The Presumption of Liberty in Adam Smith

As I discussed the other day, Adam Smith had a presumption of liberty that permeates his “liberal system.” There were exceptions that could be made, naturally, but these exceptions mere existence did not in and of themselves justify the sovereign to act. Consider one such example discussed in the Wealth of Nations (emphasis added):

Were all nations to follow the liberal system of free exportation and free importation, the different states into which a great continent was divided would so far resemble the different provinces of a great empire. As among the different provinces of a great empire the freedom of the inland trade appears, both from reason and experience, not only the best palliative of a dearth, but the most effectual preventative of a famine; so would the freedom of the exportation and importation trade be among the different states into which a great continent was divided. The larger the continent, the easier the communication through all the different parts of it, both by land and by water, the less would any one particular part of it ever be exposed to either of these calamities, the scarcity of any one country being more likely to be relieved by the plenty of some other. But very few countries have entirely adopted this liberal system. The freedom of the corn trade is almost every-where more or less restrained, and, in many countries, is confined by such absurd regulations as frequently aggravate the unavoidable misfortune of a dearth into the dreadful calamity of a famine. The demand of such countries for corn may frequently become so great and so urgent that a small state in their neighbourhood, which happened at the same time to be labouring under some degree of dearth, could not venture to supply them without exposing itself to the like dreadful calamity. The very bad policy of one country may thus render it in some measure dangerous and imprudent to establish what would otherwise be the best policy in another. The unlimited freedom of exportation, however, would be much less dangerous in great states, in which the growth being much greater, the supply could seldom be much affected by any quantity of corn that was likely to be exported. In a Swiss canton, or in some of the little states of Italy, it may perhaps sometimes be necessary to restrain the exportation of corn. In such great countries as France or England it scarce ever can.

Page 539.39

In short, there may be good reason to limit exports of food to a neighboring country if they are so famished that they would draw away local food production due to higher prices. However, this potential exception does not in and of itself justify the prohibitions. Smith goes on to say (emphasis added):

To hinder, besides, the farmer from sending his goods at all times to the best market is evidently to sacrifice the ordinary laws of justice to an idea of public utility, to a sort of reasons of state; an act of legislative authority which ought to be exercised only, which can be pardoned only in cases of the most urgent necessity. 

Page 539.39

The act of interfering in trade is a sacrifice of the ordinary laws of justice, the laws the sovereign is sworn to uphold in the liberal system of Adam Smith (for the list of sovereign duties, see Pg. 687.51). Thus, Smith reasons, the sovereign should only undertake these exceptions, not when it is merely justified, but when it is “urgent[ly] necessary.”

Another example of this high burden of proof exists in his discussion of the national defense exception to free trade. Smith writes:

There seem, however, to be two cases in which it will generally be advantageous to lay some burden upon foreign for the encouragement of domestic industry.

The first is, when some particular sort of industry is necessary for the defence of the country. The defence of Great Britain, for example, depends very much upon the number of its sailors and shipping. The act of navigation, therefore, very properly endeavours to give the sailors and shipping of Great Britain the monopoly of the trade of their own country in some cases by absolute prohibitions and in others by heavy burdens upon the shipping of foreign countries.

Pg. 463.23-24

However, Smith goes on to say this mere justification is not enough (emphasis added):

When the act of navigation was made, though England and Holland were not actually at war, the most violent animosity subsisted between the two nations. It had begun during the government of the Long Parliament, which first framed this act, and it broke out soon after in the Dutch wars during that of the Protector and of Charles the Second. It is not impossible, therefore, that some of the regulations of this famous act may have proceeded from national animosity. They are as wise, however, as if they had all been dictated by the most deliberate wisdom. National animosity at that particular time aimed at the very same object which the most deliberate wisdom would have recommended, the diminution of the naval power of Holland, the only naval power which could endanger the security of England.

Page 464.30

The acts of navigation, which were indeed a violation of the ordinary laws of justice, were justified and proper (note this word “properly” appears in his initial justification in paragraph 24) in this particular case because war with Holland was inevitable and imminent. National defense, then, is not a broad exception to the liberal system of free importation and free exportation, but rather a very specific exception in the face of imminent national danger.

The duties of the sovereign in Smith are threefold: defend the nation from outside invasion, enforce the rules of justice domestically, and provide public works that are necessary and proper for the nation. These actions imply a presumption of liberty within the liberal system. The sovereign certainly has the right as a sovereign to perform certain actions that may violate liberty, but this power is one that must be executed with propriety as it violates the role of the sovereign as administrator of justice. Violations of the most ordinary laws of justice should not be undertaken lightly, and as these above quotes show (and many others throughout the Wealth of Nations, Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Lectures on Jurisprudence, not to mention his own correspondences), mere justification for a sovereign act is not enough to authorize such an act.