Libertarianism, Liberalism

Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent new entry up by Samuel Fleishacker on “Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy.” The whole thing is worth reading, including the extremely helpful summary of Smith’s complicated moral theory as developed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. 

But for most readers of this blog, it is the fifth section on Smith’s political philosophy that will be of primary interest. Fleishacker describes Smith as an advocate of a relatively minimal state, and notes some areas of overlap and contrast with more contemporary libertarian thought:

The practical point of his treatise on economics was to urge this restrained, modest approach to economic intervention on governing officials. Smith did not favor as hands-off an approach as some of his self-proclaimed followers do today—he believed that states could and should re-distribute wealth to some degree, and defend the poor and disadvantaged against those who wield power over them in the private sector (see Fleischacker 2004, § 57)—but he certainly wanted the state to end all policies, common in his mercantilist day, designed to favor industry over agriculture, or some industries over others. Smith believed strongly in the importance of local knowledge to economic decision-making, and consequently thought that business should be left to businesspeople, who understand the particular situations in which they work far better than any government official (on this Hayek understood Smith well: see Hayek 1978 and C. Smith 2013). By the same token, governance should be kept out of the hands of businesspeople, since they are likely to use it to promote their particular interests, and not be concerned for the well-being of the citizenry as a whole: Smith’s opposition to the East India Company is based on this principle (see Muthu 2008).

Of course, the fact that Smith advocated some redistribution and defense of the poor and disadvantaged doesn’t distinguish Smith from those who are probably best thought of as his followers. Both Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman advocated similar policies. And while Nozick and Rothbard didn’t, I don’t consider either of these figures to be best thought of as working in the Smithian tradition of moral and political philosophy. Especially Rothbard.

Smith’s political thought does, however, have a lot in common with the kind of libertarianism endorsed by most of us here at BHL. Consider, for instance, Fleishacker’s summary of the way in which Smith’s view of the poor constituted a major shift in political thought:

Until the late eighteenth century, most writers on the role of government vis-à-vis the poor maintained that governments should keep the poor in poverty, so that they show proper respect to their superiors and not waste money on drink. Smith had more influence than anyone else in changing this attitude—he was one of the earliest and most fervent champions of the rights and virtues of the poor, arguing against wage caps and other constraints that kept the poor from rising socially and economically

So, given that Smith was such a champion of the poor, why did he favor a limited government? Why not have the government do more to help the poor? Fleishacker’s essay contains a lengthy discussion of Smith’s answer to this question, and again, the whole thing is worth reading. But, in sum:

The first answer to that is that Smith did not think government officials were competent to handle much beside the needs of defense and the administration of justice…..In addition, Smith holds that social sanctions can do a better job at many tasks that other thinkers expected of political sanctions….Finally, Smith limits the activities of governments because he considers it crucial to the development of virtue that people have plenty of room to act, and shape their feelings, on their own…Indeed, for Smith, governments can best encourage virtue precisely by refraining from encouraging virtue.

Fleishacker doesn’t make use of the distinction between libertarianism and classical liberalism, instead concluding his section on Smith’s political philosophy by simply noting that Smith doesn’t look much like a contemporary libertarian. And if you identify libertarianism with the strict natural-rights view of Nozick and Rothbard, than I suppose that’s correct. But I think it’s useful to talk about libertarianism in a broader sense, one which encompasses not just the minimal statism of Nozick and Rand but also the somewhat more expansive views of Hayek and Friedman (Milton), and also the less expansive views of Rothbard and Friedman (David). If one classifies thinkers according to their political outputs, rather than their underlying moral inputs, then it makes good sense to classify all all of these people as libertarians. Their commitment to the combination of spontaneous order, strong property rights, individualism, and skepticism of power sets them enough apart from the rest of the political landscape, and gives them enough in common, to justify a common label, at least for some purposes.

When we’re gatherer together amongst ourselves at our own conventions, then we can focus on our differences and split ourselves into progressively smaller ideological sub-factions. But for purposes of the broader political conversation, we are all of us, Adam Smith included, libertarians.

  • My God, Rothbard sucks.

    • Sean II

      Is that your personal version of Carthago delenda est?

    • Rothbard’s early economics work was one of the things that brought me to libertarianism. But he got weirder, more extreme, and more misanthropic as he got older.


      Also, see, Rockwell, Lew.

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  • ThaomasH

    I think it is useful to keep in mind the distinction between political philosophy and political positions.
    Two people who might agree philosophically on minimal redistribution and
    that the EITC is a permissible way to achieve that end might nevertheless disagree
    on what to do if for some reason the EITC option is not politically possible at
    a given moment. One might decide that nothing should be done and the other that a recognizably flawed minimum wage is preferable.

  • Fallon

    Snippet of Rothbard on Smith. Not altogether wrong, if overly harsh?:

    “On the other hand, Marxists, with somewhat more justice, hail Smith
    as the ultimate inspiration of their own Founding Father, Karl
    Marx. Indeed, if the average person were asked to name two economists
    in history whom he has heard of, Smith and Marx would probably
    be the runaway winners of the poll.

    As we have already seen, Smith was scarcely the founder of economic
    science, a science which existed since the medieval scholastics
    and, in its modern form, since Richard Cantillon. But what the
    German economists used to call, in a narrower connection, ‘Das
    AdamSmithProblem’, is much more severe than that. For the problem
    is not simply that Smith was not the founder of economics.

    The problem is that he originated nothing that was true, and that
    whatever he originated was wrong; that, even in an age that had
    fewer citations or footnotes than our own, Adam Smith was a shameless
    plagiarist, acknowledging little or nothing and stealing large
    chunks, for example, from Cantillon. Far worse was Smith’s complete
    failure to cite or acknowledge his beloved mentor Francis Hutcheson,
    from whom he derived most of his ideas as well as the organization
    of his economic and moral philosophy lectures. Smith indeed wrote
    in a private letter to the University of Glasgow of the ‘never-to-be-forgotten
    Dr. Hutcheson,’ but apparently amnesia conveniently struck Adam
    Smith when it came time to writing the Wealth of Nations
    for the general public.”

    • Sean II

      Funny because this: “The problem is that he originated nothing that was true, and that whatever he originated was wrong” is what a few people around here would say about Rothbard himself.

      I mean, if a fella were to write: “everything I like about Rothbard turns out to be something I like about Mises”, he would probably gather up-votes faster than specie accumulates in the treasure chest of a mercantilist king.

      As for me, I still think that if a libertarian blog can find within its bleeding heart to valorize Rawls and eulogize Ronald Dworkin, surely it could also manage to refrain from mutilating Rothbard’s corpse.

      Doesn’t Matt’s closing appeal – “we are all of us, Adam Smith included, libertarians” – work just as well with Rothbard’s name filling in the blank?

      Last I checked, we only have two libertarians with neckties made in their image (my custom-designed Roderick Long profile on Tardis blue silk is still on freakin’ backorder, and frankly I’m starting to get suspicious).

      • Fallon

        Too problematic in making libertarianism synonymous with classic liberalism. There is overlap, of course. It is hard enough to keep the libertarian descriptor within a useful two-fold context as it is, puristic and juxtaposed. Pure libertarianism is merely an ideal. But you with your Prof Long in a crowd of Koch ties makes you the libertarian juxtaposed. A Koch tie wearing individual would be a libertarian amongst the Stalin prints. Under a synonymous definition angled by BHL the case for Marx and Bismarck seem reasonable. Taxonomy matters.

        I am all for mutilation. Rothbard, Mises, BHLs, the cops, President of the United State…. Have at it! Not like Rothbard pulled any punches.

      • matt b

        I think Jason got it right with his pointed and pithy “My God, Rothbard sucks.” Let us not forget that Rothbard was an apologist for, not only Joseph McCarthy, but also Strom Thurmond and the Soviet Union. He thought that if someone brutally assaulted someone else and the victim did not press charges that the person who brutually assaulted them should be free to go. I wonder if that brillaint piece of insight was sponsored by Wife Beaters USA or perhaps Thugs International. More importantly, Rothbard was just a really, really bad philosopher, invariably producing spectacularly unconvincing arguments. Reading Michael Huemer’s recent “The Problem of Political Authority” should gladden the heart of any anarchist since it demonstrates how much progress has been made intellectually in making the case for anarchy from the days of Rothbard. Indeed, I would not be surprised if Huemer shared this view of Rothbard, viewing his arguments as being as pathetically weak as those of Rand who he memorably demolished in his “Why I am not an Objectivist” essay.

        • Sean II

          See above. Unless you happen to be playing Trivial Pursuit: Folk Devils, there is no important question that can be answered by invoking the names of Joseph McCarthy or Strom Thurmond. And I hope you’ll forgive me if I treat with suspicion any comment that begins by playing such trumps.

          Pythagoras was also a bad philosopher when all the chips are counted, but that did not stop Aristotle from admiring, making use of, excusing the mistakes of, and building upon his work. The same goes for many here, vis-a-vis the overrated but always tenderly handled Rawls.

          Whatever the basis of your and other’s objection to Rothbard, I submit it cannot just be that you think him a bad philosopher. It may be that + something else, but the something else always seems to be doing some fairly heavy lifting in the partnership.

          • matt b

            Trivial Pursuit: Folk Devils. Okay. That made me laugh. It was clever. But you’re wrong. If Rawls had acted as an apologist for authoritarian fanatics like Thurmond and McCarthy it would rightly be taken into account in assessing his contribution to the discourse. The fact is that Rothbard was willing to jump in bed with some deplorable people with deeply illiberal views (and not just people on the right but illiberals on the left like those in the black power movement) and that’s not something that should be dismissed as if it does not matter. Now some ugly statements and associations should not lead to one being totally discredited. Some of the greatest people who ever lived harbored some deep and dark prejudices for examples. But that brings me to….
            Rothbard’s arguments. They are just comically poor. He reminds me of the kid in first year philosophy who, abundant with zealotry but lacking insight, starts going on like crazy about how he has solved all our ethical dilemmas in the realm of politics and that if only people thought clearly they would realize he has the truth with a capital T and we would have a revolution if only people realized it and… well by that time I’m checking Facebook updates and thinking about what’s for lunch. I think Rothbard is a lot like Rand. Intelligent, a very engaging writer, raises important questions but produces really bad answers and acts as if those answers are The. Final. Word. But yes I will admit I’m harder on Rothbard than some other bad philosophers because his conclusions are very far from my own. If Rothbard is Mr. Libertarian then I’m not a libertarian.

          • Sean II

            “He reminds me of the kid in first year philosophy who, abundant with zealotry but lacking insight, starts going on like crazy about how he has solved all our ethical dilemmas…”

            I swear, I almost made a very similar comment about Rothbard a few minutes ago, but didn’t follow through because (as usual) my comment was already too long. I was going to make him a third-year grad student who thinks his thesis proposal is the case-cracker for the mysteries of the universe, but hey…close enough.

            That’s part of my point, though. Lots of grad students are like that to some degree. What turns them into something better is they engage with the wider world, and the wider world engages with them.

            Rothbard and Rand were both off-putting, manic, moralizing people, so no doubt they got an even colder shoulder than most libertarians. But don’t forget that it is only partly their fault, with the rest of the blame going to an establishment that – in the salad days of statism, 1930 through roughly 1989 – ignored them for all of the wrong reasons, in a addition to a few of the right ones.

            On the other point, I beg you to reconsider. Thurmond and McCarthy belong to a genus called “practical politicians”, every one of which is a murderer, a thief, and a liar, usually with one or two vices a’la carte like alcoholism, sexual predation, or puppy kicking.

            The only sane position is to despise them all, while occasionally and very cautiously using them to provoke discussion (since most people have not heard of Rothbard or Nozick but have heard of Reagan and Clinton, this is just a sad necessity).

            But it is folly to to identify untouchables-in-all-cases among this class of categorically undesirable scumbags. Thurmond, for example, was no worse than Robert Byrd and who knows how many others. Joe McCarthy was no worse than the dozens or hundreds of others who have used (and are still using) the “investigative” power of the Senate to railroad and intimidate people with public show trials.

            If you want to judge Rothbard for finding a kind word to say about them, then you need to apply the same outrage to everyone who ever said a kind word about any of these loathsome crooks. And I’m afraid that would leave you with no one to talk about.

          • matt b

            I hear what you’re saying in the first part of your comment. I disagree with you regarding your second point. Thurmond and McCarthy were of course representative of many kooks and I would critique Rothbard if he had spoke favorably about any of the lesser known kooks they spoke for.
            Byrd renounced racism so that’s a point in his favor and while there was and is abuse of the investigative power of the Senate there is a difference between such excess and the singular authoritarianism of a McCarthy at least in terms of the scope of the persecution. I’m not sure if you were putting Clinton and most/ almost all? politicians in the same boat. I certainly would never put Clinton in the same moral category as a McCarthy.

          • Sean II

            Let me try another tack here.

            The big reason why Strom Thurmond is supposed to be untouchable, moral-death-on-contact, guilt-by-association kryptonite is because he was the most evil thing in the history of the universe: a racist. As we know in 2013, a racist is worse than a pedophile, worse than a communist, worse than a serial killer, worst than that guy who put the Elephant Man in a circus side show before Anthony Hopkins saved him.

            Small problem, though: Thurmond wasn’t a racist when being a racist was the most evil, most thoroughly taboo thing in the known universe. He was a racist during the same historical period when my kindly old grandma and about 95% of people were also racist, if not quite avowedly, then at least by modern standards. And let’s not forget that my kindly old grandma was mostly a racist because being racist (in the sense of believing that’s one’s own group is fully human, while every other group is suspect on that account) was the common plight of most human beings from 40,000 BC to sometime after 1945.

            So why are we picking Thurmond out of that crowd? Two reasons: 1) he lived a really long time, and hence dragged a lot of the past around with him, and 2) as noted earlier, he was a politician and hence famous.

            Guys like Thurmond made their way representing people like my grandma. If he’s to blame, then so must she be. Anything else is hypocrisy. Indeed, if we take seriously some of the things that libertarians like Brennan have written about voting, then my grandma is even more to blame than he is, because it was she who made Thurmond possible.

            Now, as you know, libertarians are always choosing between evils, always trying to compare apples with cluster bombs and oranges with 3% tax hikes. Is a health care price destroying Obama worse than an Iran nuking Bush? Is an abortion tolerating Biden who wants to steal $40 billion for light rail better than a tax-cutting but doggedly pro-life Rand Paul?

            If we slide back to 1987, it’s pretty easy to see that the choice then was: is a racist Strom Thurmond worse than a marginal labor market destroying Ted Kennedy?

            You see what I mean? It’s not even clear in this example which of the two politicians was worse for actual black people!!! Sure, Strom said nasty things about them and probably would have snuck us back to the 1950s if he could get away with it, but Ted Kennedy wanted to talk sweet about blacks and then price their kids right out of the job market!

            So your whole premise that Thurmond is some kind of especially bad villain is ahistorical and context-free.

            Rothbard died in the early 1990s. The idea that a racist is the worst thing someone can possibly be didn’t get cemented in our culture until about that time. It seems he missed the cue.

            We might just as well ask: where did Adam Smith stand on women in the military? The difference is simply one of degree.

          • matt b

            So there’s a lot here. Let me first start off by saying that my critique was of Rothbard for his apologetics on behalf of Thurmond and not Thurmond himself. It is true that lots of people were racist when Rothbard penned his defense. But Rothbard was not. So it would be like Jason Brennan or Matt Z praising some anti-Semite in Saudi Arabia because he wanted, say, lower taxes and you saying “But pretty much everyone there is anti-Semitic” which would be true but of course Brennan and Zwolinski are not and therefore know better and should be judged for praising such vicious hate (which, guys, you would of course never do because your hearts bleed pure :).
            Again, I’m not blaming your grandmother or even the people who prominently represented her but rather Rothbard who knew better but figured “Oh I’ll jump into bed with anyone who seems anti-statist in some way.” You never make society more liberal by jumping into bed with illiberals because they hold some sympatico views on a few issues even important ones.
            I think coerced childbirth is a hell of a lot worse than subsidized light rail. I also would point out that no one is calling for nuking Iran.
            That’s a really misguided argument. First of all, Ted Kenney did not want to “price their kids right out of the job market.” That was an unintended consequence of the policies he supported. But there’s a huge differene being being a well intentioned and caring person who has just ends (ensuring no one willing to work hard suffers in poverty) and bad means (fixing wages or prices) and having bad ends like Thurmond (seeking to preserve racism) and horrifying means (systematic state violence). I think Thurmond is a villain because he was a racist which is really the worse kind of collectivism. People who think that the state should aggress against people because of the color of their skin are rightly considered to be despicable. There’s just no comparison between a misguided but good hearted person like Ted Kennedy and a vicious bigot like Thurmond.

          • Sean II

            Well, for one thing, I hold adults responsible for both intended and unintended consequences when the latter are foreseeable. For another, it’s not at all clear that pushing below-minimum wage workers out of the job market is an unintended consequence. Guys like Ted Kennedy had a whole lifetime in which to notice how strange it was for $23.00 an hour union roughnecks to be lobbying him for a $7.50 an hour federal minimum wage. For that sort of thing I prefer the term “unacknowledged intentions” to “unintended consequences”.

            But much more importantly, I think you accidentally conceded my point when you said: “You never make society more liberal by jumping into bed with illiberals”.

            Okay, fine, but if you say that…it means we’ll never have any allies in practical politics until we’re both old or dead, and it also means that we must have nothing to do Ted Kennedy, Strom Thurmond, Ron Paul, etc. They are all illiberal in various ways, and there is no magic method for comparing one type of illiberality against another. That means we can’t make common cause with Reagan over taxes, or with Bill Clinton over free trade, or with Obama on gay marriage, etc. They must all be shunned and shunned always.

            Is that really what you intend? Or, as seems more likely, are you just carving out a special case for the Rothbard-Thurmond alliance because you think racism is a special case? And if you think racism is a special case, then how was my previous comment wrong? How are you doing anything other than retroactively applying a modern social taboo to a couple of dead guys?

            Finally, you commit a serious error when you say “I think coerced childbirth is a hell of a lot worse than subsidized light rail”.

            If you are truly an individualist, you should not make statements like that. A woman forced to bear a child she doesn’t want has had her life changed by the state. But so has the taxi driver whose business is wiped out by subsidized “competition”, and so is the guy whose house is snatched by eminent domain to make room for a monorail platform, etc.

            Unless you’ve discovered some means of doing interpersonal comparisons of disutility – in which case you should be writing your book and not arguing with me – then you don’t get to be sure which kind of life-ruining statist coercion is actually bad and which is, you know, just kinda sorta distasteful but really everyone could just get over it if they tried.

          • matt b

            You always make interesting points Sean. So you’re right. There is almost nobody in politics who is truly liberal in the proper understanding of the term as being consistently pro-freedom. I just argue that degree matters a lot and there’s a huge distinction between Kennedy and Paul on one and and Thurmond on the other. There’s also an important distinction to be made between working with people while speaking out clearly about the areas where you disagree with them and looking at the other way at all sorts of hateful nonsense, racist and otherwise, because the people in question are right on say taxes and whacking some government departments out of existence.
            I hear what you’re saying. It’s a little bit like when my gay friends tell me marriage equality is more important than marijuana legalization. And I say that it’s true for them but what about pot smokers. So that’s a good point. However, I do think we can say that some deprivations of liberty are worse than others. Maybe the choice between abortion and light rail is less clear than I argued. Maybe (I think mass forced childbirth is quite clearly the greater evil). But I think you would agree that a politician who is anti-gay, anti-immigration, pro-drug war, pro-killing innocents abroad is a lot of worse than one who takes a libertarian position on all of those issues but thinks we should return to Clinton era tax rates. More dramatically, wouldn’t you rather have Obama than Pat Buchanan or even more dramatically Obama than say a modern day George Wallace?

          • Sean II

            Oh, no doubt, I’ve got my favorites just like anyone else. I’ve even got a rule of thumb which is somewhat useful for picking those favorites.

            So, for example, things that impose diffuse costs on bunches of people are not quite as bad as things that selectively destroy individual lives.

            A ban on gay marriage, which deprives all gay people of one right, is not as bad as marijuana law, which at any given time deprives a few million people of all their rights.

            Small amounts of intentionally created inflation, which robs everyone of some wealth, are not as bad a occupational licensing schemes, which completely deprive certain people of their career dream.

            Taxes, which steal from everyone and drive marginal players out of the economy altogether…those are bad, but not as bad as wars which drive whole people out of existence.

            I’ve also got a strong preference that says talk is cheap in both directions, nice or nasty. That means I don’t much care who says racist things, when I can busy myself caring about which policies have racially disparate impacts. Since about 1980 or so, the worst policies seem to be coming from the most avid anti-racist talkers, by the way.

            But – and this I can never stress enough – if some utilitarian comes at me and says: “How do you know that the harm of stealing 3% from 350,000,000 people isn’t worse than the harm of killing 350 kids with drone strikes?”…all I can say is, “I dont know that, not for sure.”

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Utilitarianism sucks!

          • matt b

            We completely agree on this Mark. I was wondering though if you might elaborate on here or on your own website over what seems to be your differences with Nozick over the moral relevance of consequences. For example, in our discussions and in others you’ve supported a social safety net at least in theory and said that tax funded education could be justified. This seems to be very much at odds with Nozick’s insistence that taxation for the purpose of any sort of redistribution was strictly prohibited.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hi Matt:
            Sure. First, I’m not sure I have any major differences with Nozick here. Jason actually did much of the work for me in his recent post on “Social Justice and the Legitimacy of Property,” where he outlined Nozick’s idea of a historical shadow that conditions just (full capitalist) title to property on it not making “the situation of others worse than their baseline situation.” (ASU, 180). Thus, if innocent people are starving in the street, either there is some underlying social injustice that must be rectified or capitalist property rights themselves are the cause, and the Lockean shadow on original appropriation comes into play (justifying redistribution). I feel that most of the blame for our actual social problems lies at the foot of governmental policy, and not Lockean property rights.

            If innocent children reach adulthood without any meaningful education because their parents are too poor to provide it, then I believe the above analysis applies. I would also mention that Nozick holds out the possibility that side constraints might have to be relaxed to prevent catastrophic moral horror. Large numbers of uneducated children might qualify as such. Much more detail is provided in my book.

          • matt b

            It seems to me, then, that Nozick’s views and your own are largely in accord with the BHL claim that property rights must be sufficiently to the benefit of all (don’t cause starvation, don’t lead to situations where people suffer in the street, don’t prevent kids from being educated) and so on and so forth to be justified.

            Now one thing I don’t think you’ve addressed in your book though I’ve only read the review in NDPR- which seemed unduly dismissive and failed to really deal with your arguments in an interesting way- is why the principle of justly distributed burdens and benefits as it regards the public good of defense would not apply to say infrastructure or scientific research. If, as even a number of free market economists argue, there is not enough of a market incentive for basic scientific research and we had reason to believe government research could lead to amazing breakthroughs that would benefit all of us (a cure for cancer say) would that not justify taxation for that? I’m actually skeptical of government funding R and D because politics dictating research but in theory it’s defensible I think. I’m also skeptical of having entirely private infrastructure. We could definitely benefit from greater private investment but, from what I’ve read, zero government involvement does not seem workeable.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I might only quibble with your first paragraph in one way. Perhaps Nozikian libertarians would support a less generous safety net than the BHLs because I think that Nozick’s version of Locke’s proviso is built on Locke’s idea that original appropriation cannot interfere with other parties’ natural right of self-preservation. Thus, so long as full capitalist property rights do not result in one party owning “the only functioning water hole in the desert,” pure procedural justice would be the norm.

            In my opinion, the key to Nozick’s ethical theory is his reliance on human rational agency as the source of our elevated moral status (relative to all other known beings). National defense is essential to preserve rational agency because in its absence we can be forced to do terribly immoral things upon penalty of nuclear annihilation or the like, as the Nazis did to the Swedes and other neutral countries during WWII. Basic scientific research is great, but we will continue to be fully functioning moral agents without it. I don’t claim that the dividing line will always be clear cut, but I am comfortable with the principle.

            PS: I wasn’t thrilled with the NDPR review either. For anyone who cares, here is my response: Hey, at least they spelled the name right.

          • matt b

            I think you’ve identified the tension. Your standard of “minimally decent” is at odds with the BHL standard which aims at a level of welfare beyond pure self-preservation. I think the BHL view is more in line with the classical liberal tradition’s insistence on having institutional arrangements which allow all people to flourish in keeping with their abilities. So I would support, say, education vouchers even for post- secondary education IF I believed that a combination of hard work and loans would not allow kids from poor backgrounds to go to university. I don’t think that where you start off should determine where you end up so I think government has a role to play in advancing opportunity though of course the best and most effective force to expand opportunity is the market.

            I hear what you’re saying but I guess my disagreement lies in my moral pluralism. The main objective of government should to be secure our rational agency but if, say, government could levy a 2 percent surtax for ten years and cure cancer I wouldn’t say “Well that’s not really a matter of rational agency so I’m against it.” This is actually related to preserving rational agency in a sense though since if you die because technology was not advanced enough you cease being a rational agent altogether. But yes I guess my moral pluralism leads me to consider things like utility to be valuable though I accord the greatest weight to liberty but if I truly believed government could dramatically improve our lives through some initiative, research or otherwise, I wouldn’t object because I think that massive (and I do mean massive) increases in utility can justify limited (and I do mean limited) decreases in liberty. Of course situations where this takes place are few and far between.

            I’m off to lunch with a friend so I’ll read it later. I’d be interested to hear your response because the review really struck me as being quite weak. Nagel’s review of ASU is worse for sure though, quite unserious.

            I wonder what your thoughts are on Richard Epstein’s view of coercion in the realm of what he considers to be public goods. His argument has influenced my thinking. He basically says that if the benefit equals or exceeds the cost of coercion then it is justified. So if eminent domain increases productivity and efficiency by creating a new road AND you get paid the fair market price for the “takings” in question it is justified. Or do you think any and all eminent domain is unjustified and that infrastructure should be completely private with all disputes being solved by private parties?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I think we all become value pluralists at some point; we only differ in when we are willing to abandon our (deontological) principles. I am willing to put up with quite a loss of utility before I surrender mine, which is a stance that I believe comports with certain compelling moral intuitions (forced organ transplants, anyone?).

            Accordingly, with respect to infrastructure, I am willing to (if necessary) pay substantially more for a road if this will avoid coercing an unwilling party to sell for fmv. If the entire economy of Los Angeles will grind to a halt because of some holdout, then let’s talk. Personally, I am skeptical that this would ever happen. See Bruce Benson, “The Mythology of Holdout as a Justification for Eminent Domain and Public Provision of Roads,”

          • matt b

            I agree with that. I too value liberty very highly. I was wondering where you might draw some lines though. For example, do you think price fixing should be prohibited on efficiency and utility grounds or, because price fixing is voluntary, is it to be allowed on the grounds of liberty?

            I’m somewhat familiar with Benson’s work, I look forward to seeing his take. So when Epstein says that in his classical liberal, as opposed to libertarian utopia, “Police and military remain; roads, sewers, telecommunications and electric will
            all have some level of government ownership or control; the inevitable tax,
            motor vehicle, voting, and land, copyright and patent lists will need constant
            upgrade and servicing; intellectual property….” you say wrong on everything except for police, military, and maybe copyright and patent lists?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Candidly, I have not thought about some of these issues very deeply, so this is somewhat off-the-cuff. In other words, I reserve the right to change my mind without further notice. Price-fixing = OK, other than in natural monopolies (if they really exist). If there really are natural monopolies, then some governmental regulation is probably inevitable. If you elect politicians (i.e. a minimal state), then I don’t know how you privatize voting, although I would be open to any good ideas (the public system isn’t really very reliable or trustworthy). However, I don’t see why the DMV has to be a public function.

            Infrastructure: see earlier comment. I am probably a minority here, but I haven’t heard any argument that persaudes me that IP differs from other types of property, so the state’s enforcement of rights is just part of “law and order.” Generally, you might need the political process to act as the ultimate backstop for certain functions, while allowing the private sector to actually provide the service.

          • matt b

            I’m really impressed by your acknowledgement that you have not thought of some of these issues “very deeply” in an era where everyone is an expert on everything such honesty is refreshing. Still your answers are reasonable and thoughtful. I have another, unrelated question for you: Do you now if Nozick ever wrote on foreign policy? And what do you make of the claims of former students like liberal blogger Matt Yglesias that he became more moderate as time went on? I’ve read up on that today after reading a misguided article on how the GOP has gone libertarian (so silly) and I didn’t see anything conclusive either way.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            On the last topic, if you get a chance you might want to take a look at John Hasnas’s essay “Reflections on the Minimal State,” which argues for something like a really minimal state, i.e. the state as the “guardian of the guardians,” but one that does little else.

            You ask an interesting question about Nozick on foreign policy, as I have wondered about this myself, for obvious reasons. Sadly, I don’t believe he ever addressed this subject on any extended basis. In ASU (at 126-7) in the context of defending his ill-fated “principle of compensation,” he discusses the circumstances under which a preemptive attack by one country on another would be justified. But he is really trying to make sense of what he considers the conventional wisdom, rather than arguing for a particular position.

            More substantively, in his essay “War, Terrorism, Reprisals–Drawing Some Moral Lines” (available in Socratic Puzzles) which reviewed Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars, he writes approvingly of a particular version of the doctrine of double effect, which “hawkish” libertarians have used to excuse collateral civilian deaths under specific circumstances. He also makes a few remarks there that suggest some greater moral latitude than Walzer allows for a nation facing guerrilla warfare. If you find anything further, please let me know.

            To say that Nozick became more “moderate” is a bit of a stretch. I think he had second thoughts about a few relatively minor positions he took in ASU, such as his claim that it would be morally permissible for a person to sell themselves into absolute slavery. Actually, Matt Zwolinski discusses this towards the end of his recent review of the Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia,”

          • matt b

            Interesting info, thanks Mark. What do you make of the slavery claim?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN


            As I am sure you realize, certain of your questions do not lend themselves to satisfactory answers within a blog comment. However, I will do my best in a relatively few words.

            First, in fairness to Nozick, I believe his original “slave” statement was a two-sentence remark at ASU 331, presented without any argument or analysis. My understanding is that his recantation was equally brief. Perhaps it subsequently occurred to him that the terms of such a contract might often be prima facie evidence that the “slave” was not of sound mind when he entered into it, and thus should not be enforced under basic moral principles. How would you determine when the agreement itself shows that the “slave” was incompetent to make it?

            Moreover, the putative slave cannot by contract abdicate his moral responsibility, so that the slave could not obey an order that required him to slaughter innocent children, for example. Thus, without acting immorally, a person could never become an absolute slave, although it might be morally permissible for him to sell all his “honest” lifetime labor, provided he was of sound mind when he made the agreement.

          • matt b

            I think that’s a largely satisfactory answer but it does bring me to the Smith quote featured above where the author that Matt cites speaks about how Smith favored a limited role for government in ensuring private power did not lead to the denial of dignity and the abuse of individuals. So if anybody found themselves in a situation where they were even contemplating selling themselves into slavery that would seem to speak of a failure on the part of the state to ensure a basic minimum standard of decency thus allowing private power to manifest itself in a disturbing fashion. I’m pretty enthusiastic about markets, I think that they solve most of our problems. But, and here’s where I part ways with Nozick, I can still imagine workers having to cope with severe indignities at the low end of the labor supply even in a free market- because they simply don’t have the bargaining power to demand more- and here I think there is a role for government in ensuring minimal standards of decency in the workplace. Now there’s a tricky set of questions here about regulation making things worse through unintended consequences but unlike natural rights minimal state people like Nozick I don’t object in principle to government seeking to ensure that private power does not subject people to humiliating situations.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            As Matt Z. suggested in his final paragraph of the OP, if libertarians are ever going to exert any meaningful political influence we will have to embrace the “big tent” approach. While you and I will not agree on everything, we will agree with each other a hell of a lot more often than we will agree with (say) Paul Krugmen. So, feel free to object to my views all you like!

          • matt b

            I’m not sure this answers the question of private power 🙂 But that’s okay and for sure. We probably agree on 90 percent of public policy questions and 75-80 percent of the principles under debate as well. Naturally, the discussion here focuses on disagreement since a bunch of people agreeing would be dull.

          • Fallon

            To Matt B.’s “I am a libertarian, but…” and “I am not a neocon, but…”, let’s add “I am not a utilitarian, but…”

            Epstein is a utilitarian. That might be okay– if he didn’t add on economic omniscience to the equation. How does he know the future values of his adjudications up front, like in eminent domain? e.g. Didn’t Pfizer clear out of their forcibly taken digs in New London?

          • matt b

            Let me ask you: what are the salary and fringe benefits associated with the job of chief orthodoxy enforcement officer?

            He’s a consequentialist, I don’t think he’s a utilitarian. There is of course a difference.

          • Fallon

            Epstein refers to himself as utilitarian. So do countless critics and apologists. His 1985 work Takings discusses the ‘congruency of libertarianism and utilitarianism in most cases.’

            When you cry “Orthodox!” you sound like an alcoholic in denial. Your mindset is dependent religiously, cultishly, on the state. And you are reacting to my pointind out your faux libertarianism. What kind of libertarian cites Robert Kagan and Bill Clinton on foreign policy? Or claims that Ron Paul did not predict the housing bubble crash? And simultaneously claims to not be a utilitarian yet says they are deeply influenced by Richard Epstein, a self-identifying utilitarian (though I grant usage may vary)– and then when confronted by that decides to conveniently redefine Epstein? Then there is that whole egocentric taxation to save genocide thing….

            I, on the other hand, can claim acceptance of polycentric order. So to even begin to estimate “orthodoxy” you might want to put down the monopoly mindset. Justice is a social phenom.

          • matt b

            This is very interesting Sean. I like this. And yes the utilitarians always seem to get off easy.

        • McCarthy was an ambitious jackass who accused some innocent as well as guilty people. But it is important to note that he got his power precisely because there WERE a lot of Stalinists in both the media and in the state department at that time. I hate when people gloss over this fact and just shout witch-hunt or McCarthyism without putting it in context. The soviets would never have gotten an Atom bomb without stolen secrets, And Mao may not have been able to conquer China if fellow travelers in our government had not been actively undermining Chaing. The fall of the communist regimes has given us a lot of documents that prove that red-baiters like McCarthy were actually more right than wrong.

          • Sean II

            I have a similar take on the McCarthyism thing.

            There was clearly a continuum between old left interventionists, socialists of the West European stripe, and outright Marxist-Leninists. Across many political and economic issues, the difference between these factions was one of degree within a strongly shared bias in favor of state planning and against markets, and there were always a few leftists willing to admit as much. But even if they didn’t admit it, anyone could easily figure out that there must be American leftists on the margin who sympathized with communism to various degrees and who expressed that sympathy in various ways.

            Most leftists, however, HATED having this pointed out to them. They hated hearing that Nye Bevan and Nikolai Bukharin had so much in common. They liked to run around acting as if it was a sickening outrage against civility for anyone to notice that most arguments for nationalizing, say, the transport industry, also work for nationalizing the corner grocery, etc. If their ideology lacked for any coherent way to distinguish itself from socialism and thence communism, well then, it was YOUR FAULT for having the audacity to point that out.

            McCarthyism became a helpful shorthand for “Don’t you DARE try to remind me that what I’m saying sounds like what they’re saying east of the wall. Don’t you dare try to point out that I have no idea, and cannot clearly express, at what point I intend to stop intervening in the market. And most of all, don’t you dare notice that some of my more hardcore affiliates admit precisely what you are here alleging.”

            If there was some way to calculate the harm done by actual McCarthy and weigh it against the harm done by using McCarthyism as an all-purpose, thought-terminating cliche against critics of the left…I have no doubt the latter would weigh heavily enough to send the former flying off the scale.

          • matt b

            So a few things. I dislike your use of the term “guilty people.” Guilty of what? Misguided political beliefs? In a free society, you don’t haul people up in front of Congress to be interrogated on their political beliefs. As for there being a lot of Stalinists in the media and the state department well that’s obviously an empirical question. You’d have to provide some sort of link so that I could comment further but even if it were true it would not justify McCarty’s nasty, illiberal, authoritarian crusade.

          • Never said I justified it. But to properly understand it you have to understand that he could not have done the things he did if there had been no fire behind the smoke. There was plenty of fire.

          • matt b

            I understand what you’re saying. I do find it frustrating when people act as if McCarthy was searching for monsters under the bed as if communism was no threat or if it was there were zero U.S. communists so no issue. So long as you aren’t arguing in favor of what he did morally but merely pointing out that there a real and legitimate basis for concern that’s of course reasonable.

      • Absolutely. Whatever quarrels I have with Rothbard’s thought, I certainly wouldn’t deny him the label of “libertarian,” though I might with the more presumptuous “Mr. Libertarian,” suggesting as it does that his views are *definitive* of libertarianism.

        • Sean II

          No doubt. You give the guy a fair shake, as for example in that series on self-ownership late last year. But there are some who think the only worthwhile thing to do with Rothbard is ignore him. I’m not going to name Brennans or anything, but you might even know some Jasons who think that.

          The tone of your commentary on Rothbard, just like Long’s commentary on Rand, makes a lot of sense to me. You seem to say: “Okay, here’s this prominent but academically marginalized figure making this or that famous libertarian flash-card argument, and here’s why I think it fails. I may show no mercy in exposing the failure of the argument, but neither will I sow the ground with salt. I know what Rothbard was trying to accomplish, and I can hardly blame him for having a go at it, but sympathy with his aims does not make a substitute for persuasion or proof. He’s still wrong.”

          What I don’t like is the manner of handling Rand or Rothbard either by means of a) outright dismissal, or b) irrelevant mud smearing about their husband-swapping, dexedrine-munching, race-baiting, redneck-recruiting ways, respectively.

          Part of what’s so bad about giving these guys the academic cold shoulder is that it leaves their doctrines unanswered in the eyes of the curious young. Here I speak from the pain of personal experience. When I was 19 and trying hard to understand as much as I could as fast as I might, I couldn’t find anything that dealt with Rand. There was nothing in the library about her that wasn’t also written by her or one of her cronies. I could see she was being almost totally ignored, and just as plainly, I could see that she didn’t deserve to be.

          I was thus forced to choose: take everything she said as a package, or leave it. I chose the former, and paid a heavy price for it. When I think about the 2013 equivalent of young Sean, and I realize that he can read blogs like this one and get a bit of good old intellectual due process through an adversarial system – “Rothbard is not infallible, nor is he ridiculous” – I am jealous of him, in the best sense in which one generation can envy the next, for enjoying a benefit it did not have.

          • I’ve tried reading Rothbard numerous times, and always regretted it.

          • Sean II

            Just guessing here, but doesn’t that have everything to do with him being weakest precisely in your areas of professional concentration? If you ask a physicist and a medical doctor about Aristotle, they’ll tell you he was a damn fool. Likewise, probably, if you ask a modern end user of economic analysis about Adam Smith.

            It makes all kinds of sense that Rothbard’s efforts in ethics and political theory would seem unimpressive to a specialist working many years after he wrote his last word on those subjects.

            But Horowitz would surely say something different, without ignoring Rothbard’s errors, his limits, or the wild exaggerations to which his personality cult is often prone.

            To me, the “I regret wasting the time it took to read/listen” label is something to be reserved for a total hack like Stefan Molyneux. I don’t see how the author of Man, Economy, & State can be put into that category.

          • What’s really going on is that I’m trying to establish my Establishment credentials.


          • Sean II

            Georgetown is awfully close to K Street, is it not? Perhaps this whole writing and teaching thing is all a ruse to bring yourself to the attention of Patton-Boggs LLP.

            I hear there’s good money in being a professional former libertarian.

          • matt b

            Sean what is up with the hate for Molyneux and the love for him as well? I know some people think he’s the next great thing whereas others share your decidedly low opinion.

          • Sean II

            Sorry, somehow I missed this comment last week. I can’t speak for anyone else, but my hatred of Molyneux has three pillars:

            1) The creep factor. Last year, people kept telling me “you’re a libertarian, you might like this guy Stefan…” so I went and watched one of his youtube videos. Instant personal dislike. To be honest, the first thing I thought was: anyone who tells jokes this bad cannot be trusted. The second thing was: if one of my sisters were about to marry this guy, my non-aggression preference would face its most difficult test to date.

            2) A very poor grasp-to-reach ratio. A bit of reading about Stef only made things worse, since I soon found out about the hacktastic book where he claims to have single-handedly solved the problems of meta-ethics for all eternity. As it turn out, that episode was a pretty fair sample of his pretentious and irresponsible dabbling in so many other areas of thought.

            3) Most importantly, by a wide margin, I hate psychologism and psychology – which I regard as an utterly failed pseudo-science of human behavior that has never explained anything you couldn’t better learn from an economist or a good novel. Molyneux can’t get enough of psychologizing. He loves it, and will lapse into it given any half-plausible excuse.

            To see what I mean, you gotta go check out his youtube review of the movie Avatar. Pure, unintentional comedy GOLD. I really can’t believe he retains even a single fan/follower, three years after posting that.

            To be fair, though, there is one good thing I can say about Molyneux: if we are now attracting that kind of parasitic charlatan, then it must be a sign libertarianism is getting more popular.

          • matt b

            A very thorough, humurous, and entertaining reply. Thanks for that. I will check out these videos to see how a bad it can be.

    • Fallon
  • matt b

    “Smith did not favor as hands-off an approach as some of his self-proclaimed followers do today—he believed that states could and should re-distribute wealth to some degree, and defend the poor and disadvantaged against those who wield power over them in the private sector.” I was wondering if Matt or any other of the BHL crew have written in any great detail in reconciling the value of economic liberty with Smith’s idea of defendng “the poor and disadvantaged against those who wield power over them in the private sector.” Apart from the famous BHL versus Crooked Timber throwdown that is as that exchange left me with more questions than answers regarding the view of BHL on the acceptability of government interfering in the workplace to protect the poor and disadvantaged…

    • There are ways of defending the poor and disadvantaged that fall short of socialism or even social welfare. What exactly did Smith advocate? In his time the laws of Great Britain certainly favored the landed aristocracy and other important people in society, while even charity was sometimes scarce. Laws that lower prices and spur growth through free markets, laws that put people on the same legal footing regarding contracts, laws that lower taxation of the poor or taxation of charities are all examples.

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  • CT

    I’m curious as to why you would link us to that passage of Rothbard’s. It has little (if nothing) to do with what Rothbard thought of Smith’s political philosophy … it was an attack on Smith’s economics. Now admittedly, I could have done without his polemics, but I thought his critiques (especially of the labour theory of value) were on point.

    Now don’t get me wrong, Rothbard was a sucky philosopher, didn’t add anything to economic theory (took everything from Mises), and certainly went batshit crazy near the end of his life, but he did do economic history rather well … at least in my opinion. As such, I don’t think he should be completely dismissed.

    • I don’t think he should be completely dismissed. But I would hardly describe him as working in the Smithian tradition of political and/or moral philosophy. Rothbard was a rationalist, and Smith was virtually the polar opposite of a rationalist. I would trace Rothbard back through the likes of Kant, Locke, and the Scholastics. But not Hume/Hutchinson/Smith.

      • CT

        I’m not as familiar with Smith’s philosophy (getting around to reading his Moral Sentiments eventually). But I do know his economics, and I agree with Rothbard’s actual arguments (not with his insults), Smith made many mistakes.

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