Adam Smith's Radical Tools

Adam Smith's Radical Tools

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.


It’s a regular trope—especially among left-leaning critics of capitalism—to portray Smith as a dogmatic free market ideologue, and An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN) a laissez-faire manifesto. To which the rote “well, actually” response: Smith cared about the poor, favored progressive taxes, and was suspicious of businessmen colluding with one another. And so on. 

Smith conveniently predated modern political factions and the issues they squabble over. It’s easy to appeal to Smith in an anachronistic way. My anachronism here is intentional: to mine Smith for resources in the service of a radical social liberalism. It’s silly to ask what Smith might really have thought about modern controversies. But I hope to show both that leftist and social justice radicals can find unexpected support in Smith and that liberals who imagine themselves heirs to Smith do not betray their inspiration by countenancing sharp critiques of modern, white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. Indeed, despite some undeniable pragmatic currents, Smithian ideas demand radical reappraisal of society.

Smith’s normative pillars of freedom, prosperity, justice, and egalitarian universalism provide a familiar liberal framework of the kind we see with many modern liberal variants. But, as the litany of critiques from feminists and antiracists to socialists has it, these liberal platitudes fail to transition effectively from abstract theory to institutional and political practice. Smith has a set of additional commitments and tools that can help the ambitious modern Smithian liberal stick the landing. These are: the sympathetic mechanism from the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), a persistent suspicion of concentrated power, and an appreciation for the psychological mechanisms that sustain power and hierarchy.

Smithian liberalism

Smith’s ideas of prosperity, freedom, justice, and equality are entwined, each often referencing the others. Consider Smith’s postcard-sized articulation of the political economy of his preferred commercial society, his “system of natural liberty”:

All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord. Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men. The sovereign is completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society.

[WN IV, ix, 51]

No “system of preference” should prevent “every man” from competing with “any other man.” Equality under the law is the norm. And it is an equal freedom that the sovereign must not superintend. Equality and freedom go hand in hand under the laws of justice.

Prosperity arises organically from the natural bent of human beings to “better their condition” and the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.” [WN I, ii, 1] Smith condones self-directed betterment. This moral authorization—especially for the “lowest ranks”—cuts against the moral consensus of classical antiquity and medieval Christianity, up through more modern thinkers like Rousseau. Smith scholar Christopher Berry has argued that Smith recalibrated the virtues for the commercial society, downplaying martial virtues like courage in favor of probity and humanity. [1] Smith objects to “whining and melancholy moralists” who would dampen the “natural joy of prosperity.” [TMS III, iii, 9] Berry draws particular attention to Smith’s scorn for sumptuary laws, which restricted certain activities and kinds of dress among certain classes, thereby enforcing social hierarchy.

Smithian freedom notably has a positive dimension. In addition to negative freedom from interference, Smith referred to the human needs for food, lodging, and clothing. More interesting is his position that wages should cover not just subsistence necessities, but “whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.” [WN V, ii, 4, 12] Smith favored public education—a novelty in his time—to broaden the minds of workers who would otherwise be dulled by repetitive drudgery in factories.

Smith’s equality is both normative and descriptive. Throughout his work Smith assumes a basic similarity of human nature and inherent human abilities. The most famous example of this is Smith’s assertion that the differences between a “philosopher and a common street porter … arise … not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education.”

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour.

[WN I, ii, 4]

The liberalism of Smith can be summarized. Human beings are moral equals of roughly similar innate abilities, our diversity a function of our varied social contexts and experiences. Along with our disposition to exchange, our innate, ethical drive to better our lots by pursuing our own freely chosen ends by freely chosen means is the basis of prosperity. Equality under the law within a commercial society is the institutional context in which all persons, even the most disadvantaged, can enjoy the twin blessings of freedom of prosperity.

Toward a Smithian radicalism

What prevents Smith’s liberal aspiration of a prosperous commercial society of free and equal persons bettering their lives under the rule of law from being mistaken for a description of a modern society riven by inequality and oppression? Where “freedom” cashes out as the rights to low taxes and to exclude the marginalized from quality public goods. Where “equality” means  assuming that meritocracy and social mobility already obtain, implicitly justifying yawning gaps in intergroup social outcomes with libelous theories of racial or gender inferiority. Where “justice” and the “rule of law” are replaced with “law and order” dog whistles, systematically targeting marginalized groups with the full violent force of the state under cover of plausibly deniable neutrality. And where “prosperity” is declared by crude indicators like gross domestic product and aggregate asset prices regardless of the shape of the wealth distribution or comprehensive health and security outcomes.

While I want to avoid a character assessment of Smith the man, it’s relevant that his way of thinking put him on the right side of many issues of his time. Smith argued against slavery, in TMS by impugning the character of slaveowners [TMS V, ii, 9] and in WN by appealing to the economic inefficiency of coerced labor. [WN III, ii, 10-16] He gives a far lengthier discussion of slavery in his unpublished Lectures on Jurisprudence (LJ), where he describes the cruelty and domination characterizing the master-slave relation. Smith delves into the inhumanity of slavery by describing, among other inhumanities, the unfreedom of enslaved persons to form stable human bonds—parental or nuptial—and the carelessness with which the old and weak were discarded and how enslaved children died at greater rates than free children. [LJ(A) III, 94-96, 100-101, 132-133]

Political theorist Jennifer Pitts draws out Smith’s anti-imperialism in A Turn to Empire, a work describing the ways rhetorically egalitarian liberalism was corrupted to justify British and French empires. [2] Smith noted the prideful inability of imperial governments to relinquish their foreign territories, no matter how costly they are, and appreciated that giving up empire would go against the private interest of parties “who would thereby be deprived of the disposal of many places of trust and profit, of many opportunities of acquiring wealth and distinction.” [WN, IV, vii, 3, 66] And Smith inveighed against the East India Company, describing them as plunderers “perfectly indifferent to the happiness or misery of their subjects.” [WN, V, i, 5, 26]

Finally, even from a modern perspective, Smith was remarkably progressive on economic issues. Political scientist Deborah Boucoyannis persuasively contends that in a fully Smithian political economy, extreme inequality couldn’t arise at all.

In Smith, profits should be low and labor wages high, legislation in favor of the worker is “always just and equitable,” land should be distributed widely and evenly, inheritance laws should partition fortunes, taxation can be high if it is equitable, and the science of the legislator is necessary to thwart rentiers and manipulators.


Wages, at the same time, should rise with increased wealth. On this basis, Smith defends adequate labor wages, which had to be at least sufficient to provide the “necessaries,” covering lodging, food and clothes, the latter tailored to middle-class comforts. … Moreover, high wage levels should occur naturally. Wages are only lowered artificially, through state intervention, because of the sophistry of merchants and manufacturers who are much more adroit in manipulating legislatures to pass laws in their favor.

Smith further advocated progressive taxation on the rich (“something more than in proportion” to their wealth) and myriad possible taxes aiming at discouraging the unproductive use of capital.

Anachronism and the social context

It’s no accident that Smith found himself on the radical edge of his time. The same elements of his philosophy should, in today’s context, land the Smithian in radical waters. It’s worth recalling Smith’s willingness to recalibrate the virtues of the commercial society. Smith wrote prior to both the Industrial Revolution and wide-suffrage democracy. The successes of racial justice movements—however limited—and the anti-colonial independence movements would have astounded him, given his pessimism about both abolishing slavery and ending colonial misgovernment. Modern feminism and the sexual revolution would have been stunning.

A socio-moral recalibration might be in order for a multicultural, race-plural, nominally gender-egalitarian post-Industrial society, especially one in which old power structures like patriarchy and white supremacy have insinuated themselves deeply into the norms and institutions of society. While maintaining a universal core in human nature, Smith considered cultural and normative variation to be contingent on social organization. Just as the nature of property rights and attitudes toward merchants and commerce changed going from pastoral, to agricultural, and finally commercial societies, new varieties of public infrastructure may be appropriate to facilitate the full inclusion of women in society. New virtues like openness to new experiences and cultural sensitivity may be needed to thrive in multicultural megacities. With the dramatic social, political, and economic shifts since his death, a Smithian should actively seek corresponding changes in values and institutions that further the blessings of egalitarian freedom and prosperity.

Open impartiality and the social epistemology of the method of sympathy

Smith’s entire system of moral philosophy is built upon his method of sympathy laid out in TMS. In this method, you evaluate another person’s actions or emotional responses by imagining yourself in their shoes and considering how you would respond.

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. … By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.

[TMS I.i.1.2]

But Smith recognizes that we are prone to self-serving and cultural biases, and so to evaluate our own actions and reactions, we appeal to an idealized outside observer. 

We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation, and condemn it.

[TMS III.i.2]

Philosopher and Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has contrasted Smith’s impartial spectator with the veil of ignorance thought experiment of the liberal theorist John Rawls. [3] In the veil of ignorance a hypothetical group of persons are stripped of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social stations, but retain their general knowledge of society; they then confer over what basic institutional structure would be just if nobody knew what their place in that society would be. To Sen, the veil of ignorance abstracts away contextual information about how the basic structures of our lives are realized in practice. Smith’s sympathetic method, by contrast, is decidedly non-ideal, attending directly to social practices as they actually exist. Where thinking in terms of an “original position,” a “state of nature,” or a veil of ignorance discourages thinking about how the lives of others are different from our own, the sympathetic method directs us to focus and reflect on those differences. 

Hidden assumptions that the default person is a white man, able-bodied, cis-gendered, and heterosexual slide off the slick surface of these ideal abstraction devices. The contractarian can object that of course the normative person isn’t necessarily male or female, and has no particular race. But nothing in the ideal theory motivates inquiry into the particular ways life may differ for women, or indigenes, or disabled persons in social environments shaped over centuries of violence, oppression, and power struggles.

This is an example of the “epistemology of ignorance” described by philosopher Charles W Mills. [4] Mills contends that white folks, and especially white men are not only oblivious of the myriad ways culture and institutions are fashioned with their needs and wants in mind, but that they have no incentive to learn about privilege and disadvantage. Smith’s method of sympathy constructs an open epistemology, pulling information in from all sources and aiming always at learning more and improving, rather than aiming to print the final schematic of the fully just society in permanent ink.

Philosopher Christel Fricke argues that by Smith’s method,

What characterizes the wise and virtuous is that they are more suspicious than ordinary people, not only of themselves and their own passions, but also of the prejudices and partiality that might be inherent in the common morality of their culture: They suspect remaining partiality, be it in favour of themselves or in favour of those whose cultural habits they share. Rather than trusting the common rules of morality, they try to look at an agent and his action from the point of view of all those who might, be it directly or indirectly, be affected by the respective consequences, be it within or outside the respective community. Their point of reference is not limited to a particular community but reaches out to the whole of mankind. In their search for hidden or commonly overlooked or ignored sources of partiality, they have to rely on as much information as they can get hold of and which might be relevant for the moral evaluation of the agent. There are indeed several passages where Smith underlines the importance of comprehensiveness of relevant information for making an impartial judgment (TMS III.2.5: 116; III.4.6: 159; VI.iii.1: 237).

[5] Christel Fricke, Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith

Smith argued on multiple fronts against slavery, recognized the brutal stupidity of European imperialism, and took the side of workers and the destitute against rich landowners and capitalists at every turn—all by applying his method of sympathetic reasoning, “entering into” the lives of others and seeking out diverse information.

Regardless of Smith’s own reflections on, say, the role of women in society, a modern Smithian liberal would be open to feminist and other social justice critiques, especially when we consider Smith’s thoughts on power and domination.

Power and the love of domination

In a democraticall government it is hardly possible that it ever should, as the legislators are here persons who are each masters of slaves; they therefore will never incline to part with so valuable a part of their property; and tho as I have here shewn their real interest would lead them to set free their slaves and cultivate their lands by free servants or tenents, yet the love of domination and authority and the pleasure men take in having everything done by their express orders, rather than to condescend to bargain and treat with those whom they look upon as their inferiors and are inclined to use in a haughty way; this love of domination and tyrannizing, I say, will make it impossible for the slaves in a free country ever to recover their liberty.

[LJ(A) III, 114]

Smith was pessimistic about the abolition of slavery. But given that slavery was abolished, Smith would fully have expected white domination to adapt and take new forms, even at the expense of the narrow economic interests of whites and society at large. Smith might have nodded along to antiracist scholar Ibram X Kendi’s history of racist ideas in America, with its thesis that racist ideas continually adapt to justify and preserve the original concentration of tyrannizing (white) power. [6]

For all Smith’s own normative egalitarianism, he believed social hierarchies were buttressed by a “peculiar sympathy” with the powerful.

Our obsequiousness to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their goodwill. … We desire to serve them for their own sake, without any recompense but the vanity or the honour of obliging them. … Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it.

[TMS I, iii, 2, 3]

Oppressive hierarchies flourish, weedlike, in the cozy space between this rock of love of domination and a hard place of fawning deference to the powerful.

Feminist philosopher Kate Manne describes patriarchy as a set of normative entitlements men have to women—their love, their sex, their reproductive and domestic labor, etc—and misogyny as both the structural features that constrain women from venturing outside their prescribed roles in the patriarchal order and the moral and social backlash when women do so venture. [7] We now have the tools we need to appreciate this on a Smithian basis. It’s a basic concern of freedom and equality that women, as well as gender and sexual minorities, should be legally free and socially empowered to better their conditions by their own lights. Patriarchy is the institutionalized morality of the culture, prejudiced in favor of the concentrated political, social, and economic interests of a dominant class of men. Male dominance is held in place partly by our natural sympathy for the powerful, what Manne calls “himpathy.” A Smithian feminism perceives the reality and injustice of male supremacy by pulling in information about the lives of more kinds of people: women of the dominant social class (cis, white, and straight); trans men and women; gender nonconforming persons; Black, indigenous, and other women of color. Marginalized lives are drawn to center focus, centripetally guided by the Smithian suspicion of concentrated power. The impartial spectator—the femme in the breast—directs her sympathetic resentment not at transgressions against prevailing patriarchal norms, but at the love of domination underlying the enforcement of those norms.

The man of system and pragmatic caution

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit: and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.

[TMS , VI, ii, 2, 17]

Smith abjured utopian and totalizing thinking. Whatever radical diagnoses a Smithian liberal offers will be tempered by political pragmatism and skepticism toward society-upending revolution when it comes to application. The Smithian will have no truck with violence or vanguardism. 

We can make this radical interpretation concrete by considering potential Smithian reactions to some contemporary radical proposals. Of course, other Smithian liberals may come to different conclusions!

Abolish the police! Probably not. There’s a duty to protect every member of society against violence and to secure a stable administration of justice. But the bloated budgets of police departments arise from vested interests and the disproportionate violence against Black and Latin persons is a clear case of domination and oppression. A reallocation of police funds to public goods is in order.

Abolish prisons! Not exactly. Prisons are the very definition of unfreedom, and the connection between white supremacy and mass incarceration is well supported. The disproportionate incarceration of oppressed groups is a manifestation of both the love of domination and the jealous defense of social esteem. Society retains an interest in sequestering dangerous individuals, but cruelty is unnecessary and the fact of mass incarceration is itself evidence of injustice.

End the wars! Yes. The sovereign is charged with defending society against foreign aggression. But the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq, among many others, are the predictable result of the concentrated power of American hegemony, powerful private interests in the defense industry, and the abject failure to “enter into” the lives of foreigners.

Reparations for descendants of slaves and indigenous persons! Quite possibly. The basic similarity of persons in their inherent aptitudes and volumes of evidence of systematic obstruction of Black wealth accumulation compel the conclusion that the racial wealth gap is a product of policy. It’s a concentration of economic power in the hands of a dominant white class that should be repaired.

Abolish gender! How? Sympathetic engagement with the lived experiences of people of various gender expressions and the basic impulse to trust a person’s own projects of self-betterment suggest we should affirm and materially support how others identify. Systemic gendered inequality diminishes freedom and prosperity. We should materially support women’s full participation in the economy with paid parental leave and subsidized—even universal—child care.

Open borders! Obviously. Freedom of movement is a straightforward application of self-directed betterment, especially where wage and opportunity differentials are concerned. And migration restrictions foster environments of exploitation.

Smith’s system of natural liberty is deceptive in its terse simplicity.

According to the system of natural liberty, the sovereign has only three duties to attend to; three duties of great importance, indeed, but plain and intelligible to common understandings: [185] first, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions …

[WN IV, ix, 51]

While heeding the warning of the “man of system,” securing all persons against injustice and oppression in a society fundamentally shaped by centuries of multifaceted inequality opens wide the door to radical critique, activism, and reform. Expansive public works and public institutions may be needed to secure the conditions of actualized freedom, equality, justice, and prosperity.


[1] “Essays on Hume, Smith, and the Scottish Enlightenment,” by Christopher Berry. The theme discussed here is present in several of Berry’s essays on Smith.

[2] “Turn to Empire,” by Jennifer Pitts.

[3] “The Idea of Justice,” by Amartya Sen.

[4] “The Racial Contract” and “Black Rights/White Wrongs,” by Charles W Mills.

[5] “Adam Smith: The Sympathetic Process and the Origin and Function of Conscience,” by Christel Fricke. The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith.

[6] “Stamped from the Beginning,” by Ibram X Kendi.

[7] “Down Girl: the Logic of Misogyny” and “Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women,” by Kate Manne.