating historical time in order to think about how the present liberates itself.

Rawls could say that his theory is a completely heuristic and be used in historical learning process, but why leave out that process? If we leave it out, we are back with Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and the primacy of the original contract which both begins and transcends historical time.