Adam Smith on Liberty and Reputation: Is Reputation Property? Are Defamation Laws Coercive?

Mark J. Bonica

Advisor: Daniel B Klein, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Donald Boudreaux, Garett Jones

Enterprise Hall, #318
February 06, 2013, 10:00 AM to 08:00 AM


Esteem, admiration, fame, and reputation are powerful motivators of human behavior in Adam Smith's moral philosophy.  According to Smith, we are willing to go to great ends to earn the esteem of others and achieve a lasting reputation.  Indeed, he asserts men are even willing to attempt acts which will result in certain death if they believe they might achieve a sufficiently great and lasting reputation in the process.  Despite the central nature of reputation and its importance to understanding human motivation, Smith is never explicit about how reputation should be treated under the law.  We know Smith thinks we will go to great lengths to achieve a good reputation, but we do not know with certainty how the government should treat the reputation of individuals.  The focal questions of this dissertation then, are first, whether Smith believed reputation was like property, which men can be said to have a right to defend with violence; and second, if he believed it should be protected by law.

In the first essay, I consider Smith's jurisprudence, and the role of natural liberty.  In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith alludes to an intent to write a full book on jurisprudence ("TMS"), which presumably would have dealt fully with the issue of reputation.  I discuss the nature of commutative justice and distributive justice, which becomes central to my exploration of Smith.  I then discuss the role of natural liberty and natural jurisprudence, and conclude that Smith was optimistic about establishing a society that embraced a system of natural liberty based on classical liberal ideals.   Such a system would likely have included a libertarian perspective on reputation.

In the second essay I begin to explore the question of reputation using Smith's published works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations ("WN").  I use a simple 2x2 framework to consider the interactions between the two core questions of the dissertation, i.e., is reputation property-like and therefore the subject of commutative justice, and are laws protecting reputation desirable?  I also introduce a model of rhetorical bargainer vs. challenger to explain why Smith might have opted to avoid an explicit libertarian position on reputation.

In the final essay, I continue my inquiry expanding beyond Smith's published works to a review of the Lectures on Jurisprudence ("LJ"), two collections of student notes taken down during Smith's lectures at Glasgow University.  In this concluding paper, I explore some statements which seem on the surface to explicitly support the position that reputation is a perfect right, but also review many interesting statements Smith makes about related issues, such as dueling, that point to the opposite conclusion.