Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Libertarianism, Adam Smith, and property relations

Posted Nov 20, 2010 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 8 Comments

If you want to understand the foundation of libertarianism, there is no better place to look than Adam Smith’s view of property relations.Laced throughout Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, one finds the Enlightenment doctrine of the four stages of history: the evolution from a hunter society through herding and agriculture to a commercial society. These stages were also about the development of property and the development of government. At the commercial stage, ownership of property had become the basis of free enterprise and government’s role was to protect property.

I think that libertarianism fits squarely on this legacy of property relations. Freedom is the right to do what I want with what I have, with my property. What is especially irritating to libertarians is for the government to take from the “haves” and give it to the “have-nots.” What is equally irritating to non-libertarians is the practice of treating the people and the planet as property, and of ignoring how everyone is interrelated and interconnected in social and economic systems.
In contrast to the Anglo-American property-based tradition, the philosophers of continental Europe based human freedom on the moral will and human dignity. This has given them a framework for seeing people related to one another as a moral community. The Anglo-American tradition of property relations does not have the same resources. In fact, if we want to create a political economy that would move us toward justice and sustainability, we will need to move beyond Smithian economics and libertarianism. We will need to create a global civil society that includes all as members, instead of a property-based society that separates us into the haves and the have-nots.

8 Responses to “Libertarianism, Adam Smith, and property relations”

  1. Mark McLeod says:

    November 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I've read some of Marvin's book, and am eager to read the rest. This passage typifies Marvin's incisive, insightful social and economic analysis. It is exciting to see a profound intepretation of social and economic development over many cultures and many centuries, offered in a mere two beautifully crafted paragraphs! A new model for organizing American businesses and the overall economy has been taking shape over the past decade. It goes by numerous names -- among them the Triple Bottom Line (people, planet, prosperity) model and the Conscious Capitalism model ( At the heart of the model is the realization that every social organism, whether an individual business, a single community, or a whole nation, is made up of many stakeholders -- employees, employers, clients, purveyors, bureaucrats, elected officials, regulators, etc. The community must teach all of its stakeholders that they must all be aware of each other, and care for each other. Only if solutions are found in which all stakeholders can simultaneously prosper will a business, a community, or a nation fluorish.
  2. Bill Turpin says:

    November 25, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Please tell me what you read by Adam Smith that supports this statement: "What is equally irritating to non-libertarians is the practice of treating the people and the planet as property, and of ignoring how everyone is interrelated and interconnected in social and economic systems." Particularly the "people" as property reference. Nowhere in my reading of Adam Smith am I aware of this. Would you be kind enough to provide pages in the book where this referenced? Thank you. W.F. "Bill" Turpin
  3. Marvin Brown says:

    November 26, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    In the very beginning of The Wealth of Nations, Smith uses the 4 stages of history. There four stages are used throughout the book. For Smith and others these four stages were about the development of property and property relations. You can find research on this in my Civilizing the Economy, especially Chapter 2 and the Appendix.
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    November 27, 2010 at 5:21 am

    Wonderful blog! I saw it at Google and I must say that entries are well thought of. I will be coming back to see more posts soon.
  5. Genny Brinley says:

    November 29, 2010 at 2:53 am

    An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn't happen today. "Laurence J. Peter"
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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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