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Adam Smith on the dangers of faction and privilege seeking (1759)

Smith argues that “hostile factions” are constantly struggling to gain new government privileges and protect the ones they already have:

Every independent state is divided into many different orders and societies, each of which has its own particular powers, privileges, and immunities. Every individual is naturally more attached to his own particular order or society, than to any other. His own interest, his own vanity, the interest and vanity of many of his friends and companions, are commonly a good deal connected with it. He is ambitious to extend its privileges and immunities. He is zealous to defend them against the encroachments of every other order of society.

Every independent state is divided into many different orders and societies, each of which has its own particular powers, privileges, and immunities. Every individual is naturally more attached to his own particular order or society, than to any other. His own interest, his own vanity, the interest and vanity of many of his friends and companions, are commonly a good deal connected with it. He is ambitious to extend its privileges and immunities. He is zealous to defend them against the encroachments of every other order of society

Upon the manner in which any state is divided into the different orders and societies which compose it, and upon the particular distribution which has been made of their respective powers, privileges, and immunities, depends, what is called, the constitution of that particular state.

Upon the ability of each particular order or society to maintain its own powers, privileges, and immunities, against the encroachments of every other, depends the stability of that particular constitution. That particular constitution is necessarily more or less altered, whenever any of its subordinate parts is either raised above or depressed below whatever had been its former rank and condition.

All those different orders and societies are dependent upon the state to which they owe their security and protection. That they are all subordinate to that state, and established only in subserviency to its prosperity and preservation, is a truth acknowledged by the most partial member of every one of them. It may often, however, be hard to convince him that the prosperity and preservation of the state requires any diminution of the powers, privileges, and immunities of his own particular order of society. This partiality, though it may sometimes be unjust, may not, upon that account, be useless. It checks the spirit of innovation. It tends to preserve whatever is the established balance among the different orders and societies into which the state is divided; and while it sometimes appears to obstruct some alterations of government which may be fashionable and popular at the time, it contributes in reality to the stability and permanency of the whole system.

About this Quotation:

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Smith has much to say about the dangers posed to society by factions, party-men, and men of system. Here he acknowledges that every faction tries to gain and then protect their “own particular powers, privileges, and immunities” but seems to be satisfied that, if there are enough of them, no one faction will become dominant and thereby pose a threat to the political equilibrium of the state. This seems to be a rather optimistic assessment which he tries to address a few passages further on. He raises the problem of what happens if, “amidst the turbulence and disorder of faction” one “successful party” which has become imbued with “a certain spirit of system” manages to become the dominant one. Driven by ideological “fanaticism” this party might decide to completely “remodel the constitution” and use violence to do so. Smith then introduces his wonderful analogy of the hand of the central planner arranging human beings on “the great chess-board of human society” which would most likely lead to dire consequences for humanity. Perhaps in order to avoid the dangers of the latter, it would be better to remove the temptations offered to the various factions by the state in the first place.

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