September 14, 2005

70% A PURITAN NATION IS BETTER THAN NONE (via Rick Turley):

Adam Smith, political pundit (Michael Barone, US News)

Last night I was reading (actually, rereading) Gertrude Himmelfarb's luminous The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, and came across this quotation from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.

"In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have always been two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time, of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people; the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion."

In crystal clear prose and with her characteristic deftness, Himmelfarb shows us Smith's argument.

"The 'liberal' or 'loose' system, favored by 'people of fashion,' was prone to 'vices of levity'—'luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity . . . ' The 'strict or austere' system, generally adhered to by 'the common people,' regarded such vices, for themselves at any rate, with 'the utmost abhorrence and detestation,' because they knew—or at least 'the wiser and better sort' of them knew—that these vices were almost always ruinous to them; a single week's dissipation could undo a poor workman forever. This is why, Smith explained, religious sects arose and flourished among the common people, for they preached the system of morality conducive to the welfare of the poor."

Ruinous to the poor: Smith anticipated the New York City of the Lindsay administration, which I wrote about in its first month in office. As Myron Magnet has explained in The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass, published in 1993, 117 years after Smith's book, the "loose" morality promoted by affluent liberal New Yorkers may not have hurt them very much, but it hurt the poor of New York and all our major cities very much indeed. The "common people" were onto Lindsay. In two general elections for mayor he lost the four outer boroughs of New York City. He was elected, with pluralities rather than majorities, because he carried Manhattan, especially its affluent neighborhoods, by wide margins. It was a contest between the beautiful people and the dutiful people, and the beautiful people won—with horrifying results for the city.


It's pretty remarkable that we've learned nothing of importance since 1776.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 14, 2005 5:28 PM
Comments

This is exemplified by Madonna and her ilk, telling commoners that they can have babies out of wedlock, etc. Of course, the common folk aren't multi-millionaires who can afford nannies, etc.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at September 14, 2005 6:08 PM

Fred Jacobsen:

Jonah Goldberg made that point when Madonna announced that she'd gotten over her rebellion phase. Goldberg said, gee, that's great for her, but the teenage daughter of a construction worker who took her advice regarding lascivious lifestyles and anonymous fellatio isn't really in a position to start over.

In addition to us not learning anything new since Adam Smith, it's worth noting that the state of things (morally upstanding common people, debauched elites) hasn't changed either.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 14, 2005 6:56 PM

My dad used to tell the story of John Lindsay coming to our home while campaigning for Congress in 1958 and making all these promises about various issues, including fiscal responability, and then violating just about every one of them once in office. He got away with it when he was just one of 535 people in Washington, but once he buckled and gave into the TWU to end the subway strike two weeks into his administration, the financial dam burst. Combine that with the "root cause" mentality on crime, and the city was in for 30 years of mostly horrid government until Giuliani took over when Manhattan's level of intolerence finally was reached.

Posted by: at September 14, 2005 7:43 PM

I went and read the original. Wow. here are 3 paragraphs:

Book V Chapter 1, paragraphs 199-201

In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion. The degree of disapprobation with which we ought to mark the vices of levity, the vices which are apt to arise from great prosperity, and from the excess of gaiety and good humour, seems to constitute the principal distinction between those two opposite schemes or systems. In the liberal or loose system, luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity, at least in one of the two sexes, &c. provided they are not accompanied with gross indecency, and do not lead to falsehood or injustice, are generally treated with a good deal of indulgence, and are easily either excused or pardoned altogether. In the austere system, on the contrary, those excesses are regarded with the utmost abhorrence and detestation. The vices of levity are always ruinous to the common people, and a single week's thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman for ever, and to drive him through despair upon committing the most enormous crimes. The wiser and better sort of the common people, therefore, have always the utmost abhorrence and detestation of such excesses, which their experience tells them are so immediately fatal to people of their condition. The disorder and extravagance of several years, on the contrary, will not always ruin a man of fashion, and people of that rank are very apt to consider the power of indulging in some degree of excess as one of the advantages of their fortune, and the liberty of doing so without censure or reproach as one of the privileges which belong to their station. In people of their own station, therefore, they regard such excesses with but a small degree of disapprobation, and censure them either very slightly or not at all.

Almost all religious sects have begun among the common people, from whom they have generally drawn their earliest as well as their most numerous proselytes. The austere system of morality has, accordingly, been adopted by those sects almost constantly, or with very few exceptions; for there have been some. It was the system by which they could best recommend themselves to that order of people to whom they first proposed their plan of reformation upon what had been before established. Many of them, perhaps the greater part of them, have even endeavoured to gain credit by refining upon this austere system, and by carrying it to some degree of folly and extravagance; and this excessive rigour has frequently recommended them more than anything else to the respect and veneration of the common people.

A man of rank and fortune is by his station the distinguished member of a great society, who attend to every part of his conduct, and who thereby oblige him to attend to every part of it himself. His authority and consideration depend very much upon the respect which this society bears to him. He dare not do anything which would disgrace or discredit him in it, and he is obliged to a very strict observation of that species of morals, whether liberal or austere, which the general consent of this society prescribes to persons of his rank and fortune. A man of low condition, on the contrary, is far from being a distinguished member of any great society. While he remains in a country village his conduct may be attended to, and he may be obliged to attend to it himself. In this situation, and in this situation only, he may have what is called a character to lose. But as soon as he comes into a great city he is sunk in obscurity and darkness. His conduct is observed and attended to by nobody, and he is therefore very likely to neglect it himself, and to abandon himself to every sort of low profligacy and vice. He never emerges so effectually from this obscurity, his conduct never excites so much the attention of any respectable society, as by his becoming the member of a small religious sect. He from that moment acquires a degree of consideration which he never had before. All his brother sectaries are, for the credit of the sect, interested to observe his conduct, and if he gives occasion to any scandal, if he deviates very much from those austere morals which they almost always require of one another, to punish him by what is always a very severe punishment, even where no civil effects attend it, expulsion or excommunication from the sect. In little religious sects, accordingly, the morals of the common people have been almost always remarkably regular and orderly; generally much more so than in the established church. The morals of those little sects, indeed, have frequently been rather disagreeably rigorous and unsocial.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 14, 2005 8:35 PM

The same principle applies to a lot of modern family law and other feminist inspired social changes. Super for upper middle class professional women and catastrophes for those lower down the scale.

And compare, Orrin, the zero tolerance dtermination to eradicate smoking anywhere and everywhere with the "I'm all right, Jack" attitude to alcohol and the libertarian swooning over legalized drugs.

Posted by: Peter B at September 15, 2005 8:24 AM

A very good excerpt from Adam Smith, Robert. The last sentence seems rather curious in context: after he seems to give the "little sects" his approbation, Smith then calls them "rather disagreeably rigorous and unsocial"?

Posted by: Eugene S. at September 15, 2005 10:46 AM

I was a kid when Lindsay ran for the Democratic nomination for President (1972 maybe?). I was visiting my grandfather in Miami, and Lindsay made a swing through South Florida in advance of the Florida primary, believing I guess that the elderly, mostly Jewish, retired ex-New Yorkers would vote for him. Well, at one of his campaign stops in Miami Beach, someone hired a plane to fly over dragging a sign that read "Lindsay Means Tsuris." ("Tsuris" is Yiddish for "trouble.")

Posted by: Foos at September 15, 2005 12:03 PM
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