The industry of Great Britain, instead of being accommodated to a great number of small markets, has been principally suited to one great market. Her commerce, instead of running in a great number of small channels, has been taught to run principally in one great channel. But the whole system of her industry and commerce has thereby been rendered less secure; the whole state of her body politick less healthful, than it otherwise would have been. In her present condition, Great Britain resembles one of those unwholesome bodies in which some of the vital parts are overgrown, and which, upon that account, are liable to many dangerous disorders scarce incident to those in which all the parts are more properly proportioned. A small stop in that great blood-vessel, which has been artificially swelled beyond its natural dimensions, and through which an unnatural proportion of the industry and commerce of the country has been forced to circulate, is very likely to bring on the most dangerous disorders upon the whole body politick. The expectation of a rupture with the colonies, accordingly, has struck the people of Great Britain with more terror than they ever felt for a Spanish armada, or a French invasion. (WN 4.7.C.43, 604)*
In recent work, Tamas Demeter has suggested (see here) that Smith's appeal to the ‘body politick’ in Wealth of Nations (WN) is evidence of Smith’s vitalistic commitments.** The idea is that the science of the legislator is akin to a physician who offers policies restoring the body politick. There is no doubt that this image is important and an enduring one (recall) in the history of economics and its self-image. For example, at the height of the controversy over the Chicago Boys's entanglement with Pinochet, Milton Friedman likened the economist as an expert to a physician (I have discussed that here).
Even so, I do not think Smith’s use of ‘body politick’ is a sign or evidence of his embrace of vitalistic conceptual framework. In fact, I'll suggest that Smith does not even embrace the idea of a body politick as his own position in the passage quoted above. (In fact, the passage offers a nice illustration of my claim that Smith relies on proportional reasoning throughout WN.) Before I get to the context of the passage let me note, that there are really three metaphors/tropes at work in the passage. First, we see Smith using hydrostatic/fluid tropes/metaphors for the size and extent of markets; second, he treats Britain’s whole economy (‘industry and commerce’) as a system; and third, he treats Britain’s political economy in terms of a body politick.
As it happens the first two tropes are indeed echt-Smithian. For, he uses the channel metaphor in a crucial passage in Book 2 of Wealth of Nations, where he is describing that the legislator should neither encourage exports nor domestic trade, but should leave capital free to find its own markets. I have described Smith's use of 'system' in my book, although it is notable that in WN he tends to reserve 'system' for intellectual edifices he opposes (the 'system of commerce' is mercantilism and the 'system of agriculture' is physiocracy), although he calls his own approach the liberal system. But what about "body politick''?
It is, indeed, notable that in the paragraphs WN 4.7.C.43-44, 604-6, Smith is very fond of using ‘body politick.’ (He uses the phrase three times.) But these passages are also exceptional; for Smith does not use the phrase elsewhere in his published writings. So, what needs explaining is why Smith uses these tropes here and not elsewhere.
The immediate textual context for these passages is Smith’s analysis of the potential effects of American independence then (1776) an object of intense policy concern. While Smith prefers a political settlement in which Britain and the Americas are turned into an Atlantic, parliamentary empire, the thrust of Smith’s argument is that colonial independence will not be bad for trade, but rather will help unwind some bad economic policies which are a consequence of Britain's mercantile ideology.
That is to say, when Smith looks at some of the bad political and immoral effects of physiocracy and, in the British context, especially, mercantilism he interprets these in terms of medical metaphors. So, for example, we find Petty using the phrase in his Tracts on Ireland; Mandeville uses the phrase (mostly, but not always) earnestly in the Fable of the Bees; and Smith's great, unnamed rival, the Jacobite James Steuart, adopts the image in An Inquiry Into the Principles of Political Economy. That’s no surprise because these authors are the ones that embrace such metaphors and, thereby, (a) promote partial economic interests and (b) the idea that experts should offer (b*) tailored/detailed policy advice to politicians that is responsive to economic symptoms. But while Smith is no apostle of laissez faire, throughout his writings Smith rejects (a-b-b*). The science of the legislator is supposed to prevent the meddling of the crafty politician.
I think a more natural reading of the passage that to Demeter suggests a vitalistic reading presents itself: Smith is critical of competing economic systems and he partially deploys their own leading illustrative metaphors against them in order to show that it is not only bad economics, but also generates bad politics. For, he is claiming that when/if one favors one economic interests over all the others then when that interest is threatened or undermined, the public will (perhaps correctly) be alarmed and so become rather unstable (terrified). That is to say, even on their own terms, mercantile policies create political fragility. Mercantilism systematically generates what modern philosophers call inductive risk and so, in Smith's terms, a wrong system.
Let me close with a methodological observation. Historians of ideas and literary scholars are much better than philosophers in paying attention to metaphors, similes, tropes, etc. (I assume this is a matter of interest and training.) In so doing, they are able to reveal important themes and resonances in texts we study. But there is always a risk that thinkers and projects are grouped together based on such metaphors/similes where one really ought to emphasize the differences. A familiar example of this is the use of 'Newtonian' in describing various projects/thinkers of the eighteenth century, or 'Rationalist'/'Empiricist' in the whole early modern period. Something similar has happened with 'vitalism,' which until recently was a niche scholarly topic. There is now a tendency to ascribe various vitalist projects to thinkers based on the presence of particular metaphors. But while it is probably not true that Smith is merely mentioning the metaphor, he using it in a kind of practical reductio. So, I would urge scholars to pay attention to metaphors, similes, tropes, etc. (and, in light of my conflations above, even learn the difference among them!), but these do not settle the categorization of an author's perspective. That needs to be adjudicated on a case by case basis with due attention to their arguments, distinctions, and substantive positions.
*The references in the text are to the paragraphs and page-numbers of the Glasgow edition. But I am linking to an available text.
**This post was prompted by a series of exchanges between Tamas (my sometime co-author) and (my former colleague) Charles Wolfe in their responses to my book on Adam Smith in Budapest as part of an authors meets critics session on my book forthcoming in Journal of Scottish Philosophy. Wolfe is rather critical of the suggestion by Demeter (and others including Forget and Packham) that Smith is a vitalist; I concur with Wolfe and his arguments. And this post is meant to offer an independent argument supporting Wolfe's conclusion.