fear · hate · Internal Conflict · Politics · society · Uncategorized

Adam Smith and the Hidden Handshake

The recent mass shooting in San Bernardino has further exposed the chasm that is the ideological gap.  Immediately, people (yes, myself included) reacted emotionally and set off on troll worthy flame wars of mutual provocation.  Fortunately, I have some highly valued friends that call me on it and cool me off.


Considering the political climate of mutual jabs and ideological orthodoxies, I am convinced that most people just don’t want to see the other person’s viewpoint on things. Most people are familiar with Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” Unfortunately, the Wealth of Nations is so groundbreaking and iconic that Adam Smith’s other works are practically unknown.

I think that as much as the “Wealth of Nations” is a fantastic book (and one of my personal favorites) I do not think that it – or Adam Smith – can be fully understood without its predecessor treatise the Theory of Moral Sentiment. For some background, Adam Smith was not an economist because before Adam Smith there was no such thing.Smith was a philosopher along the lines of Macchiavelli, but with a lot more humility.

Adam Smith Explained Interest in Others in Only a Product of Our Imaginations

About 15 years before the Wealth of Nations, the Theory of Moral Sentiments (“TMS”) was published. As I view the books, Smith had an idea about how communities operate. And from this are two parts of every individual relationship: (1) the individual self-interest; and (2) the individual interest in everyone else.  Kinda like “the hidden hand” and “the hidden handshake.”

The interest in everyone else is what TMS is about. Smith expounded on how people feel and react to others. He discussed “sympathy.” He identified that while we may feel sympathy for others we can never know how another person really feels because we cannot ourselves sense it. He discussed that when viewing the conduct of others we are only capable of judging them by how we think we would act in those same circumstances.

Our interplay with others is determined by our imaginations of what other people are feeling. He insisted that those who don’t take care of themselves are no good for society. But – that we have to use our imaginations to put ourselves in the position of another person. Only in that way can we care about others.

If we Fail to Put Ourselves in Another Person’s Subjective Position then We Judge that Person Based on Our Agreement or Disagreement

He goes into selfishness. He describes that that if we don’t use our imaginations then we judge other people based upon whether we agree with them or not. Hence, we don’t place ourselves in the position of the wealthy person, who views himself as working harder for less and less and being attacked politically for it. On the other side, we don’t put ourselves in the position of homeless people in order to understand their position or why they are there.

Just Because I Feel One Way it Does Not Mean Everyone Else Should

It is this lack of imagination of the permutations that lead to arrogance. In this, Adam Smith spoke of the failings of humans who think they know best how to manage the lives of others.

“The man of the system…is apt to be wise in his own conceit; and it is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own plan for ideal government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of 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 pieces upon a chess board.”

Does this sound like, um, every politician and activist for the last century? Let us look at gun control as an example of two sides who refuse to use their imaginations to see another point of view.  How many times have we heard, “I cannot understand how anybody deny <fill in the blank>?”

There is a reason why you can’t understand.  It is because you are not trying.

Adam Smith’s TMS, I think, speaks of how selfishness and conceit cause problems with society. When one uses one’s own thoughts, feelings, sympathies and motives and imputes them on other people in order to force others into those same thoughts, feelings, etc., it is inherent that the person does so without true knowledge of that person. It’s the whole, “I feel this way, and everyone else should, too.”

Society benefits when individuals look at the interests of others, and not by trying to dictate their beliefs.

The Wealth of Nations examined the other side – how our self-interest can benefit society. Underlying it are the lessons from the TMS. Another person benefits if I pay for a meal for another person. My own feelings may make the self-interest sufficient.  It’s worth ten bucks to feel good.

But what if I pay for that meal for myself? Others benefit from that, too. The restaurant owner. The restaurant’s vendors. The employee staff.  So many others. The self-interest plays its part in benefits to society, as well.

Interest in self and interest in others are mutually beneficial.  Take away one, and there is an imbalance.  Society does not work efficiently when this is the case.

Freedom to Imagine Means Benefiting to Others

How is wealth built? It starts with the freedom to imagine. I have a product that I think will help. I imagine others who are willing to pay me for the convenience this product provides.  To make the most money, I have to make a lot of them. For that I need help, and I pay a cut to all people who help me with it.

Bill Gates benefited himself with Microsoft.  He benefited me, too – I’m using Microsoft products!  Who benefits?  The employees he has, the stockholders, consumers – all have benefited from Gates’ imagination. Same with Steve Jobs – he imagined. He thought differently.

Limiting Imagination leads to Conceit

A one-track imagination also has its issues.  Steve Jobs did not imagine the sweatshop lives of those working to produce his ideas. The Robber Barons did not imagine the lives of others. They were conceited in their approach, considering only that what was best for them was best for others. They understood the Wealth of Nations. But did they understand the Theory of Moral Sentiment?

The Robber Barons thought that individual wealth was per se good.  And whatever exploitation was necessary to achieve that goal was worthwhile. They failed to imagine the plight of others.  Others failed to put themselves in the shoes of the industrialists.

What makes Smith so great in my mind is that he was not himself a visionary. He learned his own lessons and did not become one of those who was “so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own plan.” Indeed, he believed that each societal structure was simply a product of its time and could be changed depending upon the feelings of the people at the time.

Looking to Understand Others is The Best Way to Show Respect

Let us all see each other’s interests.  Let us seek to get past labels and understand that the beauty of a free society is that we all have the opportunity to be different and to think differently.

I can imagine why people want to control guns.  I can sympathize with them and their fears.  I understand why people want to loosen gun laws, thinking that a few people packing heat in that conference room could have lessened the death toll.  I see that. Look at the negotiations at COP21 for a plan to fight climate change.  Trying to put into the shoes of 193 other negotiators is a tough call.

It’s the beautiful thing about agreeing to disagree.  For imagining yourself in the spot of another, or rather imagining another person in your position, is how we solve differences.  Even if the differences are not solved, there will be respect.

Can anybody out there see why I think this?


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