… is from page 295 of my late Nobel-laureate colleague Jim Buchanan’s 1976 paper “The Justice of Natural Liberty,” as it is reprinted in volume 1 of The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty (1999); this paper originally appeared in the January 1976 issue of the Journal of Legal Studies (footnote deleted):

A. L. Macfie makes the distinction between what he calls the Scottish method, characteristic of Adam Smith’s approach to problems of social policy, and the scientific or analytical method which is more familiar to modern social scientists. In the former, the center of attention lay in the society as observed, rather than in the idealized version of that society considered as an abstraction.

DBx: Adam Smith did social science correctly. He had no illusions that either human beings as individuals, or the economies and societies to which human actions give rise, are plastic to be molded at will by the state, by intellectuals, or even by history.

Yes, the state matters. And ideas matter. And history matters. And as Deirdre McCloskey reminds us (because our devotion to Science prompts us to forget), the ways we talk – the words and phrases we use – matter. But there is nevertheless at bottom an unchanging human nature that accounts for more than banal realities such as that flapping our arms does not allow us to fly.

We humans are not perfectible according to any of the standards of perfection endorsed, if usually only implicitly, by the typical professor, politician, pundit, or preacher. At least as importantly, we humans are not science projects. Nor is society a science project. And nor is society an organization that has either some goals the achievement of which can be better assured with skillful social engineering, or some destiny to which it is being led by history or by “great” men or women or classes.

Adam Smith understood these basic truths about human beings and about society. It is an understanding that fosters humility, but one that also opens the eyes of those who have it to the wonders of emergent economic and social orders.


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