wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Istvan Hont

Michael Ignatieff
Wealth & Virtue

Following Hume's analysis, Smith simply took it for granted that institutions of property had emerged historically because of their utility and necessity. Had human beings been naturally endowed with 'generosity' and 'benevolence' towards their fellow beings, and had there been no limits on nature's bounty, no institutions of property would have been necessary. It was the facts of limited human benevolence and natural scarcity which required the elaboration of rules of private individuation. Without such rules, security of human life would have been out of the question. As Hume put it, it was 'by establishing the rule for the stability of possession' that the ' insatiable, perpetual and universal avidity of acquiring goods and possessions' was rendered compatible with social order and stability. Moreover, and this was a crucial argument, absolute security in private possession was the necessary precondition for pushing back the scarcity limits of nature. Without a guarantee that a man could keep what he had improved, he would have no incentive to make improvements. This guarantee, Hume insisted, had to be 'perfect': property right, to be a right at all, could not admit of qualification. Doubtless, Hume admitted, the parcelling out of the world into exclusive individuation 'must frequently prove contradictory both to men's wants and desires—and persons and possessions must often be very ill adjusted'. Specifically, possession was rarely correlated with virtue or desert: the idle unmarried bachelor, if he had a better title, would accede to property ahead of the virtuous poor man with a numerous family. Yet any system which allocated property according to need or desert or some ideal of distributive justice was infinitely contestable, since every man had a different estimation of his own or another's merit. Any attempt to distribute according to such principles would be fatal to the stability of possession necessary to social order and the improvement of economic conditions. Particularly pernicious would be distribution according to 'ideas of perfect equality'. 'Render possessions ever so equal, men's different degrees of art, care and industry will immediately break that equality.' Worse, any attempt to restrain these differences in human talent would destroy incentives and thus 'reduce society to the most extreme indigence'. Instead of preventing starvation and beggary, the equal partition of possessions would 'render it unavoidable to the whole community'.

Yet if property must be absolute, how then were those excluded from the partition of the world to be provided for? Smith's answer to this question made reference to the distinction in natural jurisprudence between 'perfect rights', such as property, which were enforceable at law, and 'imperfect obligations', such as charity, which was a moral duty incapable of legal enforcement. This distinction between 'justice' and 'benevolence' had the effect of denying that the excluded poor had a perfect right to the charity of the rich. As Smith told his students, 'a beggar is an object of our charity and may be said to have a right to demand it—but when we use the word right in this way it is not in a proper but a metaphoricall sense'. The law had no business commanding men to be benevolent: in any case, benevolence must be freely given or else it was not a virtue at all. The proper province of justice was the enforcement of suum cuique, 'to each his own', i.e. the rules of property. Without such rules, 'the immense fabric of human society must crumble into atoms'. Without benevolence, on the other hand, society would doubtless be a mean and harsh place, but it could subsist ' as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility, without any mutual love or affection'. Yet Smith believed, as did Hume, that even in a market society, pity and compassion towards the unfortunate would remain natural and unprompted motives of action. It was to this discretionary sentiment that they looked to the relief of the necessities of the poor in any emergency. Yet, as we have tried to show, the whole burden of the analysis of the Wealth of Nations was intended to demonstrate that by stimulating agricultural production in a system of competitive markets, the adequate subsistence of the labouring poor would cease to be a matter either of benevolence or of the drastic justice of grave necessity. Neither the generosity of individuals nor the interventions of the magistrate would be required.

This position effectively excluded 'distributive justice' from the appropriate functions of government in a market society. Smith insisted that the only
appropriate function of justice was ' commutative'; it dealt with the attribution of responsibility and the punishment of injury among individuals. Distributive iustice, which dealt with the allocation of superfluity according to claims of need, or desert, or merit, was not properly in the domain of law, but of morality.

The essential function of government was to protect property 'from the indignation' of the poor. Smith was under no illusions that the existing distribution of property in a market society could legitimize itself to the excluded: 'It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security.' Yet in denying that the poor's needs constituted a claim of right against the property of the rich. Smith did not extrude the question of justice from his political economy. On the contrary, he transposed the question from the terrain of jurisprudence and political theory to the terrain of political economy, using natural modelling to demonstrate that by raising the productivity of agriculture, commercial society could provide adequately for the needs of the wage-earner without having to resort to any form of redistributive meddling in the property rights of individuals. Growth in conditions of 'natural liberty' would explode the whole antinomy between needs and rights.

To be sure, Smith knew full well that 'to insist upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spite of all opposition', any systematical plan of reform, specifically a system of natural liberty,' must often be the highest degree of arrogance'. If a reformer could not 'conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion', it was quite wrong for him 'to attempt to subdue them by force'. He must accommodate himself 'as well as he can' to the 'confirmed habits and prejudices of the people'. Yet Smith's model itself was not any less uncompromising an argument for 'natural liberty'.