Staying within the structure of methodological individualism it is important to see how Smith’s Pin factory example (p.54-55) exemplifies the coordination of a group of economic agents. All working in unison towards the common goal of producing pins. All of these individual works comprise the overall assembly line. The totality of all the adjacent departments related to manufacturing makes up the internal structure of the firm. Any social institution whether it be a hobbyist club, social club, buyers club (e.g. Sam’s Club, BJ’, Costco), government, business, trade association, private governing bureau/authority (e.g. homeowners association), charitable foundation, research institute, study group, etc. are comprised of multiple individuals forming the group. It is flat-out erroneous to speak of the entire organization without any consideration for its members. The collective action of all the group members acting harmoniously to achieve the same ends is much more complex than treating these collective efforts as lumped together aggregate.
Each member of an organization has their internal objectives, thoughts, feelings, and desires. It can be said that all the active participants have their utility functions (p.25-26). Meaning that to some extent their wants, needs, and desires align with the overall group goals. For example, very few people like their jobs, but they voluntarily consent to the terms of employment because of their desire to earn money. Whether it is for the intrinsic satisfaction of possessing money or what currency can be redeemed for. Keeping within the theme of a Smithian analysis of social institutions, it is important to note that more than tangible goods are exchanged through interaction with others. We exchange ideas, culture, skills, knowledge, friendship, guidance, sympathy, morality, and moral support among other forms of desirable forms of social currency. Political activities tend to be a form of social association that is frequently marred by corruption and various forms of abuse. However, is the dynamic of politics overtly a zero-sum game? Not necessarily. As it can be viewed as a form of exchange, individual actors engage in various exchanges for mutual benefits (p.25). One example being logrolling the practice of lawmakers trading votes/favors.
The intangible exchange of social commodities cannot be understated in formulating effective working relationships. One crucial assumption of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that we seek the “approbation” of others. In other words, we seek to praise and approval from others. We are constantly seeking the acceptance of our peers. Being well-liked on the individual level wields a significant amount of social currency. If the ability to seek acceptance and cooperation is applicable on the individual level, couldn’t it also apply to the harmonious relationships between groups of people? After all the scope of social and economic interactions operates on a continuum of scale, what is applicable on a minuscule level should also work on a larger scale. The principle is a general maxim governing social interactions, therefore it should be transferrable. One of the best ways to overcome cultural barriers is through finding a form of social exchange desired by both parties. It does not mean that it must take the form of economic exchange. It possibly manifests itself in alliances and treaties among nations. Special agreements, pacts, contracts among nonpolitical social units. Most often it takes the form of economic trade between foreign nations. The necessity of unilateral trade agreements is refutable. Consumer sovereignty is the true impetus of international trade. Despite the bluster and theatrics of vociferous diplomats and other garden variety elected representatives.
Why voluntary association over other coercive means do we yield harmonious interactions? There isn’t a magic bullet answer to this question. However, some insights from Public Choice pioneer Gordon Tullock may help elucidate a potential variable that sheds some light on this occurrence. It is the ability to choose our partners in voluntary social arrangements that reduce the instance of Prisoner’s Dilemma. If our trading partner is not being cooperative, we can easily do business with someone else. Because of the mobility of free association (which is purportedly protected under the First Amendment) we do not need to be held captive by aggressive or hostile social relations. Due to this consideration, it is easy to see the original sentiment behind antitrust laws, but much like all laws, they suffer from loopholes and other issues. Even from the standpoint of the definition of a monopoly. One of the common attributes of monopolistic market behavior is assessed by is market concertation. However, this is problematic how do we determine which market is categorically correct for the assessment of market concentration? Nevertheless, we can freely choose our partners whether in trade or other forms of social situations it reduces the occurrence of the perverse incentives to be noncooperative. Sullying our reputation deprives us of the esteem that Adam Smith surmised we all crave.
Considering that trade is one of the forms of association that fosters cooperation. Even if free trade is not the key to world peace, it still makes us less apt to raise the sword to our geographic neighbors. To repudiate the previous administration’s trade policy, international trade should be encouraged. It is only natural to perceive David Ricardo’s concept of comparative advantage as an extension of Smith’s pin factory. The premise of comparative advantage is that it can make production global and explains why we tend to import higher-order goods to produce commodities domestically. No one climate can best produce glass, grapes, and corkwood in the Cognac region of France. However, all of these components are required for assembling a commercially produced bottle of Cognac brandy. This specific region in France has some of the best grapes in the world for brandy production. The climate is wholly inappropriate for cultivating and harvesting the wood used in the stopper placed in every Cognac bottle. To avoid placing great restrictions on our ability to manufacture sophisticated goods, we need to trade with other nations. We can only truly achieve this through peaceful relations. Free trade in itself helps to facilitate peaceful relations.
If the direct feedback from social interactions can help facilitate morality and positive social relations, how can this be done on a larger scale? Corporations, nations, communities, coalitions, etc. are institutions comprised of many individuals. Staying within the framework of methodological individualism, we assume that the collective action of a single institution represents the unanimous will of all the individual agents affiliated with the organization. In a sense, the collective action “speaks” for the group. How does social distance influence the interaction between various institutions, nations, collectives, etc.? Per the insights in Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), a person’s socialization and moral development are shaped by their peers. How would we go about socializing an entire culture? What factors enable us to peacefully co-exist with our neighbors? There certainly are not any clear-cut answers to these vast questions. The best we can do is hone in on the variables that help support human flourishing and social stability.
Some people assert that a common cultural identity is a cohesive glue that keeps the fibers of society together. There may be some veracity to this opinion as possessing a common culture can reduce the potential for conflict. However, there are some profound issues with holding culture as the variable that unites mankind as a whole. For one, commerce is global. Anyone in the business world cannot merely associate with people sharing the same cultural experience. In theory, you can, however, you would be severely limiting the potential reach of your business. Due to globalization and technological advancements, clinging to cultural identity has become more futile. Another consideration is that associating with people of a similar cultural background (closer social distance) is detrimental to our ongoing moral development. Demonstrating the fallacy of nationalism from both practical and moral perspectives.
If the cultural distance is inevitable what is one way we can bring people of various cultures together? Many people may suggest the use of international treaties. The parameters of such an agreement serve as nothing more than a compulsive obligation. Outside of state-sanctioned compulsory inclusion (which is not limited to treaties, but also pertains to sections of The Civil Rights Act of 1964), there is also social pressure to force the association between different cultural groups. We see this in the aggressive push for multiculturalism. The intentions of some proponents may be laudable, however, too often it is utilized as Trojan Horse for political opportunists. It should also be mentioned that does not arrive at cultural diversity through voluntary association. But rather from a form of informal social cohesion. While Smith may point out that conforming to this new norm would be an example of our peers shaping our moral development, this simply is not the case. Most of this rhetoric comes from the deepest fringes of academia. These norms are enforced through immense social pressure by a small minority of people who are out of touch with the real world. Cultural diversity is not something that can be forced by legal statutes nor by social cohesion. Rather it exists through the voluntary movement of people, which is a spontaneous phenomenon that cannot be artificially manufactured.
It is evident what fails to bridge the gulf between different cultures and societies. However, what can succeed at this seemingly insurmountable task? Here is where the themes of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and the Wealth of Nations (1776) converge. The social arrangement that keeps the appropriate distance for peaceful relations between strangers is commercial societies (p.13). Please keep in mind that this is not the recipe for sustained and eternal peace. No thinker has been able to formulate a tried-and-true solution for eradicating violent conflicts. Our propensity for violence may be an unfortunate proclivity of human nature that cannot be contained by reason or by institutional means. Providing validation of David Hume’s assertion that we are essential “slaves to our passions”. Voluntary trade may reduce the frequency of armed conflict between nations. In commerce, we do need to maintain a certain level of professionalism (self-command) to establish an effective working relationship (p.14).
To perceive free trade as a magic bullet would be a complete fallacy. For one, if it was the key to enduring peace, world peace would have been achieved back in 1776. Ultimately, Smith viewed trade as a potential source of tensions between nations. It has been argued that Regan/Thatcher-era proponents of Neo-Liberalism overstated the role free trade plays in facilitating peaceful relations. If the tides of economic nationalism are not stifled international trade continues to serve as a weapon against rival countries (p.4). The growth of military strength tends to coincide with an expansion of the division of labor (p.5). Economic development reduces the perceived costs of entering armed conflicts (p.2 &5). Smith contended that the root of international conflict was power imbalances among nations (p.34). The prospect of an imbalance of economic power in global trade is the core assumption behind mercantilism. Exemplified in the rhetoric surrounding trade imbalances.
Even though Smith did see trade as a potential source of tension, does that mean that free trade could not reduce the social distance between different culturally distinct nations? No. It may not be the cure for global conflict, but it can reduce the instance of it occurring. There is something of a reciprocal relationship between social stability and economic advancement. The “violence trap” of the feudal era stymied economic growth due to instability in property rights (p.41). Coping with the constant upheaval of violent conflict is destabilizing enough to inhibit economic flourishing. While the prosperity of neighboring countries may conjure the envy of less fortunate nations, Smith suggested that the better-off countries should act as a model of what to aspire to. Rather than an adversary to hold in contempt (p.31). The rise of government and free trade may not conclusively prevent war, per Smith’s treatises that balance power and foster respect among nations helps reduce the instance of armed conflicts (p.32). Such agreements help align interests among different countries. From an economic perspective, unilateral trade agreements help balance the concentration of economic power among trading partners. Loosening the barriers to international trade not only broadens the market for domestic production but also works to reduce hostilities (p.33). Providing the power gap isn’t too wide and nationalistic sentiments can be dispensed with.
“By opening a more extensive market for whatever part of the produce of their labor may exceed the home consumption, it encourages them to improve its productive powers, and to augment its annual produce to the utmost, and thereby to increase1 the real revenue and wealth of the society. These great and important services foreign trade is continually occupied in performing, to all the different countries between which it is carried on. They all derive great benefit from it, though that in which the merchant resides generally derives the greatest, as he is generally more employed in supplying the wants, and carrying out the superfluities of his own, than of any other particular country. To import the gold and silver which may be wanted, into the countries which have no mines, is, no doubt, a part of the business of foreign commerce. It is, however, a most insignificant part of it. A country which carried on foreign trade merely upon this account could scarce have occasion to freight a ship in a century. (Wealth of Nations, p.358-359)”.
While voluntary exchange may not bring about world peace, it does help close the gap between different nations. Resources that could theoretically be dedicated to warfare are reallocated to production for the global consumer market. Providing a practical example of Frédéric Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. War does not generate wealth, but rather rearranges the disposal of resources. Wealth may be correlated with the advancement of military technology. The development of military technology does not necessarily generate wealth. Beyond free trade re-directing resources from armed conflict to the consumer market, there are also other intangible effects. When we engage in trade with foreign countries we are also exchanging culture and ideas. Attending a business meeting in Japan, American executives may consume food that they are not accustomed to. May even learn some of the subtleties of Japanese business etiquette. Through their Japanese counterparts providing the social ques imperative in business transactions in Japan. Talk about challenging a person’s impartial spectator. The American businessmen walk away with more than a new business partner. They are also exporting cultural traditions, new business practices, and even new types of food when they arrive back home. When we have more familiarity with another culture we are less apt to fear them. In turn meaning, we are less apt to bomb them. Closing the cultural gap requires not only a certain degree of openness but also an effective working relationship.
In my previous blog post, I address the role of social distance in moral development. Per Paganelli’s interpretation of Smith’s TMS (1759), we reduced our self-command when we are around people we are emotionally attached to (p.12-13). Much of our moral development arise from socialization. Making our self-restraint a combination of learned behavior and social conformity. The schoolyard may be the proper environment for individuals to fine-tune their social awareness. Does our moral development stop once are no longer school age? I would suggest not. If anything it a continual and lifelong process that is always in progress. If anything as we grow older, the expectation of others and social norms become much more intricate. Some of the basic principles learned on the playground are social conventions that are applicable in any social dynamic. The etiquette learned in the schoolyard is too rudimentary to comprehensively cover all the social nuisances of professional situations.
For instance, what is the proper attire for a job interview? How do I politely reject my boss’s dinner invitation? These are just a few examples of social scenarios of greater complexity that cannot be learned even in High School (arguably even in college). The reserved awkwardness of new hires fresh out of college exemplifies this deficit in workplace social skills. Outside of there being a likely age gap between the new employee and the rest of their co-workers, they are afraid of making a faux-pas. They are deathly afraid of being the person who takes the last of the breakroom coffee without making more (this individual is universally hated). They do not want to be disliked by their new pool of peers. To not look like a self-absorbed young person, it going to take time. The new employee will go through an acclimation process. The primary drive of this adjustment is going to be the feedback of their co-workers.
I would go so far as to even suggest that each new social environment requires some duration of social learning. The phrase “.. reading the room..” comes to mind. For example, even if an individual has worked as a salesperson for twenty years, as soon as they take a job at another company they now become the “new guy”. A new job entails new co-workers, a new boss, new corporate policies, new corporate culture. Despite this individual’s extensive experience they still need to go through an adjustment period. This seasoned salesperson now has to learn to adapt to the personalities, culture, and rules in their new work environment. Even in social situations where we are familiar with the location and the people, various factors lead us to constantly adjust to the feedback from others. If you were attending a dinner party at your brother’s house (only family members were in attendance) you would still have to mold yourself to the social conditions of the moment. You will taper your behavior to the dispositions of the other dinner guests. Social settings are dynamic and even the slightest change to one variable can profoundly alter the course of events. To a certain extent, we are always fine-tuning our Impartial Spectator to maintain social harmony. Social situations much like all complex systems have a loose structure with a set of informal rules. Although there is a resolute structure the one altered variable can drastically change the trajectory of the interaction. As the expression goes “high school never ends”, actually we never leave the playground.
Adam Smith is arguably one of the most misunderstood thinkers in all of philosophy. The public reduces the corpus of his work to a one-dimensional caricature of The Wealth of Nations (1776). Such characterizations of Smith’s work are carelessly painting with a broad brush. It can be suggested that when to draw new insights from Smith’s work we should be even more cautious. So much has been written on the body of his work, as Donald Boudreaux keenly points out, it is difficult to formulate any new meaningful insights (p.487). This issue is only compounded by the fact that new interpretations of Smith’s work run the risk of misrepresenting his brand of moral philosophy. Which is equally as shameful as representing a shallow representation of his insights.
One development springing from modern interpretations of Smith’s philosophical ideas comes from professor Maria Pia Paganelli. Back in 2010, she wrote a paper entitled The Moralizing Distance in Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments as Possible Praise of Commerce. In her paper, professor Paganelli analyzes smith’s emphasis on the impact of relational distance and moral development. As Smith points out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments because we are subject to “self-deception” due to our immense self-love (Paganelli [TMS III.4.2–6], 2010, p.6). Due to human nature, who wants to view their conduct in a negative light? In many regards, the moral tuning of our impartial spectator occurs due to social influences (Coase, 1976, p.5-7) It exceedingly difficult to admit when we are wrong. Never mind disclosing an outrageous oversight or a profound moment of weakness. Both are humiliating and are the kind gaffs we attempt to bury. The true interest insight from Paganelli is the fact that Smith contended that if our relationship is too close to a person, we do a poor job of shaping their moral development.
Surely, this does not apply to parents? After all, aren’t parents one of the greatest impetuses of moral development of children? Per Paganel’s research Smith’s TMS does emphasize that socialization is a byproduct of the impressions of others (p.7). It is unquestionably true that our emotional attachment to an individual has the potential of skewing our impartiality. The more emotionally attached we are to a person there is greater the aptitude we will perceive the course of events from a similar perspective (p.8). Paganel points out that Smith believed that parents were too “partial and indulgent” of their children to be the prime mover in facilitating their moral maturity (p.9). There is some qualitative validity to this observation. Anecdotally we have all heard a parent proclaim “… not my child..” in regards to the potential of their son or daughter engaging in unruly behavior. Most parents want to hold their children in high regard and implicitly view them as a genetic extension of themselves. To acknowledge the unpleasant truth little Johnnie is capable of stealing Mr. Johnson’s car is excruciatingly painful on two accounts. First, there is the discomfort of acquiescing your child’s capacity to engaging in morally abject behavior (despite years of the parents’ efforts to socialize their child). The second and more damaging pressure point is a sense of having failed as a parent. This extension of yourself is presenting you with challenges that could easily be interpreted as a sign of personal failure.
The emotional distance to aid children in developing moral precepts also cannot be too far. Helicopter parents fail to help their children erect a strong moral foundation. Smith also observed the same being true of children that are sent away to boarding schools. A parent being too aloof can have the same effect as being too indulgent, a child with a lack of respect (p.9). This phenomenon parallels what happens in foreign countries with opposing interests. If there is too much social distance between the two nations, factions will form (p.10). Creating a self-congratulatory echo chamber where there is not any room for negotiations or compromise. Rather the ire is driven by unconstrainted passions shouting the valiant chants and battle cries of nationalism. Too often nationalist fervor results in actual battle cries. Firmly illustrating how social distance has an impact on both the micro and macro scale of social interaction. Achieving the precarious balance of the correct social distance between various groups and individuals is key in achieving stable relations.
According to Smith what is precisely the correct amount of social distance? It is too herculean of a task to determine this balance at the level of nations. If this could have been achieved in a philosophic treatise back in 1759, wars would become a relic of the eighteenth century. Smith does suggest that the best platform for moral development is a child’s peers. Through a child adjusting themselves to the expectation of their fellow playmates, they gain a sense of self-command (p.11). Above all, we tend to have better deportment around strangers than we do our own family (p.12). This goes right back to the concept of social distance. When we are closer to someone on an emotional level we exhibit less self-command. One example would be a small business that attempts to foster a family-like dynamic. Most observers’ prima facie impression would be that such an ethos would create a “hospitable work environment”. Even though the idea of a workplace that creates a culture of close-knit comfort may sound endearing, it possesses a lot of pitfalls. For example, if an employee makes an error the business owner may take it personally. Since the business proprietor is not constrained by the formality of a corporate environment, they are free to curse and scold the offending employee. Like how a parent censures a misbehaving child. Demonstrating how the voice of the impartial spectator becomes more salient when others are in the room. A CEO of a company has their conduct limited to the expected deportment that the employees and board of directors find to be acceptable. Behavior outside of these norms will result in disapproval.
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely turned society upside down. Plagued by uncertainty the entire planet was alarmed in went into full panic mode. Leading us to the immediate question of how do we contain a novel virus when its origins are shrouded in mystery? Many of these reactionary policies may have modestly slowed down the spread of COVID-19, however, most of the state-sanctioned restrictions ended up causing unforeseen problems. The shelter-in-place orders resulted in the highest recorded rate of job loss since The Great Depression. The economic ramifications of various lockdown measures go beyond the immediate consequences. There was a November 2020 study conducted by USC projecting an overall GDP loss of $3-4 Trillion over the next two years.
Lengthy book treatments could be composed to fully detail all of the intricacies of the economic carnage of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the fall-out of the pandemic reaches well beyond the economic repercussions. Our overall health has been impacted. Not necessarily by the direct symptoms of COVID-19, but by a result of the lockdown orders. People have been less active leading to weight gain, which may lower an individual resistance to the virus. While physical health may be most salient to us because it can be observed by the naked eye, what about mental health? It is well documented that social isolation is a contributing factor to depression. A multitude of stories has been published describing the psychological struggles of Americans during the pandemic. The hardnosed statistician may be quick to dismiss these narratives as being purely anecdotal. However, many of the risk factors for suicide have been magnified since the beginning of the pandemic. There has been a notable increase in the suicide rate from 2019 to 2020.
The pandemic has also fractured relations between us and our fellow citizens. Clinging to our inner circles to avoid spreading COVID-19, we begin to become more tribal. The trust we once held for our neighbors has become eroded over the past year. Anytime someone sneezes we give them the side-eye. Fostering a climate of distrust and paranoia. This distrust has manifested itself in actual hate crimes and discrimination. Some reports estimate that hate crimes against Asian-Americans increased by 150 percent in 2020. What does this have to do with COVID-19? Quite a bit. It is speculated that the outbreak originated in the Wuhan province of China (p.2). Leading some to erroneously blame people of Asian ancestry for the spread of the virus. Creating friction between various communities across the country and only serving to make an already tumultuous situation worse. Asian Americans much like all other Americans have been grappling with the stresses of the pandemic. Adding racial tensions to the mix only serves to create more division and distrust. We need trust to have a stable society.
Could a voice from the past help us navigate these difficult times? Provide us direction in helping us heal from the carnage caused by a global pandemic? I would argue yes. That voice of reason comes from no other than The Enlightenment-era moral philosopher Adam Smith Many readers are probably thinking to themselves “… isn’t this the guy that told us to follow our self-interest. In other words, to be selfish?”. In a sense, yes. However, limiting the body of Smith’s work to the following passage is nothing more than a caricature of his overall contributions to economics, never mind moral philosophy.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but their advantages. (The Wealth Of Nations, Book IV, Chapter II, p. 456, para. 9)”
The above paragraph may be the most famous one ever written by Smith, but it does not wholly define his breadth of work. Smith believes that markets and morality were inseparable, and you could not have one without the other. At the crux of voluntary trade is interaction. If we treat each other poorly and do not foster a good-working relationship trade cannot take place. To foster strong relationships, we as a society need a firm moral backbone. Morality provides us with the precepts to facilitate just and fair interactions despite conventional wisdom, this is crucial to success in business. If you are not running your enterprise justly your client will eventually find out and choose to do patronize another vendor.
Business ethics and social morality are intimately interconnected, one cannot exist without the other. That is why the two great works of Smith were meant to be read in tandem. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) addresses social morality and The Wealth of Nations (1776) details the inner mechanics of economic exchange (catallactics). Both books dovetail together so well, reading one leaves you with a missing piece of the puzzle. COVID-19 has unquestionably harmed society economically and socially and both books contain the wisdom to help us get back on the right track. I am a great admirer of economist Don Boudreaux, but I do have to take issue with his recent assessment of Smith’s possible perception of the impact of social isolation resulting from COVID-19. Dr. Boudreaux states that Smith could certainly empathize with and rationally understand the distress caused by social isolation. I do not disagree with his inference, but I would surmise that Smith would want us to draw lessons from his work. To apply the concepts in both books to help us as a society overcome the hardships imposed by COVID-19. His work was not intended to be confined to the postulations of lofty ivory tower discussions, but also for practical application. What good is moral philosophy if it is never put to practical use? Why not look to the works of Adam Smith for guidance and solutions to help us navigate the uncertainty that is the COVID-19 pandemic?
Planning on an intuitive level always appears to be the most logical course of action. If we could only harness the same methodical rigor of a physics experiment, we could all live in the blessed light of “reason”. Few of a scientific disposition stop to question if there are certain aspects of life we shouldn’t attempt to control. In their haughty hubris, the proponents of planning bumptiously trudge forward. In full faith that they can implement the next pivotal stage of progress in the history of man. For those who pray at the altar of pure reason, such oversights are a consequence of believing that they possess more knowledge than it is possible to know. A point clearly elaborated on by Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek decades prior to 2019. Most notably in his seminal book The Road to Serfdom published at the tail end of World War II, an era when the debate about economic planning was raging.
Even when we are armed a plethora of empirically verified statistics and data planners are still merely guessing. Often guessing with information collected under idyllic experimental conditions. Conditions that are meticulously controlled and don’t account for the invariability of a natural environment. An environment that is more constrained by natural law than by experimental controls. While science has brought forth the advantages of modern medicine and technological advances, there are specific areas where its breadth of knowledge is insufficient or inappropriate. Social engineering and economic matters being sublime examples.
If such measures could bring about a utopian society it would have already been implemented. Attempting to subvert the effects of the law of Supply and Demand through price-fixing and subsidizes will invariably fall flat. Regardless of their intentions, the central planners will always fail. Venezuela’s financial woes spiraled out of control after a subsequent chain of ill-fated interventions initiated by artificially manipulating oil prices. However, Venezuela is merely a drop in the bucket, such measures have backfired on just about every country that has entertained similar policies. It starts to become quite salient that when immutable laws are violated the ramifications can be disastrous. This premise isn’t merely regulated to economic law, but all forms of natural law. The intellectuals, bureaucrats, technocrats, and other authority figures rank among men foolish enough to attempt to undermine static and enduring.
The sin of such arrogance is far from a new pathology of the human condition and has proven to be quite a pervasive vice. From the dawn of civilization to the Middle ages gout-ridden men reeking of entitlement and excess felt their privileged station was anointed by the will of God. Making them immune to the conventions and morals that bound common men. While monogamy was imperative for the butcher, baker, and the brewer; the king had his court filled with concubines. The king not only felt he was above moral convention, but that of natural law. After all, he is literally a step away from being a deity in his own right. Many medieval rulers in an attempt to keep wealth within their own national boundaries implemented highly protectionist policies. Composited policies that reflect the economic system known as Mercantilism. Which erroneously disregarded just about every basic economic law we hold in high regard.
At the apogee of the Scottish Enlightenment, there was one man who saw the folly in the lofty assumption of central planners. He was also an outspoken critic of Mercantilism, that man was the moral philosopher Adam Smith. He expounds upon this phenomena in his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the personified construct dubbed “The Man of System”:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder. (Page 212, para 2)
The king believes he can circumvent the will of his subjects and impose import tariffs that will encourage them to buy domestic goods. By virtue of natural law, purchasing cheaper imported goods does not constitute theft or assault, but rather a byproduct of free will. Due to the tariffs being legitimate in the eyes of the royal subjects an expansive smuggling ring is formulated. Illegally importing untaxed goods into the kingdom. People are not chess pieces, nor are they objects. They possess free will (or the illusion of such), an individual set of morals, and the capacity for subjective attributions. It is faulty to surmise that people can be treated as pawns when social law and their own volition will most likely hamper any attempts at planning.
It becomes truly horrifying when individuals believe they can legislate morality. The abject failures of alcohol and drug prohibition provide sufficient insight into the shortcomings of such endeavors. Utopia does not exist on planet Earth. The nature of man is imperfect and is incapable of mimicking the pristine deportment of cherubs. We are not saints, no amount of legislation or penalities can correct for this deficit. This not intended to provide immunity for the murder, rapist, or thief. However, they have transgressed against a higher moral code making their actions universally reviled. While the moral indiscretions of the prostitute, the drug addict, and the bookie are not universally seen as wrong. In the sense that they are victimless crimes. More of a passive acquiescence than an endorsement.
It isn’t natural law that decrees the need for punitive measures for such conduct, but government fiat. This is where we cross the line into legal positivism. An action is either moral or immoral purely on the basis of legislative command. A Pentagon directed bombing campaign that kills innocent civilians was justifiable. A convenience store owner shooting a burglar that is attempting to rob his establishment at gunpoint is a civil infraction. Considering the gross insensitivity to property rights and higher moral values can we truly trust ” The Man of System” (bureaucrat, legislator, etc.) to codify morality in a self-serving legal system? The prison unions have a storied history of lobbying against the legalization of Marijuana. Who is to say that many of our petty laws exist purely for justifying the existence of a task force or bureaucratic department?
It isn’t merely just the conservative Christian or the “law-and-order” types that can assume the proverbial role as “The Man of System”. The progressive left-wingers have also utilized the government apparatus to legally impose their own brand of “morality”. Any form of government funded safety-net or subsistence program is a legal attempt at evening the odds for the economically disadvantaged. While it is fair to disagree or agree with such policies, the real line of demarcation is when initiatives to criminalize intolerance are suggested. Most of these policy suggestions amount to compelled speech laws. If certain speech is deemed as hateful it must not be tolerated. To such an extent that there are legal repercussions for using “hate speech”. As outlandish as it may sound you need to look no further than Bill C-16 passed in Canada to see the ultimate outcome of such ill-advised policies. Implement such sanctions against our speech is purely an assault on the principle of free speech. Even criminalizing the right to be a member of a hate group tramples upon the relished right to free association. If either right is nullified by legislative constraints you are an inch away from living in a dictatorship.
These legislative crusaders may be well-intentioned they are willfully ignorant of human nature. Much how you cannot legislate Judeo-Christain values into the psyche of an individual the same holds true for the virtues of social justice. Despite what you do, intolerance will never be completely relinquished as long as humans walk the Earth. The human mind is glutted with biases that push many to favor individuals that are similar to themselves. Similar to themselves in a shared language, values, religion, political identity, ethnic identity, national identity, sexual identity, etc. Considering these proclivities for tribal behavior it becomes quite conspicuous that tolerance is merely another incurably ill of mankind. Sure you may be able to enlighten individuals of the errors in their thinking, but not on any kind of grand level. Intolerance dies on the same day that man longer yearns for a pint of beer, a dose of opium, and no longer lusts for a voluptuous misteress. Anyone convinced otherwise is profoundly mistaken.
I am still perplexed by people who unquestionably trust the judgment and authority of those who insist upon controlling the lives of others. Politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals, judges among others. All of these individuals are human and none are infallible. All are cable of sin, all are subject to psychological biases, and other influences that would make them biased.Why is the law contrived and fabricated by these purported experts superior to the “golden rule”? Holding the authority of mortal men in such a high degree operates as a perverse form of deification. Their credentials and education are what separate them from ordinary people. That is it. There aren’t any further qualifying factors that make these individuals morally superior to common folks. In most cases, laws don’t even make us any safer or product our property rights. Most laws if anything is hostile to our property rights. Leaving it reasonable to question, why are lawmakers incentivized to legislate such grotesque sanctions against some of our most basic rights?
A few months ago, I was sitting among my co-workers in a meeting reviewing the previous quarter’s sales numbers. My manager just recently completed our quarterly performance reviews. Unbeknownst to me, my well-meaning superior would give me an unwarranted shout out. I had completed an optional industry-related training course and happen to mention this fact to my boss during my quarterly review. My motives being demonstrating my willingness to be a self-directed learner. Surprise, surprise! My boss decides to articulate my achievement publicly to my team during our team meeting. All 30 of my co-workers, a nice composite of salespeople and pre-sales staff.
The natural consequence being applause, most likely a byproduct of social convention. Right, in-synch with all of the social cues that it is almost a semi-automatic response. However, I did not feel good about this moment of unsolicited praise. As I looked around the room I see slow clapping that mirrored all the signs of a conditioned response. There was something insincere about as gazed at the blase demeanor of my coworkers. A fitting demeanor coupled with irritated looks skepticism. For some, clear unspoken opprobrium was being expressed by their frustrated glares. A silent censure. Unarticulated disapproval, not the kind of response I was intending to invoke. Especially considering I am a very reserved person at work who avoids the spotlight at all costs.
Where my coworkers being unreasonable? That is a debatable question, however, their frustration was understandable. At the time I hadn’t even been with my current employer for a year and my workload was lighter than that of my coworkers. The new guy getting praise when everyone else is working circles around him is a recipe for contempt. While I have many disagreements with my coworkers this was one point we all had some common ground, I didn’t deserve praise. Hence why my stomach sank when it was announced that I had completed the previous referenced training course. I only mentioned it to my boss for any potential exculpatory benefit for my lighter workload. In the end, this ploy only ended up backfiring.
My grief and the annoyance of my teammates is far from a new behavior phenomenon. Rather is an enduring fixture of the human condition and how guilt weighs on our psyche. No other than the great moral philosopher Adam Smith expounded this in his initial book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Yes, Smith did write a book prior to his classic 1776 The Wealth of Nations. While The Wealth of Nations focused on behavior patterns on more of a macro level, The Theory of Moral Sentiments concentrated on human interrelations on the individual level. Smith through the book analyzes the dichotomy between self-interest and the common good. The “impartial spectator” often clashing with the “that passion arises in our breast”.
Smith in his first treatise does address the human need for praise and admiration. However, praise is the only gratifying and comforting if it is justifiable. In other words, praise must be obtained under conditions in which we do something that is praiseworthy.
As ignorant and groundless praise can give no solid joy, no satisfaction that will bear any serious examination, so, on the contrary, it often gives real comfort to reflect, that though no praise should actually be bestowed upon us, our conduct, however, has been such as to deserve it, and has been in every respect suitable to those measures and rules by which praise and approbation are naturally and commonly bestowed. We are pleased, not only with praise, but with having done what is praise-worthy. We are pleased to think that we have rendered ourselves the natural objects of approbation, though no approbation should ever actually be bestowed upon us: and we are mortified to reflect that we have justly merited the blame of those we live with, though that sentiment should never actually be exerted against us. The man who is conscious to himself that he has exactly observed those measures of conduct which experience informs him are generally agreeable, reflects with satisfaction on the propriety of his own behaviour. When he views it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it, he thoroughly enters into all the motives which influenced it. He looks back upon every part of it with pleasure and approbation, and though mankind should never be acquainted with what he has done, he regards himself, not so much according to the light in which they actually regard him, as according to that in which they would regard him if they were better informed. He anticipates the applause and admiration which in this case would be bestowed upon him, and he applauds and admires himself by sympathy with sentiments, which do not indeed actually take place, but which the ignorance of the public alone hinders from taking place, which he knows are the natural and ordinary effects of such conduct, which his imagination strongly connects with it, and which he has acquired a habit of conceiving as something that naturally and in propriety ought to follow from it. Men have voluntarily thrown away life to acquire after death a renown which they could no longer enjoy. Their imagination, in the mean time, anticipated that fame which was in future times to be bestowed upon them. Those applauses which they were never to hear rung in their ears; the thoughts of that admiration, whose effects they were never to feel, played about their hearts, banished from their breasts the strongest of all natural fears, and transported them to perform actions which seem almost beyond the reach of human nature. But in point of reality there is surely no great difference between that approbation which is not to be bestowed till we can no longer enjoy it, and that which, indeed, is never to be bestowed, but which would be bestowed, if the world was ever made to understand properly the real circumstances of our behaviour. If the one often produces such violent effects, we cannot wonder that the other should always be highly regarded. (Page 104, Para 2, The Theory of Moral Sentiments )
As it is clearly demonstrated from the excerpt above, by the convention of our conscience we know when we have earned praise. Our peers can ascertain when our actions align with proper virtue are in-turn worthy of admiration. Undeserved praise for most people is an empty gesture devoid of any true satisfaction. By virtue of our norms, our unwritten but universally understood societal rules, displeasure is experienced by both parties. The individual who receives undue praise is overwhelmed with guilt. In contrast, the observing peers are frustrated by this minor but notable injustice. There are two principles at play eliciting both responses. The party who receives unearned accolades feels guilty as they know they didn’t rightfully earn them. It mirrors the concept that you appreciate more what you work for than what is given to you. Deep down in your subconscious, you know you are cheating someone who is deserving out of their time in the spotlight. Your disgruntled peers know that they got cheated out of justifiable recognition for their hard work. Unjust violation of norms constitutes cheating. Even if the “cheating” wasn’t intentionally perpetrated. Cross-culturally humans in general adversion to cheating.