Adam Smith, Patriotism, and the Welfare of Our Fellow Citizens

Adam Smith

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

In Part VI, Section 2, Chapter 2 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith discusses the moral tendencies that underlie the organization of society. In this chapter, Smith observes that most people tend to feel warmly towards communities in which they are members and want them to succeed. People often feel both stronger sympathy and its associated feelings of closeness with the community and cooler sentiments towards neighbouring communities against which theirs might be compared.

The most obvious community into which each of us falls is our country. But we also exist in communities within that country, “orders and societies”, which have their own interests and identities. The established powers and privileges of the national government and the orders and societies that fall underneath it make up the constitution of the country.

Smith says that although we want to defend and promote the powers, privileges, and immunities of the orders and societies in which we are members, we must also understand that the existence and flourishing of these orders and societies depend upon the success of the country as a whole.

Love for our country seems not to be related to our natural love for humanity, since we will prefer the well-being of our country to that of others even if the other country has far more people who could be made happy. Rather,

The love of our country seems, in ordinary cases, to involve in it two different principles; first, a certain respect and reverence for that constitution or form of government which is actually established; and secondly, an earnest desire to render the condition of our fellow-citizens as safe, respectable, and happy as we can. He is not a citizen who is not disposed to respect the laws and to obey the civil magistrate; and he is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow citizens.

In other words, we love our country because it provided the environment in which we grew up and formed our ideas (or perhaps, if we are an immigrant, it is where we chose to live), and because its constitution supports the orders and societies in which we live.

The shared interest with our fellow citizens in the success of our country’s institutions facilitates easier sympathy and greater interest in the happiness and well-being of our fellows. It inclines us not only to buy into and obey the laws, but to try to improve the whole society. It is exactly the sort of love of country that might inspire someone to write “a very violent attack” on the commercial system of Great Britain if one thought it might make things better for their fellow Britons.