Quote of the Day: Adam Smith Profiles Barack Obama

Reading Nicholas Phillipson’s admirable new(ish) biography of Adam Smith walking to my office this morning, I came across a passage from The Theory of Moral Sentiments that seems to me to capture Obama’s style and theory of governance remarkably well:

When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion …(h)e will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the”inconveniencies” which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.

(The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part VI, Section II, Chapter II, paragraph 41.*)

All this in the context of the discussion to the post immediatelly preceding this one, in which I note Obama’s quiet reversal of one of the Bush administration’s most archtypal illiberal and disempowering attacks on the autonomy of women (and others):  putting an end to the expansive “conscience” (sic) exception that allowed pharmacists and medical professionals to deny reproductive and other services as they chose.

My suggestion that this kind of action helps make clear the distinction between Democrats and Republicans, Obama and Bush — and hence the urgency of the next election — evoked a few sharply argued claims in the comment thread over at the post’s Balloon Juice incarnation that this was mere cosmetics, a little lipstick on the pig that has perpetuated the Bush line in all its essentials.

In that context, Smith’s description of the virtuous leader struck me as remarkably apt:  this seems very much like a capsule portrait of Obama, here captured in the very sharp sight of a thinker whose work is more an inquiry into sociability taken all in all — how humans contrive to live together — than it is, as usually mischaracterized, merely that part of it which is concerned with the economics of such co-existence.

That such an approach may fail — or at least fall well short of producing not merely a somewhat better society, but a good one — is obvious.  But consider the recent alternatives.

Top of the morning to y’all.

*That link takes you direct to an HTML version of Moral Sentiments. For rapid access to a broad Adam Smith archive, the Liberty Forum — broadly part of the Wingnut archipelago —  performs an undeniable service by posting the entire Glasgow Edition of Adam Smiths Works and Correspondence, which was previously available at considerable expense from Oxford University Press.  Browse at will.

Image:  Dosso Dossi, Jupiter, Mercury, and Virtue, ~1520-1530

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2 Comments on “Quote of the Day: Adam Smith Profiles Barack Obama”

  1. Lichanos Says:

    In 1980, I didn’t vote. Carter was so conservative -what was the difference between him and Reagan? Not that my vote was decisive, but obviously a big mistake.

    Gore Vidal likes to say that there is only one party in the USA: the party of money. He’s largely right, but that doesn’t mean that the party doesn’t have significant factions.

    When someone tells me the Dems and Reps are the same, I like to say, “Yes, they are standing in pretty much the same place, but the difference is which way they face.” With the Reps, things can only get worse, more reactionary. With the Dems, by virtue of their constituency, even today, there’s a possibility for positive change.

  2. sparky Says:

    sorry, can’t buy this one. Obama’s true mien is the pushing of purportedly better procedures but with no change as to the net structure of power in the US. thus, privatizing a public good (health care); giving aid and comfort to the class that destroyed great swathes of the American economy, and finally, ramping up a senseless war in Afghanistan. this last demonstrates why any effort to portray Obama in a good light is doomed. the decision to send more troops, and thus kill more people abroad, was his to make. he could have chosen differently but instead he decided to follow the GWB model. deciding to send troops on the basis of splitting the baby is, literally, reprehensible, unless one considers death by political calculation as “ok”.

    incidentally, when will people stop with the “it could have been worse” argument? after more than two years of Obama, this is a bad joke: the North could have lost the Civil War, too. justifying the status quo by counterfactuals and half-hearted tinkering at the margins does nothing but play into the hands of reactionaries.


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