Adam Smith on the character of the American rebels

They are very weak who flatter themselves that, in the state to which things have come, our colonies will be easily conquered by force alone. The persons who now govern the resolutions of what they call their continental congress, feel in themselves at this moment a degree of importance which, perhaps, the greatest subjects in Europe scarce feel. From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attornies, they are become statesmen and legislators, and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which, they flatter themselves, will become, and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world. Five hundred different people, perhaps, who in different ways act immediately under the continental congress; and five hundred thousand, perhaps, who act under those five hundred, all feel in the same manner a proportionable rise in their own importance. Almost every individual of the governing party in America fills, at present in his own fancy, a station superior, not only to what he had ever filled before, but to what he had ever expected to fill; and unless some new object of ambition is presented either to him or to his leaders, if he has the ordinary spirit of a man, he will die in defence of that station.

Found here. Today, many people, especially libertarians in the US, celebrate an act of secession from an overbearing empire, but this isn’t really the case of what happened. The colonies wanted more representation in parliament, not independence. London wouldn’t listen. Adam Smith wrote on this, too, in the same book.

Smith and, frankly, the Americans rebels were all federalists as opposed to nationalists. The American rebels wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom because they were British subjects and they were culturally British. Even the non-British subjects of the American colonies felt a loyalty towards London that they did not have for their former homelands in Europe. Smith, for his part, argued that losing the colonies would be expensive but also, I am guessing, because his Scottish background showed him that being an equal part of a larger whole was beneficial for everyone involved. But London wouldn’t listen. As a result, war happened, and London lost a huge, valuable chunk of its realm to hardheadedness.

I am currently reading a book on post-war France. It’s by an American historian at New York University. It’s very good. Paris had a large overseas empire in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean. France’s imperial subjects wanted to remain part of the empire, but they wanted equal representation in parliament. They wanted to send senators, representatives, and judges to Europe, and they wanted senators, representatives, and judges from Europe to govern in their territories. They wanted political equality – isonomia – to be the ideological underpinning of a new French republic. Alas, what the world got instead was “decolonization”: a nightmare of nationalism, ethnic cleansing, coups, autocracy, and poverty through protectionism. I’m still in the process of reading the book. It’s goal is to explain why this happened. I’ll keep you updated.

Small states, secession, and decentralization – three qualifications that layman libertarians (who are still much smarter than conservatives and “liberals”) argue are essential for peace and prosperity – are worthless without some major qualifications. Interconnectedness matters. Political representation matters. What’s more, interconnectedness and political representation in a larger body politic are often better for individual liberty than smallness, secession, and so-called decentralization. Equality matters, but not in the ways that we typically assume.

Here’s more on Adam Smith at NOL. Happy Fourth of July, from Texas.

10 thoughts on “Adam Smith on the character of the American rebels

  1. I keep wondering : what if they had chosen to drink the tea instead of pitching the tea into the drink ? Would sitting around with cups of tea had loosened the hard-headedness even just a little.

  2. Since it’s a holiday I read the study you always cite asserting that libertarians are smarter than liberals and conservatives. Excellent research I must say. Oddly enough there is a ton of stuff there you never talk about and I can certainly see why. I want to point out some other differences [just study 1, I’ll post about the others later]. It was edifying and makes clear to me why I could not and would not ever become a libertarian…

    Study 1 Summary: What is Libertarian Morality?

    Our results suggest that libertarians are a distinct group that
    places lower value on morality as typically measured by moral
    psychologists. This pattern was replicated across a variety of
    largely separate samples with moral concerns measured using
    several different approaches.

    They are therefore likely to be less responsive than liberals
    to moral appeals from groups who claim to be victimized, oppressed,
    or treated unfairly.

    Once again, we see that libertarians look somewhat like liberals,
    but assign lower importance to values related to the welfare or
    suffering of others–the benevolence value (which Schwartz defines as:
    “Preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one
    is in frequent personal contact”) and universalism (defined as
    “Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare
    of all people and for nature”).

    This result is consistent with our findings on the MFQ and Schwartz
    Values Scale measures, in that libertarians appear to live in a world
    where traditional moral concerns (e.g., altruism, respect for authority)
    are not assigned much importance.

    Libertarians may hesitate to view traits that engender obligations
    to others (e.g. loyal, generous, sympathetic) as important parts
    of who they are because such traits imply being altruistic

    Libertarians are not unconcerned about all aspects of morality,
    as suggested by their scores on the MFQ and several other widely
    used morality scales. Rather, consistent with their self-descriptions,
    they care about liberty.

    • All this says to me is that you simply don’t have the smarts to be a libertarian. Look here:

      They are therefore likely to be less responsive than liberals to moral appeals from groups who claim to be victimized, oppressed, or treated unfairly.

      The key word here is not “victimized” or “oppressed” or “unfairly,” but “claim.” The liberal’s smaller IQ must somehow get caught up in the keywords that don’t matter, whereas the libertarian – slightly smarter according to science – is sharp enough to identify the true keyword.

      Libertarians have fought for collective rights in the West for centuries, but because we base our morality on individual liberty instead of collective oppression/victimization, it appears to those of us who are dumber than others to look like we place a lower value on human life.

      The rest of your examples follow suite from this brief one 🙂

    • Nice try. One of the most revealing themes that comes up repeatedly is the disdain for ‘altruism’. It will be nice to remind libertarians of this whenever one claims that libertarians would be charitable left to their own devices. What utter baloney, libertarianism is just a long word for selfish. J.K. Galbraith had libertarians pegged as well…..”The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

      Again, thanks for bringing excellent work by famous moral psychologists to our attention. They have Libertarian Morality down pat for all to see.

    • A Leftist called “conservatism” selfish! Oh, the horrors!

      A superior intellect and a superior morality go together like peas and carrots.

      That a Leftist would *ahem* mischaracterize our positions to justify his (less intelligent) positions is unsurprising 😊

    • As promised, here is part 2 of ‘the research Brandon cherry-picked’ 😀
      It is not surprising that the consistent theme is a lack of empathy and compassion.
      I was surprised to learn that lack of empathy was related to autism. I’ll finish with part 3

      Study 2: How Do Libertarians Think and Feel?

      Libertarians report lower levels of the traits that indicate an orientation
      toward engaging with and pleasing others (i.e., extraversion and agreeableness).
      Low scores on agreeableness in particular have been said to indicate a lack
      of compassion and a critical, skeptical nature

      Table 3 shows that libertarians scored moderately lower than conservatives
      and substantially lower than liberals on empathic concern for others (also see
      Figure 3). Libertarians score slightly lower than liberals and similar to
      conservatives on personal distress, perspective taking, and fantasy. According
      to Davis [56], low levels of empathic concern indicate lower levels of
      sympathy and concern for unfortunate others, which may underlie libertarians’
      lower scores on the harm foundation of the MFQ, and their general rejection
      of altruism as a moral duty.

      Table 3 shows that libertarians score slightly higher than liberals and
      moderately higher than conservatives on psychological reactance (also see
      Figure 3)…Reactance scores were negatively correlated with measures of
      empathy (Big Five Agreeableness: r = −.38, Baron-Cohen Empathizer: r = −.32,
      IRI Empathic Concern: r = −.15; p<.001 in all cases) that are most associated
      with conceptions of positive liberty [18], which perhaps suggests why, in the
      US, libertarianism is more commonly associated with conservative, as opposed
      to liberal policies.

      Table 3 shows that libertarians score the lowest of any group on empathizing,
      and the highest on systemizing (also see Figures 3 and 4). In fact, libertarians
      are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than on empathizing…Research
      by Baron-Cohen [62] has shown that relatively high systemizing and low empathizing
      scores are characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating
      autism. We might say that liberals have the most “feminine” cognitive style, and
      libertarians have the most “masculine.”

      Table 3 shows that libertarians scored slightly higher than liberals and moderately
      higher than conservatives on Need for Cognition (also see Figure 4)…This pattern is
      consistent with the libertarian valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.
      Libertarians may enjoy thinking about complex and abstract systems more than other
      groups, particularly more than conservatives.

      Table 3 shows that libertarians were moderately more utilitarian than conservatives,
      and slightly more utilitarian than liberals (also see Figure 4). Their judgments were
      more utilitarian in both the more aversive and less aversive scenarios.

    • I’ve actually posted on these topics as well:

      Notice, though, that Dr A hasn’t produced an effective rebuttal to the fact that libertarians are smarter than Leftists and conservatives. Instead, it’s just one *ahem* mischaracterization after another…

      Instead of trying to paint those who think differently than you (and who are a bit smarter, according to science) as monsters or closet racists, why not do what you do best and empathize with us in order to come to a better understanding? Why the witch hunt?

  3. Here’s the third and final component of the ‘truth about libertarians’ research that Brandon brought to our attention. To my mind no real surprises, although it did catch my attention that the lack of empathy and compassion is not just for random strangers but even family & friends, Wow.

    “Notice, though, that Dr A hasn’t produced an effective rebuttal to the fact that libertarians are smarter than Leftists and conservatives.” Nope. I accept the research findings. ALL of the findings. Libertarians are smart. Liberals are not narcissistic assholes. Works for me.

    Study 3: How Do Libertarians Relate to Others?

    Table 4 shows that libertarians scored lowest on both
    forms of collectivism, and highest on horizontal individualism,
    while matching conservatives on their high scores (relative
    to liberals) on vertical individualism.

    Table 4 shows that libertarians are less identified with their
    community compared to both liberals and conservatives. They
    also scored low (just below liberals) on identification with
    country, which was the dimension that conservatives most strongly
    endorsed. In addition, they scored low (equal to conservatives)
    on identification with people all over “the world,” which was
    the dimension that liberals most strongly endorsed…Consistent
    with the libertarian desire for personal liberty, libertarians
    feel relatively low levels of connection to their community,
    country, and people globally. This pattern suggests that
    libertarians are likely to join conservatives in opposing
    transnational humanitarian undertakings, and they are likely
    to join with liberals in opposing projects and legislation that
    are aimed at strengthening national identity.

    Table 4 shows that libertarians showed the lowest levels of loving
    feelings toward others, across all four categories (although the
    difference with conservatives on love for friends was not
    significant)…Consistent with the results on the Identification
    with All of Humanity scale, the libertarian independence from others
    is associated with weaker loving feelings toward friends, family,
    romantic partners, and generic others. It is noteworthy that
    differences between liberals and conservatives were generally
    small (except toward generic others). Libertarians were the outliers.

    Study 3 Summary: How Do Libertarians Relate to Others?

    As predicted, libertarians in our sample appeared to be strongly
    individualistic. Compared to liberals and conservatives, they report
    feeling a weaker sense of connection to their family members,
    romantic partners, friends, communities, and nations, as well as
    to humanity at large. While liberals exhibit a horizontal collectivistic
    orientation and conservatives a vertical collectivistic orientation,
    libertarians exhibit neither type of collectivism, instead displaying
    a distinctly individualistic orientation. This relative preference for
    individualism may have been moralized [10] into the value orientation
    found in Study 1…Libertarians’ weaker social interconnectedness is
    consistent with the idea that they have weaker moral intuitions
    concerning obligations to and dependence on others (e.g. Moral
    Foundation Questionnaire scores).

    • The research doesn’t show that “libertarians are smart.” It shows, quite conclusively in my humble opinion, that libertarians are smarter than “liberals” and conservatives. That’s a big difference, but one that might be lost on people like Dr J – oops, I mean Dr A – who just don’t have the courage to admit that ideology prohibits them from telling the truth.

      Here is what I need you state, in order for me not to place you in the same camp as Dr J: libertarians are smarter than conservatives and “liberals.” You haven’t been able to bring yourself to do this yet.

      Also, I ctrl+F’d the study and couldn’t find the phrase “narcissistic assholes” at all. Is it possible that you are being dishonest (with yourself) about what the study actually says?

  4. “Here is what I need you state, in order for me not to place you in the same camp as Dr J: libertarians are smarter than conservatives and “liberals.”

    Libertarians are smarter than conservatives or liberals. Fairly substantial effect size too…Cohen’s d-score of 0.31. I can live with that because the biggest difference across all 3 studies [Cohen’s d-score of -0.91] is empathic concern closely followed by empathizer [Cohen’s d-score of -0.76].

    I’m completely honest about the research says….I provided quotes in the summaries. The difference is that I’m a progressive and you’re a libertarian. I see the lack of empathy, compassion, social connection to others, et cetera as a damning indictment….a summary of everything I’ve learned to dislike about libertarianism. You’re a libertarian…and could give a shit about empathy, compassion, social connection to others, et cetera. For libertarians being a narcissistic asshole is not a bug, it’s a feature.

    “Instead of trying to paint those who think differently than you (and who are a bit smarter, according to science) as monsters or closet racists, why not do what you do best and empathize with us in order to come to a better understanding?”

    I absolutely intend to…I’ve only been here a couple of years and it’s clear to me I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Please keep it civil

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