True Progressivism In Moderation (Adam Smith Version)

In a middle ground of political moderation there could be agreement about a society built on “virtues of prudence, justice, and beneficence”. Yet since those words belong to Adam Smith, the question mark inevitably hangs over centre-left Progressives.

They may claim to want a Smithian free enterprise system with rule of law. Obama said to Romney: “I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world's ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules”

Obama’s statement is a Progressive position in the contemporary middle ground. However, without the keyword “beneficence” Smith’s vision of the good society holds little meaning for the average Progressive today. I wonder whether the domestic Progressive liberal agenda is not in fact reducible to beneficence, and, further, whether Smith’s liberal understanding of beneficence does not put these two ‘liberalisms’ in conflict.

I want to praise how David Brooks of the New York Times presents the case for moderation in politics.

October 15:“If you want to break the partisan stagnation, you have to come up with an unexpected policy agenda that will scramble the categories. You have to mix proposals from columns A and B”.

October 25:“Moderates like pluralistic agendas, mixing and matching from columns A, B and C. They try to create harmonious blends of policies that don’t, at first glance, go together.”

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Yet I suspect Brooks is not too optimistic about concrete compromises. Let’s see what happens at a more abstract level when Adam Smith’s vision is divided into three columns:

A. Prudence stands for taking care to protect one’s self interest, which in a competitive market place has the providential unintended consequence of raining benefits down on fellow men who profit as consumers from profit others make by creatively and austerely producing better quality at a lower price. In an age when tolerance for debt and moral hazard reaches unprecedented proportions, Progressives don’t prioritise prudence.

B. Justice stands for the rule of law which governs standards for fair dealing in transactions with fellow men. There is clear scope for consensus in such areas as the attack on cronyism, rent seeking, monopolistic closure. Justice is a device for eliminating all the forms of political or social economy which make opportunity unequal.

C. Beneficence stands for being in the position which enables you to actively exercise your disposition to be helpful, generous, benevolent, caring, giving, big hearted, public spirited, neighbourly, and so on. Beneficence improves society by fusing care for oneself with care for the welfare of others. Observe that it is not something ‘done’ by government directly. Thus the prospects for moderate compromise may be worst in this category.

Progressivism -- in contrast to the classical liberal, libertarian, and laissez-faire positions which reduce state functions to a minimum -- is a left-leaning perspective that has favoured more intensive and extensive state activism to cure social and economic ills. In its eyes, benevolence, giving, and caring possess some of the qualities of public goods.

Note that a state is the territorial organisation that governs and has “a monopoly on the legitimate use of force”, i.e. it can enforce its will and the laws of the nation. The main obstacle to moderation then becomes *not* the belief in justice or prudence (where the arguments can probably be ironed out), but rather whether beneficence is the action of the state or of the individual. Adam Smith made it clear on almost every occasion he wrote about it, that beneficence cannot and should not be forced. Justice is forced, beneficence is not. 

“Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes to no punishment; because the mere want of beneficence tends to do no real positive evil”.

It is “the general indignation of other people” that guards against ingratitude by “exciting dislike and approbation” of those who show their lack of beneficence. “Kindness is the parent of kindness”, said Smith. The state has no business meddling in these matters.

“Even the most ordinary degree of kindness or beneficence cannot, among equals, be extorted by force. Among equals each individual is naturally, and antecedent to the institution of civil government ...”

“Beneficence, therefore, is less essential to the existence of society than justice. Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it. Though Nature, therefore, exhorts mankind to acts of beneficence, by the pleasing consciousness of deserved reward, she has not thought it necessary to guard and enforce the practice of it by the terrors of merited punishment in case it should be neglected ... Justice, on the contrary, is the main pillar ... If it is removed, the immense fabric of human society must in a moment crumble into atoms.”

“Concern for our own happiness recommends to us the virtue of prudence: concern for that of other people, the virtues of justice and beneficence … the first of those three virtues is originally recommended to us by our selfish, the other two by our benevolent affections.”

First and foremost, man struggles within his own conscience (“impartial spectator”) when he fails the tests of beneficence. Nudge economics is a form of progressivism more faithful to Smith’s writings than the activist versions which demand that states enforce beneficence. A nudge is an incentive device -- paternalistic perhaps, but not compulsory -- that substitutes self interest, social approval or disapproval for compulsion, and then rewards beneficent behaviour. It recognises, in Smith’s words: “Beneficent actions have in them a quality by which they appear not only to deserve approbation but recompense.” 

In big capitalist societies, a political moderate is necessarily confined to arguing piecemeal about which elements of the welfare state are needed, and which could be got rid of or reformed [exhibit 1: the flawless moderation of Zanny Minton Beddoes in her persuasive Three Prescriptions for True Progressivism]. Institutional abolition and return to tabula rasa is out of the question. However, incremental moderation is destined to fail if parties have different understandings of the concepts they share. In the simple model of moderation there is willingness to mix agendas from columns A, B, C in order to agree a framework. This succeeds substantively at policy implementation stage only, however, if both sides have an accurate joint interpretation of content in each column.

The genius of Adam Smith was expressed in a thoughtful separation of self-interested prudence, state-enforced justice, and informal social beneficence. The instincts of classical liberals makes them unwilling to give the state the responsibility for rectifying every deficit in beneficence. Progressive liberals view beneficence through the lens of the state.

What moderate policy guidance from columns A, B, C might have met with Smith’s approval is hard to tell exactly. In pursuit of his logic I suggest these emphases:

A. Prudence and self-reliance mean devolving burdens of risk away from the state and back toward firms/banks (‘let them fail’) and individuals (‘insure thyself’, ‘school thyself’).

B. Justice requires basic rule of law in support of prudence. Equality before the law demands simple rules of equal opportunity and obligation for coping with perpetual creative destruction-construction that is the hallmark of all flexibly robust societies.

C. The moderate asks that politics tell the truth about the voluntary character of beneficence, and about the virtue and functionality of cooperative self-servicing between big society citizens in a modern technologically-advanced open economy.

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