Activity: Man of System

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Contrast the famous "man of system" passage, in which Smith criticizes a certain type of public thinker, with the "spontaneous order" of markets to spark discussion about the organization of different types of economies.
“Bellringers” are classroom tools that help set the tone or introduce a topic in the classroom. Adam Smith Works bellringers use quotations from and activities based on the work of Adam Smith, allowing you to illustrate the long history of the ideas you will explore in your classroom by grounding them in great books. 

Adam Smith Works Activities are quotations with accompanying activities that you can discuss with your students to introduce a topic, generate deeper discussion, or set the tone for your lesson. They cover topics from economics to history to moral philosophy. 

Bellringers are presented as slides ready to pull and use in your classroom. On each slide you can find speaking notes and links to more information. 
  • Click the hyperlinked quotation (for example, look for something like (WN 1.ii.2) to see the quotation in the context of the full text. 
  • Where available, click "Click here for more about this quotation" to visit a short article about the passage in question. 
  • Speaking notes suggest topics for discussion when using each quotation.  
“The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured 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.” (TMS VI.ii.2.17)
 
This group activity should take ten minutes, plus any time allocated for class discussion.

Divide the class into pairs for discussion.

Are “men of system” a real phenomenon in government policymaking? What are the “principles of motion” Smith is talking about?

How do market economies differ from command economies in approaching legislation and economic growth? Can the concept of the man of system help illustrate the motivations behind each kind of economy?
Once group discussions are complete, students may asked to share their thoughts with the class or via a short writing assignment.

You may also wish to discuss the “spontaneous order” that one can see in a market, which is held in contrast in this activity with the Man of System.


See the quotation in context as part of the full online text of The Theory of Moral Sentiments here (link will take you to the paragraph in which the quotation can be found).

Adam Smith contrasts the “man of system” with men whose public spirit is motivated by humanity and benevolence, about which another activity is provided here.

Read more about this quotation at the OLL Entry. You may choose to share this piece with your students following their discussion. Do they agree or disagree with the explanation provided?