By Serena Cho
Paul Sagar’s latest monograph, Adam Smith Reconsidered: History, Liberty, and the Foundations of Modern Politics, casts the iconic Scottish philosopher in a new light. Whereas Smith is typically seen as a leading advocate of laissez-faire capitalism or more recently as a moral philosopher, Sagar demonstrates the richness and pertinence of his political thought. Recently published by Princeton University Press, the book points out common misunderstandings in Smith scholarship—from portraying Smith as a conjectural historian to attributing Rousseau’s preoccupations with commercial society to Smith—and presents an original argument about Smith’s understanding of liberty as a form of nondomination.
Sagar, a senior lecturer in political theory at King’s College London, sat down with Serena Cho to discuss his new book.
Serena Cho: To set the stage for our conversation, I wanted to begin by asking how you became interested in Adam Smith’s political thought. I am especially interested in how this book evolved from your first monograph, The Opinion of Mankind, which had a chapter on Smith but mostly focused on Hume.
Paul Sagar: I got into Smith almost accidentally. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Hume, which became my first book The Opinion of Mankind. And my then-supervisor, István Hont, commanded me to read Smith and Rousseau because he wanted me to have a comparative framework to understand Hume’s ideas on sociability. That’s when I first became interested in Smith. I saw him as a next-generation philosopher after Hume and Rousseau. Even though Smith and Rousseau are usually treated as contemporaries, because Rousseau is, in some ways, a bit behind what’s being read in Britain, I actually think of him as Hume’s contemporary. Also, Hume and Rousseau are almost of the same age, and Smith is a younger scholar. Smith was interesting because I saw him as taking Hume’s breakthroughs, advancing them another step, and translating them into a yet more sophisticated idiom. This was the conclusion I came to by the end of my first book, The Opinion of Mankind. It was mostly about the theory of the state and sociability, but I thought there was so much more to say about Smith. Specifically, the more I understood Smith, the more I felt that the existing scholarship was quite seriously defective in interpreting him. So my new book serves two purposes: one, a project to finish the story that I had started in The Opinion of Mankind, and second, in my perception, a much-needed corrective to a lot of fixed points in the Smith scholarship.
SC: Speaking of revising the existing scholarship, in the first chapter, you write, “For many accreted layers of misunderstanding currently prevent proper appreciation of Smith’s position, […] we must first remove this obstructing sediment.” (13) You argue that, contrary to popular belief, Smith’s four stages theory is not a conjectural history, but a simplified economic model characterizing the expected path of development for societies under idealized conditions. In addition, this model is not intended to explain the actual economic, militaristic, and political development that took place in Europe. So, I’m curious to know, do you think there is anything valuable in the scholarship portraying Smith as a conjectural historian or as one who charted Europe’s development with the four stages theory?
PS: I think we absolutely need to stop treating the four stages theory as either a conjectural history or as something that really happened in practice. We do need to decisively move beyond that. But that’s not to suggest that there was no value in people uncovering this aspect of Smith’s thought. Ronald Meek’s contribution—though flawed in all kinds of ways—was incredibly important because it kicked open the understanding of Smith as a serious analyst of the relationship between the economic modes of production and politics. It also encouraged scholars to take seriously the Lectures on Jurisprudence, which we’ve only really had widely available since the 1970s with the Glasgow Editions. It takes a long time for these texts to be understood, and focusing on the four stages theory and treating it as a conjectural history allowed those aspects of Smith’s thought to be brought to bear. Specifically, it allowed us to overcome the caricature reading of Smith as a theorist of self-interest—the view of The Wealth of Nations as a stupendous palace built on the granite of self-interest. The scholarship on the four stages theory was absolutely crucial in dislodging that view of Smith and making Smith somebody that historians of political thought could recognize. The fact that I think that the four stages theory has now become an obstacle to a truer understanding of Smith is not to say that previous scholarship was worthless. I couldn’t have written this book without that scholarship.
The four stages theory also allowed historians to attempt ultimately unsuccessful and yet necessary explorations of the genealogy of Smith’s thought. In particular, Duncan Forbes (“Sceptical Whiggism, Commerce, and Liberty”), Knud Haakonssen, and István Hont made early attempts to locate the foundations of Scottish political economy in the natural law tradition. For them, the four stages theory was a mechanism for positioning Smith in an earlier European discourse. In the end, I think that was an unsuccessful attempt because natural law is not the origin of Smith’s or Hume’s thought. But it was completely necessary that the possibility was explored. For example, Hont’s essay “The Language of Sociability and Commerce: Samuel Pufendorf and the Theoretical Foundations of the ‘Four Stages’ Theory” was hugely important for advancing Smith scholarship. Even though I think it now needs to be surpassed, I could only have done the work I’ve done because those early scholars laid the foundations.
So, it’s absolutely not the suggestion of the book that this is all a giant wrong turn and that it should never have happened. However, like all scholarship, it does need to be superseded. Probably, the next generation of scholars will say the same about my book. Max Weber, in “Science as a Vocation,” famously said that part of Wissenschaft is that your work will eventually be overcome and superseded. So, hopefully, in ten years’ time, some young scholar will write a book explaining why I got it wrong, and we’ll make progress. My book isn’t intended as the last word on Adam Smith, but I do think we need to say new things.
SC: I also wanted to talk to you about the place of philosophy and history in political thought. By philosophical analysis, I am referring to—as I believe you did in your book—accounts that discuss “complex normative phenomena” by employing general principles and concepts. (54-55) For its part, history demonstrates how a certain phenomenon or concept is contingent on particular circumstances, such as time and place. You say in your book: “It is true that Smith did not offer a theory, if by that one means a primarily philosophical analysis of the idea of political freedom. But as I hope to show below, that is not the only way to try to understand what freedom is—as indeed is exemplified by Smith’s own works.” (55 n.3) Could you first elaborate on what you mean here?
PS: Smith belongs to a relatively minor tradition in the history of political thought that views moral principles as effectively coming from the practices of human agents themselves. He didn’t put it like this, but I think he would certainly agree with the late Jerry Gaus that morality is a technology that humans developed to facilitate social living. Morality is rooted in our evolutionary history, is variable across societies, and is ultimately subjective. Smith is a metaphysical anti-realist, like Hume. What’s interesting is that Smith’s belief does not lead him toward skepticism about the content of our normative judgments. While our normative judgments come from historically located practices—and morality is ultimately just a technology that we’ve developed over thousands of years of living together—this doesn’t mean that it somehow loses its importance to us.
SC: Right—and this is why I think that examining Smith’s view on aesthetic judgment is so important!
PS: Right. Because aesthetic judgments and moral judgments are both based on the same underlying mental technology that is developed from living in a group over time, influenced by upbringing and contact. And what this means, in turn, is that morality and aesthetics are rooted in our psychology and therefore our history. So if you want to understand why certain principles have a bearing on us, you have to understand them as historical products. That’s why, for Smith, history is so important.
SC: In The Opinion of Mankind, you wrote: “For a history of law and government to become a political theory capable of explaining the normative content of authority, some normative account must ultimately be offered. History alone cannot supply that: political theory needs philosophy. Without it, Smith’s history of law and government can offer only an interesting dead end.” (108) Here, you were responding to István Hont’s attempt at locating principles for political judgment in Smith’s writings. How has your understanding or appreciation of Smith’s political thought evolved since writing this first book? Do you consider this claim in line with your remarks about the importance of history in your new book and in our conversation?
PS: Very much so. My claim in The Opinion of Mankind was that Smith can’t just be a historian. You can’t just present freestanding historical facts as though they somehow determine our understanding of the legitimacy of government. However, Smith is also different from someone like Rousseau. Rousseau thinks that there are principles for rights that exist independently from historical contingency. Indeed, for Rousseau, history is one long story of corruption and decline.
Recent political theorists in the Anglophone tradition have a tendency to do political theory purely analytically. There has been a kickback against that, with Hont, for example, arguing that you just need history. I think that Smith is somewhere in between those two positions. You can’t do political theory purely analytically because our values, judgments, and normative concepts are conditioned by history. But you also can’t just read off history by itself. You need to impose normative concepts and judgment.
SC: This is why I found your discussion of nondomination so intriguing, because I saw it as an attempt to draw out a philosophical thread in Smith’s history.
PS: Exactly. Hont is right to look at the history of European civilization because, for Smith, that’s the source of our normative principles. But there is also a philosophical picture. Of course, it’s not going to be a purely philosophical account. It’s not going to be, for example, what I criticize in the book as the Skinner-Pettit view of nondomination. (52,96) They treat nondomination as a freestanding concept of not being arbitrarily interfered with and assume that this static condition can be applied across all times and places. In my view, Smith would think that this is not the right way to make sense of freedom. It’s more nuanced than that.
SC: So let’s delve deeper into the idea of liberty and nondomination in Smith’s writings. You wrote: “This is what modern liberty is for Smith—not just a reconfiguration of the conditions via which nondomination can be secured, but in turn a qualitative change in what nondomination means, insofar as new possibilities for configuring the conditions alter the relevant conceptualisations.” (85) So first, could you explain what liberty is for Smith, in the “present sense of the word”? (83) How does the conceptualization of nondomination change in post-feudal Europe?
PS: In general, Smith thinks that liberty is being secure from physical and material exploitation and aggression from others. Basically, freedom means that the rich and powerful are not just going to attack you or take your stuff. That’s the bare minimum you need for freedom anywhere.
Regarding liberty in the modern sense, there is a particular mechanism for procuring that security from assault, interference, and domination: the rule of law. Modern liberty is the idea that everybody has to play by the same rules and that there are impartial third parties for resolving disputes. For Smith, this was achieved only in modern Europe by a total accident. It was an unexpected outcome of various factors, such as the appointments of judges and the need to protect property to achieve economic development. So modern liberty is security from domination via the mechanism of the rule of law, which is only found in modern Europe.
SC: To further press this point about liberty, if nondomination is so fluid a concept, why is it reasonable for Smith to specifically call ancient republics and post-feudal monarchies free societies, while excluding other periods? For example, as you point out in The Opinion of Mankind, shepherding societies were at root democratic, and warlords could technically be overthrown if enough people opposed them. But Smith only identifies ancient Greece and Rome, along with post-feudal Europe, as periods that saw the first and second rise of liberty.
Also, you stated in the book that “whilst for Smith liberty in general means not being dominated, taken by itself this formulation is too underdescriptive to be meaningful or informative.” (93) So, how might one determine whether one’s society protects liberty and use the idea of nondomination as a guide for judgment, given that it is such a fluid concept?
PS: Well, there are certain human universals, such as that the powerful tend to exploit the weak whenever they can. Human beings, unfortunately, have a lust for domination, and if left uncontrolled, they will act on that desire. However, because social structures change, the way that each society understands nondomination and liberty will be very different.
For example, Smith explains how the Athenians and Romans bought their freedom at the expense of the thousands of slaves who provided material abundance so that they could spend all their time in courts and assemblies. A tiny number of citizens prevented domination amongst themselves by dominating a massive number of slaves.
The modern understanding of freedom is similar in that it’s about avoiding domination. But the crucial difference is that post-feudal Europe has done away with slavery, which Smith considers one of the greatest achievements of modern politics. In modernity, we expanded the remit of nondomination and secured liberty through the mechanism of the rule of law. So modern liberty is similar to ancient liberty—they are both about security from domination—but also massively different in how they are secured and who they are secured for.
SC: And why do democratic politics in shepherding societies fail to qualify as a form of nondomination and thus liberty?
PS: This may be a tension in Smith’s thought that remains unresolved. I suppose people in shepherding societies do not have liberty because they are always subject to domination as individuals, even though they can act as a group. Because the warlord was also the judge of all disputes in shepherding societies, the executive and judicial functions were not yet separated. There was no mechanism for appeal against the warlord’s judgment, so people were arbitrarily dominated like those living under barons in feudal societies. For Smith, shepherding societies and feudal societies shared this arbitrariness and lack of recourse from domination. On the other hand, for the Athenians and Romans, at least for the elite male aristocrats, there was a trial procedure, even though their courts look incredibly imperfect in our eyes. Also, while there were many breakdowns in this system, the legislature emerged and served as a check on the executive. Whereas in shepherding societies and feudal localities, the lack of separation of powers generated arbitrariness and domination.
SC: That’s interesting—it reminds me of the end of the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, where Smith expounds on the Greek and Roman courts and compares them with the modern judiciary system.
One more question about Smith’s idea of liberty. In the third chapter, you discussed how Smith’s notion of nondomination does not conform to the republican understanding of freedom, which has been largely shaped by Skinner and Pettit. Specifically, you wrote that Smith stands out because he “seeks to sever, the central republican linkage between law, political participation, and nondomination.” (101) I agree with you that Smith considered the common law and independent judiciary essential for preserving modern liberty, but I wonder if this claim underestimates the extent to which active participation in politics also remained an important feature of nondomination for Smith. For example, in Part V of the Lectures on Jurisprudence(A), Smith discusses how the growing influence of the House of Commons and the frequency of elections contributed to the rise of liberty in modern Britain. (LJ(A).v.123)
PS: Smith definitely thinks that the separation of powers is important. He’s clear that the emergence of a strong legislature balancing the executive is one of the great achievements of modern politics. What I’m pushing back on is the idea that this represents some form of meaningful mass political participation. I’m also pushing back on the idea that if ordinary people are not engaged in the making of the laws, they are dominated by alien laws imposed by legislators.
In the standard republican view, it’s absolutely central that the people subjected to the laws have a say in how the laws are created and modified over time. But Smith rejects that view and believes that people are not dominated as long as the law is consistently applied, and they have recourse to the courts. So, Smith goes in the opposite direction from the republican view, and this makes some people think that Smith is awfully conservative. They think that we can’t possibly turn to Smith for our modern democratic needs. I’m not so sure. I think Smith might have an important point about nondomination, though.
SC: I also found your discussion on corruption and commercial society fascinating. While the civic humanist tradition denies the effective distinction between systemic, venal, and moral corruption, you claim that Smith separates them. Accordingly, while Smith discusses individual corruption in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he does not draw further conclusions about the health or longevity of the body politic.
But I wonder how this claim can be squared with Smith’s discussion of fashion and custom in Part V of TMS, especially on licentiousness during the reign of Charles II. (V.ii.3) While moral corruption is not a unique problem for the commercial age or for post-feudal Europe in Smith’s thought, he implies here that the corruption of fashion—or the general taste of the people—can have important political consequences.
PS: Perhaps I should have qualified that argument. To contextualize, in Chapter Four of Adam Smith Reconsidered, I am pushing back against drawing an equivalence between Rousseau and Smith. Scholars have suggested that Smith agreed with Rousseau in criticizing commercial society for creating inequality, making us proud and competitive, and leading to moral degradation, which ultimately results in a political failing. I think that’s mistaken, because insofar as moral corruption is a problem for Smith, it concerns the elites. In Part V and in Part I Section III of TMS, Smith discusses how people use wealth and power to accrue more influence and how the culture of flattery perpetuates this cycle. I do accept that there is a connection between moral corruption and political corruption at that level, but this has more to do with the system of political organization rather than the effect of markets or luxury goods. The type of corruption you are concerned with is different from what people have predominantly attributed to Smith. So, you’re right to draw attention to Part V, and I could have been more nuanced about corruption among elites. But I was more focused on contesting the way people have transposed Rousseau’s preoccupations to Smith and therefore misread what Smith is actually saying.
SC: Lastly, what do you think are the biggest takeaways from your book?
PS: I didn’t realize I was trying to do this at the time, but Glory Liu, a great up-and-coming scholar on Smith’s reception, summarized my book back to me. She is right in saying that I tried to write a history of Smith as a political thinker without politicizing Smith.
My primary aim has been to show that Smith was a phenomenally impressive theorist of politics and that he has epochal contributions to the history of political thought. But these will be missed if we don’t understand that he wasn’t like other big names in the history of political thought, primarily because he subordinated philosophical theory to historical framing and analysis.
Secondly, the political lessons from Smith are not straightforward. They’re not going to cleanly fall on the side of one ideology, and Glory is the expert on this. Smith has been constantly reappropriated by different political tribes since the 1980s, from the Chicago School portraying him as the theorist of the free market to American liberals painting him as a qualified apologist for capitalism who cares about poor people. My sense is that Smith’s position is too nuanced and complex to fit in any of these categories neatly. Maybe the ideological lesson here is that we should all back off from ideology, because one thing Smith can show us is how complicated history is and how any ideology is unlikely to be able to handle that.
Serena Cho is a graduate student studying Intellectual History and Classics at the University of Cambridge. She is interested in the relationship between the aesthetic and the political.
Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta
Featured Image: Muir Portrait, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.