Adam Smith on why people obey and defer to their rulers (1759)

Adam Smith

In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Adam Smith (1723-1790) reflects on why so many people defer to authority, especially to monarchs and the nobility:

Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it. That kings are servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of nature. Nature would teach us to submit to them for their own sake, to tremble and bow down before their exalted station, to regard their smile as a reward sufficient to compensate any services, and to dread their displeasure, though no other evil were to follow from it, as the severest of all mortifications. To treat them in any respect as men, to reason and dispute with them upon ordinary occasions, requires such resolution, that there are few men whose magnanimity can support them in it, unless they are likewise assisted by similarity and acquaintance.

In a chapter on “the Origin of Ambition, and of the Distinction of Ranks” Adam Smith reflects on why people are so deferential to people with power and authority, or as he put it why are we so “obsequiousness to our superiors?” He provides a number of answers to that question but one that is very interesting is the notion that we do so not out of some expectation of any personal benefit or of fear of punishment if we don’t but out of a feeling of “admiration for the advantages of their situation”. In an important passage, Smith notes that a rational person would “resist, depose, or punish, (a king) as the public conveniency may require” but most do not. We have so internalised our love and respect for our rulers that we “submit to them for their own sake” and they forget “the easy price at which they may acquire the public admiration”. When the people’s resentment at their mistreatment by their rulers reaches the point of violence, as it did with King Charles I in 1649, the people are quickly remorseful at what they have done, “Compassion soon takes the place of resentment, they forget all past provocations, their old principles of loyalty revive, and they run to re-establish the ruined authority of their old masters, with the same violence with which they had opposed it.”