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Analysis of Liberty in Society

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Analysis of Liberty in Society

Both Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville agree that an

individual is the most qualified to make decisions affecting the

sphere of the individual as long as those decisions do not violate the

law of justice. From this starting point, each theorist proposes a

role of government and comments on human nature and civil society.

Smith focuses on economic liberty and the ways in which government can

repress this liberty, to the detriment of society. De Tocqueville

emphasizes political liberty and the way that government can be

organized to promote political liberty, protect individual liberty,

and promote civil liberty.

Adam Smith's theory makes a strong argument for the assertion

that a free market will provide overall good for society, but, as de

Tocqueville points out, it provides little or no protection for the

poor. Smith's picture of human nature given in The Theory of Moral

Sentiments suggests that people would do good and take care of the

weak because of characteristics of their nature. Unfortunately, this

image contrasts with the picture of the individual which emerges from

his economic argument in Wealth of Nations and is a generally

unsatisfying answer.

In attempting to define liberty, Adam Smith is mostly

concerned with negative liberty, or freedom from constraint,

especially market constraints. According to him, in a free market, as

long as they are not fettered by government regulation, actions are

guided toward the public good as if by an invisible hand. Furthermore,

the economic sphere is the determining section of society. Therefore

from his economic model, he derives his argument for the best role of

government and asserts that the resultant society will be the best

overall for civilization.

Since he defines the individual as sovereign (within the laws

of justice), and he defines liberty as freedom from constraint, his

argument begins with the individual, defining a man's labor as the

foundation of all other property. From this it follows that the

disposition of one's labor, without harm to others, is an inviolable

right which the government should not restrict in any way (Smith 215).

He uses his economic theory to support his belief that this limitation

on government action creates the most overall good for society.

First, he defines all prices as being determined by labor

(Smith 175). Since labor causes raw materials to have value, Smith

asserts that labor confers ownership, but when stock is used there

must be something given for the profits of the investors, so labor

resolves itself into wages and prices (185). The support for the free

market lies in the way the prices are determined and the inner

workings of the market. The prices ultimately come from the value of

labor. A capitalist will want to produce as much as possible, in order

to make the greatest profit, therefore his demand for labor will rise.

As the demand for labor rises, wages will rise. As more people begin

working to meet the increased demand for labor, production will rise,

and prices will fall. Following this argument, in a free market,

everybody is working for his or her own personal gain, but maximum

production occurs, which increases overall wealth and prosperity. If

the government interferes by setting minimum wages, charging

prohibitive taxes, or regulating prices, it interrupts the natural

flow of the market. Therefore, Smith argues that the market prices of

wages and of goods should be regulated by the market rather than by

the government.

Smith then identifies three classes of people who develop from

capitalism: laborers, landlords, and capitalists. Each of these groups

act purely out of self-interest, and for this reason Smith does not

think any of them will be able to effectively rule with the good of

society in mind. The laborers are incapable of comprehending "that the

interest of the labourer is strictly connected with that of the

society..." (Smith 226). The landlords are the most impartial of the

classes and therefore the least likely to use government for any plan

or project of their own, but they are "too often, not only ignorant,

but incapable of that application of mind which is necessary in order

to foresee and understand the consequences of any public regulation"

(226). By process of elimination, Smith settles on the capitalists as

the most fit to rule, but stipulates, "the proposal of any new law or

regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be

listened to with great precaution, and out never to be adopted till

after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most

scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention" (227).

Due to the lack of a class which would be able to lead with

society's interests in mind and because the unfettered free market in

which everyone is selfishly motivated produces the most, Smith

relegates to government only the three tasks of the defense of the

nation, the administration of justice, and the maintenance of certain

public works (289). This plan will prevent too many unnecessary

restrictions on "perfect" liberty, or complete freedom from

restraints, and will allow a system of natural liberty to establish

itself in which every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of

justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own


This role of government also solves the impassable lack of

information problem that, according to Smith, is faced by any

government which takes the responsibility for superintending the

industry of private people. No government official could possibly

account for all of the chains of cause and effect, and no government

can truly know what is in the best interest of every individual.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that in Smith's

theory, the government is actually defending the rich against the

poor. The poor, according to Smith, are often driven by envy and need

to invade the possessions of the rich. "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" (294).

Note the assumption that the rich are entitled to their wealth

because it is acquired by hard work either of the person or his

family. Because of this, Smith considers civil government a necessary


One objection to this view of government and to the economic

reading in general is that one of the duties of government is to

protect the poor from the tyranny of the rich. In fact, in Smith's


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