Adam Smith: The Real Spirit of Capitalism?

How can “the man of inferior rank…hope to distinguish himself,” muses Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Unlike the man of high rank, the non-noble cannot affect the bearing of nobility; his comportment will go unnoticed. “Why should the man, whom nobody thinks it worth while to look at, be very anxious about the manner in which he holds up his head, or disposes of his arms while he walks through a room?” The man of middling or inferior rank is expected to act modestly and plainly, so he must. He must thus pursue a different path, says Smith.

If ever he hopes to distinguish himself, it must be by more important virtues. He must acquire dependants to balance the dependants of the great, and he has no other fund to pay them from, but the labour of his body, and the activity of his mind.



  1. edward scott September 13, 2013 at 1:02 pm | #

    Would you say Adam Smith believed a man’s “freedom” depended on having a job paying enough to meet his basic needs? Did he believe the economic vitality of a Nation and the responsibility of Government was to encourage this inclusive “freedom” ?

    • Corey Robin September 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm | #

      He certainly believed that capitalism, by providing for greater wealth as a whole, would gradually decrease the dependence of individual men upon their superiors. To that extent men would be more free.

  2. Nick September 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm | #

    Translation: The common worker must exude his prominence by the ability to produce more workers for the capitalist class.

    • edward scott September 13, 2013 at 5:15 pm | #

      That’s not the translation; a better characterization is – work, even manual labor is esteemed and paid a living wage. Increase productivity is reflected in increased wages.
      If able bodied people know they can earn a living with time to left for other persuits, they aren’t bound, like slaves, to their employer, hence a condition of “freedom”. Government has the obligation to make this a minimum standard.
      The worker wouldn’t need to exude for any “class” he doesn’t wish to exude for, since he is assured there’s another job paying a decent livelihood which includes healthcare.
      You are correct in the sense that “The Capitalast Class” would have more workers if they paid a decent wage. It’s understandable that people don’t want to work long hours for less than can support a decent life. The characterization of jobs ” that Americans don’t want” is subconsciously supporting exploitation by “Capitalists” because it demeans work and the people who do that work, and wages. Work should be esteemed and paid accordingly.

      • Nate September 15, 2013 at 2:58 pm | #

        I didn’t read Prof Robin’s post this way. I think he was arguing Max Weber’s book “The Spirit of Capitalism”, which contends that the origins of capitalism are in the protestant work ethic is wrong. Professor Robin points us towards a different narrative that Smith gives. Moreover, the argument goes the change from feudalism to capitalism was not created by a protestant culture and religion that told people to work hard and abstain from pleasure, but rather capitalism was created by the desire to overcome one’s subordinate ranking. I am still confused though by what Smith is saying. Is he saying the workers get a higher status by having superior nobles or capitalists dependent on him for his work? Is Smith saying they become capitalists after they work really hard and make money.

  3. The Raven September 13, 2013 at 7:09 pm | #

    I am reminded again that Marx and Smith were contemporaries, and their economic understanding was very similar.

  4. The Raven September 13, 2013 at 7:46 pm | #

    Duh, correction. Smith was born nearly a century before Marx.

  5. Diana September 14, 2013 at 1:04 am | #

    Please keep blogging about the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Everyone so associates Adam Smith with the other book and forgets about this one.

    • Benjamin David Steele September 14, 2013 at 1:59 pm | #

      I agree. I’ve never read the Theory of Moral Sentiments, but I’ve been very interested in this less known side of Adam Smith.

      • Nate September 15, 2013 at 9:30 pm | #


    • Ross Wolfe September 17, 2013 at 2:18 pm | #

      Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is a competent response to Francis Hutcheson and the other prominent theorists of the preceding generation, and contains an interestingly subversive displacement of aristocratic virtue in its argument that our sympathy for others is but the reflection of us imagining terrible things happening to us, but it would be foolish to lay too much emphasis on it.

      The Wealth of Nations is Smith’s masterpiece. It was and remains so. Marx practically revered Smith, and to a lesser extent Ricardo, as the greatest of the bourgeois economists. In fact, it could be argued that Marx was simply Smith’s “profoundest reader.”

  6. Cat Food September 14, 2013 at 10:32 am | #

    It would be great to see a critique of some of the oddball revisionism that tries to paint Smith as some kind super-liberal bent on egalitarianism through free trade. Chomsky, for example, has a weird habit of quoting him out of context and then saying he was some kind of ‘socialist’ before socialism was cool. Here’s an example of his ‘perfect liberty’ quote:

    • Corey Robin September 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm | #

      Samuel Fleishacker makes a credible case that Smith does in fact belong in the pantheon of modern egalitarianism. You should check out his Short History of Distributive Justice.

    • Ross Wolfe October 2, 2013 at 1:21 pm | #

      Smith supported some basic measures of government-funded education, the provision of roads, and light welfare programs. Income redistribution was not on his radar, as well it shouldn’t have been. For some reason this is all the more “radical” the contemporary Left gets: tepid, moralizing calls for social justice won by stepping up taxes on the rich.

      Sismondi, Ricardo, and Smith were far more progressive than the aristocratic protectionists of their day, as well as the more vulgar socialists like Proudhon who followed. There is a reason that Marx quotes Smith more than any other figure, save Hegel. It’s because Smith was the greatest political economist of the bourgeois epoch.

      • Corey Robin October 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm | #

        As usual, Ross, your pronouncements are ill served by the fact that you haven’t read the books you claim to be pronouncing on. The case for Smith as an egalitarian and progressive has little to do with his policy pronouncements on education and so forth, and those pronouncements are certainly not why contemporary left scholars have turned back to him. Along the same thing lines of reading the text, this comment of yours above just caught my eye: “Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments…contains an interestingly subversive displacement of aristocratic virtue in its argument that our sympathy for others is but the reflection of us imagining terrible things happening to us, but it would be foolish to lay too much emphasis on it.” It would indeed be foolish to lay too much emphasis on it given that Smith never made such an argument about sympathy in TMS. Indeed, a mere four paragraphs into the text he defines sympathy as “our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.” And the rest of the text proceeds apace. But kudos, as always, on your ability to cite Marx. If only you followed his example and actually read these texts for yourself.

      • Ross Wolfe October 2, 2013 at 3:58 pm | #

        NOTE: I botched the html in the previous comment, so I’m reposting it corrected. You can delete the previous comment if you’d like.

        On my previous comment regarding sympathy, this was the point I claimed Smith was arguing: “[O]ur sympathy for others is but the reflection of us imagining terrible things happening to us.”

        Here’s Smith in his own words:

        [W]e have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dullness of the conception.

        That this is the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others, that it is by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels, may be demonstrated by many obvious observations, if it should not be thought sufficiently evident of itself. When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer.

        I dare say that’s fairly close to what I said, albeit in the space of one line. As regards the other “aristocratic” virtues, like honor, valor, magnanimity, and courage, these receive some approving mention but in general are displaced by the more “bourgeois” virtues of honesty, industry, propriety, and prudence. Many of the “external graces” of “fashionable men,” i.e. courtiers and the like, are dismissed as ostentatious and haughty.

        For good reason, Marx and Engels criticized the “egalitarianism” of Proudhon, who rejected these notions from Smith and Ricardo.

  7. casino implosion September 15, 2013 at 9:28 am | #

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding Smith here. Is the subject of the passage a capitalist, or a worker? If the former, doesn’t this comport with what Corey Robin is always saying about the spirit of free market capitalism?–in other words, that it exists in order to give the non-noble, non-aristocratic person a chance to establish dominance over others that was once determined by birth.

    • Neil September 15, 2013 at 8:33 pm | #

      I agree with your conjecture. The subject of whom Smith speaks must be a capitalist or aspirant capitalist – the way he distinguishes himself is by ‘acquiring dependants’ – workers – so as to rival the noble-born. Other than this it is unclear in what regard such a subject’s ‘important virtues’ consist. Shabby actors casting their activities on the commercial stage in a quasi-heroic light it seems. By implication the ‘dependant’ worker is of course totally denied the possibility of achieving ‘distinction’.

    • E scott September 16, 2013 at 6:15 pm | #

      The quote seems to say a person of low rank needs to be better (have more important virtues) than a high ranking person if he is to distinguish himself, whereas a high ranking person is already distinguished ( even if deficient in virtue) because of his rank (title, birth right).
      It seems that A Smith would champion an economic system where low status people have the opportunity to prosper beyond basic needs, judging from the quote.

  8. Corey Robin September 18, 2013 at 1:44 pm | #

    Just to clarify here and to answer some questions. The subject of Smith’s passage here is not a man of low rank but middling or non-noble rank. Those who see him describing the aspirant bourgeois/capitalist are about right (though those terms weren’t quite in circulation then). And yes the point I was making, as some have observed, is in keeping with arguments I’ve made earlier about how capitalism depends in part on the persistence of either feudal forms (Orren’s argument) or on a feudal or aristocratic spirit. In this case, I was thinking of the latter. Smith argues in the TMS that there is a great ambition, not for wealth, but for prestige, for notice, for status, that underlies the pursuit of riches. As he writes in the opening passages of Part 1, chapter 2. He sees this underlying our obsessions with kings and aristocrats, and our concomitant pursuit of wealth. But where kings and aristocrats are naturally noticed and observed, are naturally objects of emulation, those who are not aristocrats but wish to be noticed and observed, must find a way to get themselves observed, get themselves in the spotlight. The best way, he says here, is to acquire “dependents” or subordinates, men who will notice him. The only way he can do that who through his own efforts and labor, to acquire the wealth whereby he can become an employer, whether of servants or of workers.

    I’m not agreeing with Smith on this, and Smith doesn’t seem to accord any normative value to this, one way or another (and later passages would suggest he thinks this is a rather shabby way of life.) I was just struck by the analytical point he was making.

    • E scott September 19, 2013 at 9:41 am | #

      I thought the Adam Smith analysis striking also, and still relevant.

      If Smith was reincarnated today, it seems he’d criticize stagnation of wages over the last forty years despite GDP going from slightly over one trillion in 1960 to over fourteen trillion by 2007. He’d be appalled, judging from the quote above envisioning ordinary men multiplying “dependents” by labor and wit. This is not demonstrated in our current economy where the ordinary worker has recaptured only 13% of their productivity gains.
      He might understand this situation as a disincentive of economic vitality and a corruption of “virtue”

      Smith was closer to the Enlightenment than we are today, closer to the idea of mankind’s equality. A few taking the profits of other’s labor may have struck him as a return to the waining aristocratic systems.

      Smith’s notion of “esteem” may have been close to that of Jean Jack Rousseau’s ( a contemporary) who thought “esteem” is a fundamental human motivator. It’s hard to understand how the fashion industry survives, why religious devotees threaten the life of cartoonists mocking their prophet, or why an intelligent gay blogger longs for embrace to the bosom of the Catholic Church, if “esteem” isn’t important to the contemporary psychic.

      Understanding “bourgeois” and “capitalist” as equivalent wouldn’t make sense to Smith who lived during the same time as Rousseau. Nor do I think the words equivalent now. Rousseau invented (I think) the word “bourgeois” to mean someone who sees himself ( only) as he thinks others see him, the extreme example of esteem’s power, the final surrender of individuality. The people we admire most today are generally not the richest, while the richest are often the least known. One could easily characterize “capitalists” as less “bourgeois” because they substitute wealth for esteem.

      If we equate “bourgeois” and “capitalist” we do ourselves a disservice. The transference of bourgeois’ meaning to “capitalist” deprives us of a useful tool for understanding ourselves and being misdirected, we can no longer fantom a meaning for “virtue”.

  9. Corey Robin October 2, 2013 at 4:15 pm | #

    Ross: The problem with your formulation is not that Smith didn’t include among his examples of sympathy the ability to imagine the misery or misfortune of another. Of course he did. It’s your claiming that “our sympathy for others is BUT the reflection of us imagining terrible things happening to us.” Perhaps you didn’t intend this, but that “but” means that sympathy is this — and only this — ability to imagine terrible things happening to us. But as the rest of the text makes clear, Smith thinks that sympathy is the ability to imagine a great many things — bad, good, marvelous, miserable — happening to us. His whole moral theory of propriety would be rendered impossible if sympathy were limited to the ability to imagine another’s misfortune. If you misspoke and didn’t mean to state what your statement says, that’s fine.

    • Ross Wolfe October 2, 2013 at 7:53 pm | #

      Yes, I didn’t mean for it to mean “merely” or “only,” since of course according to Smith’s moral theory we can take pleasure in the delight of others and that this falls under the broader rubric of “sympathy.” Or, more literally, feeling emotions along with others. So I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I misstated what I meant.

      Perhaps it might’ve been implied in the sense that aristocratic virtues like benevolence or generosity were supposed to arise out of some kind of innate nobility conferred on individuals by birth, in the sense that noblesse oblige was the unsentimental duty of the fortunate to help “the less fortunate.”

      For Smith, there isn’t any such “innate” virtue or goodness, and thus his theory of moral sentiments is very much in keeping with the empiricism of British philosophy. Regardless, however, what I wrote does not convey what I intended. Sorry for the confusion.

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