Adam Smith’s Critique of the Public’s Scrutiny of the Poor: Part II

sympathy theory of moral sentiments adam smith poverty "speaking of smith" public scrutiny privacy reputation surveillance-based poverty programs

Kristen Collins for AdamSmithWorks
Smith articulated the demeaning nature of being “obliged to expose” ourselves to the judgments of imperfectly sympathetic spectators. Smith’s example of the innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit perfectly encapsulates the pain of being a morally judicious individual subject to unjust public censure. 
Part II: A Smithian Critique of Surveillance-Based Public Policies
In a previous post, I explore Smith’s arguments concerning how inequality, or major differences in social, economic, and political status, rendered the public more likely to scrutinize people living in poverty more harshly than the wealthy. In this post, I will expand on Smith’s account of the emotionally distressing effects of unjust social censure, before putting Smith’s insights in conversation with contemporary critiques of surveillance-based poverty program.
Smith articulated the demeaning nature of being “obliged to expose” ourselves to the judgments of imperfectly sympathetic spectators. Smith’s example of the innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit perfectly encapsulates the pain of being a morally judicious individual subject to unjust public censure. Despite knowing his innocence, spectators’ censure implied that they considered him “capable” of being guilty, shrouding his own self-image in a “shadow of disgrace and dishonor” (III.2.11). While the impartial spectator could be a resource to bring comfort to a person so unjustly rebuked, Smith also suggested that, in the face of widespread disapproval, the impartial spectator “suffers himself to be astonished and confounded by the judgments of ignorant and weak man” (III.2.32). 
More recently, Americans who claimed welfare benefits, often reluctantly due to political rhetoric that stigmatizes public assistance, have cited feelings of humiliation watching television news coverage deride people like them and undergoing mandatory interview processes at the desks of officials (Soss 1999, Soss 2002). Depending on the state, people relying on Medicaid benefits may be forced to “detail intensely personal and intimate” details, including experiences of sexual abuse or domestic violence, just to access prenatal care (Bridges 2017, 58).   Research often proves classist and racist assumptions of who is likely to abuse public services wrong; consider, for example, Jamila Michener’s finding that the only Medicaid recipients who were willing to push for services beyond what was actually covered were “middle class and non-black” (2018, 99). 
It is important to note that eliminating bias is not as simple as eliminating face-to-face interactions with caseworkers. Automated eligibility technologies can also make the process of seeking public assistance rife with degrading, privacy-invasive experiences (Eubanks 2018). The underlying designs of programs matter; paternalistic, surveillance-based programs have been found to depress political participation among claimants, whereas more democratically designed programs like Head Start can actually encourage participation (Bruch, Ferree, and Soss 2010). 
When politicians, the media, and other members of the community perpetuate derogatory stereotypes and defend surveillance-based policies that treat people living in poverty with suspicion, they resemble the “superficial minds” that Smith criticized. To be disproportionately subject to harsh scrutiny and suspicion is to be devalued as an equal, deserving respect. Experiences of surveillance, such as those central to many public assistance programs, exacerbate the stigma and prejudice that individuals already encounter throughout society. By prioritizing the prevention of fraud rather than access to public services, policymakers treat applicants like the Smith’s innocent man, suspected of a crime he did not commit. Smith’s arguments enable us to see that such experiences of judgment and surveillance may not just be political problems but moral failures. In his time and ours, inequality can warp moral judgments, rendering surveillance a degrading and counterproductive resource for seeking just social outcomes. 

Want to Read More?
Kristen Collins' article: Observed without Sympathy: Adam Smith on Inequality and Spectatorship
Jon Murphey's Speaking of Smith post: Why Do We Admire Celebrities?
Dennis Rasmussen's article: Adam Smith on What Is Wrong with Economic Inequality
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