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An Exchange on Adam Smith

To the Editors:

Garry Will’s article, “Benevolent Adam Smith,” in your issue of February 9, 1978, is most interesting and instructive as well as generous in its praise of the Glasgow edition of Adam Smith. Just because the review is so valuable (and not at all in any spirit of complaint at criticism on a single point), I should like to correct two things that he says about Hutcheson and one about “the Adam Smith problem.”

  1. Mr. Wills writes that in Hutcheson’s algebraic formulas, if “I” (the interest of the agent) coincides with benevolence, “then the moment [i.e., the total amount] of virtue is increased,” and that if it conflicts with benevolence, “it can weaken, divert, or cancel” the moment of virtue. I am afraid that Mr. Wills has confused “the moment of virtue” with “the moment of good.” The moment of good is the amount of public happiness produced. Hutcheson says that this is increased when private interest “concurs” with benevolence. But he also says that the amount of virtue is thereby decreased, because the agent acts from the mixed motives of benevolence plus self-interest, only the first of which is virtuous. Conversely, Hutcheson continues, when benevolence and interest conflict, the amount of virtue in a man who acts from benevolence is increased, because his exertion of benevolence is the greater for having overcome temptation.

  2. At the end of his article, Mr. Wills says that the editors, both of the Wealth of Nations and of the Moral Sentiments, assert that Hutcheson “allowed no place” (or “no constructive role”) for self-interest. In the passages to which he refers, both sets of editors are simply recording a criticism of Hutcheson made by Adam Smith. This criticism presupposes an interpretation of Hutcheson which Mr. Wills himself endorsed earlier in his article, namely that for Hutcheson self-interested action is, in itself, neither moral nor immoral.

  3. As to “the Adam Smith problem” generally, even Mr. Wills, despite his keen insight, seems to continue the error of supposing that the Moral Sentiments, unlike the Wealth of Nations, treats sympathy as “the driving force of social life,” i.e., as a motive of action. It does not; it makes sympathy the basis of moral judgment. The Adam Smith problem arose precisely because of this misunderstanding.

D.D. Raphael

Imperial College of Science and Technology

London, England

To the Editors:

Garry Wills may be applauded for trying to save Adam Smith from the Chambers of Commerce but I wonder if he has saved Smith from himself. Smith, Wills reminds us, extrapolated the law of value from exchange relations among actual human beings. To his credit, and ours, Smith thinks the species empathetic, morally disciplined, and reciprocal. He also thinks us compassionate and agreeable by nature, which explains why, for example, the butcher’s product will usually trade above its real value (Wealth of Nations, chapter X, 1., Pelican Classics, pp. 202-203).

Still, it seems to me that Wills has carried Smith’s rehabilitation too far:

look again at the concept division of labor…. People agree, Smith argues, to work together on one project by doing different things. The performer of one function cannot try to undercut the performer of another without defeating the whole cooperative endeavour. Competition does not arise at this level.

I should not deny Wills his assumption that Smith saw the workplace as engendering objective cooperation through the division of labor. I do dispute that even Smith supposes this cooperation to be mainly a result of the mutual agreement which proceeds from workers’ moral sentiments. Cooperation in the workplace exists because, Smith explains, the owner of the workplace organizes and commands for his private purpose the wills of workers whose labor he has purchased:

Wealth, as Mr. Hobbes says, is power…. The power which that possession immediately and directly conveys to him, is the power of purchasing; a certain command of all the labor…which is then on the market. His fortune is greater or less, precisely in proportion…to the quantity either of other men’s labor, or what is the same thing, of the produce of other men’s labor, which it enables him to purchase or command.

[WN, chapter V, p. 134]

Smith does try to resolve the apparent contradiction between the master’s organizing power and the workers’ moral dignity by means of his subsequent assertions that labor contracts in market society are (and should be) voluntary; this, because the workers do (and should) agree to be organized for private utilitarian reasons (WN, chapter 1, pp. 114-115; VIII, pp. 167-168). To make this notion plausible, however, Smith resorts, not to a consideration of workers’ mutual empathy, but to two other premises: that workers could withdraw from any particular contract if their wage is not up to standard; and, more important, that the value paid for workers’ labor “is the same thing” as the value they add to their products.

These premises mar his masterpiece. First, as Marx would point out, workers will withdraw from a particular contract at their peril; combination is more difficult for them than for their employers, and they can anyway not withdraw from the market completely. So competition does arise at (or below) the level of the workplace, i.e., among workers anxious to secure and maintain a place in it. Smith was, ironically, no less aware of these considerations than Marx; he had, after all, read Malthus (WN, chapter VIII, pp. 169 and 183).

Second, Smith’s presumption that the value of labor is equal to the value of labor’s products—the more crucial assumption in view of the private, utilitarian principles to which he expects workers to subscribe—suggests the impossibility of profits’s source: i.e., surplus value. Smith avoids this paradox, Marx assures us, in the most “vulgar” way: by conveniently—and erroneously—resolving all exchange-value into the categories “wages, profit, and rent” (see Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value, Vol. 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, pp. 77-103).

Division of labor thus derives from the organizing power of capital. Granted, sentimental Smith was determined to view all exchange relations in the market as voluntary, including the exchange of labor. But this view is a good deal more contrived than Wills would have us believe. The principle of private maximization (supported by “vulgar” science) will never quite qualify as deliberate cooperation. And Smith is still not the prophet we need.

Bernard Avishai

Toronto, Ontario

Garry Wills replies:
  1. To correct error, Raphael first inserts it with his gloss, equating the moment of virtue with its “total amount.” But in Hutcheson’s Newtonian mechanics of morality, moment(um) means force or impact—cf. Chambers Cyclopaedia: “Moment, Momentum, in mechanics, is the same with impetus.” Thus Hutcheson argues (1725 Inquiry, 169ff.) that a lesser amount of virtue in a prince has greater effect (impact) than a greater amount in a pauper—as the same amount of lead is given greater moment by rifling and firing as a bullet. Amount of virtue looks to merit, and moment to the good effected. The moment of virtue (as opposed to its amount) equals the product (and moment) of good.

  2. I assumed the two editors not only repeated but endorsed Smith’s claim that Hutcheson excluded interest from virtue’s activity—and apologize if that was not the case (I am not clear about it even now). It is a view that seems mistaken for the reasons I gave. Smith, in the passage referred to, cheats a bit as even Raphael indicates (cf. notes 5 and 6, MS 303-305); and he argues that Hutcheson thought benevolence the only, not the pre-eminent virtue. It is true that Hutcheson used benevolence to prove against Mandeville that altruism is possible. But once he had done that, he listed other virtues with which interest, though never predominating (or they would not be virtues at all), is almost always concomitant—e.g., policy with gratitude and fidelity, amour propre with honor.

  3. Smith’s sympathy is not only cognitive (as spectator) but appetitive, since it accomplishes all that Hutcheson’s moral sense did and more (MS 321)—and that sense was isolated precisely to give motive power to virtue. The affections tug man in the gravity system of Smith (MS 220), where “what is called affection, is in reality nothing but habitual sympathy” (italics added).

  4. Avishai, by giving economics its modern narrowness and autonomy, fails to see how cooperation underlies the broad division of labor that makes (e.g.) a standing army and corps of scientists serve the whole of society by conscious foresight—cf. WN 654 and Early Draft (folio 8): “If the Speculations of the Philosopher have been turned towards the improvement of the mechanic arts, the benefit of them (may) evidently descend to the meanest of the people.” The invisible hand makes it necessary for most people to advert to the cooperative scheme at each exchange—Hutcheson and other scientists of man sought an automatic virtue. But philosophers are able to find the benevolent scheme by tracing exchange to its basis in language, the social expression of helpful interdependence. My aim, by the way, was not to find in Smith “the prophet we need” (do we need one?) but to understand him in his own terms.

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