Adam Smith And The “Man Of System”

Lynne Kiesling

I spent last week attending Liberty Fund’s annual Adam Smith conference, as one of the two discussion leaders. It was a total blast.

But it’s hard to summarize, or to draw out some of the more salient new knowledge that came out of it. We had a very interdisciplinary crowd, replete with philosophers, economists, political scientists, a lawyer and an historian. Furthermore, we read a vast sample of Smith’s writing, including all of Theory of Moral Sentiments, some of Wealth of Nations, and various lectures on jurisprudence, rhetoric, astronomy, and language and belles lettres.

One of the most interesting threads that ran throughout the discussion was the dimensions of Smith’s reference to the “man of system” in Theory of Moral Sentiments (paragraph VI.II.42):

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.

Smith captures a lot of very nice ideas in this passage. The idea that the “man of system” would be so enamored of his own system that he would impose it on others without much regard for their preferences or, to use the phrase of one of the participants, for their moral autonomy, continues to be a power criticism of interventionist approaches to government. To put it in my girl-next-door vernacular, how arrogant are you to think that you should impose your system on me?

In addition to the arrogance and conceit, Smith’s passage points to a particular type of knowledge problem (or “epistemological problem”, as one participant referred to it): “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”. Every individual has his/her own preferences, own view of the good life, own objective function. The “man of system” cannot know, cannot experience the wants, the needs, the social context in which each individual makes choices (individual and collective choices). To the extent that the imposed system creates an environment that does not honor the knowledge problem, it makes both the individual and society worse off. The “man of system” approach to institutional choice is not consistent with that epistemological constraint. Is this an argument for representative government, even with they “tyranny of the majority” problem?

The chess-board metaphor raises the fallacy that our social institutions are so directed and so instrumentalist that they can point us to a specific, shared goal. In chess the objective is shared (and is zero-sum, actually, which points to another interesting aspect of Smith’s writing …), but in human life with the variety and individuality of human action and human knowledge, can we really be said to have a shared social objective? The best shared goal I can imagine toward which we can strive is to be free and responsible people living together in civil society, but that’s an objective at an abstract and meta level, not a directed objective as is implied in the chess metaphor.

One very interesting conversation we had throughout the week relating to this passage revolved around this concept of “system”. In some way, Smith was himself a man of system; Theory of Moral Sentiments laid out a framework for a moral system, Wealth of Nations laid out a framework for an economic system, his essay on astronomy and his essay on the formation of languages both highlight and rely on the importance of system, and systematic analysis. But I think this is a different understanding of the word “system”, and I think a lot hinges on what kind of obligations the system imposes on others.

Note in particular the following part of the passage:

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.

This “man of system” can enact his system over the objections of others. In the moral system/economic system/scientific system of Smith’s analyses, though, one cannot compel participation unless it’s mutually agreeable. In other words, in these systems there is no force, no compulsion, no obligation on an individual to follow against his/her will. An interesting twist on this comes in the account of scientific analysis, because you are not obligated to agree, but as research advances and evidence mounts for a particular theory, it becomes the predominant theory (until disproven and replaced by a better theory, that is).

Perhaps it’s instructive to compare this “man of system” to the man of humanity and benevolence, as Smith did (paragraph VI.II.41):

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.

One thought on “Adam Smith And The “Man Of System”

  1. It’s quite a coincidence that I come across this post while reading the chapter on the Baroque in Lewis Mumford’s epic “The City in History”. The author discusses the transition from the medieval city to the Baroque city by emphasizing the imposition of order on everything, from bureaucracy, statecraft, and finally the parceling land in the city. The wide straight boulevard was characteristic of the Baroque city, since it conveyed a dominant order and a source of control. Mumford ties this preoccupation with the rise of centralized monarchies that arose during the late renaissance that abandoned the more organic order of the medieval free cities.

    As Adam Smith talks about the man of system, namely political and bureaucratic leaders of nation states of the time, I can’t help that he was really criticizing the Baroque tendency for ordering and control and quantifying everything from one point of reference. Thus was Smith and the contemporaneous American War of Independence (1776) help overturn centralized control in favor of a decentralization? Was the late eighteenth century not only the start of an Industrial Revolution but of a Decentral revolution?

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