Adam Smith, Technology, and Liberty

Adam Smith is often called the father of capitalism. It is certainly true that Smith saw the good in a system of what he called “natural liberty,” where people were free to dispose of their resources and skills as they see fit in a market system. But a certain popular caricature of capitalism might lead one to think that Smith was something he was not. In fact, Smith recognized the benefits of commercial society primarily in its tendency to raise the position of the least well off, the “labouring poor,” whose wages and standard of living increase in a thriving, growing, wealthy, free, well-governed nation. His concerns are moral and humane, with concern for what sort of system tends to benefit all without great injustices and finds that commercial society often meets these requirements well. 

Smith’s praise of commercial society is, however, coupled with an awareness of the ways it can go wrong and a concern for the ways it can potentially harm those we hope it will, in most cases, help. One of those harms Smith was concerned with was what he called the possibility of the “mental mutilation” of the worker. This mental mutilation, Smith says, happens primarily when someone is “confined to a few very simple operations,” such that their minds are focused on those and nothing else. Someone who is so focused on a narrow task has “no occasion to exert his understanding or exercise his invention.” According to Smith, he 

… naturally loses, therefore, the habit of [mental] exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.

This is a serious problem for Smith. It is not a problem simply because such a worker is boring to associate with, is a poor citizen, or even because they would be useless for national defense, though all of those things may be true. Instead, this mental mutilation is concerning to Smith because it is a threat to liberty itself. 

Smith’s concept of liberty is fairly rich and nuanced. Certainly, there is a type of liberty that consists in an absence of government interference in the free, market actions of individuals, things Smith discusses at length in his most famous work, The Wealth of Nations. Smith there condemns, for example, burdensome restrictions on free movement or licensure requirements that are “a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty of both the workman, and of those who might be disposed to employ him.” 

But taking Wealth of Nations together with his less popularly known Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith also seems concerned with a type of liberty that requires a bit more development in the faculties of the individual, rather than a mere absence of constraint. As Samuel Fleischacker puts it in his A Third Concept of Liberty, Adam Smith conceived of meaningful individual liberty as a kind of “independent judgment.” This type of judgment is not automatic, mechanical, or ingrained in us by default. Rather, it is something cultivated socially, in occasions where we get to decide things freely for ourselves and then submit our decisions to our fellows in society for condemnation or approval. Someone who is mentally mutilated is hampered in some way in the exercise of this judgment; his opportunities for and ability to judge freely and independently are restrained. 

That mental mutilation is a threat to judgment itself means that this mental mutilation is one possible threat to liberty with which we should be concerned. Perhaps, though, this particular fear does not concern many of us in our modern lives and employment. Many workers today do not stay in overly specialized occupations but are rather freed by the operations of machinery to pursue more general, mentally engaging tasks. The division of labor has not always progressed precisely as Smith might have imagined it (although we would do well to remember that much of that overly focused, potentially harmful production still takes place out of sight of those of us in America). 

Nevertheless, even if it is true that machines do not perpetually lock the working class into mentally mutilating tasks, this does not mean that Adam Smith’s concerns are irrelevant. Instead, Smith gives us the resources to ask, where else might mental mutilation come from? What other mechanisms, machines, and new pieces of technology might be substituting for the worker’s judgment, or removing opportunities for them to exercise and develop their judgment?

One possible way that these harms could come about is through the substitution of automated judgment for the judgment of free individuals. AI researchers have argued that there is a fine line between algorithmic suggestion and algorithms making decisions on our behalf, and that “the trend goes from programming computers to programming people.” By disguising algorithmic judgments as our own choices, we risk being lulled into complacency, unaware of the reality of the restriction of our own available choice, which is a restriction on our ability to exercise and development of our judgment, and thus a restriction of our freedom. 

Take something as innocuous as the ready availability of turn-by-turn navigation in the palms of our hands. This rapid technological development has permanently altered the way we relate to and travel through the land around us, and there is evidence of lasting harms that dependence on these devices causes. The relative threat to liberty posed by dependence on cell phone navigation apps may be small, but this sort of trained reliance on automated judgments multiplied at every turn across our lives of leisure and labor, our entertainment, and our employment can certainly be cause for concern. 

We must, like Adam Smith, be careful to avoid radical pessimism or alarmism. Some have argued that our worst fears about the harms of algorithms, such as radicalization or the creation of polarizing echo chambers, may have been overblown. Nevertheless, as predictive and suggestive algorithms continue to pervade our everyday lives and be integrated with our everyday decision making, we would do well to develop an awareness of how much our choices are influenced by, or perhaps even truly made by, machines outside of our control if we wish to maintain the meaningful freedom available to us from the free exercise of our own judgment. 


This piece is a condensation of an article originally published in the Political Research Quarterly under the title, “Freedom and the Machine: Technological Criticisms in Adam Smith’s Thought.”

Philip Bunn is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research brings both ancient and modern political thought to bear on contemporary issues, with a focus on normative questions relating to technology. Philip serves as a graduate fellow for the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy. He graduated with a degree in Government with a focus in Political Philosophy from Patrick Henry College.
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