Adam Smith on Fostering Civility and Self-Control

civic education externalities public education

Maryann Keating for AdamSmithWorks

February 2, 2022
How does a society achieve a harmonious consensus on property rights, civility, and self-control? Washington, Jefferson, and Madison thought that religious values were foundational to liberty and democratic government. Adam Smith—the father of economics writing in 1776—also makes a strong case for virtue, admittedly, for “facilitating the commerce of Society.” The intention of the Founding Fathers was not to guide us towards paradise but rather to lead in the direction of common sense. They intended to foster behaviors conducive to representative government and functioning markets.
The belief that markets and democracy require individuals to act in certain ways implies that personal behavior has the potential to affect society either positively or negatively. Yet, individuals remain free to choose not to follow a code prioritizing prudence, self-control, fairness, and endurance. The issue, according to Smith writing as an institutional economist, is to create institutions that increase the probability that individuals guard against their worst inclinations. Smith does not address transcendental goals. Nevertheless, in Book V of The Wealth of Nations, he is explicit about the role of school and church in forming character.
Smith on Institutional Structures for Educating Youths
Smith’s writing on formal education consists of two themes: namely, characteristics that should be habituated in youth and, secondly, institutional effectiveness (The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter 1, Article II).
Smith expresses definite opinions on character formation. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he addresses personal virtue pursued to earn the esteem of others, whereas in The Wealth of Nations, he deals with behavioral externalities affecting the wellbeing of society as a whole. Smith concludes that government assistance is not necessarily required to foster the abilities and virtues required, but it does have a responsibility in preventing “the almost entire corruption and degeneracy of the great body of people.”
It appears, Smith writes, that neither ancient Greece nor Rome assumed any authority in teaching the young to read, write, and account, but rather employed incentives towards achieving this goal. For example, in some instances, adult children were excused from supporting elderly parents if their parents had neglected to prepare them for some trade or business. Then, nothing equivalent to graduation or university attendance was required to practice any particular trade or profession; the family that was in a position to do so secured training privately.
In ancient Greece, a public magistrate assumed responsibility for instructing every free citizen in gymnastic exercises and music. Similarly, ancient Rome sponsored gymnastics but not music, for which—according to Smith—Romans suffered no great loss! Rather, Smith writes, “The morals of the Romans, however, both in private and public life seem to have been, not only equal but, upon the whole, a good deal superior to those of the Greeks.” Other than providing a space for military exercises, neither Rome nor Athens paid for this instruction; yet every free citizen was required to fit himself for defense.
By providing a space for the general acquisition of reading, writing, and arithmetic, Smith argues that districts can establish small schools at very small expense. The effectiveness of these schools, however, requires that even common laborers pay small fees. Smith advocates as well small prizes and the necessity of passing tests for entrance into the trades. Furthermore, he writes, “…the security of every society must always depend, more or less, upon martial spirit of the great body of people.” If a government fails to take proper pains to avoid the gross ignorance of every citizen, a costly standing army is dangerous to liberty and the constitution becomes a necessity.
Smith appears, therefore, to favor government structures for providing elementary education and, in some cases, subsidized tuition for less affluent parents. Otherwise, Smith argues that schools can furnish, through tuition, “a revenue sufficient for defraying their own expense.” He reasoned that parents or guardians of rank and fortune are, in most cases, willing to educate their offspring at their own expense. If their children do not acquire the skills needed, it is seldom—notes Smith wryly—due to the lack of funds allocated but rather due to misallocation of those funds!
Smith’s emphasis on subsidizing primary education for the less affluent is ironic for one whose foundational economic contribution was to insist that specialization is the key to economic prosperity. However, Smith observes that persons—who spent a greater part of their whole life in performing a few simple operations—become incapable of rational conversation, forming noble sentiments or the decision-making required for “the ordinary duties of private life.” Unless particular pains are assumed to avoid this, he argues, such people are incapable of making judgments concerning the interests of their country and lack the mental and physical characteristics necessary for national defense.
In advanced economies, Smith observes, specialization results in a large number of people performing repetitive low-level jobs. On the other hand, highly specialized educated individuals contribute much in their respective fields but “may contribute very little to good government or happiness in their society.” Therefore, he concludes, the function of tax-financed public education is to give common people access to generalists of demonstrated ability.
Smith recognizes that “force and restraint, no doubt, may be in some degree requisite [necessary] in order to oblige children to those parts of education which it is thought necessary for them to acquire.” He is quite optimistic, however, that on attaining thirteen years of age, young people are unlikely to neglect or despise instruction if their teachers demonstrate some serious intention of benefiting them.
When public monies are allocated for education, Smith poses several questions each with “at least a probable answer.” Have endowments and public support promoted the stated goal of educational institutions? Have they fostered diligence and improved teaching abilities? Have they produced individual and positive public benefits that would otherwise have been provided in the absence of public funds?
Smith offers several recommendations on keeping teachers, as generalists of demonstrated ability, on task in the classroom. He notes that those born into wealth have seldom achieved great success in education! However, he is unconcerned about the supply of teachers. The demand for instruction and unrestrained competition in providing it “always produces the talent for giving it.”
To execute instruction with “a certain degree of exactness” Smith recommends that teachers’ salaries constitute their primary source of income. Otherwise, the industrious ones will turn their attention to activities other than teaching. The ideal teacher’s salary, as Smith sees it, is one of optimality—neither too high nor too low. A teacher’s salary must be sufficient to act as his or her primary source of income. On the other hand, generously high salaries—financed through endowments and public funds—diminish “more or less the necessity of application in teachers.”
Smith certainly does not view schools as teacher co-ops. He recognizes the need for outside supervision, be it church, government, or educational minister. However, the effectiveness of these authorities is limited in scope. Compliance will consist merely in the numbers of students taught, instructional hours per week, and the yearly calendar. Extraneous authorities are not onsite, lack subject expertise, and, regrettably, are in a position to exercise their jurisdiction capriciously. Teachers subject to such jurisdiction, he warns, are necessarily degraded by it.
Although he believes that specific skills are more effectively acquired through private tutoring, Smith admits that universities are essential to preserving certain branches of knowledge, however poorly taught. His ideal model for post-primary education is highly dependent on faculty reputation. Therefore, he proposes competition between instructors, institutions, and apprenticeships. He trusts that students can differentiate between programs that meet their aspirations.
Because European universities were established to train churchmen, Smith argues that metaphysics and theology crowded out the natural sciences and philosophy. Hence, the duties of humans here on Earth were treated as subservient to eternal happiness. Despite these deficiencies, universities drew affluent young men not destined for church ministry. According to Smith, this type of education, as well as the custom of spending a year of travel abroad, does not prepare students to “apply in good earnest to the real business of the world, the business which is to employ them during the remainder of their days.” It may actually weaken in a young man “every useful habit, which the earlier parts of his education might have had some tendency to form in him.”
Smith admits that formal education in the learned professions is “convenient.” However, required attendance and the endowments of schools and colleges crowd out private instruction and corrupt the diligence of universities. Given that, university acceptance is based on examination of material learned in secondary schools; secondary schools, having no exclusive privileges, actually convey subject matter better than subsidized and endowed universities.
The ability of endowed universities to offer scholarships and the non-transferability of credits in certain disciplines “extinguishes” the incentive of faculty to “emulate” good teaching. Smith supposes that it must be unpleasant for a professor to deliver a “sham-lecture” with required attendance in front of students behaving as “if the teacher happens to be a man of sense”!
Smith on Religious Institutions for Instructing People of All Ages
Smith had something more in mind than value-neutral continuing education for people of all ages. He believed that some form of religious training was essential in providing positive externalities in the form of instruction in “truth, morals, and decency.” He deemed church affiliation necessary to prevent most individuals from abandoning themselves to “every sort of low profligacy and vice.”
His institutional recommendations for the church closely parallel those offered for schooling, namely competition between providers and correct incentives for those delivering the service. He points out the many downsides but argues for small subsidies to recognized religious sects.
Smith believed that individuals of rank and fortune pursuing their self-interest had an obvious incentive to regulate their conduct because their positions depended on society’s respect. For the less affluent lacking high status but continuing to reside in a small village, social control functions for maintaining reputation and addressing profligacy. However, a person can become “sunk in obscurity and darkness” on relocating to a place where his conduct is “observed and attended to by nobody, and he is therefore very likely to neglect it himself.”
The solution, according to Smith, is to allow each person “to acquire a degree of consideration which he never had before.” Note that Smith was less concerned with a personal sense of belonging than with degeneracy. A church community acts as either a substitute for the discipline associated with the reputational needs of those with higher status or the social control exercised in the village.
Smith recognizes the role of the arts in promoting the interests of society as a whole, but says they tend to be useful and agreeable only to those individuals who are willing to patronize them. Therefore, Smith observes that “the institutions for the instruction of people of all ages are chiefly those for religious instruction.” The object of this instruction, he admits, is not to render people good citizens in this world but rather “to prepare them for another and a better world in a life to come.” Nevertheless, Smith recognizes the role of churches in forming habits of “exertion” to avoid becoming as “stupid and ignorant as it is possible,”
The 21st century lack of religious fervor—at least in the West—was perhaps beyond the scope of Smith’s imagination, as were entrenched secular interests. He does refer, however, to Independents as a group of “very wild enthusiasts” who propose complete independence of church and state.
While expressing concern for national defense if tax resources are reallocated to support an established church, Smith, nevertheless, concludes that modest support for the church in Scotland was yielding benefits exceeding those in most countries. Smith, like others at that time, viewed religion as instrumental in unifying a country. He lists its good effects as being both civil and religious: “uniformity of faith, the fervor of devotion, the spirit of order, regularity, and austere morals in the great body of people.”
Smith also recommends that voluntary contributions dominate the compensation of clergy providing religious instruction. Too high or too low compensation for ministers “in the eyes of the common people destroys almost entirely that sanctity of character which can alone enable him to perform those duties with proper weight and authority.”
Clergy of an established and well-endowed religion seldom trouble themselves about instructing ordinary people, and frequently lose those qualities that earn them authority and influence. Parochial clergy, on the other hand, derive a considerable part of their subsistence from voluntary contributions. They, along with monks who must beg for support, have a “considerable advantage” and are therefore more effective. The indolence of subsidized clergy, like endowed professors, make them “altogether incapable of making any vigorous exertion in defense even of their own establishment,” such that they “call upon the civil magistrate to prosecute, destroy, or drive out their adversaries, as disturbers of the public peace.”
Smith vehemently warns against the negative externalities of religious zealots exhibiting superstition, violent abhorrence of all other sects, and excessive control over the minds of adherents. He thus acknowledges the legitimate fear civil authorities have of religions becoming powerful and creating an ecclesiastical/political complex. A sect that becomes “leagued with the conquering party” will demand that all adversaries be suppressed. Smith suggests that the political interest of the state is to offer ecclesiastics with small preferments “to bribe their indolence,” render them superfluous, and prevent “their flock from straying in quest of new pastures.”
The zeal of powerful religious teachers becomes a threat to civil authority; thus, Smith prefers the flourishing of a great multiple of sects. He is pessimistic, however, that any country could ever achieve the benefits derived from competing sects offering a doctrine reduced to “that pure and rational religion, free from every mixture of absurdity, imposture, or fanaticism, such as wise men have in all ages of the world wished to see established.”
Smith qualifies his preference for competing sects in mentioning that some carry rigor “to some degree of folly and extravagance.” On the other hand, he admits that the morals of those attending these relatively small denominations are “almost always remarkably regular and orderly.” If the excesses of particular sects become “unsocial or disagreeably rigorous,” Smith offers two suggestions. The first is to encourage the study of philosophy and science and to institute “some sort of probation” for all advanced studies. The second antidote “to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition” is to encourage “those who for their own interest would attempt, without scandal or indecency, to amuse and divert the people by painting, poetry, music, dancing, and [drama].”
In ancient times, according to Smith, the status and privileges of the church inhibited civil authority from disciplining clerical abuse. The state, therefore, generally left clerical perpetrators of crime “to be tried by the ecclesiastical courts, who, for the honour of their own order, were interested to restrain, as much as possible, every member of it from committing enormous crimes, or even from giving occasion to such gross scandal as might disgust the minds of the people.”
Adam Smith warns of influential clericals whose primary interest is to maintain their authority and directly oppose sovereign authority. In such instances, a standing army, even if it consisted mainly of nationals, is unable to maintain civil authority. Smith cautions against using force or violence upon respected clergy, but rather attempting to manage them with “the preferment which he [the sovereign] has to bestow upon them. Presently, “preferments” could take the form of nonprofit tax status.
According to Smith, the liberty, reason, and happiness of humanity can flourish only under civil protection. Beyond the reach of civil authority, however, there generally remain protected groups with large private interests. Smith does not explicitly deal with organized interest groups, other than religion, that has the potential to threaten civil authority. Neither does it deal with the potential for civil authority to co-opt education and religious institutions.
Some of Smith’s suggestions for keeping schools and churches on task come as no surprise, namely competing institutions void of any legal and financial support co-opting their primary missions. Smith’s consistency is demonstrated as well in his optimistic belief that gradual improvements in the arts, manufacturing, and commerce could eventually substitute for subsidizing institutions charged with fostering civil behavior. He is well aware of the potential for educational and religious institutions to become ineffective, to squander their resources, and to lose the respect of their constituencies.
In the two sections of Book V in the Wealth of Nations dealing first with formal education and then with adult formation, Smith expresses concern for the physical, emotional, and moral character required for a society’s survival. Here, he addresses the uniqueness of institutions traditionally charged with fostering these characteristics. He clearly differentiates the focus and incentives of those offering education and ministerial services from those following other career paths. However, teachers as generalists of proven ability and ministers of great influence are not excused from keeping themselves on task or subject to civil authority.
Smith can appear as an elitist given his assumption that civil authority, at times, should contribute to fostering decency in the “lower orders.” However, his message is quite the opposite. Smith indicates that degeneracy results not from ordinary people’s failure in accepting the values of the elite, but rather from the poor example of the elite causing common people to abandon trust.
Consider Smith’s liberty with cultural anthropology in generalizing between “two different schemes or systems of morality” in every civilized society. Strict or austere morality is generally admired by the common people and the “liberal, or, if you will, the loose” that is “commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion.” In the liberal or loose system, several years of extravagance do not necessarily ruin an affluent youth. Liberalism, therefore, indulges excuses, or pardons intemperance and gross indecency as just one privilege of one’s rank in society. Similar behavior may drive the less affluent to ruin and crime; however, the “wiser and better sort of the common people… have always the utmost abhorrence and detestation of such excesses, which their experience tells them are so immediately fatal to people of their condition.”
Those concerned with the type of society required for representative government and a functioning economy, according to Smith, must ask themselves how to provide institutions that maintain the respect of ordinary people.

Related Links
Jack Weinstein, Adam Smith on Education: Schooling
Jack Weinstein, Adam Smith on Education: Socialization and Acculturation
An Animal That Trades video series, Part 5: The Role of Authority
Jonathan Jacobs, Adam Smith on Moral Education
G. Patrick Lynch, Educating for Character at Home: Adam Smith and John and Abigail Adams