A Contradiction in Adam Smith?

Or perhaps not? Discuss.

Passage 1:
"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 chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder." -- Theory of Moral Sentiments, VI.II.42

Passage 2:
"A superior may, indeed, sometimes, with universal approbation, oblige those under his jurisdiction to behave, in this respect, with a certain degree of propriety to one another. The laws of all civilized nations oblige parents to maintain their children, and children to maintain their parents, and impose upon men many other duties of beneficence. The civil magistrate is entrusted with the power not only of preserving the public peace by restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth, by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree. When the sovereign commands what is merely indifferent, and what, antecedent to his orders, might have been omitted without any blame, it becomes not only blamable but punishable to disobey him. When he commands, therefore, what, antecedent to any such order, could not have been omitted without the greatest blame, it surely becomes much more punishable to be wanting in obedience. Of all the duties of a law-giver, however, this, perhaps, is that which it requires the greatest delicacy and reserve to execute with propriety and judgment. To neglect it altogether exposes the commonwealth to many gross disorders and shocking enormities, and to push it too far is destructive of all liberty, security, and justice." -- Theory of Moral Sentiments, II.II.8


  1. Well, he is not an anarchist, and believes in the lesser of two evils principle which necessitates the existence of a government of some sort. But is he arguing against any plan of a government in the first passage? No. He seems to argue merely against dictatorship (a single ideal plan of government without any deviation, without the need for universal approbation) and for democracy (government with universal approbation that is subject to change due to the public will).

    1. "believes in the lesser of two evils principle"

      No he doesn't. He recognizes the state is a positive good, not a lesser evil! As do Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Hegel, and pretty much every other major political thinker.

      But I suppose it is more comforting for anarchists to believe this "lesser of two evils" twaddle.

    2. Ok, ma bad, I think I confused Smith with Thomas Paine. Doesn't change my point. I think Smith didn't contradict himself here.

      BTW: I am not an anarchist nor I am a minarchist. I am still agnostic about this point.

      I don't see how this is a twaddle when there actually are many who think this to be the case with a government like Paine.

      Not to forget what do you vote for? Do you really vote for positive candidates that actually really promote mainly those policies you favor and finally do that when they are in office? Or do you vote strategically because there isn't even a candidate fitting your requirements with a chance to win? How was it in the last election?

    3. skylien, that two candidates may both present evils does not mean government itself is an evil!

      I don't think these quotes contradict each other either. But...

      "Right-wing" Smithians often point to the first one and say, "See, Smith is a minarchist!"

      "Left-wing" Smithians point to the latter, and say "He sees a major role for government."

  2. Fair enough.
    I think this is generally more of a philosophical question. If I have cancer than chemotherapy might yield positive results in that it damages me on some areas less than it cures me on others, yet I am sure you would not fault someone for thinking it is just the lesser of two evils, right? If you really could choose you would choose neither cancer nor chemo therapy. Only the circumstances of life force you to choose only among them.

    It is similar with government. Just because having no government could be worse and a certain government may stop more violence in one area than it creates in others doesn't mean that government is actually beneficial and that you would not rather choose a third option (having no violence at all) if it were available. Having to vote for the lesser of two evils all the time is just a consequence of this, in my view.

    So I can see why people might think chemotherapy or/and government are really positive (despite having to vote for the lesser of two evils at elections) and also why people (including me) think it is (at best) just the lesser of two evils but not really positive. Matter of perspective, no view is really wrong or right.