Adam Smith on the China tragedy

by Russ Roberts on May 14, 2008

in Charity

Here is Adam Smith on the human capacity for selfishness and for something that goes beyond selfishness:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its
myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an
earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe,
who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would
be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful
calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very
strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he
would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of
human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could
thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was
a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the
effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of
Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And
when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane
sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his
business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with
the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had
happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself
would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his
little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but,
provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound
security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and
the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object
less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a
man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred
millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human
nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its
greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain
as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this
difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid
and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should
often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much
more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by
whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the
generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to
sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others?
It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark
of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart,
that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of
self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which
exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle,
conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the
great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we
are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls
to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous
of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no
respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer
ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the
proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is
from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and
of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural
misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye
of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety
of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of
resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater
interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest
injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to
ourselves. It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the
love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the
practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more
powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such
occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the
grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters.

Yes, we are selfish. Yes, many of us slept well last night in the aftermath of the death of thousands in China. But our selfishness does not tell the whole story. Yes, we are self-centered. But there is more to the human enterprise or at least we like to think so.


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Mauricio Flores May 14, 2008 at 1:21 pm

interesting post. What makes us act in noble ways? does it really matter if it is self interest? whether it is pure altruism or that great feeling of being genereous and nice? i don't know…but one thing is for sure, humans are capable of showing love and compassion for other human beings in the most incredible ways. The truth seems to be that we just don't like to think that we are capable of doing that, even when we are not able to "realize" that we are doing good. Like our cooperation through markets. It may not be direct love, but the results of market cooperation and voluntary exchange surely show that humans are able to do great things for other people in many different ways and for many different reasons. That is what some people should think a little bit more about.

jorod May 14, 2008 at 2:19 pm

Smith sounds more like a mystic than an economist. He was a true student of human nature. More wise than any guru or priest.

M. Hodak May 14, 2008 at 3:47 pm

Adam Smith considered himself a moral philosopher, not an economist.

This, from his Theory of Moral Sentiments, presaged the distinction between moral action and coerced charity, ultimately encapsulated by "the separation of church and state." Jefferson, for instance, believed that any entity (i.e., church or state) that forced someone to "do good" actually robbed them of their opportunity for moral action.

In this view, the welfare state actually results in a less moral nation because it robs individuals of the resources (and, to some extent, reasons) to allocate their personal wealth among charitable ends.

Philip Fortuna May 14, 2008 at 4:06 pm

It seems that he has an almost scholastic approach to the study of a study of full human nature and not just an understanding of supply and demand.

Theres more to Smith that most of us realize…guess I'll be dusting off "moral sentiments" ;)

vulcanhammer May 14, 2008 at 6:32 pm

Ah, reading this brought fond memories of reading Smith as a philosophy major. Simply excellent.

Lee Kelly May 15, 2008 at 12:46 am

M. Hodak,

Right. If I were to stub my toe on the doorstep tomorrow then I would not hold that doorstep morally responsible for my pain, and nor would I hold it responsible for my good fortune if in my moment of pain I were to spot $100 which I would otherwise have not noticed. The doorstep is not a decision-making agent, and no punishment nor reward could have any consequence on its future behaviour. The doorstep will not move aside to prevent me stubbing my toe in the future, and nor will it leap into my path to draw my attention toward some item of worth.

An entity, such as the state, which forces someone to "do good", denies that someone the opportunity to be a decision-maker, and therefore, denies to them any responsibility for any subsequent behaviour.

It is only for of our status as decision-makers, in contrast to my doorstep, that we are regarded as responsible for our behaviour, whether our behaviour is right or wrong. Therefore, by substituting the decisions of many individuals for the decisions of a few powerful elites, those individuals are denied their opportunity for moral action. That is, whether their behaviour is right or wrong does not reflect on their moral character.

Unfortunately, I think that many people actually find this prospect attractive (even though few would ever state so explicitly)–they would rather not be responsible for their decisions, instead adopting some authority, perhaps a politician or ideology, to take every decision out of their hands.


Tim May 15, 2008 at 7:31 am

All comments up to his point have been spot on. Smith did have a larger view of the world than the one that is traditionally foisted on him by those who often claim his mantle.

Smith's Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments, taken together, establish a foundation for a free market populated by moral actors.

Don May 15, 2008 at 9:55 am

Adam Smith is greatness in and of himself. Your comment at the end however lacked the same repose and thought. Selfish is not the same as self-centered. They are polar opposites. Self cenetered is the evil that is in certain people, that forces others to take care of them, whether it is physical or mental manipulations. "Self Love is not so vile a sin as self neglect." Shakespeare Henry V. "God helps those who help themselves" Benjamin Franklin. SELF is the opposite of herd, the opposite of collectivism, and the opposite of self centered.

Trumpit May 15, 2008 at 8:35 pm

My eyes glazed over about halfway down the excerpt. I can't read insufferable stuff like that, and the fine print wasn't helpful either. Can someone paraphrase the point(s) he was trying to make? People die and suffer injustices and who really gives a damn? Just why should we become overwrought? How's that going to help the victims? Send cash.

Why did he pick on poor China? Why not the Dickensian slums of his own country, or the death of miners in the coal mines that surely he knew about? And verbosity is not a virtue these days. Even Thomas Sowell (ick), or Krugman can make a point or two in fewer and more concise sentences. If I write anymore, I'll be guilty of the same pomposity as Smith.

Lee Kelly May 15, 2008 at 11:39 pm


If pomposity were all that you were guilty of then your comments would be greatly improved.

Gavin Kennedy May 16, 2008 at 2:21 am

"Why did he pick on poor China? Why not the Dickensian slums of his own country…?

He picked the example of China because in the 1750s that was the furthest place a European could go to – a sea trip of about two years return – and as longer land trip, more dangerous (banditry), and was even further in the popular imagination.

He didn't pick on 'Dickensian slums' because the novellist wrote a century later than Smith about the towns of the industrial revolution, not about anything Adam Smith knew about.

In Glasgow, where he was teaching in the 1750s and early 1760s, it was a 'garden city', smaller than Edinburgh, with a sea port and warehouses, not industrial slums.

In Edinburgh, where he lived from 1788-90, the Old Town was unique in the nature of the intermingling of the very poorest with the richer middle class and aristocracy in the same apparment buildings or next door to them.

Pomposity comes from speaking about that which you know too little to impress those who know what they are talking about.

brotio May 16, 2008 at 4:18 am

"If I write anymore, I'll be guilty of the same pomposity as Smith." – Trumpit

If you'd written even less, you'd have spared us all your muirdiocy.

Trumpit May 16, 2008 at 11:41 am

In the 11th century, the demands for charcoal of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) Chinese iron industry led to widespread deforestation.[6] With the advent of coal replacing charcoal in the iron smelting process, thousands of acres of prime timberland were spared in China.[6] China remained the world's largest producer and consumer of coal until the 18th century. – Wikipedia

The Chinese created their own environmental disasters even in the 11th century causing "widespread deforestation." Sadly, Smith didn't have Wikipedia handy, or else he would have realized that humans for the most part create their own misery, with greed Capitalism being the main engine for environmental destruction worldwide. The foolish Chinese government gave in to the greed system to rapidly enrich a small group at the expense of the nation's land, water, and air, fouling it wherever Capitalism encroaches. If there was any wisdom in old Smithy, then why hasn't it been successfully applied to make the world a better place to live in. Bushshit and Reaganomics is the out growth of laissez-faire, and look at the heinous inequity that it has caused. The Fed has to constantly labor to fend off economic collapse both domestically and internationally. Greed hurts and the greedy are to blame. Rest in peace, old dotty Smithy; I'm sorry you weren't more up on 11th century Chinese "coal" history or perhaps you would have recognized your folly . Your present-day followers are too greedy and blind to see your numerous shortcomings. We are living the nightmare that those misguided, misinterpreted beliefs have fostered. Global Warming should be your epitaph.

Gavin Kennedy May 16, 2008 at 3:45 pm

You seem to be selective in your assessment of modern living. Wikipedia is a product of modern technology unknown earlier than a few years ago. Before its creation, its benefits were denied to everyone, not just Adam Smith, including your good self.

Capitalism was unknown to Adam Smith; he neither knew the phenomenon nor the word (first used in English in 1854: Thackeray’s novel, The Newcomes).

Laissez faire has nothing to do with Adam Smith; he knew the words and knew the men who advocated them as a system (the French Physiocrats) but never used them in the million words he published. He favoured a commercial political economy, under the rule of law and liberty, and did not favour rule by ‘merchants and manufacturers’, to which you can add rule by legislators influenced by protectionists.

He recognised that legal intervention was necessary to prevent monopolists restricting competition and raising prices; he did not favour wars for colonies, nor wars over jealousies of trade. He favoured the spread of opulence to the labourers from economic growth.

His moral philosophy specifically rejected licentious systems of ‘greed’ and he considered selfishness and greed as anathema to the harmony of society.

You confuse him with Bernard Mandeville (Fable of the Bees, 1704-1724). In fact it is clear that you have a lot of reading to do before pontificating on the causes of the current problems of life on earth.

Capitalism may have many defects, but it is the least worst of the practical alternatives that have been tried and of those advocated by some for trial.

Martin Brock May 17, 2008 at 9:28 am

I wish I had a dime for every time some self-described "libertarian" has called me a "socialist" for advocating some policy advocated by Adam Smith.

Gil May 17, 2008 at 10:56 am

We'd be rich I tellz you! (and Libertarians poor)

Martin Brock May 17, 2008 at 1:58 pm

Capitalism may have many defects, but it is the least worst of the practical alternatives that have been tried and of those advocated by some for trial.

My problem with this statement is that "capitalism" is far too vague. Is capitalism what we have in the U.S. or what the Canadians have or what the Swedes have or what the Chinese have? Is the U.S. with a progressive consumption tax "not capitalist"?

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