The Magazine

Smith's Law

The companion to The Wealth of Nations.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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The imagination that creates the Impartial Spectator is not the easy, whimsical imagination of young people. Nothing in The Theory of Moral Sentiments resembles the improbably colored and far more improbably uncarnivorous tyrannosaurus on PBS. And nothing resembles Bono.

The imagination that Smith described is the strenuous imagination of an Einstein or a Newton, with all the hard work that this implies. The creative effort that imagination makes links the moral sympathy central to The Theory of Moral Sentiments with the material cooperation central to The Wealth of Nations. The imagination also has to make a creative effort to divide labor and conduct trade. Sympathy and cooperation are the more-conscious and less-conscious sides of what allows civilization to exist. They are the "principles in his nature" that man has, "which interest him in the fortune of others."

Smith saw the moral potential in both our interest in others and our self-interest. When we give somebody a bottle of whiskey, we know we've benefited somebody else. When we drink that bottle of whiskey ourselves in one sitting, we've also benefited somebody else--the distiller, the bottler, the liquor store owner. Feeling disjointed and discordant the next day, we don't realize this, unless we work at "inventions of the imagination, to connect together the otherwise disjointed and discordant phenomena of nature." This apparatus of unintended benefit was what Smith meant by the "Invisible Hand," a concept he first put forth in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

It's a mistake to read The Wealth of Nations as a justification of amoral greed. Wealth was Smith's further attempt to make life better. In Moral Sentiments he wrote, "To love our neighbor as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity." But note the simile that Christ used and Smith cited. The Theory of Moral Sentiments was about the neighbor. The Wealth of Nations was about the other half of the equation: us.

It is assumed, apparently at the highest level of moral arbitration, that we should care about ourselves. And logically we need to. In Moral Sentiments Smith insisted, paraphrasing Zeno, that each of us "is first and principally recommended to his own care." A broke, naked, starving self is of no use to anyone in the neighborhood. In Wealth Smith insisted that in order to take care of ourselves we must be free to do so. The Theory of Moral Sentiments showed us how the imagination can make us care about other people. The Wealth of Nations showed us how the imagination can make us dinner and a pair of pants.

If we don't perform the difficult tasks that imagination requires, we put ourselves into what Smith called "the vilest and most abject of all states, a complete insensibility to honour and infamy, to vice and virtue." It is a state that Smith might also have described as "running for political office."

Villains are imaginative only in the public imagination. Recent corporate scandals might seem to be inventive schemes of evil genius. But clearing the fog of accounting and finance reveals a prosaic hand in the till. Policemen, bartenders, parents, and anyone else who has seen wrong done in large amounts can testify to Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." Banality is the main constituent in criminal thinking.

Even less imaginative than criminals, and only occasionally to be distinguished from them, are the world's political leaders. Very few politicians would do the things they do if they had any capacity to put themselves in another person's place.

What imagination our political leaders have is spent on being visionaries. They draw their blueprints for society in their minds, building gulags in the air, fairy-weaving politics, geopolitics, and political economy into elaborate systems. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith was prescient in his scorn: "The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of 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 different pieces upon a chess-board."

The chess hustlers in Venezuela, Russia, the United States, and the E.U. may be "the best which the interests, prejudices, and temper of the times would admit of." But, read together, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations contain a strategy to put them in moral checkmate.

P.J. O'Rourke, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism.