Mr. Anti-Smith Goes to Washington

Thom Lambert —  2 November 2008

Senator Barack Obama, October 30, 2008:

You know I don’t know when, when they decided they wanted to make a virtue out of selfishness.

Adam Smith, 1776:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.


Does forced redistribution really reduce selfishness? Or just self-reliance?

Thom Lambert


I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

3 responses to Mr. Anti-Smith Goes to Washington



    First, aren’t you conflating self-interest and selfishness? It is the self-interest of the butcher, etc., that supposedly guides the invisible hand to benefit all; not selfishness – not an unreasonable concern for oneself.

    And second – this is relevant if you want to invoke “authority” here – assuming we should care about the “authority” of Adam Smith. He thought a progressive tax scheme was reasonable; i.e., in setting up rules that determine the distribution of wealth, he thought it perfectly reasonable that the most well-off be taxed at higher rates. (Perhaps it would be selfish for the most well-off to hold otherwise, on his view.) Doesn’t that count, on your view, as “RE-distributing wealth”? “Taking” money from the well-off at a higher rate in order to benefit all?

    And on a related final point, what does “forced redistribution of wealth” even mean to a utilitarian? Obviously, any tax policy determines how wealth is distributed. You seem to think there is something wrong with “RE-distribution.” What is the correct baseline for how wealth should be distributed? Re-distribution from what? I guess I might understand if you were some natural-rights libertarian who thinks each person has some pre-political right to whatever he can reap from the unregulated market and that the government owes each person a duty to protect that right. Then taxing some to benefit others would be an unjust RE-distribution from the correct baseline distribution. But you don’t hold that view. There is no correct baseline, in principle, for the distribution of wealth for a utilitarian. The rules that determine the distribution of wealth should be those that maximize societal welfare. If we change the rules to increase taxes on the most well-off, a utilitarian cannot, in principle, object. You can object if you think the new policy does not maximize societal welfare – you can object if you think it makes society worse off in the long run to deviate from libertarian policies. But you cannot suggest that there is something wrong, in principle, with “forced re-distribution.” I don’t see how that idea even makes sense on your view.

    I assume that you think deviation from libertarian policies does make us worse off – you think the policies supported by the left reduce self-reliance, etc, and that makes society worse off. But why are you buying into this rights-based rhetoric about the “forced re-distribution of wealth”?


    Hi Thom,

    I’m emailing you in regards to an email I sent to you last month about a partnership, have you had a chance to think about it?

    If you have any questions or would more information, please advise me and we can go from there.

    Kind Regards,
    Andrew Knight


    As Galbraith correctly stated: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”