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

Adam Smith

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

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.

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.