NeoNarrative Pod
The Morality of Adam Smith: An Interview with Daniel Klein

The Morality of Adam Smith: An Interview with Daniel Klein

Promoting liberty, why designer babies are "steroids on steroids", virtue in politics, room-mating with Tyler Cowen, and a Straussian reading

Transcript edited for clarity, Spotify link here.

Infovores 0:04

Hello and welcome to Time Well Spent—a place where the most brilliant minds in the world take on the toughest questions in Science, Politics, Technology, and much more.

My guest today is visionary economist and author Dan Klein of George Mason University. Dan has written cogently on many important topics, including groupthink in academia and the tendency for innovation to outrun government regulation. He also has a YouTube channel, which offers wisdom and insights from intellectual history that listeners may appreciate. Most recently, Dan has released the book “Smithian Morals”, which will be the focus of our discussion today. Dan, thank you for joining me!

Dan Klein 0:43

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Infovores 0:46

Let's start with a classic quote from Wealth of Nations—

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self love.

Without additional context, it sounds like what really matters to Smith are financial incentives, and that cultivating personal virtue is not all that important. How would you reconcile that impression with your reading of Smith?

Dan Klein 1:12

Well, he's talking about a particular context there. When you go into 7-Eleven and buy some bread, there's not that lively feeling of benevolence between the clerk and the customer. They might say hello or something, but that's more just common decency.

And so he's looking at particular sorts of interactions there, which are impersonal commercial interactions, and talking about how that realm works. But that is by no means all that he treated. His first book spoke very little directly about commerce, and talked much more about a person in society in a community context, in a social context, where all of the virtues are explored, not just the sort of prudence that you might glean from the quote you just read.

Infovores 2:10

You made reference to his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. That book serves almost as a foundation for some of his thoughts on economics, how would you relate the two books, or where do they connect?

Dan Klein 2:23

Yes, it's broader. I sometimes speak of it as the larger umbrella under which the Wealth of Nations sits. So the Wealth of Nations is almost like an extension, I would say of TMS. The Wealth of Nations treats just sentiments1 in matters of commerce, trade, pursuing honest income, and of government policy, with respect to such things, and indeed government policy in general.

So he's exploring there the proper beliefs of those activities, and ideas and policies about those activities. So those are other objects for moral choice. And so he's teaching us how to be moral with respect to that part of our life and world, which is an important part of our culture. Because commercial life and earning a living is a big part of your life. And because we care about the whole of society, it's one of the things that draws us together in common interests. And we need to think about those big issues properly. So he's teaching us propriety, kind of a moral concept, in thinking of those big questions and issues.

Infovores 3:57

Thank you, that's an excellent introduction. Individual liberty is of central importance as one of the virtues in Smith's moral philosophy. Yet he also acknowledges exceptions to this principle when he writes, “those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are and ought to be restrained by the laws of all governments.” What lessons should libertarians in particular take from this insight?

Dan Klein 4:24

That the liberty principle is not an axiom.2 That it's defeasible, which means to say that the burden of proof can be overcome. There's a presumption, I would say in Smith toward individual liberty, just as in a courtroom we have a presumption of innocence. But that doesn't mean that everybody is innocent. It means that the burden of proof is on the prosecution. And that's in a sense what Smith is doing. Someone who's prosecuting a case for government intervention has the burden of proof to bear and Smith does make exceptions like he does there in that passage. That's about the small denomination notes restrictions that he endorsed, kind of oddly, I'd say. Sometimes his exceptions puzzle me to put it mildly. But he does make exceptions, and I endorse some of his exceptions. And I would make exceptions.

And so you get in Smith, very clearly I would say, the idea that exceptions don't destroy principlehood, if you will, like a principle is not undone because there are exceptions to it. We need to develop principles that admit of exceptions. Because if you try to do things that are 100%, without exceptions, you find you can't find very useful ones. Or you force fit certain things which aren't really sound, and then they're brittle. Because if you're claiming they're 100%, and then someone throws a sound exception at you it shatters, right?

So really your principles are more robust by allowing and acknowledging exceptions, they are presumptions. They are maxims, not axioms.

Infovores 6:22

This makes a lot of sense. And I think this is something I find really resonant in your philosophy of economics compared to either the rigid, mathematized version that you see in a lot of economic journals. And also, as you pointed out in some of your writings, Austrian economists can be very axiomatic as well. So it all makes a lot of sense, and it resonates, but sometimes in practice it's not as clear how to actually pull this off.

So I think COVID-19 is a really good example of a situation where there is this really extraordinary circumstance, and there are a lot of potential justifications for making amendments to individual liberty, at least for some amount of time. But as we saw over the course of the pandemic, there were a lot of abuses of those exceptions. How would you speak to that concern in the context of this specific example?

Dan Klein 7:23

I became very concerned about those very issues right at the onset of the pandemic, with all the news and panic about the pandemic. And I was pretty panicked frankly, I was kind of the worrywart in our little household. My daughter was going out to cheerleading practice—this was in Sweden, which was not closed down—and I was saying, “no I don't want you to go.” I was in that state for some weeks, and then I changed my thinking quite dramatically shortly thereafter.

I wrote some things during that time, I wrote a piece asking how much are we ready to compromise? One thing I said is that there are no absolute libertarians in foxholes. So I do think that the precautionary principle has some merit, that there is something sound to it, when you're puzzled and you're worried about really catastrophic possibilities, as we very much were in March of 2020. You maybe should take precautions, and what was it called The Diamond Princess, the name of that ship? Maybe if I were the mayor I wouldn't let those people off that ship. I'd be ready to make some exceptions to the liberty principle.

But I do think that the COVID case turned out to be overblown actually, and that a lot of the restrictions on individual liberty turned out to be completely unsound, counterproductive, and highly destructive. So it's an interesting lesson. In some ways, it teaches us the importance of serious presumptions, for liberty, because panics do come around, opportunism and oppression comes around. And we need these principles partly as checks on expansive intrusive government and the ratchet effect, which has clearly taken place in a dramatic way. Both sides have their moments in the unfolding of these affairs.

Infovores 10:00

So if I were to push you just a little bit further on this, we've learned all these things from the experience of this pandemic. But if we were thrown into an equally uncertain situation tomorrow, and it was unclear just how contagious things were and just how bad things could get at their worst, what would your approach be? Keeping in mind to not limit liberty more than what would be just or appropriate.

Dan Klein 10:30

Well, one thing that's important in these moment by moment deliberations and actions is how much trust you have in the powers that be, in the information and narrative providers. That trust has been shot to hell in the last three years.

So right now, if anything comes along I don't believe a word they say essentially. I need to see kind of like an asteroid darkening our sky at this point for me to start screaming about how we need to clamp down on liberty dramatically.

On Technological Change

Infovores 11:09

Moving on to the next question. In Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith suggests that man “can subsist only in society” and “was fitted by nature to that situation for which he was made”. What implications does this idea have in the context of rapid and at times alienating technological change?

Dan Klein 11:32

I take your question to be that given that man's meaning is very socially immersed, or socially embedded if you like, if the social conditions are very rapidly changing, doesn't that jeopardize or upset man's tranquility and happiness. Smith saw tranquility as a very important element of happiness. Is that kind of what you're suggesting?

Infovores 11:59

Yeah. Let me give a little bit more texture from my own experience. So I have very unusual interests perhaps, but I see this happening with all of my peers to some extent, where the local circumstances of my neighborhood and community are becoming less and less important, and it's easier to silo into very narrow groups. I don't feel as attached or connected to the people who are physically around me the way that I used to. And I wonder sometimes whether such a rapid change to the way that we experience social life is detrimental to us. What in your view would Smith make of that?

Dan Klein 12:53

He may well feel that it's a bad development. And it may be a bad development in at least some respects, if not bad overall. These are very, very serious and real issues. Technology is kind of oversold by a lot of people, and this effect that it has on instincts about propinquity, about geography if you like, and the kind of duties that would be attached to some of those considerations as well as other traditional things like family and past history together even outside of the family, your old neighborhood friends and so on.

It's a real issue. And of course, technology also facilitates talking to your family members regularly and meeting and seeing their faces. My wife and daughter are Swedish and live in Sweden. I talk to my wife every day on FaceTime, and that's a kind of communion at a distance. So it's a very real issue, and there's no easy answer.

I don't think it does much to undermine the support for classical liberalism, because I don't think the government has anything good to do about it. I don't think restrictions on liberty are going to help; I think the toothpaste is out of the tube, and I think Smith saw things that way. The toothpaste is coming out of the tube, and there's no way to kind of force it back in, or at least not in any kind of wholesome manner. And so it's more about going with the flow and managing all these crazy developments.

My own view of of humankind is that our genes and our basic instincts, and our mentalities, penchants, and bents come from the hunter gatherer band, which is wildly different than the modern world. And we are constantly having to adjust, and temper, and channel, and subdue all sorts of things to cope in the modern world. And I think Smith actually had similar notions. He didn't make it altogether explicit, but so much of what he says dovetails with that view of man, that I'm prepared to kind of suggest that.

Infovores 14:45

I think you made this point in one of your YouTube lectures, that Smith saw all of the ways in which economic and technological advancement could upset society and create cultural churn that was uncomfortable in certain ways, but he still firmly believed that this was a benefit on net to human prosperity. It would be interesting to hear his take on that today, especially being able to talk maybe more openly.

Dan Klein 16:30

Yeah, and there's two "on nets" here. There's on net in the sense of new technological capabilities arising and how historically these have often been net beneficial developments. And then there's on net in the sense of, could we do something to roll them back through government? Would governmentalization of social affairs somehow improve on net how things will otherwise go, given that these developments have arrived?

As a liberal, I'm more interested in the latter. I'm more concerned with getting it right there, because we're not going to reverse history. And I'm not wedded to saying that these developments are so wonderful on net. I'm very worried and upset. I've written against designer babies, for example. I got into a dispute with Bryan Caplan and David Henderson over that, where I said, you know, designer babies is not necessarily a blessing at all.

Infovores 17:26

And why do you say that?

Dan Klein 17:29

It's these kinds of issues where it could throw off so much sort of contextualization of life, meaning of life, bearings, groundings, bases of comparison, connections to the past, connections to history, learning from previous human experience, what to aspire for, what to feel good and bad about. You can think of it in terms of sports and steroids—designer babies is like steroids on steroids!

Infovores 18:21

It seems like you could potentially go far enough in the direction of programming new human beings like machines to the point where you devalue the autonomy of that new individual, or you devalue the rights that such a person has, either relative to their parents or to the government. I'm sure government would be heavily involved in trying to regulate some of these things.

Dan Klein 18:48

Yes, I follow you. I don't think about designer babies to the point that somehow you're kind of undoing the basic nature of a soul, if you will. So I think that even if I designed my baby, and it came into life, it would still sort of have its own will, its own soul and everything, but you have kind of and presumably will know that you have chosen certain things and edited in certain directions in some sense. And so all of that might feel like a big incursion on autonomy.

Infovores 19:31

And Smith, as well as Hayek, offer a warning about overestimating what you're able to design and how much wisdom you have in doing that.

Dan Klein 19:40

Yes, yes indeed.

Promoting Freedom Around the World

Infovores 19:47

As the editor of Econ Journal Watch, you have published articles investigating liberty in a wide variety of countries and cultures. What are the major lessons you've taken from that experience for promoting liberty in different contexts?

Dan Klein 20:03

Okay, good question. So you're referring to our series, which has covered about 23 going on 24 countries—classical liberalism in economics by country. It's really more just classical liberalism by country; we ask for some emphasis on econ, but that's not really that central. And so we've had authors from all these very many countries tell us about the history, progress, current status, current organizations, figures, activities of the classical liberal movements in those countries. And there's been a number of lessons.

One thing I learned was that it's harder to get papers about countries with huge histories like the United States or England, because it's too much to write about. So we don't have some of the prime countries you might hope to read about. Most of the countries are a little bit smaller, or just have less classical liberalism to write about. But anyhow, that's one thing.

One thing I learned also is the significance of something analogous to the brain drain, and that's the "liberal drain". That’s what I call it. The liberals from India, from Venezuela, from Eastern Europe, what have you, they get out. They try to get out, just as anyone would. And that's a very significant factor in a lot of the stories because a lot of the people then make their careers in Britain or in the United States, let's say they're from India, and in a sense you've kind of deprived the fight at home of somebody that could help, in a way analogous to the brain drain. So I think the liberal drain is actually something I learned from doing this project.

Now, I can answer your question a little bit more broadly, and a little more deeply going into political theory. Specifically it's about classical liberalism, and liberalism is generally this presumption of liberty allowing every man to pursue his own interest in his own way, as Adam Smith put it, in policymaking. And that's all well and good. And you can wonderfully cite and learn from Bastiat, about mutual gains from trade, and explain that there's mutual gains, so let people trade, and that's kind of like the major thing to say—freedom.

Now, in a lot of these countries, and even in every country, politics is much more complicated than that. And politics is directional from a status quo. And the Liberals want to move in a more liberal, less governmentalized direction. Politics is also about the lesser evil. It's about trying to keep the government from getting terribly bad. And so I think it's part of civic virtue for them to consider the reality of politics on the ground in their country. And so being part of politics and making all the compromises, getting the votes, and everything else gets very much mixed in with all of these liberal movements, including the intellectual efforts.

So that's something I've learned in a significant way. I mean, it's not really new to me, but you see it so deeply. And when some countries, as opposed to America which we might have as a reference point, some of their politics is so bad and frightful that this becomes a rather dominating matter. Now, even when we talk about the lesser evil in terms of partisan politics within the context of a country, all that presupposes a certain level of political stability, of basic polity.3

And sometimes the countries don't even have that presupposition in place. It's about being a principality of Russia, for example. In the case of Finland, it's about foreign wars, it's about civil war, it's about all sorts of cultural tensions, and old traditions, and so on and so forth. And so the Liberals sometimes get lost. Bastiat's basic advice about letting people make their voluntary trades... it's like you don't even know who you're saying that to. You don't even know who it would be who is letting people. And I don't mean just this party or that party, I mean the whole structure of government. Like in Venezuela, I mean, it's chaos now. We have a piece on Venezuela, and it's mainly a lament. So that's something else I learned, just these deeper kind of polity issues that we tend to presuppose in this country. I think we're coming to presuppose them less as things go more crazy all the time, but those are some of the things I've learned from doing that.

Infovores 25:49

Part of what you said struck me as interesting in context of recent things that have been written and said by libertarians about politicians.

A lot of times libertarians have the tendency to kind of devalue the entire process of politics itself, and they kind of don't... it feels too messy to them, or morally compromised. Bryan Caplan has a book along the lines of all politicians are evil. And it sounds like part of what you're saying is that by getting a closer look at some of these countries and seeing just how messy things are on the ground, that there's a real need for some of these institutional details or for some of these activists and political actors that maybe do things in ways that are not along the lines of what you might read in Bastiat or in very clean libertarian philosophy.

Dan Klein 26:49

Yeah, I think that's right. When Smith referred to “that insidious and crafty animal” commonly known as the statesman or politician, I think he meant that even of the ones he liked, like his friend Edmund Burke. That as a politician or statesman, he is an insidious and crafty animal. And it's an insidious and crafty trade or line of work, or you could say calling even.

I hope there's more virtue rather than less virtue in politics. What are we supposed to say about the people who have done so much good, like a Margaret Thatcher? I think it's... I mean, just to throw her into the same bucket as all the regular politicians whom we justly dislike is I think a terrible, terrible injustice and ingratitude, actually.

Politics is part of civic virtue. In this famous lecture called “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of Moderns”, Benjamin Constant says modern liberty is mainly about individual liberty, allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way. He said ancient liberty, which had more to do with participation in political life, is still a major duty. And it's almost a danger that people are too focused on their modern liberty so that they neglect checking and improving the ancient liberty, which still calls to everyone I would say.

Infovores 28:52

It sounds like you're pushing back a little bit against the common economist argument that people really shouldn't bother to vote, because from an individual standpoint one vote is not going to matter. And so you're better off not really investing in politics, even to that minimal degree, unless you can really find an avenue that has clear obvious success. Would you push back against that and say that it's important to vote anyway, or what are your thoughts there?

Dan Klein 29:22

I would push back against it if somebody was really making an argument against voting along the lines you just suggested. I'm not sure that I want to urge people to vote or tell people that it's terribly important and a major part of their civic duty to vote. I used to not vote, and now I do find myself voting in the regular elections. I think the Republicans are the lesser evil. We have a two party system. And I believe that third parties are damaging to their own cause in a two party system, so I vote Republican. But I'm not urging people to do it.

To kind of take your question and change it a little bit, something that goes with the argument against voting is sort of this "pox on both their houses" attitude that you get from a lot of libertarians. And part of the rationale for that attitude is that there's not a dimes worth of difference. And I don't believe that, I do think there's a dimes worth of difference. And I think that difference has been growing of late. So like I said, politics is about the lesser evil. And so this is a part of our responsibilities I would say. And the size of the part varies person by person, I'm not saying it ought to be like a big thing, or you need to vote or you need to even think about these things necessarily, because…

Infovores 31:07

You always have competing responsibilities.

Dan Klein 31:09

You have competing responsibilities, and some people in some sense have comparative advantages to focus on other responsibilities and so on and so forth. But if the lesser evil isn't supported, we get the greater evil. I don't think this idea is really news to people, but some of the argumentation tends to kind of elide this basic intuition.

An Overrated Game

Infovores 31:49

Gotcha. Let's try playing a game of overrated/underrated, starting with various strains of libertarianism that have been popular during my lifetime. I'll just do these kind of rapid fire and then you can give your short form case for conservative liberalism, which is, in your view, the best of them all.

Dan Klein 32:14

Can you tell me overrated/underrated by whom?

Infovores 32:18

Let's think of it from the perspective of people who could conceivably be attracted to some form of libertarianism. And so I was gonna start with the Chicago School of Economics, and you could say whether that's overrated or underrated among libertarians or libertarian adjacent people.

Dan Klein 32:45

How about this: Let's just go through the topics and I'll tell you something, I think about it.

Infovores 32:50

Sure, that works. What do you think of the Chicago School?

Dan Klein 33:00

I love Ronald Coase. I love Milton Friedman. I love a number of other people who are associated with Chicago. I am pretty high on Gary Becker, George Stigler I have a much bigger problem with... It's significant, and there is a cluster there. There's also the older Chicago cohort, you've got Knight and Viner and Simons. It's a mixed bag. I don't know, I'm not good at this... I don't like this kind of glib, quick overrated/underrated thing.

Frankly I can tell you quite a bit of what I think about Coase, but let's not get into that. I want to write more about Coase, but let's give me your next one.

Infovores 34:01

What are your thoughts on Silicon Valley libertarianism?

Dan Klein 34:08

I'm not even sure I know what that means.

Infovores 34:12

Like Balaji Srinivasan, Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen.

Dan Klein 34:17

I don't know much about those guys. I watched some of Peter Thiel on YouTube. I think he's quite good. I don't know what else to say. I don't get why all this excitement about René Girard. I mean, he doesn't seem bad, but I don't really... I can't say, I haven't delved into it. But anyhow, next?

Infovores 34:45

Maybe this will be the last one—“State Capacity Libertarianism.”

Dan Klein 34:52

That's like an expression Tyler Cowen brought up. I don't take it seriously. I don't know what it means really, I don't know why it would be a good word for whatever it means. I don't really like the expression state capacity to begin with. I don't know why if you want to try to get to some better outlook, you want to particularly use the word libertarianism. So on the whole, not great I don't see much there that's of merit.

Infovores 35:24

What academic, activist, or public intellectual is having the most positive influence for conservative liberalism over and beyond what is commonly recognized?

Dan Klein 35:40

Which academic or public intellectual is doing the best things for conservative liberalism? That's easy.

Infovores 35:48

Oh, who is it?

Dan Klein 35:48

Jordan Peterson.

Infovores 35:50

And why is that?

Dan Klein 35:53

He fits your description. He's got a huge impact. And I think basically what he says is very good. And even great. I don't... yeah, there's minor things I could carp on perhaps. But basically I think he's a phenomenon.

Infovores 36:13

And what do you think makes him so great? Why is he able to do what so many other academics are not?

Dan Klein 36:19

I don't know. I mean, he's really quite extraordinarily gifted. First of all, he's got an extraordinary range of knowledge. I've been listening to some of his interviews, and I'm very impressed with how much he knows about the fields that his guests work in often.

I have to say though Jordan, if you're listening, when you're an interviewer you have got to realize you're not being interviewed. So you have got to let your guests be more like the guest. But apart from that, you know, that's fine because it's almost like a charming foible, because he's so vital in his thinking, and you feel that he's a man who is thinking. You can kind of feel him thinking, he's not just replaying. I mean, sometimes he does repeat himself certainly. But still, we all repeat ourselves of course, especially if you've got social media going and all that. But anyway, I'm very impressed with Jordan Peterson.

Infovores 37:23

I think that you key into something really big about his appeal there when you say that his foibles are almost endearing. I think that's a huge part of what he does to the point where even when he had major health challenges, related even to some mistakes that he made, it was very relatable to things that I had experienced or that people that I know have experienced. And there's a certain kind of authenticity in it that I think is hard to fake.

Dan Klein 37:55

Yeah I think he's quite open and frank in his communications, his discourse.

Infovores 38:05

So it's clear to me now that the concept of doing overrated/underrated is really overrated to you.


Dan Klein 38:13

Yeah it's overrated, at least by some people.

Infovores 38:17

But humor me with this one—was Tyler Cowen overrated or underrated as a roommate? How did he differ from what you expected, since you even knew him beforehand.

Dan Klein 38:28

Again, it's by whom? We got on great as roommates. We were roommates when we were undergraduates at George Mason, and those were great, great years. And we certainly got along fine as roommates and friends and everything. So there was no problem at all, just room-mating.

Infovores 38:57

What's something you learned about him that would be hard to learn without living with him?

Dan Klein 39:03

Just the reading habits. Like the tremendous amount of material he deals with. I mean, it's obvious from the blog, but in a sense seeing it in the living room somehow still makes a big impression.

Infovores 39:35

I remember reading somewhere that you were actually not a particularly big reader when you first met Tyler Cowen.4 What influence did he have on the reading habits that you took up? What would you look like in a world where you hadn't met him, just in that one narrow aspect?

Dan Klein 39:55

Yeah I guess a little bit. I had met him earlier, because we were in the same eighth grade class. We had met incidentally before that and became friends in eighth grade. But he didn't get me into the free market stuff and politics stuff until maybe sophomore year in high school. I went away to boarding school for my junior year of high school, and that also made me a little bit more oriented towards reading, perhaps. But then I kind of clicked in with all of this libertarian type of stuff starting with Tyler. I just fell into it and got into it.

Infovores 40:55

I had a college teacher and he would have all of the students suggest a book, and he would read all of the students' suggestions within the semester for all of the sections that he was teaching. And before that happened, I actually had kind of fallen out of reading. So I kind of was resonating with that, and maybe projecting my own experience onto some of your interactions with Tyler from that perspective.

A Straussian Reading

Infovores 41:45

So I'd like to close by delving a little deeper into one section that really stood out to me from Theory of Moral Sentiments while I was preparing for this interview. It's from Part Two about halfway through that section, and Smith suggests that there are some crimes that are difficult to punish because they don't immediately or directly hurt anyone. He tells a story about a guard who falls asleep during his watch and is sentenced to death for putting the entire army at risk. Are you familiar with that passage?

Dan Klein 41:59


Infovores 42:01

And so the logic of the penalty is clear, and it seems like Smith basically accepts that logic. But then he says something interesting. He says,

Though such carelessness appears very blamable… a man of humanity must recollect himself, must make an effort, and exert his whole firmness and resolution, before he can bring himself either to inflict it, or to go along with it when it is inflicted by others.

If you take this statement at face value, he seems to be suggesting that to carry out justice here you have to go against the impartial spectator, which is Smith's idea of a moral guide throughout the book. How do you interpret what Smith is arguing here?

Dan Klein 42:44

I think what he is saying is that you see the centinel falls asleep during his watch. And there's a standing rule in the military that if you're caught falling asleep on your watch, you are put to death. And so the guy fell asleep, he was caught, and nothing happened while he was sleeping. No harm in the moment came to anybody. And consequences play a very significant role for Smith. He says our sentiments are greatly affected by perceived consequences of things and we see no ill consequences of his having fallen asleep. And so it kind of seems like “no fault no foul”, why should we kill this guy?

But in fact, Smith favors killing the guy. And I would say Smith feels he has the impartial spectator’s agreement or approval in supporting the death penalty, because you’ve got to see the larger consequences of letting the discipline go flabby. So it's about kind of first impressions and thinking deeper, in this case. It’s kind of a thinking fast and thinking slow distinction, where certain immediate feelings of propriety make it feel like the death penalty is not in order and is overly severe and all that. But this is the responsibility of a serious, disciplined army is to maintain such disciplines. So it's something along those lines.

Infovores 44:51

That's interesting. I think that certainly seems to be the surface reading. But I'm not sure that I agree.


Dan Klein 44:59

Okay, give me your esoteric reading.

Infovores 45:02

Right so if I can be just a little bit Straussian, I see Smith suggesting that the impartial spectator is correct here. There are instances throughout TMS where, I haven't read all of it yet, but there are instances where he makes exceptions to the spectator being correct as you’re saying. But it seems to me generally when those exceptions are made, the impartial spectator is wrong because of some personal defect in the individual sort of simulating or accessing this spectator. A defect in their character. And when Smith says, "a man of humanity" has to recollect himself and basically force himself to go against the impartial spectator here, I think he's suggesting that this is not one of those cases where the impartial spectator is wrong.

I think he's suggesting that there's an important counterbalance to justice that may have some weight in this case. And that even if there may be cases where nothing observable is done to harm an individual person but still require a punishment that those cases should be very few and far between. That we should be hesitant to go against the enlightened intuition represented by the impartial spectator here.

I think this is strengthened by a passage just a few paragraphs later. In the earlier editions of TMS this was even more the case, but he makes kind of a digression where he starts talking about the mercy of God, and the limits of justice, and the need for an atonement. And it seems to me like he may be suggesting that there's a role for mercy to escape the bounds of justice in this situation. What do you make of that esoteric reading?

Dan Klein 47:02

Interesting, and a lot about it I think I like. One thing at issue here is the multiple meanings of the expression "impartial spectator". I'm not sure what you're thinking is quite what I was thinking. It seems like maybe what you were thinking was someone's conscience, and that is one meaning. But there's also the supreme impartial spectator, and the conscience is not necessarily a faithful or accurate representative of that supreme sense of the impartial spectator. That supreme sense you could think of along the lines as God. So certainly when you're saying the impartial spectator could be wrong, Smith would certainly say that your conscience could be wrong, but he would never say that God could be wrong. And I'm not sure if you were implying that, but that God is kind of right by definition. The supreme impartial spectator is right, by definition, that's just part of the way things are organized in his ethics and in benevolent monotheism generally.

But then what you're saying, that there are exceptions, and leniencies, and mercy. I don't deny all that. But I never read the centinel passages as him subtly suggesting that maybe the death penalty there was improper. Are you suggesting that?

Infovores 48:51

I don't think he's suggesting it's generally improper. He makes a clear distinction between putting the guard to death who has fallen asleep through human frailty, on the one hand. And in contrast, he says it's natural for us to be vengeful towards someone who has committed outright an unjust murder. If the latter person is set free from prison without truly being punished, that is a great injustice according to Smith.5

And so he's taking a very nuanced position here in my view. He would affirm the death penalty in certain cases, maybe even many cases. But in this particular case, he seems to be carving out a little bit of space for what I would call the mercy of God, and along the lines of what you're saying, Smith doesn't talk of God as being incorrect when he invokes him throughout the book.

And so a lot of the things that he has God saying in this long passage that the section ends with,6 that was cut out just before the seventh edition I think, excuse me the sixth, seem right in line with classic insights from Adam Smith. For example he says, "the doctrines of revelation teach us how little we can depend upon the imperfection of our own virtue", which is related to this idea that we need the invisible hand to direct our imperfect acts, our selfish acts, or our acts that are not really motivated by benevolence most of the time to serve the greater good of the whole.

And you make a point in “Smithian Morals”, in the essay about the invisible hand, how Adam Smith places that reference dead in the center of his works to highlight it in a way that was maybe not entirely obvious to people who weren't reading closely. And I wonder whether he does kind of a similar thing here, because this passage on the atonement is in the middle of part two. It's not in the middle of the overall work, but it's kind of right in the middle of that section. And it seems to suggest some deep points that he may not have felt totally comfortable going into in other places in the work.

Dan Klein 51:39

I can see you've got a taste for esoteric reading.

Infovores 51:41

Yeah, I've written several posts about it.

Dan Klein 51:44

Oh, really? Good. It's kind of rare, but I'm glad to see some young people getting into it.

Infovores 51:53

Yeah, so I really appreciate your willingness to have this very kind of nerdy and wide ranging conversation about morality, and economics, and religion. I really appreciate the book you wrote, because it helped me to get deeper into Theory of Moral Sentiments and connect some of the things that maybe I wouldn't have understood as well trying it on my own. And so I hope that people who listen to this will take a look, it's available as a free download via the Fraser Institute, and it's the first of three volumes that you're working on. Is there anything you'd like to to add about the forthcoming volumes or other things you're working on?

Dan Klein 52:43

No, you covered it pretty well. I'm really grateful for this conversation, I've enjoyed it. And I look forward to hearing your future esoteric readings.

Infovores 52:56

Thank you, and likewise. Appreciate you and hope you have a great day.

Dan Klein 53:02

Likewise, thanks a lot.


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, check out my other writing at Infovores Newsletter. You can also follow @ageofinfovores to keep up with me.


As opposed to false sentiments, see here.


The liberty principle says: In a choice between two reforms (one of which may be no reform at all), the one that rates higher in liberty better serves universal benevolence.”


“He looks upon the centinel as an unfortunate victim, who indeed, must, and ought to be, devoted to the safety of numbers, but whom still, in his heart, he would be glad to save; and he is only sorry, that the interest of the many should oppose it. But if the murderer should escape from punishment, it would excite his highest indignation, and he would call upon God to avenge, in another world, that crime which the injustice of mankind had neglected to chastise upon earth.” [pages 201-202]


“That the Deity loves virtue and hates vice… and that the most dreadful atonement has been paid for our manifold transgressions and iniquities.” [pages 203-206]

1 Comment