Der Apriorist - Abstracts 17. Dec. 2010

Adam Smith and the Grotian Theory of Property

by John Salter

Tags: theory of property, Adam Smith, Grotius
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John Salter. Adam Smith and the Grotian Theory of Property. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations 12.1 (February 2010): 3–21.


Abstract: In the theory of property, which he presented in his lectures in Glasgow in 1762–63, Adam Smith moved decisively against the ideas of his Scottish contemporaries and near contemporaries, particularly with respect to the elements of their theories they had inherited from Locke. This article explores the reasons behind this change in direction and discusses the use Smith made of Grotius' theory of property in reformulating his own ideas. I argue that Grotius' influence is evident in three features of Smith's theory: the account of property in the first age of society; the role of agreements in the subsequent development of property; and the nature and scope of natural rights.

In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (Smith 1976, hereafter TMS) Adam Smith writes of Hugo Grotius that he:

seems to have been the first who attempted to give the world anything like a system of those principles which ought to run through, and be the foundation of the laws of all nations: and his treatise of the laws of war and peace, with all its imperfections, is perhaps at this day the most complete work that has yet been given upon this subject (TMS VII.iv.37).

One reason for Smith's admiration of Grotius is that Grotius had made a clear distinction between justice and all the other virtues and in his treatment of justice he considered: ‘only what the person to whom the obligation is due, ought to think himself entitled to exact by force’ (TMS, VV.iv.8). Grotius' influence on Smith with respect to the definition and scope of justice is well known and has been explored in some detail in a number of published works. Much less attention, however, has been paid to the influence on Smith of Grotius' theory of property. It is Grotius' successors, particularly Pufendorf and Locke, who are usually seen as the thinkers who had the greatest influence on Smith and the other Scottish writers, largely through the writing and teaching of Gershom Carmichael and Francis Hutcheson.

However, in his mature theory of property, which he presented in his lectures in Glasgow in 1762, Smith moved decisively against the ideas of his Scottish contemporaries and near contemporaries, particularly with respect to the elements of their theories they had inherited from Locke. In Part I, I explore the reasons behind this change in direction and in Parts II and III, I discuss the use Smith made of Grotius' theory of property in reformulating his own ideas.

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