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Smith on ‘Theorisers’ – “On the Wealth of Nations”, P.J. O’Rourke

May 16th, 2012 · No Comments · Communism, Extremism, Ideology, Policy, Politics

The danger of theoretical systems was something that Smith addressed with his own theory in part 6 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This section of the book was actually written after The Wealth of Nations. Moral Sentiments had been published in 1759 when Smith was teaching at Glasgow. But Smith revised it in 1789. By then he had met the physiocrats and had been exposed to their system of political economy. In part 6, titled ‘Of the Character of Virtue’, Smith located the evil of political systems in – per the great theme of Moral Sentiments – lack of imagination. Creating a theoretical political system does take imagination, but, Smith argued, there’s an unimaginative side to putting it into practice:

“From a certain spirit of system… we sometimes seem to value the means more than the end, and to be eager to promote the happiness of our fellow-creatures, rather from a view to perfect and improve a certain beautiful and orderly system, than from any immediate sense or feeling of what they either suffer or enjoy.”

Theorisers, Smith wrote, can become ‘intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of this ideal system’ until ‘that public spirit which is founded upon the love of humanity’ is corrupted by a spirit of system that ‘inflames it even to the madness of fanaticism.’

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