Adam Smith is usually claimed by conservatives since his economic principles, detailed in his masterpiece The Wealth of Nations underpin the ideas of modern “free market” fetishists. Never mind that what Smith said has been perverted, twisted and distorted out of all recognizability by libertarian economists… I digress.
What many may not realize is that Smith, like his American revolutionary counterparts, was reacting to the tyrants of his day. And when you read his work in the context of our modern political circumstances in Wisconsin, he sounds positively revolutionary!
When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint it. it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state. It is the very state which, in all our waking dreams and idle reveries, we had sketched out to ourselves as the final object of all our desires. We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it. We favour all their inclinations, and forward all their wishes. What pity, we think, that any thing should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation! We could even wish them immortal; and it seems hard to us, that death should at last put an end to such perfect enjoyment. It is cruel, we think, in Nature to compel them from their exalted stations to that humble, but hospitable home, which she has provided for all her children. Great King, live for ever! is the compliment, which, after the manner of eastern adulation, we should readily make them, if experience did not teach us its absurdity. Every calamity that befals them, every injury that is done them, excites in the breast of the spectator ten times more compassion and resentment than he would have felt, had the same things happened to other men. It is the misfortunes of Kings only which afford the proper subjects for tragedy. They resemble, in this respect, the misfortunes of lovers. Those two situations are the chief which interest us upon the theatre; because, in spite of all that reason and experience can tell us to the contrary, the prejudices of the imagination attach to these two states a happiness superior to any other. To disturb, or to put an end to such perfect enjoyment, seems to be the most atrocious of all injuries. The traitor who conspires against the life of his monarch, is thought a greater monster than any other murderer. All the innocent blood that was shed in the civil wars, provoked less indignation than the death of Charles I. A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them, would be apt to imagine, that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible to persons of higher rank, than to those of meaner stations.
Upon this disposition of mankind, to go along with all the passions of the rich and the powerful, is founded the distinction of ranks, and the order of society. Our obsequiousness to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their good-will. Their benefits can extend but to a few, but their fortunes interest almost every body. We are eager to assist them in completing a system of happiness that approaches so near to perfection; and we desire to serve them for their own sake, without any other recompense but the vanity or the honour of obliging them. Neither is our deference to their inclinations founded chiefly, or altogether, upon a regard to the utility of such submission, and to the order of society, which is best supported by it. Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it. That kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature. Nature would teach us to submit to them for their own sake, to tremble and bow down before their exalted station, to regard their smile as a reward sufficient to compensate any services, and to dread their displeasure, though no other evil were to follow from it, as the severest of all mortifications. … Even when the people have been brought this length, they are apt to relent every moment, and easily relapse into their habitual state of deference to those whom they have been accustomed to look upon as their natural superiors. They cannot stand the mortification of their monarch. Compassion soon takes the place of resentment, they forget all past provocations, their old principles of loyalty revive, and they run to re-establish the ruined authority of their old masters, with the same violence with which they had opposed it. (emphasis added)
I marvel at the way Smith so accurately captures the relationship between ruler and ruled and how deference and favor play a role in maintaining the hierarchy of social relationships. These principles apply even in elected government. Think about how the Walker administration has tried to control the will of the people. From the DOA rules governing assembly to the rules imposed on dissent in the galleries to the fraudulent claims of excessive damage to the Capitol, so much deference is demanded of the people by their rulers we’ve become a satrapy rather than a republic.
Smith is getting at the true nature of power: hierarchy. Power is the ability to rule over others, whether you’re elected to that position or anointed by god, it doesn’t matter. When incumbency rates run at 80% for American elected officials, what’s the difference? Redistricting ensures safety for the rulers from accountability to the ruled. And conservatives lap it up.
Ultimately, to Recall Scott Walker is to commit, to the conservative mind, the grievous sin of regicide. The recall petitioners are to the conservatives, in Smith’s words, traitors who conspire “against the life” of Governor Walker and are thought by them to be “a greater monster than any other murderer.” The deference of conservatives to Walker and their advocacy for him as a victim of the Recall fits right into the frame constructed by Smith.
Enthrallment was never so obvious than at the Celebrate Scott Walker rally.
We are eager to assist them in completing a system of happiness that approaches so near to perfection; and we desire to serve them for their own sake, without any other recompense but the vanity or the honour of obliging them
However, the most grievous sin to the conservative mind, according to political scientist Corey Robin*, is the inversion of the established social order; the ruled become the rulers followed by the destruction of the hierarchy that conservatives find so necessary. His book, The Reactionary Mind explores this in detail.
One thing to note, Smith warns us “regicides” that revolutionaries can “easily relapse into their habitual state of deference to those whom they have been accustomed to look upon as their natural superiors.” We must continue to pressure the Recall forward, especially with independent and moderate voters who are more apt to revert to the status quo of tyranny than are people actively engaged in the revolution.
I’m always fascinated when history rhymes….
*Corey Robin is quite responsive on Twitter so if you want to ask him a question about his work, he’s really good at responding. You can follow him @CoreyRobin. For more on Adam Smith and the revolutionary sentiments of the Enlightenment, he recommended (to me on Twitter!) Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment by Emma Rothschild.