Adam Smith on Government Spending on Public Spectacles

Lynne Kiesling

My previous post on government spending on the London Olympics reminded me that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations has a passage in which he argues for public spending on “public diversions” as a protection against the perils of faction. In particular, Smith was worried about the potentially corrosive effects on general public morality of religious faction into “small religious sects”. In Book V, Part III, Article 3, paragraphs 13 and 15 (V.1.202 and V.1.204 in the online version at EconLib), he states:

There are two very easy and effectual remedies, however, by whose joint operation the state might, without violence, correct whatever was unsocial or disagreeably rigorous in the morals of all the little sects into which the country was divided.

The second of those remedies is the frequency and gaiety of public diversions. The state, by encouraging, that is by giving entire liberty to all those who for their own interest would attempt without scandal or indecency, to amuse and divert the people by painting, poetry, music, dancing; by all sorts of dramatic representations and exhibitions, would easily dissipate, in the greater part of them, that melancholy and gloomy humour which is almost always the nurse of popular superstition and enthusiasm. Public diversions have always been the objects of dread and hatred to all the fanatical promoters of those popular frenzies. The gaiety and good humour which those diversions inspire were altogether inconsistent with that temper of mind which was fittest for their purpose, or which they could best work upon. Dramatic representations, besides, frequently exposing their artifices to public ridicule, and sometimes even to public execration, were upon that account, more than all other diversions, the objects of their peculiar abhorrence.

Smith sees such “public diversions” as fostering and facilitating a process of the quest for truth in the face of potentially superstitious belief formation. He argues that government has a role to play in subsidizing this process because of the government’s justifiable role in the education of its citizens; in this case, it’s moral education (although the first remedy he suggests is education in science and philosophy).

So my question is this: would Smith support government spending on “public diversions” such as the Olympics? I think it is a hard question, because we are a more secular society and do not necessarily see moral education as the role of government, as did Smith (note that Smith is very precise in saying that he’s not talking about the stuff that makes people good citizens, but instead the stuff that prepares them for the next world). Can we secularize his idea and ask if the modern incarnation of his question is the quest for a common cultural thread? If so, does the Olympics do that?