Adam Smith’s notion of sympathy was fundamental to his theory of moral sentiments. I. W. Berger sees it as expressing ‘supportive community behavior found in well functioning human societies’. He then restricts it to ‘communities’, when in fact for Adam Smith’s ‘theory’ to have validity, it had to function in all societies (historically and contemporary) and not just ‘in well functioning human societies’. Smith speaks of it applying in a ‘society among robbers and murderers’ too (TMS II.ii.3.3, p 86).
The essential characterisation of harmonious society is the absolute necessity of justice, not necessarilly through beneficence. It was the observation that men stand in need of ‘each others assistance’ and each is exposed to the risks of ‘mutual injury’. This is not something only applying today or in the 18th century; it is a universal truth of all ages.
Adam Smith’s point was that ‘where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy’ but if this was a necessity for happiness, then 'society’ would be confined to a small number – it being impossible to know everybody outside of a small community in face-to-face contact...
Society exists in time and space, not in abstract equations of narrow elements of its constituent parts. ‘Mercenary exchange according to an agreed valuation’ covers a wide range of possible behaviours; humans have a long history and continuing present of exchange by plunder, fraud, force, and violence. The institution of justice is a counter-force to these behaviours. The arrest, imprisonment and heavy fines of those who breach necessary laws to preserve voluntary exchange against fraud, and such like, is evidence of a healthy society (or as healthy as it is reasonable to expect any human society, given the impossibilty of utopia) and not one that is terminally beyond repair.
Within distant societies (beyond the neighbourhood) the same conditions of sympathy operate within them. It is not a question, as implied in I. W. Berger’s understanding of Adam Smith, that our community exudes sympathy and there is a chasm between us and the rest of humanity, even the most distant. In Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith discusses the parable of a ‘man of humanity in Europe’ and an ‘Earthquake in China’ ...
In short, Smithian sympathy is of far wider applicability than merely our own personal interests and does extend to distant communities. This theme is elaborated throughout Moral Sentiments and sits at the core of Wealth Of Nations. China is no longer a distant country from anywhere else on earth. Every country is right in our homes via tv and the Internet. We see distant people in their homes too (U-tube, etc.,) and they are not abstractions. International travel abounds and we supply and consume distant products (according to mercenary valuations) and we may not even know our neighbours in the manner of our grandparents’ generations.
Of course we quarrels – sometimes violently – because humanity was ever thus, and not just with distant anonymous people – check out the tyrannies and injustice within families and neighbourhoods. We also live in relative harmony – even in celebration - with distant people. How many fans of ‘Manchester United’ have even been near Manchester? and how many weep when a distant person among celebrities, leaders, and popular figures that they do not know personally falls ill or dies? Human tragedies to distant others move millions to sympathy.
It’s not more regulation and government we need – we need better, because fewer, of both. We need fewer and better laws and certainty of punishment. We need incentives to increase participation in markets, not protection for producers in some of them and damn the consumers. Retreating to ideal communities from an imaginary past is no solution, though it may be part of the search.