Most Americans are familiar to some degree with Adam Smith, a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment best known for his seminal analysis of political economy, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. But very few are aware of his other major work on moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759 which Smith regarded as the more siginificant of the two. Smith’s core ideas in both works are fundamental to understanding the need for a new approach to media stewardship in America.
What are these core ideas? The main concept in The Wealth of Nations is that, like an “invisible hand”, individual economic self interest is the driver of free market competition which results in wealth creation. In the centuries since he first expressed this concept it has become a common faith touchstone of modern capitalism. Government interference in free market capitalism should be minimal so not to hamper this potent underlying dynamic responsible for generating new wealth. When individuals pursue their self-interest, they indirectly promote the good of society by competing in the free market which helps keep prices low and builds in incentives for a wide variety of new goods and services.
Smith’s basic concept in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is that all moral behavior is based on a sense of human empathy, one’s ability to imagine and have sympathy for life as experienced by others. One’s conscience is formed by social relationships and the act of observing others which makes people aware of themselves and the morality of their own behavior.
The inherent tension in Smith’s two major works between pursuing one’s self-interest and acting in a morally responsible way based on one’s ability to identify emotionally with others has been debated by scholars for many years but remains quite obscure to average citizens.
Equally obscure is the growing concern Adam Smith expressed in his later years that the accumulation of great wealth by very successful businessmen operating within the framework of laissez-faire, “invisible hand” economics he brought to popular attention could pose a threat to responsible self governance.
Smith saw that any political system dominated by wealthy business interests could result in a conspiracy of businesses and industry against consumers, with the former scheming to influence politics and legislation. The interest of manufacturers and merchants, he wrote,
“. . . in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public… The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.”
Seeing ever more evidence of this threat, Smith expressed a belief that the best possible safegaurd was universal education which would provide a critical mass of free thinking citizens who would not abide economic policies unjustly favoring the very wealthy.
Though Smith died in 1790, his passion for universal education was shared in the newly formed United States of America by Thomas Jefferson. As a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1778, Jefferson introduced a “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” intended to reduce the influence of clergy in education. By the time Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819, he firmly believed that universal education was essential for establishing an organized society, and that schools should be paid for by the general public to afford the less wealthy the same educational opportunities.
Though few Americans are aware that Jefferson shared Smith’s belief in the need for universal education, Jefferson is somewhat better known for his sense of the importance of a free press to a functioning democracy expressed in a personal letter written in 1787:
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
In a letter written a few years earlier, Jefferson also clearly saw the need for an educated public capable of making sense of what appears in the press:
“The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.”
In similar ways, Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson shared Scottish Enlightenment concepts of universal education and citizen engagement as critical to fair and just self government. They are essential as well to effective media stewardship.