Why Adam Smith Said ‘Virtue Is More to Be Feared Than Vice’

Wally, a coworker, walked into my office one day and announced that he’d discovered the answer to the world’s problems. And it was all so simple. People just needed to act with wisdom. If everyone acted with wisdom, then crime, poverty, and war would disappear. I agreed and asked how he would achieve this miracle. I expected some elaborate plan, but it turned out that that “acting with wisdom” was the sum total of Wally’s insight. In response to every question, he only repeated that people should act with wisdom.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a world-famous astrophysicist, but his plan for solving the world’s problems is neither more scientific nor less threadbare than Wally’s. Tyson proposes the world of “Rationalia,” a virtual utopia in which everyone will act with reason.

Socialists have a similar solution to the world’s problems. In their utopia, people will all act, not with wisdom or reason, but with altruism. Unlike either Wally or Tyson, though, they have proposed various plans for bringing this about—all of which boil down to some variation of: (1) burn it all down and a perfect world will spontaneously arise from society’s ashes, (2) force everyone to act benevolently until so acting becomes natural, or (3) create a fair and equal society in which material goods are distributed uniformly, thus eliminating all greed and envy and, along with them, any motivation for violence and crime.

Each socialist scheme relies on force, or the threat of force, wielded by omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent dictators. But could such a society, which necessarily sacrifices justice for altruism, survive?

A reading of Adam Smith’s book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, suggests not.

Smith’s concept of justice was based on securing people from injury by others. That is, protecting people from assaults on their persons, property, and agreements. To Smith, acting justly consisted largely of refraining from injuring others. He believed that a society’s fundamental reason for existence was to provide this level of justice. Further, he argued, any society that fails in this basic duty will itself fail. In his book, Smith wrote: “Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it.”

Unfortunately, securing the peace often requires force. But using force is just when it is done to oppose injustice—that is, when it is used in response to the initiation of force. While governments cannot hope to establish perfect justice, they can provide sufficient security to allow people to live their lives and to flourish.

What no government is competent to do, however, is to ensure that its citizens act wisely, rationally, or altruistically. Doing so would require using force—not to prevent people from harming others, but to compel them to behave in ways that the government determines to be proper. Force so employed leads to socially destructive injustice.

First, someone’s idea of what is altruistic (or wise or rational) must be imposed on everyone. A recent example is Biden’s executive order forgiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal student loans. Was his action altruistic? It appears so if our focus is fixed on only the students who benefit from the President’s order. It seems less so if we broaden our focus and our time horizon to include those who must pay for the loans and those who will be hurt in the future by the perverse incentives that his order will create. Universities, for example, will be emboldened to hike tuition and even more students will borrow money that they are unlikely to be able to repay.

In short, whatever policy is chosen in the name of morality, some will see it as immoral, and they will bitterly resent being forced to support it.

Second, a policy that the central authority deems altruistic must be implemented and paid for by people who may oppose it or the way it is implemented. They must be compelled—by force if necessary—to comply with the policy and they must be prevented from subverting it. If “subversion” is construed to include “fomenting social discord” by public criticism, then the central authority may limit free speech and freedom of the press. If pastors question the policy’s morality, the central authority might also limit religious freedoms.

Third, the policy may produce unintended consequences that create more injustices. How will the central authority respond? Will it suppress knowledge of the consequences to prevent discord and, potentially, loss of its legitimacy or power? Will it respond with another layer of coercive policies and, if so, how will it enforce them and what will it do if more unintended consequences result?

Finally, as Smith observed, “Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.” Those attempting to impose virtue—or, at least, their idea of it—tend to deal viciously with dissidents who, because they oppose “virtue,” are, by definition, evil.

“Hell,” Michael Novak once said, “is what happens when you pursue heaven-on-earth.”

Force used to prevent or redress assaults on persons and property is legitimate; force used to coerce “benevolence” is not. Force is, ultimately, the only hammer in a government’s toolkit and it should be used only on what is achievable and, even then, only sparingly.

Governments can reasonably aspire to deliver Adam Smith’s formula for prosperity: “Peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” In attempting to provide what it cannot, government will destroy its ability to provide what it can.

The post Why Adam Smith Said ‘Virtue Is More to Be Feared Than Vice’ was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.

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