Adam Smith on the politics of “people of fashion”

Lynne Kiesling

Michael Barone has an interesting column on Adam Smith as a political pundit. He riffs off of a quote from Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter 1, para. 199:

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.

There’s a lot of interesting discussion fodder in this passage (modern relevance of “ranks”, etc.), but Barone takes it into a discussion of modern big-L liberal politics and the cultural differences that are manifest in this Smith quote. What caught my attention was his connecting it to what we call around here the “lakeshore Liberal” phenomenon:

It evidently irritates many liberals to point out that their party gets heavy support from superaffluent “people of fashion” and does not run very well among “the common people.” They like to think of themselves as tribunes for the ordinary person, ready to spend the government’s money to help him bear the travails of life, and they are puzzled when these people do not respond with proper gratitude.

Or, as someone commented to me many years ago when I was a graduate student and cat-sitting in a lakeshore high-rise, “they can afford to be socialists.”

Barone’s column is a more nuanced cut at the trite “red-blue” stereotype that has arisen, and I value his appreciation of the keen observations of Adam Smith!

Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link.


3 thoughts on “Adam Smith on the politics of “people of fashion”

  1. Interesting point by Barone. There’s alot of truth into that point as exemplified by black liberals and black Democrats. I watched my parents, both former Black Panthers, vote hardline Democrat for years yet hate the “lakeshore Liberal” crowd. This is a common theme in the black community as well. As Arsenio Hall used to say on his former (and great) talk show:

    Makes you go HMMMM!

  2. Educated Philistines

    “To the man-in-the-street who, I’m sorry to say, Is a keen observer of life, The word ‘Intellectual’ suggests right away A man who’s untrue to his wife.” W. H. Auden See this biting essay about intellectuals. [via Arts &…

  3. Such associations and cultural stereotypes come and go. Would you like to stack up the relationship of the lower classes to the Democratic party during the depression? Um, in a word, quite firm.
    But this has evolved back the other way, for sure. The world right now — pure, unadulterated opinion here — has been so well to do in the US that many people lower earning people still feel fine and concentrate on moral or cultural issues that are not strictly speaking pocketbook things. Thus the wider disconnect between the “common people” and the Democratic party.
    Given the increased economic polarization of the last decade or two, it might be interesting to see whether the future contains a pocketbook hit that brings together a larger degree of common cause… but alliances between people who see themselves as different are of necessity temporary. Would you expect otherwise?
    If it were not so, party loyalties should remain the same across time, but that is clearly false…

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