Some general, and even systematical, idea of the perfection of policy and law, may no doubt be necessary for directing the views of the statesman. But to insist upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spite of all opposition, every thing which that idea may seem to require, must often be the highest degree of arrogance. It is to erect his own judgment into the supreme standard of right and wrong. It is to fancy himself the only wise and worthy man in the commonwealth, and that his fellow-citizens should accommodate themselves to him and not he to them. It is upon this account, that of all political speculators, sovereign princes are by far the most dangerous. This arrogance is perfectly familiar to them. They entertain no doubt of the immense superiority of their own judgment. When such imperial and royal reformers, therefore, condescend to contemplate the constitution of the country which is committed to their government, they seldom see any thing so wrong in it as the obstructions which it may sometimes oppose to the execution of their own will. They…consider the state as made for themselves, not themselves for the state. The great object of their reformation, therefore, is to remove those obstructions; to reduce the authority of the nobility; to take away the privileges of cities and provinces, and to render both the greatest individuals and the greatest orders of the state, as incapable of opposing their commands, as the weakest and most insignificant.--Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (hereafter TMS) 184.108.40.206*
As I remarked a few days ago, liberal political philosophy has, in recent times, not given sufficient attention to the role of political leadership--too happily ceding the topic to conservative and authoritarian thinkers with, perhaps, disastrous consequences. Proceduralists think all the action is in the proper functioning of courts and Weberian (rule-following) bureaucracies. Too many free market liberals distrust the state and promote its withdrawal not proper leadership of it. It is, thus, no surprise, that it is often said about Smith that he lacks a theory of politics and political leadership. In fact, the quoted passage above is often quoted by folk (inspired by Hayek) to read into Smith a warning against 'the man of system' who tries to impose his (socialist/planning etc.) monistic system on a pluralist society from afar. (See, however, for an excellent treatment of this passage, Jacob Levy). Indeed, Smith is quite clear that the spirit of system redirects "that more gentle public spirit; always animates it, and often inflames it even to the madness of fanaticism.” (TMS 220.127.116.11)
In fact, while it is possible to read the passage as offering a kind of conservative, status quo bias -- respect the existing interests of the most powerful members of society --, the main point of the passage is to diagnoses a form of authoritarianism that goes well beyond the dangers of (systematic) ideology taken too far. He characterizes the bad statesman as precisely that political leader, who wishes to rule without opposition and obstacle and who goes about eliminating paths to opposition. To put the point anachronistically, in the political sphere Smith is more than willing to sacrifice efficiency and speed of decision-making and make room for gradual and accommodating practices. In fact, Smith is a critic of shock-therapy, and even when he promotes free-trade, he argues that changes need to take place in gradual fashion on moral grounds (“humanity”) and pragmatic grounds, that is, fear of political “disorder.” (Wealth of Nations 4.2.40).
Smith does not believe that the weakest citizens will be better served by power un-checked. Given that Smith wrote this passage in 1790 (it was only inserted into the last edition of TMS), we can see here Smith's embrace of the American perspective (not to mention the influence of Montesquieu and Hume on the division of power).
Yet, the very same passage (18.104.22.168) also shows that Smith is not anti-intellectual about political leadership. The good political leader (a statesman) requires a unified and broad intellectual perspective to provide order and stability to his decision-making. In fact, and this is quite striking, the way Smith has worded it, it does not really matter if the system is true (so he is not claiming the statesman should adopt his system), any coherent ideology will do as long as it guides behavior in a gradual fashion. (This is not to deny that Smith also thinks his own system would be best in so doing; he has quite a bit to say about how "wrong systems" make public policy worse.) So, a good statesman is guided by a public spirited, intellectual vision (recall Burke's applied philosopher), but willing to accommodate opposition in order to serve the public. Public spirit is, for Smith, always constrained by the rules of justice (see below for more evidence of this).
Before I get to Smith's account of great statesmanship, there is further presently pertinent point to be made about 22.214.171.124. In his commentary on this passage, Thomas Brown (a rather interesting early nineteenth century, Edinburgh moral philosopher) notes (in a Humean fashion), that "much of the tendency [toward a desire for unobstructed leadership] arises from the facility which they have found in executing the smaller matters, which they are in the hourly habit of willing and producing; a facility which they naturally extend to other matters, in which they suppose that all things will arrange themselves as readily, according to their will...they [mistakenly think] that the machinery of national happiness seems to them more simple and more easy of management than it really is." That is, folk who are used to smooth command and control -- generals, traders, certain kinds of entrepeneurs -- have dispositions that will make them misunderstand their own power and, thereby, cause political disorders.
Recently, there has been renewed, considerable interest in the nature of a great statesmen. Smith also recognizes the category, and puts it in the realm of superior prudence:
Wise and judicious conduct, when directed to greater and nobler purposes than the care of the health, the fortune, the rank and reputation of the individual, is frequently and very properly called prudence. We talk of the prudence of the great general, of the great statesman, of the great legislator. Prudence is, in all these cases, combined with many greater and more splendid virtues, with valour, with extensive and strong benevolence, with a sacred regard to the rules of justice, and all these supported by a proper degree of self-command. This superior prudence, when carried to the highest degree of perfection, necessarily supposes the art, the talent, and the habit or disposition of acting with the most perfect propriety in every possible circumstance and situation. It necessarily supposes the utmost perfection of all the intellectual and of all the moral virtues. TMS VI.1.15, p. 216—sixth edition)
For Smith acting from proper self-interest, prudence, is a virtue, and so is superior prudence. Such superior prudence is the product of well cultivated moral and intellectual dispositions. These are strongly grounded in principles and practices of justice and morality. Smith's great statesman does not dazzle with heroic conquests or great riches. But his valour is directed toward moral ends. This all may sound remarkably idealistic and far removed from the needs of our highly polarized and partisan times. But Smith's interest in great statesmanship is driven, precisely, by concern over excessive partisanship.
Foreign war and civil faction are the two situations which afford the most splendid opportunities for the display of public spirit…In times of civil discord, the leaders of the contending parties, though they may be admired by one half of their fellow-citizens, are commonly execrated by the other.…The leader of the successful party, however, if he has authority enough to prevail upon his own friends to act with proper temper and moderation (which he frequently has not), may sometimes render to his country a service much more essential and important than the greatest victories and the most extensive conquests. He may reestablish and improve the constitution, and from the very doubtful and ambiguous character of the leader of a party, he may assume the greatest and noblest of all characters, that of the reformer and legislator of a great state; and, by the wisdom of his institutions, secure the internal tranquility and happiness of his fellow citizens for many succeeding generations. TMS 126.96.36.199-14
Excessive partisanship (faction) generates conditions of civil discord, or worse. When partisanship becomes self-reinforcing, there comes a point one must recognize that there are more fundamental underlying problems. The minimal conditions for unity are not being met because people's dispositions are being directed toward faction and factional control of the levers of government, rather than the wider needs of the state. That is, Smith (not unlike Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Hume) takes the existing of severe public discord as evidence for bad leadership, bad public norms, and bad constitutional design and thus generating a clear need for a more general political change. (Smith lived through the American revolution.) That is, while on the one hand, good leadership requires respect for existing structures, but great leadership requires constitutional reform and moderation when -- paradoxically -- one's side has gained the upper hand in severe political conflict.
There is, of course, no reason to think that such greatness is very common or present in our times.
*This post was inspired by discussion with students at James Madison University who are reading Adam Smith in the Age of Trump with Ross Emmett. I am very grateful to their comments.