Why Adam Smith said that “virtue is to be feared more than vice”

Wally, a coworker, walked into my office one day and announced that he had discovered the answer to the world’s problems. And it was all so simple. People just needed to act wisely. If everyone acted wisely, then crime, poverty and war would disappear. I agreed and asked how he would achieve this miracle. I expected some elaborate plan, but it turned out that “acting wisely” was the sum total of Wally’s insight . In answer to each question, he just repeated that people should act wisely.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a world-famous astrophysicist, but his plan to solve the world’s problems is no longer scientific. no less worn out than Wally’s. Tyson proposes the world of “Rationalia”, a virtual utopia in which everyone will act right.

Socialists have a similar solution to the world’s problems. In his utopia, all people will act, not with wisdom or reason, but with altruism. Unlike Wally or Tyson, however, they have proposed various plans to make this happen – all of which boil down to some variation of: (1) burn it all down and a perfect world will spontaneously rise from the ashes of society, (2) force that all act with benevolence until it becomes natural, or (3) create a just and equal society in which material goods are evenly distributed, thus eliminating all greed and envy and, along with them, any motivation for violence and crime.

Each socialist scheme depends on force, or the threat of force, exercised by omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent dictators. But could such a society, which necessarily sacrifices justice for altruism, survive?

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A reading of Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ suggests that it does not.

Smith’s concept of justice was based on protecting people from harm caused by others. That is, protecting people from aggression to their people, property and agreements. For Smith, acting justly consisted largely of avoiding hurting others. He believed that the fundamental reason a society existed was to provide that level of justice. Furthermore, he argued, any society that fails in this basic duty will also fail. In his book, Smith wrote: “Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it.”

Unfortunately, securing peace often requires strength. But using force is fair when it is done to oppose injustice—that is, when it is used in response to the initiation of force. While governments cannot hope to establish perfect justice, they can provide sufficient security to allow people to live their lives and flourish.

What no government is competent to do, however, is ensure that its citizens act with wisdom, rationality or altruism. Doing so would require the use of force—not to prevent people from harming others, but to compel them to behave in ways the government determines is appropriate. The force thus employed leads to socially destructive injustice.

First, one’s idea of ​​what is altruistic (or wise or rational) must be imposed on everyone. A recent example is Biden’s executive order forgiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal student loans. Was his action altruistic? It seems so if our focus is fixed only on the students who benefit from the President’s order. It seems less if we broaden our focus and time horizon to include those who must repay loans and those who will be harmed in the future by the perverse incentives your order will create. Universities, for example, will be encouraged to raise tuition and even more students will borrow money they are unlikely to be able to repay.

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In short, whatever policy you choose in the name of morality, some will see it as immoral and will bitterly resent being forced to support it.

Second, a policy that the central authority deems altruistic must be implemented and paid for by people who can oppose it or the way in which it is implemented. They must be compelled—by force if necessary—to comply with the policy and prevented from subverting it. If “subversion” is interpreted as “fostering social discord” by public criticism, then the central authority can limit freedom of expression and freedom of the press. If pastors question the morality of the policy, central authority can also limit religious freedoms.

Third, the policy can produce unintended consequences that create further injustice. How will the central authority respond? Will it suppress knowledge of consequences to avoid discord and, potentially, the loss of its legitimacy or power? Will it respond with another layer of coercive policies, and if so, how will it enforce them and what will it do if more unintended consequences result?

Finally, as Smith observed, “virtue must be more feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.” Those who try to impose virtue – or, at least, their idea of ​​it – tend to deal with dissidents who, by opposing “virtue”, are, by definition, bad.

“ Hell,” Michael Novak once said, “is what happens when you chase heaven on earth.”

The force used to prevent or repair harm to people and property is legitimate; the force used to coerce “benevolence” is not. Force is ultimately the only hammer in a government’s toolkit and should be used only where it is achievable, and even then only sparingly.

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Governments can reasonably aspire to deliver Adam Smith’s formula for prosperity: “Peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” By trying to provide what it cannot, the government will destroy its ability to provide what it can.

Richard Fulmer worked as an engineer and systems analyst and is now retired and writing. With Robert L. Bradley Jr., he wrote the book ‘Energy: The Master Resource’, required reading in classes at four different universities, including the University of Texas and the University of Toronto. He is currently working on another book, ‘Caveman Economics: Basic Economics in 25 Prehistoric Tales’.

©2022 FEE – Foundation for Economic Education. Published with permission. Original in English.

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