O, Adam Smith, Wherefore Art Thou?

Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments:

This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments….We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.


  1. Gina Hofner September 29, 2014 at 5:28 pm | #

    “We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.” This is a great truth and the cause of so much suffering for the majority of mankind.

  2. Kevin Keating September 29, 2014 at 6:16 pm | #

    Marx thoroughly absorbed and extended Smith’s valuable contributions..so let’s keep this going

  3. Dave Smith September 29, 2014 at 6:18 pm | #

    Unfortunately it is the engine that has been driving western society since the reformation. We depend entirely on the morals of the elites (monetary elites not intellectuals) since we have no inherent structures to constrain them.
    We have no religious overloads and the few social constraints (laws) are avoided or subverted.
    Swamped by the money of the rich, Western democracy is proving to be only slightly less ephemeral than Marxism.

    • Snarki, child of Loki October 1, 2014 at 9:05 am | #

      since the Reformation?

      More like, since forever. Primate behavior can be pretty ugly, when you look at it with objectivity.

  4. BillR September 30, 2014 at 8:23 am | #

    Things aren’t much better across the pond in Adam Smith land:

    It is fine for the Bullingdon Club to get plastered on Krug and cocaine and smash up restaurants. That is all jolly japes and high spirits. For a desperate man to seek solace in four cans of Tennant’s strongest or a bottle of Buckfast is however a dreadful sin and sign of social irresponsibility.

    Guess which two countries are at the bottom of the pole when it comes to unimportant things–compared with net worth of billionaires–such as happiness of children.

  5. Dan in Euroland September 30, 2014 at 12:04 pm | #

    Actually I don’t think this is empirically accurate. Most of our media, from Hollywood to Fox News, is constantly portraying wealthy people as holding the common man down. (E.g. in Fox’s case its George Soros and their proverbial “limousine liberal.”)

    Take cinema for instance, how often are the villains anything but wealthy elites?

  6. NattyB September 30, 2014 at 12:53 pm | #

    Smith, The Wealth of Nations

    In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory, from a longer continuance of the war.

  7. Colin Danby October 1, 2014 at 12:51 am | #

    Smith offers a cultural and structural theory of class, with careful attention to what makes society intelligible to its participants. What may be less obvious is that statements like this are not reproaches or calls for change, as they may read today. Rather, Smith wants to make a case *for* class (or “rank”) that does not rest on the innate moral qualities of individuals.

  8. jkrekel October 1, 2014 at 9:51 am | #

    Yes, money is “the grand test of virtue”, as Orwell (also) saw (in ‘Down & Out’):

    “Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no ESSENTIAL difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is WORK? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course — but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. […]

    “Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised?— for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.”

    He even wrote an entire novel about this (Keep the Aspidistra etc.) …

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