Happy Smithsgiving!

Heather King for AdamSmithWorks

What would Adam Smith think of that particularly American holiday, Thanksgiving?

November 26, 2019
When Smith famously says in Wealth of Nations that “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 own interest” and that “nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow citizens,” you might start to think that Smith wouldn’t be the first person on your Friendsgiving list (27). And his description of the feasts of great proprietors in countries without foreign trade gives feasts in general a rather dampening pragmatic feel: the proprietor “is at all times, therefore, surrounded with a multitude of retainers and dependents who having no equivalent to give in return for their maintenance, but being fed entirely by his bounty, must obey him, for the same reason that soldiers must obey the prince who pays them” (413).
Even this rather transactional bounty was set aside with the advent of a robust foreign commerce, and “for a pair of diamond buckles, perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged the maintenance, or what is the same thing, the price of the maintenance of a thousand men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them” (419).
And what does Smith have to say about America? Well, one of the colonies’ best features was the “genius of the British constitution” which protected “North America” and allowed trade to flourish (91). After all, to Smith, the establishment of the colonies “arose from no necessity” (558). The only benefit of having them is the trade monopoly they bring, and Britain pays heavily for that monopoly, since the colonies “have never yet afforded either revenue or military force for the support of the civil government, or the defence of the mother country” (614). In part, this is because of the already remarked upon spirit of independence manifested by colonists. When an artificer starts to become profitable in the colonies, rather than extend his trade to greater distance, he buys land, because “He feels that an artificer is the servant of his customers, from whom he derives his subsistence; but that a planter who cultivates his own land, and derives his necessary subsistence from the labour of his own family, is really a master, and independent of all the world. (378-379)
This is perhaps why North America has yet to pitch in for their own protection; they are not accumulating the kind of wealth that would make them useful. Therefore, for Smith, while British kings have “amused the people with the imagination that they possessed a great empire on the west side of the Atlantic...this empire. . .has hitherto existed in imagination only” (947). So we can guess what Smith was hoping for when he pulled the wishbone. . .
But what about the putative motivation of Thanksgiving: giving thanks? For this, we turn to TMS.
Humans being the anthropomorphizing creatures that we are, we tend to feel both resentment and gratitude even toward inanimate objects that have caused us pleasure or pain. We regard a favorite shady tree as a benefactor, or the rock that trips us as a malefactor. However, “before anything can be the proper object of gratitude or resentment, it must not only be the cause of pleasure or pain, it must likewise be capable of feeling them” so that we can reciprocate the emotions they have caused. The sole “approved objects of gratitude” or those which “excite the sympathetic gratitude of the spectator” are “actions of a beneficent tendency, which proceed from proper motives” (78). Smith gives three criteria for proper causes of gratitude: “First, it must be the cause of pleasure in the one case, and of pain in the other. Secondly, it must be capable of feeling those sensations. And, thirdly, it must not only have produced those sensations, but it must have produced them from design” (96)
The motive of the benefactor is one of the things we evaluate when calibrating our gratitude or our judgement of others’ gratitude, and “trivial” motivations like leaving someone an estate “merely because his name and surname happen to the same with those of the giver” are not meritorious (72). A similar process of assessment shapes our own sense of gratitude. When someone we cannot respect does us a good turn, “We are less flattered by the distinction; and to preserve the esteem of so weak, or so worthless a patron, seems to be an object which does not deserve to be pursued for its own sake” (95).
And the success of the benefactor’s efforts matters: “It is common indeed to say, that we are equally obliged to the man who has endeavored to serve us, as to him who actually did so. It is the speech which we constantly make upon every unsuccessful attempt of this kind; but which, like all other fine speeches, must be understood with a grain of allowance.” (97). 
Importantly, gratitude cannot be compelled. “The man who does not recompense his benefactor, when he has it in his power, and when his benefactor needs his assistance, is, no doubt, guilty of the blackest ingratitude. The heart of every impartial spectator rejects all fellow-feeling with the selfishness of his motives, and he is the proper object of the highest disapprobation” (79). “His want of gratitude,” however, cannot be punished. “To oblige him by force to perform what in gratitude he ought to perform, and what every impartial spectator would approve of him for performing, would, if possible, be still more improper than his neglecting to perform it” (79).
It can, however, be faked. Even someone who has a cold nature but was “virtuously educated” will have learned that gratitude is a praiseworthy sentiment, and the lack of it blameable. He will shape his actions to match this knowledge: “Though his heart therefore is not warmed with any grateful affection, he will strive to act as if it was, and will endeavor to pay all those regards and attentions to his patron which the liveliest gratitude could suggest.” (162)
It is tempting to think that this imitation of gratitude is possible because gratitude is the virtue “of which the rules are the most precise, and admit of the fewest exceptions.” For example, “that as soon as we can we should make a return of equal, and if possible of superior value to the services we have received, would seem to be a pretty plain rule, and one which admitted of scarce any exceptions,” but, Smith continues, this rule is “in the highest degree loose and inaccurate, and admit[s] of ten thousand exceptions.” (174). Is gratitude best shown by paying back in kind? The same number of hours by the sickbed, for example? Or is gratitude best shown by honoring the spirit of the benefactor? Hours by the sickbed honored by a gift of cash in a time of need? And if the benefactor is wealthy, and loans a large amount, is the recipient expected to make equally large returns, or to offer something in proportion to his own means? Notwithstanding this confusion, “the duties of gratitude, however, are perhaps the most sacred of all those which the beneficent virtues prescribe to us” (174)
Ultimately, justice is more important to a stable society than gratitude or the beneficence which it excites, though the society which has gratitude superadded to justice is happier. Everyone in a society must rely on the aid of others, but “Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy” (86). 
For Smith, gratitude can have a shaping influence: “What gratitude chiefly desires, is not only to make the benefactor feel pleasure in his turn, but to make him conscious that he meets with this reward on account of his past conduct, to make him pleased with that conduct, and to satisfy him that the person upon whom he bestowed his good offices was not unworthy of them” (95). This extends the cliche from ‘one good turn deserves another’ to ‘one good turn produces another.’
But if the discussion of assessing the merit of someone’s benevolence and calculating the proportion of our gratitude for it sounds like Smith doesn’t take benevolence and gratitude seriously, you’ll look a long time before finding better inspiration for a Thanksgiving toast than this passage, which was added in the sixth edition:
Though our effectual good offices can very seldom be extended to any wider society than that of our own country; our good will is circumscribed by no boundary, but may embrace the immensity of the universe. We cannot form the idea of any innocent and sensible being, whose happiness we should not desire, or to whose misery, when distinctly brought home to the imagination, we should not have some degree of aversion. 
. . . .
The idea of that divine Being, whose benevolence and wisdom have, from all eternity, contrived and conducted the immense machine of the universe, so as at all times to produce the greatest possible quantity of happiness, is certainly of all the objects of human contemplation by far the most sublime. Every other thought necessarily appears mean in the comparison. The man whom we believe to be principally occupied in this sublime contemplation, seldom fails to be the object of our highest veneration; and though his life should be altogether contemplative, we often regard him with a sort of religious respect much superior to that with which we look upon the most active and useful servant of the commonwealth.
. . . .
The administration of the great system of the universe, however, the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension; the care of his own happiness, of that of his own family, his friends, his country: that he is occupied in contemplating the more sublime, can never be an excuse for his neglecting the more humble department….The most sublime speculation of the contemplative philosopher can scarce compensate the neglect of the smallest active duty. (237)
Please pass the cranberry sauce.