December 16th, 2012

Hutcheson’s Student – Adam Smith – Liberty’s Role in Creating Modern Society


Our last post was about Frances Hutcheson, who held the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.  Hutcheson’s influence on the course of the Scottish Enlightenment led directly to the incorporation of individual liberty – i.e. the “pursuit of happiness” – into Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, each of the state constitutions prior to 1787,  and Madison’s 1787 draft of the Constitution of the United States.

In 1756, Hutcheson was succeeded by one of his former students at Glasgow – Adam Smith – a philosophy professor described after his death as the world’s first professional economist.  Again, we rely on Herman’s book, The Scottish Enlightenment (Harper Perennial, 2001), see, pp. 188-189.  Adam Smith was born in 1723 in Kirkcaldy, near Edinburgh.  His father, though trained in the law, served as customs inspector in Kirkcaldy.  Smuggling was a difficult problem along the Scottish coasts.

“His father’s frustrations in trying to intercept the operations of local smugglers, most of whom were otherwise law-abiding citizens and merchants, were an early lesson for the younger Adam Smith in how human ingenuity will find a way to defy government rules and regulations, such as customs tariffs, when they fly in the face of self-interest.  Here is how Smith would put it in his Wealth of Nations, almost fifty years later:

‘The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition . . . is so powerful a principle, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often incumbers its operations.’

Words that have made every socialist, and every liberal of an altruistic Hutcheson mould, gnash his teeth!  But the truth is that it was Adam Smith who snatched Hutcheson from the burning embers to which the sceptic David Hume had consigned him, and who tried to find a way to keep the idea that human beings have an inborn moral sense, and natural regard for others, alive as a basic principle of human nature.  We usually think of Adam Smith as an economist, and the founder of the study of political economy . . . [b]ut Adam Smith thought of himself primarily as a moral philosopher, and almost all his studies came down to answering the basic questions Hutcheson had raised.  Why are human beings on average good rather than bad?  Why do they choose (on the whole) to lead constructive lives, getting up in the morning to go to work and raise a family and build relationships with other human beings, instead of (on the whole) murdering and plundering them?

The answers Smith came up with were different from Hutcheson’s . . . .  In many ways Smith is the fusion of the two sides of the Enlightenment, the ‘soft’ side represented by Hutcheson – with its belief in man’s innate goodness, its faith in the power of education to enlighten and liberate, and its appeal to nature – and the ‘hard’ side represented by Kames and Hume, with its cool, skeptical distrust of human intentions and motives.  A fusion, but also a tension runs all through Smith’s work, a tension that is never fully resolved.  It is the tension that runs through all of modern life and culture, in fact – a tension between what human beings ought to be, and occasionally are, and what they really are, and generally remain.  Smith’s great achievement was to have the courage to confront that tension head-on, to describe it and analyse it, and then leave it to others in the future to understand it in their own way.  It is this, not his role as the supposed high priest of capitalism, that has made him one of the great modern thinkers, and makes him still important to us today.”

Most importantly, Smith incorporated and extended Hutcheson’s central notion that it was liberty – always individual liberty – that enabled everything else in society to move.  Human beings are born free and equal.  The desire to be free survives, even in the face of the demands for cooperation with others.  Society acknowledges it as a natural right, which it must leave intact.

The mid-course corrections proposed in The Second Bill of Rights and The New Federalist Papers focus upon the need for restoration of liberty – the concept that enables the existence of modern society.  To help us rekindle individual freedom and liberty in the United States, click on the Book link above or go directly to Amazon:

With malice toward none, and charity for all!


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