Adam Smith, TMS on the effects of bitter partisanship

I’ve been reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments on and off. (Hey, it’s so old you can get a free digital version for your e-reader at a site like this.)

I’ve read elsewhere that Smith considered TMS his proudest achievement, even though his Wealth of Nations is today much more famous and is held in both the highest regard and lowest esteem, especially by those who’ve not read it. Anyway…

I’ll copy interesting excerpts from TMS from time to time. I’ll say it’s a tedious read at times, but then Smith hits you with such relevant and well-written insights that it keeps you going. It reminds me just how much of contemporary discourse is simply rehashing the classics and relearning lessons with which very few of us are familiar. In the excerpts below Smith considers the corrosive effects on the individual character and the social fabric that comes with heightened factionalism – what we might today call bitter partisanship.

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

Consider the self-segregation of strongly partisan people into online (and social) echo chambers where they only hear confirming opinions. The most strident and divisive and even absurd and foolish views are cheered on. The impact on manners and reason is all too evident if and when such people engage people outside their tribe.

When two nations are at variance, the citizen of each pays little regard to the sentiments which foreign nations may entertain concerning his conduct. His whole ambition is to obtain the approbation of his own fellow-citizens; and as they are all animated by the same hostile passions which animate himself, he can never please them so much as by enraging and offending their enemies. The partial spectator is at hand: the impartial one at a great distance. In war and negotiation, therefore, the laws of justice are very seldom observed. Truth and fair dealing are almost totally disregarded.

Nothing surprising here. Everyone joins together against a far off common enemy. Truth and justice suffer. In modern times these impulses are guided by propaganda machines. Yet the war creates a sense of unity. But factionalism is something different…

The animosity of hostile factions, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is often still more furious than that of hostile nations; and their conduct towards one another is often still more atrocious. What may be called the laws of faction have often been laid down by grave authors with still less regard to the rules of justice than what are called the laws of nations.

Even though Smith wrote at a time when bitter battles between religious sects had driven many wars and social divisions, he saw secular factions in the same light. This would be well shown in the 20th Century, which saw the most brutal wars and oppressive regimes in history, nearly all under secular banners (Soviet Russia under Stalin, Cambodia under Pol Pot, countless struggles in Africa and Latin America between communists and U.S. allied governments, including fascists).

But more interesting to me is his comment about “grave authors” encouraging their followers to the greatest disregard for justice. It’s impossible to avoid thinking of the partisan and sectarian leaders today who encourage the most strident and least compromising beliefs and behaviors. In the U.S. we have senior political leaders who simply will not utter the word “compromise” and I’ve heard political partisans on “both sides” angrily denounce compromise or even consideration of opposing slightly different views. They are encouraged to think of each new issue as part of some singular battle for the salvation of all mankind. When all issues are invested with such potential for catastrophe, the true believers are inclined to the very worst behavior or to at least excuse it in others. When their numbers are small, they are marginalized cranks, but when factionalism takes hold, it’s members may gain dominance in society to the point where reason itself is trampled as an obstacle. As many of us sense the ascendency of anti-Enlightenment today, Smith wrote:

In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties. A true party-man hates and despises candour; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectually disqualify him for the trade of a party-man as that single virtue. The real, revered, and impartial spectator, there, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties.

Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.

Think about Smith’s words when you listen to partisans. In particular, watch for the telltale signs of intolerance and the relentless marginalization of calm, rational consideration. If there’s one thing the true believer hates more than the opposing sect, it is the heretic.

I, for one, stand firmly against strident, uncompromising factionalism. You’re either with me or you’re against me.

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One Response to Adam Smith, TMS on the effects of bitter partisanship

  1. Rob says:

    Love me some AS. The right needs to read him more carefully before anointing him into their pantheon of thought leaders and the left just needs to read him.

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