Though it is not widely rocignized, Adam Smith does in fact have a well-worked out political theory which combines both normative, empirical or descriptive, and pragmatic components into a well-integrated whole. One of the most important and overlooked parts of this theory is Smith’s theories of class and state. Briefly put, Smithian political theory holds that legislators of commercial societies have a determinate duty to promote a particular socio-economic model or vision for an ideal society of that type. According to this model markets should be as free as is practicable of government interference – that is, as free as remains consistent with the various duties of the legislator, such as maintaining a public system of justice, military defence, and maintaining important public works. Adam Smith’s theories of class and state have a crucial role to play in his account of why the legislator is committed to this model. This work aims to show how this is the case and how this enables us to understand the unity of Smith’s works more broadly.
Adam Smith’s class theory rests on significant structural, psychological and normative foundations. A society’s pattern of class stratification builds on Smith’s accounts of the economic mechanism of commercial society and on his general developmental psychology, and the relation between particular class interests and what Smith considers the general interest of society is of vital importance. He distinguishes three major classes in commercial societies: landlords, the class of merchants and manufacturers, and the working class. The class someone is born into profoundly affects their individual human development – especially their cognitive and moral abilites. Different classes also have distinct and sometimes opposing class interests, leading to class conflict.
Due to these and other factors the members of different classes have widely differing degrees of political ability and influence. Importantly, both the interests of landlords and those of the working class are either closely aligned or identified with the general interest. However, for various reasons they are unable to exert significant influence on the state. By contrast, as Smith details numerous places in commentary on both domestic and foreign policies, the class of merchants and manufacturers, whose interests are never aligned with and often directly opposed to the general interest, exert near-total influence on effective political decision-making.
Smith holds that free markets will greatly increase the material wealth and independence of the majority of the population, which is what, to him, the general interest consists in. Moreover, for reason outlined above he believes government is in the hands of a class with interests never aligned with, and often directly opposed to, the general interest. As a result of this – as well as for critical views on the epistemological difficulties and typical moral vices politicians are prone to – Smith believes the general interest is best promoted by leaving free markets as free as practicable.