Freedom and the Machine: Technological Criticisms in Adam Smith’s Thought

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2022 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221091579
Much research in the realm of new technology and poli-
tics focuses on familiar topics in political information,
participation, and mobilization. The presence of new
technologies that increase the availability of informa-
tion and lower the cost of participation might presum-
ably have a measurable impact on the political process
in liberal democracies, although evidence for such
drastic impacts ranges from inconclusive to under-
whelming(Anduiza, Jensen, and Jorba 2012; Baldwin-
Philippi 2017; Endres and Kelly 2018; Simon 2019).
Nevertheless, the optimistic or hopeful take on new
digital media and information technologies is that they
might allow people to make better decisions about the
political process in which they may choose to partici-
pate (Bakker and de Vreese 2011). More theoretically,
there is some measure of optimism that the advance of
new technologies could be a boon to the exercise of
freedom, by giving voice, platform, information, and
material benefits to those who had been previously con-
strained (Thierer 2016; Atkinson and Ezell 2012).1 This
optimism, though sometimes scholarly, often comes
from more popular sources, such as the purveyors of
new technologies that promise convenience, quality of
life, and increased connection to a global community, if
only these technologies can be properly developed and
managed (Zuckerberg 2017; Hicks and Gasca 2019). If
they cannot be so managed, they risk being coopted and
corrupted to harm the very freedoms the optimists hope
to preserve; recent developments in politics and tech-
nology have led to sincere questions about the future of
both (Persily 2017; Helbing et al. 2019). The obvious
need for greater awareness of the effects of new tech-
nologies opens the door to deeper theoretical examina-
tion of the technologies that threaten the freedom of
liberal democratic citizens, particularly with an eye to
preserving liberal freedom. It seems necessary, then, to
turn to liberal theorists of freedom who have previously
grappled with new advancements in technology for
The dangers to freedom posed by novel technologies,
beyond more obvious and overt uses of technology to
oppress, are made clear through the lens of Adam Smith’s
criticisms of the failings of commercial society, and par-
ticularly his commentary on the detrimental effects of
technology and threats to judgment and freedom more
generally. By providing a substantial account of freedom
and a sober, moderate critique of technology within the
liberal tradition, Smith is ideally positioned to speak to
1091579PRQXXX10.1177/10659129221091579Political Research QuarterlyBunn
1University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Philip D. Bunn, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 110 North Hall,
1050 Bascom Mall, Madison, WI 53706, USA.
Freedom and the Machine: Technological
Criticisms in Adam Smith’s Thought
Philip D. Bunn1
In conversations surrounding technology and the future of politics, Adam Smith is a valuable resource for evaluating
the subtle relationship between technology and freedom. Smith explores the tendency of specialization occasioned
by the advancement of machines to cause “mental mutilation” where the worker’s human faculties are stunted
through overspecialization or narrowing of scope of opportunities to judge. Smith’s treatment of the development
of sympathetic judgment as necessary to the practice of liberty illuminates the depth of the harms caused by this
mutilation; it is the very freedom of the worker that is at stake when the development and the exercise of judgment
are restricted. Taken together, Smith’s discussion of the advancement of machines and free and independent judgment
can aid contemporary thinkers in understanding the relationship between technology and freedom in commercial
society, particularly if new technologies substitute for the judgment of the worker or prevent the development of
their judgment.
Adam Smith, technology, judgment, freedom
2023, Vol. 76(1) 407–417

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