Features

How Adam Smith predicted today’s wave of moral outrage

The rash of incivility, virtue signalling and outrage on social media is just the latest manifestation of a phenomenon Adam Smith knew only too well, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

Pro-EU and pro-Brexit protestors © Leon Neal/Getty Images
Both camps believe they have right on their side

I tweeted a question this week about Greta Thunberg. I wondered if anyone knew how she was getting home from the US after her meetings there. I am interested. One way on a sailing boat was impressive (no cabins and no loos..). What next?

One of the first responses was pretty clear. "Fuck your cynicism", it said.

Interesting, isn't it? The young man in question (I'm going by his photo) was so convinced (for no obvious reason) that I disagree with him on something and that he is right on that thing that "Fuck your cynicism" seemed to him to be a perfectly reasonable thing to say to a middle-aged woman he doesn't know. I hope no one involved in parenting him follows him.

On the plus side for Adam Smith fans at least it is possible to see this little outburst of odd sweariness as just another example of the way in which Adam Smith forecast pretty much everything.

Consider this quote (my favourite at the moment): "Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience." It's almost as though he invented Twitter and its epidemic of virtue signalling.

My Twitter correspondent need not refer to his conscience before being rude to me because he has, he believes, virtue on his side. You see this all over Twitter. But it isn't confined to the margins. The responses to Brexit are a classic of the virtue/vice genre.

Extreme Remainers feel free to spend years attempting to frustrate the 2016 referendum while referring to everyone who disagrees with them as a fascist because they believe that they have the moral high ground. If you know you are right absolutely 100% undoubtedly right it really doesn't matter how dirty you fight. It's ok to use every bit of arcane parliamentary procedure you can find to frustrate Brexit. Use some to try and push Brexit forward, however, and you are definitely an evil fascist dictator.

Extreme Brexiteers are often as guilty (different language, same dynamic).

It's the same in the US Bill Dudley can suggest, for example, that the Federal Reserve should get political and force the US into recession in order to get rid of Trump. Here's the relevant quote. "There's even an argument that the election itself falls within the Fed's purview. After all, Trump's reelection arguably presents a threat to the US and global economy, to the Fed's independence and its ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives. If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020."

There is no doubt that Dudley is about as anti-Trump as you can get, but there's a particular kind of madness in the suggestion that Trump is so awful and Dudley so very right that it is reasonable to forgo the political neutrality of the Fed to get rid of him. Nuts.

You can find examples of this kind of thing everywhere at the moment (it feels like more than usual but that might just be the Twitter effect). You could find that shocking; better, however, would be to use it as a reminder that human nature doesn't change and that Adam Smith was not just a great economist but one of the best observers of behaviour ever. If you haven't read Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments, now is as good a time as any.

Recommended

Inflation is the easiest way out of this – just don’t expect politicians to admit it
Inflation

Inflation is the easiest way out of this – just don’t expect politicians to admit it

The UK government borrowed £34.1bn in December, a record amount for that month. Britain's debt pile now amounts to 100% of GDP. How are we going to pa…
22 Jan 2021
Beware: inflation is starting to stir in the US
Inflation

Beware: inflation is starting to stir in the US

With US consumer prices up by 1.4% in the last year, concern about inflation is now everywhere.
22 Jan 2021
Inflation looks likely to take off this year – but there’s one key risk
Inflation

Inflation looks likely to take off this year – but there’s one key risk

With the world’s governments spending money hand over fist, inflation looks certain to take off at some point. But China could change all that. John S…
19 Jan 2021
It's not just the UK – we're seeing pandemic housing booms across the globe
Property

It's not just the UK – we're seeing pandemic housing booms across the globe

Soaring house prices aren’t just a UK thing, they’re a worldwide phenomenon. And it’s no coincidence – the underlying cause is much the same. John Ste…
18 Jan 2021

Most Popular

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021
House prices

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021

Lockdown sent house prices berserk as cooped up home-workers fled for bigger properties in the country. And while they won’t rise quite as much this y…
18 Jan 2021
The world’s fund managers are getting very bullish – be careful out there
Stockmarkets

The world’s fund managers are getting very bullish – be careful out there

The latest survey of fund managers shows them to be extremely bullish on all the same things. And that, says John Stepek, means the market is in dange…
21 Jan 2021
Prepare for the end of the epic bubble in US stocks
US stockmarkets

Prepare for the end of the epic bubble in US stocks

US stocks are as expensive as they’ve ever been. How can you prepare your portfolio for a bubble bursting?
18 Jan 2021