Bonica and Klein, ‘Adam Smith on Reputation, Commutative Justice, and Defamation Laws’

We explore two issues in reading Smith. The first concerns whether he thought that ‘one’s own’ as covered by commutative justice included one’s reputation. Several passages point to the affirmative. But reputation is left out of Smith’s ‘most sacred laws’ description of commutative justice. Moreover, so much of reputation – eg, ‘Steve’s work stinks’ – does not fit Smith’s description of commutative justice’s rules (precise and accurate). Our reading makes use of older terminology from Pufendorf, Carmichael, and Hutcheson distinguishing ‘simple’ and ‘intensive’ esteem, and suggests that the ‘reputation’ that sometimes appears is of a simple variety (‘Steve steals horses’) that potentially incites invasion of commutative justice’s three staples – person, property, promises due. On that reading the ‘reputation’ that comes under commutative justice would be adjunctive to the three staples. Our reading also recruits Hume, who nowhere even hinted at reputation being a constituent of commutative justice. The second matter explored is Smith’s policy inclination about defamation laws (libel, slander) as they would pertain to intensive esteem. By our lights, were Smith to favor intensive-reputation defamation laws (against, say, ‘Steve’s work stinks’), we would have to count that as another exception made to the liberty principle. Smith’s remarks are mixed, but we think he was rather inclined against aggressive or extensive laws of such kind. (Also, we draw a parallel to patent and copyright.) Looming behind our discussion is the question: Why did Smith leave us with contrarieties and unclarity? We figure that if Smith thought that wantonly telling malicious lies like ‘Steve’s work stinks’ was not a violation of commutative justice and, moreover, is best left perfectly legal, those are judgments that the liberal project’s great prophet would hardly want to make plain, because indifferent readers would misunderstand them and adversaries would misrepresent them.

Bonica, Mark and Klein, Daniel B, Adam Smith on Reputation, Commutative Justice, and Defamation Laws (August 15, 2019). GMU Working Paper in Economics forthcoming.

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