Can Sober Smithians Soften Polarized Partisans?

theory of moral sentiments man of system adam smith political polarization political discourse man of public virtue slogans

James E Hartley for AdamSmithWorks

Once the body politic has absorbed the slogans, the stage is set for a renewal of polarization. Don’t you want it to be “Morning in America?”  Once this great beast of public expectations has been aroused, the center can no longer hold. Leaders on both sides become trapped.
"The centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world"     
                                            -Excerpt from “The Second Coming

W. B. Yeats’ lines resonate these days. One of the most frequent laments about the state of modern politics is the rise of polarization. Where, people ask, is the spirit of compromise, the willingness to come together to get things done? Each side blames the other. Those who feel trapped in No Man’s Land frequently point to the rise of social media with its separate closed ecosystems.

Adam Smith in the The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “Of the order in which Societies are by nature recommended to our Beneficence” (Part 6, Section II, Chapter ii) offers a different explanation for the polarization which suggests there is nothing new under the sun. He begins by noting the roots are not malevolence. 

“Amidst the turbulence and disorder of faction, a certain spirit of system is apt to mix itself with that public spirit which is founded upon the love of humanity, upon a real fellow-feeling with the inconveniencies and distresses to which some of our fellow-citizens may be exposed.” 

We should not minimize the importance of this starting place. Both sides begin with a love of humanity, a desire to improve things for others. Demonizing one’s opponents prevents understanding.

But, from that starting place of concern, what happens?

“The leaders of the discontented party seldom fail to hold out some plausible plan of reformation, which, they pretend, will not only remove the inconveniencies and relieve the distresses immediately complained of, but will prevent in all time coming any return of the like inconveniencies and distresses. They often propose, upon this account, to new-model the constitution, and to alter in some of its most essential parts that system of government under which the subjects of a great empire have enjoyed, perhaps, peace, security, and even glory, during the course of several centuries together.”

This is the genesis of polarization, but not the full explanation. To dream of a better world, to make the nation great is, of course, the root of political appeal. The candidate for public office muttering, “Things are bad, and we can’t make them better,” does not get as far as,     

Herbert Hoover’s “A Chicken in Every Pot” 
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” 
Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America” 
George Bush Sr.’s “Kinder, Gentler Nation” 
Bill Clinton’s “Putting People First” 
Barack Obama’s “Hope” and “Yes, We Can” 
Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” 

In every case, the promise is the same; inconveniences removed, distress alleviated, a brighter future ahead.

The slogans work. Smith again:      

“The great body of the party are commonly intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of this ideal system, of which they have no experience, but which has been represented to them in all the most dazzling colours in which the eloquence of their leaders could paint it.” 

Once the body politic has absorbed the slogans, the stage is set for a renewal of polarization. Don’t you want it to be “Morning in America?”  Once this great beast of public expectations has been aroused, the center can no longer hold. Leaders on both sides become trapped.

“Those leaders themselves, though they originally may have meant nothing but their own aggrandizement, become, many of them, in time the dupes of their own sophistry, and are as eager for this great reformation as the weakest and foolishest of their followers. Even though the leaders should have preserved their own heads, as, indeed, they commonly do, free from this fanaticism, yet they dare not always disappoint the expectation of their followers, but are often obliged, though contrary to their principle and their conscience, to act as if they were under the common delusion. The violence of the party refusing all palliatives, all temperaments, all reasonable accommodations, by requiring too much, frequently obtains nothing; and those inconveniencies and distresses which, with a little moderation, might, in a great measure, have been removed and relieved, are left altogether without the hope of a remedy.”

If Smith is right, then there is nothing new about political polarization. It is an inevitable result of the widespread belief that we can create a system, a way of doing things, that will solve our problems. Smith’s description of the result seems ripped right out of the opinion pages of today: 

“The man of system…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…”

Is there a solution? Yes, but it takes a different approach to what is possible:

“The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force…He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people, and will remedy, as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but, like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.”

This is sobering counsel, which does not lend itself to grand political endeavors. It is possible to turn back the rough and slouching beast from Bethlehem. The solution to polarization is not a triumph over your enemies, but rather the moderating cultivation of virtue.

Want to Read More?

Other writings, James E. Hartley, Author at Law & Liberty (
Max Skjönsberg’s Adam Smith on Political Parties | Adam Smith Works
Shanon FitzGerald’s Resisting the Corruption of Fanaticism | Adam Smith Works