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Gordon Brown’s ‘Adam Smith problem’

Matthew Watson


Smith's own writings betray a generic tension between the behavioural habits required for a dynamic market economy and those required for a self-sustaining market society.


Gordon Brown has described Adam Smith as his ‘hero of the Scottish Enlightenment’ for providing a conception of the just economy. On another occasion he identified Smith as the most important figure in the development of social liberalism, the ‘golden thread which runs through British history’ – in Brown’s depiction, from the intellectual life of eighteenth-century Scotland to the governing strategies of New Labour. He has also spoken positively of the vision of national renewal he takes from reading Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments alongside his more famous Wealth of Nations. This is a vision ‘of competitive markets and social improvement underpinned by a desire for betterment and empathy, economic efficiency and social justice advancing together’ (Brown, 2006b; 2005a; 2002).

Attempting to demonstrate the practical relevance of Adam Smith for contemporary politics, Iain McLean provides substantive support for Brown’s efforts to reclaim Smith for the British left. McLean’s case emphasises three themes which resonate repeatedly within Smith’s work: 

(1) the fact that he argued for the institutionalisation of commercial society specifically on the grounds of its politically progressive effects in civilising individuals, their leaders and their nations;

(2) the fact that he linked the health of commercial society to its establishment within a political order founded on the principles of moral egalitarianism; and

(3) the fact that he envisaged an active role for the state in ensuring the provision of the public goods that guarantee the sustainability of the commercial society.

The image of Smith which emerges is very different to the intellectual poster child of 1980s-style Thatcherism. McLean goes as far as to assert that a social democratic reading of his work reveals ‘the truest Adam Smith’ (McLean, 2006, 138).

McLean arrives at his conclusion on the recognition that Smith is both an economic and a social liberal. There is nothing in the least inappropriate in this characterisation, but it can be shown to pose something of a problem for Brown once it is investigated further. What it means to be an economic liberal in Britain today is inflected with the connotations of an altogether different political settlement to that of what it means to be a social liberal. Despite eleven years of Labour government, the ideology of British economic liberalism continues to contain the imprint of the idealised individual which came to prominence in the politics of Thatcherism. This is a ruggedly independent person who believes in self-help via upward social mobility and who pushes thoughts of social responsibilities very firmly to the background. Directly against such an image, the ideology of British social liberalism continues to be based on the notion of equal individual rights associated with the social responsibilities underpinning the post-war welfare state.

These two distinct articulations of liberalism are clearly difficult to reconcile. For evidence we need look no further than Brown’s continual struggle to convince Labour Party supporters that he can successfully balance the dual demands of (economic) efficiency and (social) fairness. One potential reason why they are so difficult to bring together in a coherent programme for government arises – somewhat ironically perhaps – from Smith’s own work. Adam Smith returned time and again to the question of the type of individual we all have to become if we are to thrive in the context of market life. At that level, it is possible to identify in Smith’s writing a generic tension between the behavioural habits required for a dynamic market economy, and the behavioural habits required for a self-sustaining market society.


Brown’s model citizen

Gordon Brown has striven to outline a conception of the model citizen most suited to his programme of British renewal. His is an idealised image of autonomous individuals who support themselves on most matters of everyday life, but who can be sure that the state will guarantee the robust provision of public goods necessary to protect that autonomy. This is pretty much the standard characterisation of the relationship between the individual and political society to be found in liberal philosophy from the seventeenth century onwards, especially as it is applied to the economic sphere. Brown has attempted to capture what he means in this respect by talking about his vision of ‘the individual standing firm’ in the context of assistance from an ‘enabling government’ helping them to make more of themselves (Brown, 2005a; 2003).

Brown’s emphasis specifically on the economic autonomy of the individual is a clear echo of the Thatcherite doctrine of economic liberalism which continues to pervade contemporary British politics. Yet, this is not to say that the details of policy remain as they were in the 1980s. Thatcherite economic autonomy was defined relative to the tax burden imposed by the state, whereas for New Labour economic autonomy arises from increasing access to the labour market. The New Deal reforms and the introduction of complex systems of Tax Credits both highlight the significance that the Brown Treasury attached to enabling individuals to identify themselves first and foremost as workers. The roads to the autonomy prized so highly by economic liberals are different in the Thatcher and New Labour eras, but the ostensible destination is the same.

Of course, Margaret Thatcher’s personal brand of tax-based economic liberalism was framed by the notion that there ‘is no such thing as society’ (Keay, 1987). Brown’s brand of work-based economic liberalism implies something else entirely. In his conception of the idealised individual, ‘to work’ has two distinct dimensions. On the one hand it is to work on one’s own behalf, seeking monetary rewards from waged labour in order to satisfy both current and future consumption needs. This is amply illustrated by the active labour market policies of the New Deal and its mechanism of obligation designed to incentivise incorporation into the labour force. On the other hand it is also to work on behalf of one’s community, adding to the collective unpaid effort of ensuring that civic society is sufficiently vigorous to allow every individual to flourish within it. The commitment to nurturing people who give their time to voluntary activities serves as an obvious example (Brown, 1998; 2005b).

Brown thus envisions individuals engaging both consciously and conscionably with the institutions of civic society in an attempt to make life better for others. He has espoused the idea of ‘the active citizen’, ‘the good neighbour’ (Brown, 2006b). To become such a person involves a deliberate re-moralisation of the self, a process of enhancing ethical awareness designed to ensure a full contribution to an adequately functioning society. He has paid fulsome tribute to community activists whose selfless efforts in creating local networks of carers, mentors and coaches improves the life experiences of countless other people: ‘Britain’s everyday heroes: the kind of heroes who live next door, and in the next street, and throughout our neighbourhoods – the kind of heroes we might ourselves become’ (Brown, 2008). From his perspective, the goal of a healthy civic society is to allow for greater opportunities of individual self-enhancement, both for those who maintain the structure of voluntary associations and for those who benefit from its services.

In this respect, Brown’s model citizen appears to be a manifestation of the same generic ends as those associated with the prevailing doctrine of social liberalism in British politics, as it was with economic liberalism. Yet once more there is a certain distinctiveness about New Labour. The prevailing doctrine of social liberalism in British politics continues to owe much to the traditions of the post-war welfare state, which in turn embodied the sense that no person should be systematically penalised for reasons of social disadvantage. The aim of the post-war welfare state was to provide the ability for everyone to live securely, so that they could then use the knowledge that they would be fed, clothed and housed as the catalyst for bettering themselves. The welfare state was constructed on the basis of transfer payments, access to which was an entitlement of citizenship. Brown also envisions a context in which all individuals are helped to flourish. The difference today, though, is that such a context is created not merely by an individual exercising a right held against the state, but by combining this with other individuals repaying their responsibilities to the state through ensuring robust institutions of civic society.

So Brown’s model citizen is someone who cherishes their personal autonomy and accepts that the world of work provides the portal to autonomous living. Yet it is also someone who feels an instinctive need to give something back to the community in return for enjoying that autonomy. In a book tracing the varied intellectual influences on Brown’s thinking, Simon Lee describes such an individual as one born of a system of ‘sympathetic liberalism’ (Lee, 2007, 47–50). Such a characterisation not only suggests that Brown’s aspirations to remake the moral basis of everyday life in contemporary Britain are limited to the parameters of modern liberal philosophy. It also helps to capture his reliance on Smith through appealing to the latter’s core philosophical concept.


Smith on sympathy

Adam Smith’s thoughts on the sympathetic relationships in which the individual is immersed in everyday situations are largely condensed into his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Today, we tend to use the word ‘sympathy’ in an effort to denote the ethical content of an action: people are said to act sympathetically when their behaviour corresponds to another person’s psychological need for comfort in the face of potentially distressing occurrences. However, Smith worked with an alternative usage drawn from eighteenth-century philosophical theory. For him, the word referred to the process through which moral subjectivity is formed. In a Smithian world, the process of seeking moral awareness results from one person’s desire to change his or her instinctive reaction to other people, as a means of living side-by-side with them in a functioning social formation. Put simply, it is all about becoming better adjusted for life within society.

Smith was a fervent advocate of practical ethics. He digressed on occasions to talk about idealised images of the perfectly virtuous person. But in the main he was content to situate his moral philosophy within the boundaries of innate human fallibility and to focus instead on how actual people form moral judgements in real life. His aim was to specify a moral system based on observations of everyday human interaction.

Constructing a theory of moral judgement on everyday observations thereby replicates the dynamics through which actual moral judgements themselves are formed. For Smith, these dynamics involve a process of personal refinement which unfolds through a sequence of lived experiences. Individuals learn more about other people – and, through that, more about themselves – simply by building up the memory of interacting with them over time. He wrote evocatively of the ‘mirror’ which society provides for people to consider and improve their character. The product of any one individual’s memory bank transposes itself into a more profound recognition of other people’s perceptions of their own physical and psychological needs. The ability to make socially-integrative moral judgements depends on the extent to which the needs of other people influence the way an individual acts: 

We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them; unless we remove ourselves, as it were, for our own natural station, and endeavour to view them as at a certain distance from us. (Smith, 1982, III.1.3, III.1.2)

Moral judgement, according to Smith, is therefore akin to the vicarious act of seeing other people interact with their surroundings through our own eyes, as if their lives were instead happening to us. Moral refinement – the display of which is the ultimate goal of all moral judgement – harnesses the capacity to temporarily swap sensations with the person being observed through a process of psychic projection. For Smith, the contents of the emotional state we produce in our own minds offers the most compelling clue concerning the moral judgement that we should pass on other people’s attempts to deal both physically and psychologically with the challenges of everyday life. He used the word ‘sympathy’ to describe the learned process of adjusting one’s emotional state to the prevailing tenor of someone else’s. This restored to the word an important sense of its original Greek derivation: sumpátheia: from sun- (‘with’) and pathos (‘feeling’) – to sympathise with other people is to share with them in their feelings about the world, whatever the nature of those feelings.

This is crucial to understanding how Smith linked the process of moral refinement to socially harmonious living more generally. ‘Bring him into society’, he wrote of the man who might otherwise be confined to growing up ‘in some solitary place’, ‘and all his own passions will immediately become the causes of new passions’ amongst his peers (Smith, 1982, III.1.3). A social ideal arises when observers recognise that the response of the person principally concerned was commensurable with the social situation in which they found themselves, whilst the person principally concerned recognises that the appropriateness of his or her response has drawn affirmation in the minds of the observers. In Smith’s terminology, the observers have expressed sympathy with the person principally concerned and vice versa. None of these expressions require direct vocal confirmation that this is what any of the people is thinking: it is a mental action which is transmitted between people via psychic projection. The social ideal in any situation encompasses the actualisation of mutual sympathy.

It is hopefully clear, then, just how much depended for Smith on the continual reproduction of an active imagination. The very bonds of social living are predicated on a well-tutored mind being able to imaginatively reconstruct the sense of what it must be like when temporarily swapping life situations with someone else. By being able to see the world through the way in which someone else’s circumstances imprint themselves on our imagination we can also see our own contribution to the world from their standpoint. The gradual accretion of social rights since Smith’s day has been based on what is revealed when acts of the imagination allow the standpoint of the poor, the disadvantaged and the oppressed to penetrate the legislative agenda. The social liberalism to which Smith subscribed more generally depends upon the presence of pristine imaginations amongst the population at large. However, he also identified conditions through which the individual’s imaginative faculties were necessarily degraded. These conditions are associated with the internal dynamics of economic liberalism.


Smith on the degradation of the imagination

The economy is not neutral with respect to the type of moral judgement displayed within society. All economic systems socialise the individuals operating within them in a manner which is functional to the reproduction of the system. Each economic system works best in the presence of particular sorts of people, and the dominant socialisation pressures emitted by the system attempt to create the right sorts of people for the system to become self-sustaining.

It is on this point that I depart from those who believe that Adam Smith’s synthesis of social and economic liberalism offers an important template for Gordon Brown to adopt for the modern Labour Party. I do so because I take a much less sanguine view of that synthesis. It is possible to identify in Smith’s work the suggestion of a generic contradiction in market capitalism between the needs of the economy and the needs of society. The contradiction is manifested at the level of the individual acting as a moral agent.

Everyday economic life under market capitalism socialises individuals in a way which is destructive of an active imagination. As such, over time it tends to deprive those individuals of the sympathetic capabilities which, for Smith, strengthen the basis of social life through effective moral judgement. The ideal individual for the market economy is one who provides it with the dynamism which causes it to grow. Yet, this type of person is far from ideal for maintaining healthy societal relationships in which everyday life can be embedded. He or she in general will lack what Smith saw as the imaginative prerequisites for the maintenance of a stable and integrative society. The specific form of socialisation which imbues individuals with the competitive, self-serving characteristics that enable them to thrive economically at the same time erodes the foundations of interpersonal relationships built on mutual recognition of the needs of all.

Smith associated the former characteristics primarily with ‘vanity’. But he was adamant that excessive activation of vanity strips the individual of much of the capacity to exercise socially beneficial moral judgements. As such, it is prejudicial to the reproduction of the very bonds of society itself. He lamented the ‘disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition’, describing it as ‘the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments’. And he poured scorn on ambition for social status which is directed towards nothing more than personal self-aggrandisement, depicting it as ‘that great object which divides the wives of aldermen’, and decrying the fact that it

is the end of half the labours of human life; and is the cause of all the tumult and bustle, all the rapine and injustice, which avarice and ambition have introduced into this world. (Smith, 1982, I.iii.3.1; I.iii.2.8)

On my reading of his work, the contradiction to which Smith points has two distinct dimensions. One aspect of the tension which market institutions impose upon social life originates on what today we call the supply side of the economy. The other originates on what we call the demand side.


Work and the imagination

The supply-side degradation of the individual’s imaginative capabilities arises from the mode of production on which the economic institutions of market capitalism are founded – in particular, the incorporation of the individual into a systematised division of labour. Nowhere in The Wealth of Nations does Smith use his social liberal voice with such passion than when urging decisive action against the effects of the division of labour on the individual’s psychological well-being. He wrote of ‘the torpor of the mind’ occasioned by the requirement to specialise at a single, simple work task, arguing that the person who is employed to such an end is rendered

not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.

For Smith, the conscious restriction of a person’s economic activities to suit the needs of the system necessarily subordinates potential human creativity to commodity labour power, and curtails that person’s scope for displaying imagination. So concerned was Smith about the adverse socialising effects of the division of labour that he described it as ‘mental mutilation’ (Smith, 1981, V.i.f.50; V.i.f.60).

Smith’s chief concern was that the work-related needs of the economy abstracted the individual from contexts in which moral self-tutelage becomes possible. A well-honed imagination is essential to the process of moral judgement in his account, but acts of the imagination are deliberately discouraged under a systematised division of labour: 

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion. (Smith, 1981, V.i.f.50)

The self-tutelage required for a person to become a good worker is the very antithesis of Smithian moral self-tutelage, where the demand is continually to exert self-produced knowledge as a means of refining techniques of moral judgement. The type of individual who excels at performing routine repetitive work tasks is generally cleansed of the mental stimulation which facilitates displays of sympathy for the purpose of creating lasting societal bonds. Economic and social liberalism therefore push in different directions.


Consumption and vanity

The demand-side degradation of the individual’s imaginative capabilities arises from the economy’s need to continually induce higher levels of consumption activity if it is to grow. Smith argued that the capital accumulation process functions successfully only in the context of pervasive self-deceit at the level of the individual: ‘It is this deception [i.e., the assumption that becoming rich necessarily means being happy] which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind’ (Smith, 1982, IV.1.9).

Individuals struggle to better themselves so that they can be surrounded by the material possessions commensurable with an increased standing in society. However, on finally matching their current consumption with their aspirations, Smith believed that they would discover that there is nothing intrinsically worthwhile in having those possessions. It feeds only the desire born of vanity to be praised for being rich. But vanity is an introspective emotion which turns the imagination in on itself, preventing it from being the source of reaching out to other people via sympathetic relationships.

As with the work-related needs of the economy, its consumption-related needs move the individual away from contexts in which moral refinement becomes the norm. The self-tutelage required to submit oneself to the ideology of consumerism is at odds with that which Smith believed helps people to perfect their moral judgement. To be the type of person whose desire for material possessions propels the demand-side of the economy requires the development of very different behavioural instincts to those which facilitate society-building through sympathy.

Yet, the market economy cannot function effectively unless individuals are willing to reinvent themselves in the guise of such people. Although Smith recognised that the vibrancy of the economy required nothing less, he still regretted the effects that it imparted on the individual. His social liberal voice comes across loud and clear in his pungently-worded dismissal of eighteenth-century luxury consumption goods as no better than mere ‘baubles’. ‘How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility?’, he asked. 

What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. (Smith, 1982, IV.1.6)


The political economy of New Labour

The foregoing has important implications for how we understand the political economy of New Labour under Gordon Brown. In one account of the fabled Granita Restaurant meeting between Brown and Tony Blair, the price that Brown put on stepping aside in the 1994 leadership contest was being given pretty much free rein to pursue his ‘fairness agenda’ domestically (Keegan, 2004, 124–5).

Brown’s biographers associate this agenda with his upbringing in the local Presbyterian kirk and his youthful reading of the significant left-wing figures in early twentieth-century Scottish political history (Nairn, 2006, 8). Further developments in his intellectual influences occurred as his own political career matured. In particular, his fairness agenda has increasingly been set within the framework of a communitarian philosophy emphasising an egalitarian approach to socio-economic opportunity. The aspiration to create an active citizenry has been the most obvious manifestation of the communitarian philosophy. The assumption is that individuals who contribute consciously to community life will display moral habits consistent with the maintenance of a stable society. The fairness agenda therefore operates by aligning the extension of socio-economic opportunity for some to the dutiful maintenance of civic society by others.


Rights and responsibilities

All of this does indeed look very Smithian. The extension of access to the labour market has been presented as an element of the fairness agenda. The New Deal, for instance, certainly operates in such a way, providing opportunities for many people who were previously denied them to make their way in life on the proceeds from paid work.

Yet, there is also an attempt here to treat labour market policy as social policy by other means and, from there, to actively recruit social policy as an extra-economic aid to competitiveness. During Brown’s time as Chancellor, the Treasury was most readily associated with the consistent championing of policies to allow British companies to compete vigorously in world markets under conditions of free trade. The fairness agenda has thereby been inscribed with a fairly strict logic of economic compulsion. Indeed, its Smithian credentials appear in danger of being overwritten by the essentially Thatcherite interpretation of Smith’s economics which dominated his reception in the 1980s.

To the extent that the New Deal has successfully provided many disadvantaged people with the opportunity to work, it has done so by incorporating them into flexible labour markets with very little trade union protection. The responsibility to work has not been matched by the right to be properly protected against exploitation at work. New Labour has consistently invoked the imperatives of globalisation in order to explain why trade unions have had to remain marginalised (Hay, 1999).

Exactly the same imperatives have been presented as a reason why it is impossible to ensure that the super-rich contribute a fair level of tax payment towards the maintenance of society. Yet here the balance between rights and responsibilities are exactly reversed compared with the case of New Deal workers. Members of the super-rich have been granted the right to extract extremely high returns to their economic activity, but without the associated fiscal responsibilities of being in such a favourable position (Peston, 2008). They have thereby been allowed to give full expression to what Smith called vanity.


Society versus economy?

This returns us to the identification in Smith’s work of a generic tension between the needs of the economy and the needs of society under market capitalism. Disquiet about Brown’s Chancellorship from the Labour left always focused on the accusation that he had done much more to assist the competitiveness of British firms than to ensure the basis of a healthy society. The social liberal voice in the Labour Party has expressed its concern about the dominance of economic liberal thinking in Party policy. Even the centre-point of Brown’s communitarianism – his attempt to induce a new ethos of volunteering – reveals the imprint of such thinking. ‘Volunteering’ ceases to justify the name the moment that economic incentives are used to try to garner more support for it. But the Treasury has indeed offered state-backed payments in new ‘asset accounts’ as a reward for anyone who gives their time, ostensibly freely, to community-based projects.

Both aspects of the generic tension which impacts upon the individual’s moral judgement are clearly evident in the political economy of New Labour. Starting with the work-related tension, there should be no doubting just how central work has been to New Labour’s conception of extending opportunities. Within that conception, work is not something to be concerned about because of the effects of the division of labour on the individual’s imaginative and, by implication, moral capabilities. Instead, it has been presented as the route to new-found sources of personal dignity. Learning the habits associated with aiding economic competitiveness is considered to be a moral good in its own right, and not the moral bad which it appears to be in Smith’s vivid description of the harmful side-effects of the division of labour. New Labour has taken forward the process of penalising those who, in its terms, seem to be overly reluctant to embrace newly created opportunities to access the labour market.

As the intensification of work has gathered pace since the early 1980s, the amount of time that the average UK household spends in paid work has increased by the equivalent of eight working weeks per year (Bunting, 2005). This has taken the time demands of work to levels not witnessed since the heyday of the Victorian economy. Yet, job satisfaction is down, whilst stress, anxiety and depression – clear impediments to the unconstrained exercise of the imagination – have surged. The UK population has by far the worst work/life balance of any in the EU, which has led to concerns that the country is in the grip of a ‘social recession’ (Rutherford and Shah, 2006). The very fact that the concept is being discussed publicly is clear evidence of the contemporary manifestation of the work-related tension between the needs of the economy and the needs of society.

Evidence is also forthcoming of the contemporary manifestation of the consumption-related tension between the needs of the economy and the needs of society. It is true that the government has come out publicly in defence of a savings culture designed to offset increases in current consumption financed from increasing credit card debt. To that end, the Treasury has introduced a range of new policies to reward people who choose to save (HM Treasury, 2001a; 2001b; 2003). However, none of this has entailed an attack on the very ideology of consumerism which is implied by Smith’s description of luxury consumption goods as ‘baubles’, ‘trinkets’ and ‘toys’. The major source of new consumption possibilities since 1997 – the extra wealth generated by a booming housing market – was even positively encouraged by government policy for as long as the market appeared healthy. At every moment pre-credit crunch that the chance arose to deflate the house price bubble the actual policy path chosen had exactly the opposite effect (Coates, 2005, 173).

This has been one of the causal factors leading to a widening gap between the consumption patterns and lifestyles of the rich and poor: house price rich versus house price poor has become a significant means of contemporary social stratification. The people at either extreme of the consumption spectrum now share so few experiences that it has become increasingly difficult for them to imagine themselves in each other’s situation. From Smith’s perspective, the result is an increasingly suppressed capacity for creating the imaginative projections which lead first to fellow-feeling and, from there, to situations of mutual sympathy. This is detrimental to the development of both refined moral judgement and the instinct to sustain societal bonds through community-based activism.


Gordon Brown’s Adam Smith

My reading of Smith’s work emphasises the pressures of everyday life on the psychological make-up of the individual. What type of individual is required to ensure that the economy is strong enough to continue to secure the conditions of material provisioning? What type of individual is required to ensure that societal bonds are strong enough to allow everyone a chance to flourish? If one differs from the other, is it reasonable to expect anyone in practice to compartmentalise their lives so effectively as to play both roles at once?

Brown appears to sidestep such questions in both his reading of Smith and his prosecution of two distinct reform agendas, respectively focused on enhancing economic competitiveness and on enhancing the basis of community life. He concentrates on Smith’s depiction of the idealised circumstances to which a country’s legislative capacities should aspire. Within that framework, there is no stark choice to be made between prioritising the economy and prioritising society. By contrast, I emphasise Smith’s scepticism concerning the viability of the ideal, as well as his focus in its place on developing a moral philosophy of the second-best which is designed to avoid embedding incompatible ethical demands on the individual.

It is a well known maxim amongst Smith scholars that he left his work sufficiently open-ended that a route can be traced from it to almost all modern approaches to the organisation of everyday life (see for example Viner, 1989). His work has been pored over so many times in the intervening years that when one comes to his texts today it is almost always via someone else’s interpretive schema. Simon Lee analyses the mediating influences which underpin Brown’s interpretation by asking through whose eyes he views the central message contained in Smith’s work (Lee, 2007, 57–64). The answer is an interesting one, as well as a potentially counter-intuitive one given Brown’s public pronouncements relating to the desirability of recapturing Smith for the left.

As Lee demonstrates, Brown’s Smith is given voice primarily through the intermediary impact of American conservative philosophers, notably James Q. Wilson and Gertrude Himmelfarb. The political lineage of their work is from the right, not the left. Both avoid the issue even more decisively than Brown does of how the separate socialising effects of the needs of economy and society impose themselves as potentially contradictory impacts on the moral constitution of the individual. They appeal to Smith’s notions of character (Wilson, 1993) and virtue (Himmelfarb, 2004), but generally without the same sort of dynamic account of their origins in society. Consistent with most conservative philosophers, the individual’s moral make-up is taken to be essentially given as a pre-social fact: character and virtue are part of human nature; they just need to be brought out in a person’s behaviour.

Smith himself emphasised the conditioning effects of the broader social environment on the particulars of the process of moral judgement. He argued that what an individual will believe to be proper and improper will be ‘placed in the countenance and behaviour of those he [sic] lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments’ (Smith, 1982, III.1.3). As a consequence, environmental factors are likely to shape the prevailing moral character of the times as a means of asserting some sort of complementarity between that environment and the type of people who live within it. For Smith, there is no universal moral character. In his account of moral judgement, dominant character dispositions are something that can be both learned and, on occasions, unlearned, depending on the current state of social progress.

The limit of government policy in this conservative philosophy of the individual is the creation of structures which prompt desirable behaviour by harnessing what it should in any case be natural for people to want to do. Much of Treasury policy under Brown’s Chancellorship appears to fit such a mould: financially incentivising access to the labour market, financially incentivising responsible saving and investment habits, financially incentivising community-based volunteering, financially incentivising the mentoring of socially-excluded individuals. The first two are consistent with Wilson’s conception of Smithian ‘character’, the latter two with Himmelfarb’s conception of Smithian ‘virtue’. Yet, this type of intervention is so far away from Smith’s own writings on the subject that it does not even register on his scale of second-best moral philosophy.

Smith explicitly ruled out the option of establishing public programmes to harness the overtly self-interested passions, on account of their essential unsociability. But this is exactly what such interventions seek to do. They take the individual’s economic self-interest as a pre-social fact and then try to create structures which direct economic self-interest towards the public good. For Smith the ultimate objective of organising social life had to be the transcendence of the self-interested passions.

Like the unknown principle of animal life, it [the process of transcendence] frequently restores health and vigour to the constitution, in spite, not only of the disease, but of the absurd prescriptions of the doctor. (Smith, 1981, II.iii.31)

Left unchecked, undue attention to the self-interested passions can produce habits of mind which lead the individual away from displays of socially responsible behaviour. Smith’s preference was for the reconstitution of the individual’s intuitions so that the selfish passions played a less instinctive role in the way in which everyday life was lived. It was always sympathy rather than self-interest which he hoped would form the basis of moral judgement, even if that sympathy was imperfect, and a second-best was all that became possible.

There is a puzzle, then, in the fact that Brown’s public declaration of the need to reclaim Smith for the left is followed by taking his reading of Smith from the American conservative right. This latter Adam Smith is not mine precisely because of its separation from the left, and nor to my mind is it one that emerges from close textual study of his work. For as long as it remains in government, the political economy of New Labour will no doubt continue to be animated by the reformist zeal which has produced so many new initiatives over the last eleven years. But all such reforms are likely to be restricted to the generic search for means of harnessing individual self-interest. If New Labour has indeed arrived at that point, then Adam Smith’s social liberal voice will have been decisively drowned out by the economic liberal voice which, in contemporary British politics, continues to carry clear Thatcherite connotations.


This piece was written with the financial assistance of a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (number RES-000-22-2198), ‘Rethinking the “Adam Smith Problem” as a Generic Contradiction between the Market Economy and Market Society’. I gratefully acknowledge the ESRC’s continuing support of my research. I also gratefully acknowledge the comments of Martin McIvor on an earlier version of the article. Being able to incorporate these suggestions has certainly made the argument stronger than it would otherwise have been.



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