Liberty: Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville

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

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

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