Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Man of Public Spirit Praised by Adam Smith

I was asked recently by a correspondent if I knew of anything written by Adam Smith on ‘public spirit’. I replied:

It depends of what is meant by 'public spirit'. I assume it is something to do with acting in a manner that has public welfare benefits.

Adam Smith addressed this possibility in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). To understand Smith’s idea, you should read the whole of chapter 1 in Book IV, in which he discusses the role of 'beauty' in relation to 'utility', and asserts that the beauty of a contrivance is more valued than its utility (which he claimed, uncharacteristically, as his original development of an idea from David Hume).

First, he sets out his proposition that the ‘fitness’ of a contrivance is valued more than the ‘very end for which it is intended’ by giving everyday examples of disordered chairs in a room which the owner would tidy up angrily, though it makes no difference to their utility as chairs; and of a two-guinea timepiece that runs two-minutes slow, so that the owner buys fifty-guinea watch that runs only second slow, but which runs perfectly for its the possessor. Or a hovel, which keeps the inhabitants dry, compared to a palace that does the same task and costs immense amounts of money, but enhances its owner’s prestige

This leads him to discuss the parable of the 'poor man's son whom heaven in its anger has fired with ambition', who is driven to work hard to become rich because he imagines the rich have the means to happiness. It also covers the rich landlord who surveys his fields and feels good, even though he cannot eat any more than poor man.

Having noted the significance of these delusions, Smith describes their social implications: these are the delusions that created civilisation.

He then turns to the ‘public spirited’ man and discusses what drives such a man; Smith asserts a driver is his admiration for the workings of a great society, which incentivised him to devote his time and his own money to improving society in some manner to make it even better. And it is appropriate that they should do so. It is not all down to a stark choice between that perennial antipathy of private enterprise versus public spending. There are additional sources of enterprise that are significant today.

Individuals can be affected by a sense of public spirit to bring about improvements in what private and public spending has done, so far, on their own. Apart from foundations that disperse funds to what they consider worthy ends and charities that mobilise resources to fill gaps in current provision, there are publicly-spirited individuals who make donations to selected objectives or take the initiative to undertake beneficial public projects on their own account. All these, and others, are well within the ambit of Smithian political economy for commercial societies.

Here is Smith’s (much neglected) explanation of the efficacy of ‘public spirit’:

The same principle, the same love of system, the same regard to the beauty of order, of art and contrivance, frequently serves to recommend those institutions which tend to promote the public welfare. When a patriot exerts himself for the improvement of any part of the public police, his conduct does not always arise from pure sympathy with the happiness of those who are to reap the benefit of it. It is not commonly from a fellow-feeling with carriers and waggoners that a public-spirited man encourages the mending of high roads. When the legislature establishes premiums and other encouragements to advance the linen or woollen manufactures, its conduct seldom proceeds from pure sympathy with the wearer of cheap or fine cloth, and much less from that with the manufacturer or merchant. The perfection of police, the extension of trade and manufactures, are noble and magnificent objects. The contemplation of them pleases us, and we are interested in whatever can tend to advance them. They make part of the great system of government, and the wheels of the political machine seem to move with more harmony and ease by means of them. We take pleasure in beholding the perfection of so beautiful and grand a system, and we are uneasy till we remove any obstruction that can in the least disturb or encumber the regularity of its motions. All constitutions of government, however, are valued only in proportion as they tend to promote the happiness of those who live under them. This is their sole use and end. From a certain spirit of system, however, from a certain love of art and contrivance, we sometimes seem to value the means more than the end, and to be eager to promote the happiness of our fellow-creatures, rather from a view to perfect and improve a certain beautiful and orderly system, than from any immediate sense or feeling of what they either suffer or enjoy. There have been men of the greatest public spirit, who have shown themselves in other respects not very sensible to the feelings of humanity. And on the contrary, there have been men of the greatest humanity, who seem to have been entirely devoid of public spirit. Every man may find in the circle of his acquaintance instances both of the one kind and the other. Who had ever less humanity, or more public spirit, than the celebrated legislator of Muscovy? The social and well-natured James the First of Great Britain seems, on the contrary, to have had scarce any passion, either for the glory or the interest of his country. Would you awaken the industry of the man who seems almost dead to ambition, it will often be to no purpose to describe to him the happiness of the rich and the great; to tell him that they are generally sheltered from the sun and the rain, that they are seldom hungry, that they are seldom cold, and that they are rarely exposed to weariness, or to want of any kind. The most eloquent exhortation of this kind will have little effect upon him. If you would hope to succeed, you must describe to him the conveniency and arrangement of the different apartments in their palaces; you must explain to him the propriety of their equipages, and point out to him the number, the order, and the different offices of all their attendants. If any thing is capable of making impression upon him, this will. Yet all these things tend only to keep off the sun and the rain, to save them from hunger and cold, from want and weariness. In the same manner, if you would implant public virtue in the breast of him who seems heedless of the interest of his country, it will often be to no purpose to tell him, what superior advantages the subjects of a well-governed state enjoy; that they are better lodged, that they are better clothed, that they are better fed. These considerations will commonly make no great impression. You will be more likely to persuade, if you describe the great system of public police which procures these advantages, if you explain the connexions and dependencies of its several parts, their mutual subordination to one another, and their general subserviency to the happiness of the society; if you show how this system might be introduced into his own country, what it is that hinders it from taking place there at present, how those obstructions might be removed, and all the several wheels of the machine of government be made to move with more harmony and smoothness, without grating upon one another, or mutually retarding one another's motions. It is scarce possible that a man should listen to a discourse of this kind, and not feel himself animated to some degree of public spirit. He will, at least for the moment, feel some desire to remove those obstructions, and to put into motion so beautiful and so orderly a machine. Nothing tends so much to promote public spirit as the study of politics, of the several systems of civil government, their advantages and disadvantages, of the constitution of our own country, its situation, and interest with regard to foreign nations, its commerce, its defence, the disadvantages it labours under, the dangers to which it may be exposed, how to remove the one, and how to guard against the other. Upon this account political disquisitions, if just, and reasonable, and practicable, are of all the works of speculation the most useful. Even the weakest and the worst of them are not altogether without their utility. They serve at least to animate the public passions of men, and rouse them to seek out the means of promoting the happiness of the society.”

[Theory of Moral Sentiments, Book IV.I.II pages 185-87 (Glasgow Edition, Oxford University Press, 1976; Liberty Fund edition, 1982)]

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Blogger yhe said...

Very clearly presented! Thanks.

1:01 pm  

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