Corruption according to Adam Smith
Be it Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or someone else, Adam Smith pointed to an answer: “This self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind, is the source of half the disorders of human life.”
In the same work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith points to another source of corruption: “Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, …faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.”
So faction and fanaticism are the greatest corrupters of moral sentiments, and self-deceit is the source of half of the disorders of human life. Sounds like those sources must pretty well cover it.
Related to faction and fanaticism, Smith also says: “False notions of religion are almost the only causes which can occasion any very gross perversion of our natural sentiments in this way; and that principle which gives the greatest authority to the rules of duty, is alone capable of distorting our ideas of them in any considerable degree.”
But wait! Smith writes: “The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another.”
Seems he has surpassed the ceiling of 100 percent.
And there’s more. Smith speaks of burdening others with one’s own experiences, or failing to show reserve: “And it is for want of this reserve, that the one half of mankind make bad company to the other.”
Oh, and he comments on admiration of the rich and powerful: “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 … is … the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
On this head, Smith adds: “[N]ever come within the circle of ambition; nor ever bring yourself into comparison with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half mankind before you.”
Now it seems like Smith has passed 200 percent in his account of the sources of vice and disorders. But there’s more – Smith writes of the ambitious pursuit of “place”: “And thus, place … is the end of half the labours of human life; and is the cause of all the tumult and bustle, all the rapine and injustice, which avarice and ambition have introduced into this world.”
Finally, two more: “To be pleased with … groundless applause … is properly called vanity, and is the foundation of the most ridiculous and contemptible vices, the vices of affectation and common lying…”
And: “The propriety of our moral sentiments is never so apt to be corrupted, as when the indulgent and partial spectator is at hand, while the indifferent and impartial one is at a great distance.”
Let’s review: He points to at least nine sources of corruption and disorder: self-deceit, faction and fanaticism, false notions of religion, overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another, want of reserve, disposition to admire the rich and powerful, the pursuit of place or status, pleasure in groundless applause, and the impartial spectator being at a great distance.
It would seem that Smith is double- or triple-counting. Some of the overage can be chalked up to exaggeration. But there are two other ways to see the matter.
First, to explain corruption, Smith might be giving not only explanations, but also explanations of his explanations: The ambitious pursuit of place leads to pleasure in groundless applause, which leads to self-deceit, which leads to corruption. Smith treats corruption with layers of explanation.
A second way to make sense of Smith is to see each source of corruption as a lens. When Smith says that self-deceit “is the source of half the disorders of human life,” we might read that as: Half of the disorders of human life can be fruitfully interpreted through the self-deceit lens. That doesn’t mean that such disorder cannot also be fruitfully interpreted through the faction and fanaticism lens, or the want-of-reserve lens, or any of the other lenses he exposits.
For example, take some Joe of 1919 who actively promoted Prohibition. Joe’s activism for Prohibition might be viewed through several of the nine lenses—self-deceit, faction and fanaticism, false notions of religion, overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another, and want of reserve.
Now turn it around to virtue. For virtues, too, we have layers and lenses. Consider the acts of writing The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations—surely virtuous acts. But think how we may apply different virtue lenses. In one respect, the acts were the author’s practice of prudence; in another respect, courage; in another, industriousness; in another, beneficence; also, more specifically, generosity; in another respect, perhaps gratitude—Adam Smith’s gratitude to the creators of civilization.
Daniel B. Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he heads a program on Adam Smith.
Recommended reading: ‘Adam Smith – A Primer‘ by Eamonn Butler.
Recommended video: ‘Free Market Masters: Adam Smith‘.