Adam Smith thinks many candidates for high political office act as if they are above the law (1759)
The economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) contrasts how people from “the middling and inferior stations of life” acquire their reputations and their fortune with those from “the superior stations of life”:
In many governments the candidates for the highest stations are above the law; and, if they can attain the object of their ambition, they have no fear of being called to account for the means by which they acquired it. They often endeavour, therefore, not only by fraud and falsehood, the ordinary and vulgar arts of intrigue and cabal; but sometimes by the perpetration of the most enormous crimes, by murder and assassination, by rebellion and civil war, to supplant and destroy those who oppose or stand in the way of their greatness.
Like his contemporaries Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) and John Millar (1735-1801) Adam Smith talked about “rank” rather than class and thought the former came about as a result of the accumulation of both political power and economic wealth. However, in passages like this one he is aware that there are significant differences between how one goes about acquiring wealth (and reputation) peacefully through market activity and how one acquires political power (and the wealth which often went with that). Here he contrasts how “the middling and inferior stations of life” have to live within the law, that is to respect the property rights of others and not engage in fraudulent activities, whereas those who belong to “the highest stations”, that is senior political and military leaders, face no such limitations on their behaviour. They can and do rise to positions of power by means of “fraud, falsehood, intrigue, murder, assassination, rebellion and civil war.” Smith also notes in the previous chapter the perverse fact that people in “the middling and inferior stations of life” show extraordinary deference and respect to their monarchs and others in “high station” even when this is not deserved on the grounds of justice.
Visit our sister site, AdamSmithWorks for a classroom bellringer based on this quote.