The Man of Public Spirit Praised by Adam Smith from Adam Smith's Lost Legacy by Gavin Kennedy
I was asked recently by a correspondent if I knew of anything written by Adam Smith on ‘public spirit’. I replied: It depends of what is meant by 'public spirit'. I assume it is something to do with acting in a manner that has public welfare benefits. Adam Smith addressed this possibility in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). To understand Smith’s idea, you should read the whole of chapter 1 in Book IV, in which he discusses the role of 'beauty' in relation to 'utility', and asserts that the beauty of a contrivance is more valued than its utility (which he claimed, uncharacteristically, as his original development of an idea from David Hume). First, he sets out his proposition that the ‘fitness’ of a contrivance is valued more than the ‘very end...
This leads him to discuss the parable of the 'poor man's son whom heaven in its anger has fired with ambition', who is driven to work hard to become rich because he imagines the rich have the means to happiness. It also covers the rich landlord who surveys his fields and feels good, even though he cannot eat any more than poor man.
Having noted the significance of these delusions, Smith describes their social implications: these are the delusions that created civilisation.
He then turns to the ‘public spirited’ man and discusses what drives such a man; Smith asserts a driver is his admiration for the workings of a great society, which incentivised him to devote his time and his own money to improving society in some manner to make it even better. And it is appropriate that they should do so. It is not all down to a stark choice between that perennial antipathy of private enterprise versus public spending. There are additional sources of enterprise that are significant today.
Individuals can be affected by a sense of public spirit to bring about improvements in what private and public spending has done, so far, on their own. Apart from foundations that disperse funds to what they consider worthy ends and charities that mobilise resources to fill gaps in current provision, there are publicly-spirited individuals who make donations to selected objectives or take the initiative to undertake beneficial public projects on their own account. All these, and others, are well within the ambit of Smithian political economy for commercial societies.