Maria Carrasco*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Adam Smith is known as a liberal thinker. The political system that he promotes and describes as one of perfect justice, perfect liberty, and perfect equality (Wealth of Nations [1776] 1981; WN IV.ix.17:669) is characterized by the primacy of the rights of non-interference and the protection of a private sphere where every individual directs her life according to her own decisions. The moral justification for the primacy of negative justice is in the second book of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he unambiguously states: Mere justice is, upon most occasions, but a negative virtue, and only hinders us from hurting our neighbor ([1759] 1982; TMS II.i.1.9:82). For the same reason, the first time I read that book, the following paragraph struck me as an inexplicable contradiction, an incomprehensible lapse in Adam Smith's thoroughly revised text: A superior may, indeed, sometimes, with universal approbation, oblige those under his jurisdiction to behave, in this respect, with a certain degree of propriety to one another. ... The civil magistrate is entrusted with the power not only of preserving the public peace by restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth, by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree. ... Of all the duties of a law-giver, however, this, perhaps, is that which it requires the greatest delicacy and reserve to execute with propriety and judgment. To neglect it altogether exposes the commonwealth to many gross disorders and shocking enormities, and to push it too far is destructive of all liberty, security, and justice. (TMS II.ii.1.8)

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-203
Number of pages3
JournalJournal of the History of Economic Thought
Issue number2
StatePublished - 28 Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the History of Economics Society.


Dive into the research topics of 'SMITH at 300: NEGATIVE JUSTICE and POLITICAL WISDOM'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this