Adam Smith on social change and “the man of system” (1759)

Adam Smith

Found in Theory of Moral Sentiments and Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1869)

Adam Smith (1723-1790) contrasts two different ways by which the evils of society might be reformed: the man of humanity and benevolence who uses reason and persuasion and “the man of system” who imposes his own “ideal plan of government” on others by force:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose 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. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess–board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess–board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.

This chapter in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) might be seen as Adam Smith’s strategy for achieving political and social change. He contrasts two different approaches to achieving change which emerge from “the turbulence and disorder of faction”, namely those embued with “the spirit of system” who wish to change society root and branch by imposing their “plan of government” upon the whole of society by force if necessary, and the man “of humanity and benevolence” who, although he is aware of abuses and injustices, knows that change must proceed slowly by moderating those abuses gradually and avoiding the use of violence wherever possible. The “man of system” sees the world as a large “chess board” with pieces which can be moved around at the will of the legislator. The man of “humanity and benevolence” sees that every chess piece “has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it”. The problem Smith does not address here is that which was faced in America in 1776 and France in 1789, what is the man of “humanity and benevolence” do when confronted by a state which refuses to allow gradual and piecemeal change?