January 17th, 2012 The Adam Smith Problem
The Adam Smith Problem is the suggestion that there is a conflict between Smith's moral theory based on sympathy and his economic theory based on self-interest.
In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith claims that self-interest alone (in a proper institutional setting) can lead to socially beneficial results. But in his Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith argues that sympathy is required to achieve socially beneficial results. On the surface it appears that a contradiction exists. Economist August Oncken referred to this as 'the Adam-Smith-Problem'. Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter also emphasized this apparent contradiction in his commentary on Smith's work.
Adam Smith himself cannot have seen any contradiction, since he produced a revised edition of Moral Sentiments after the publication of Wealth of Nations. Both sets of ideas are to be found in his Lectures on Jurisprudence. In recent years most students of Adam Smith's work have argued that no contradiction exists. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith develops a theory of psychology in which individuals in society find it in their self-interest to develop sympathy as they seek approval of what he calls the "impartial spectator." The self-interest he speaks of is not a narrow selfishness but something that involves sympathy.
Some readers of The Wealth of Nations have assumed that when Smith speaks of "self-interest" he is referring to selfishness. Although in some contexts, such as buying and selling, sympathy generally need not be considered, Smith makes it clear that he regards selfishness as inappropriate, if not immoral, and that the self-interested actor has sympathy for others. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith argues that the self-interest of any actor includes the interest of the rest of society, since the socially-defined notions of appropriate and inappropriate actions necessarily affect the interests of the individual as a member of society. Context is also useful as Adam Smith was against the idea of corporations, or "joint stock companies."
In any case, Adam Smith apparently believed that moral sentiments and self-interest would always add up to the same thing. One possible line of reasoning he might have employed in reaching this conclusion is as follows: the invisible hand cannot operate if there is no society, for precluding a societal construct precludes division of labor, and thus, the efficiency which comes with its manifestation. Now for society to exist, justice is a necessary condition (as pointed out in Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments). For justice to exist in any social setting, individuals must harbor the passions of gratitude and resentment governed by a sense of 'merit' and 'demerit' (again from Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments). And finally, as Adam Smith himself would have so vehemently argued, the sense of 'merit' and 'demerit' is almost exclusively engendered by human sympathy. In conclusion, the invisible hand of the market is, at some level, contingent upon the ability of humans to sympathize: Smith's self-interest is indeed in consonance with the notion of sympathy.