Richard North, 26/12/2017  

Christmas ain't Christmas, or so we are told, without the Queen's Christmas message. The broadcast itself is a tradition started in 1932 by King George V and since 1952 has been read by the current occupier of the throne, Queen Elizabeth II. It was first televised in 1957 and today is broadcast on television, radio and the internet.

That said, our family didn't have a television for most of the period while I was growing up and my own family never got into the habit of watching the annual "royal show". It has always been something distant and irrelevant to my way of life.

This Christmas, though - and for some weeks before the festivities - I have been paying attention to something completely different: Adam Smith's book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This is his much neglected work, published seven years before the more famous Wealth of Nations and, in many respects, much more interesting.

Earlier this year, it was recommended to me by an economist who told me that this was an important book. Nevertheless, one does struggle with the archaic forms and the obsolete vocabulary and I tend towards the view that Mr Smith suffers from a certain verbosity, expressing and repeating particular ideas throughout his book, often at some length.

That actually makes reading a bit of a struggle. It's not a text you easily race through. You have to work quite hard to distil the nuggets and then fully to understand them.

But, while different critics seem to take away a variety of different ideas, the thing that struck me about the book were the early passages about "the obsequiousness to our superiors". This, he says, "more arises from the admiration for the advantages of our situation".

Our deference, he writes, is not based upon a regard to the order of society. "Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it". He then writes:
The strongest motives, the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment, are scarce sufficient to balance to balance this natural disposition to respect them: and their conduct must, either justly or unjustly, have excited the highest degree of all those passions, before the bulk of the people can be brought to oppose them with violence, or to see them either punished or deposed. Even when the people have been brought to this length, they are apt to relent every moment and easily relapse into their habitual state of deference to those whom they have been accustomed to look up as their natural superiors.
Then, still later in the book, he writes:
This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.
Although published in 1759, these passages in this Brexit-torn society seem to me to be extraordinarily relevant. The whole structure of society, it seems, is ordered by our deference to the "rich and powerful" who occupy their positions not by any great merit (or any at all), simply because we are conditioned to pay our respects to them.

Elsewhere, I have written on the role of prestige, citing the work of Gustav le Bon. His work, coming more than 100 years later, in 1895, was devoted to the study of crowd psychology, set out in The Crowd – A study of the popular mind. And, in focusing on the peculiar character of prestige, he goes towards attempting to explain "the obsequiousness to our superiors".

More than 100 years after that, with the Queen's message still paraded by the media as the media event of the day - and virtually every national newspaper carries a front-page photograph of the royals , we are as much a deferential society as ever we were. And still we afford our "superiors" greater knowledge and better judgement than us lesser mortals.

"In equal degrees of merit", said Smith, "there is scarce any man who does not respect more the rich and the great, than the poor and the humble. With most men the presumption and vanity of the former are much more admired than the real and solid merit of the latter".

But if Brexit has taught us nothing else, it is the fragility of those who would be our masters. Time and again, we find that those who are supposedly high up the information tree – be they media or politicians – are extraordinarily ignorant, even of the basics. And, it seems, the higher up they are, the less they know.

To explain this, at least partially, we can rely on Adam Smith, who notes that those who attain rank do not lay claim to any special knowledge and nor do people admire them for their knowledge.

Smith actually writes of their "frivolous accomplishments" and it is those on which a celebrity-driven media tends to focus. And before the accomplishments of the "celebrities", "knowledge, industry, valour, and beneficence" have "lost all dignity".

This, in many ways, is our fault – allowing frivolity and trivia to rival or displace more solid accomplishments, and in our insistence in taking short-cuts, judging material not on its soundness but on the prestige of those who produce it. And as long as we do that, the same old, trite arguments will continue to gain currency in preference to better-founded analyses.

So far, I haven't been able to finish Moral Sentiments, so I have not come across Smith's remedies. But if they are offered, over the 200-plus years since their publication, they appear not to have had any great impact. The "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful" is just as prevalent is was in Smith's time, Alongside the tendency "to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition".

Interestingly, we see the Archbishop of Canterbury call for a "Christmas Truce" on Brexit, saying that: "It would be very good to have a ceasefire from insult and the use of pejorative terms about people at this time".

He adds that: "As a country we have a future ahead of us we have made a decision about Brexit that is clear, both sides are saying that how we do it is a question for robust political argument", then saying: "But there is a difference between disagreeing and personal attacks and those have to be avoided".

But the personal attacks between politicians are largely a reflection of the paucity of the debate. Between people who understand the issues and who are prepared honestly to discuss them, there is rarely any need for invective. It is the closed minds of our "superiors" which attracts the hostility – more so when it proves impossible to penetrate the "bubble" and introduce some rationality.

What Adam Smith tells us, though (as I would see it) is that it is pointless expecting any different from these people. Having attained their rank and the admiration of the people for reasons entirely unrelated to their knowledge on any particular subject, they have no incentive to labour on the acquisition of such knowledge, as this is unlikely to improve their public standing.

And that will hold, I fear, unless we, as a nation, can break away from our current habits, and exercise some genuine discrimination.

Day by day, we see trotted out even in the comments on this blog tired, discredited arguments which depend for their merit entirely on the prestige of their original authors. When we are able to see people dissect their own arguments, and critically evaluate their own basic assumptions without relying on prestige, we might just start making some progress.

But most of all, taking a cue from Adam Smith, we must question the attachment of our society to the views of the rich and powerful. Their status rarely – if ever – stems from knowledge greater than their fellow beings and, in an issue such as Brexit, knowing how to achieve a better world is far more important that cult worship. 

That knowledge will come from the ground up, and it is to there that we must look.

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