Adam Smith recognised that a well-ordered society can never develop "when a sizeable number of its members are miserable and, as a consequence, dangerous", writes Mary Riddell in the Telegraph. She argues that "social democracy, with its safety nets, costly education and healthcare" is the only solution to the recent disorders in London.
Those who oppose the welfare state might also quote Smith. For example, here’s something I found with Google Books:
… it is not so much the police that prevents the commission of crimes as the having as few persons as possible to live upon others. Nothing tends so much to corrupt mankind as dependency, while independency still increases the honesty of the people.
With tools like Google Books, it’s easier than ever to find and lift quotes from classic works by great thinkers. And with social media like Twitter, it’s never been easier to share them. But it’s just as difficult as ever to understand these quotes in context.
Riddell is drawing on a favourite quote from Smith’s Wealth of Nations: "No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable." But on its own and in context this isn’t exactly an argument for social democracy. Here’s a slightly longer version:
No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.
Earlier in her piece, Riddell writes about Britain’s "deskilled, demotivated and under-educated non-workforce". But it’s clear that Smith isn’t talking about unemployed hoodies on housing estates. He’s arguing that working people should have a fair share of the wealth they’ve helped produce.
The second quote comes from Smith’s Lectures on justice, police, revenue and arms. And understanding the context is even more important here.
When Smith writes about ‘the police’ he’s not referring to our modern uniformed police force. Here’s the definition he offers in his Lectures on Jurisprudence:
The name is French, and is originaly derived from the Greek πολιτεια, which properly signified the policey of civil government, but now it only means the regulation of the inferiour parts of government, viz. cleanliness, security, and cheapness or plenty.
When Smith writes about ‘dependency’ it’s tempting to think he’s talking about recipients of poor relief. But what he’s actually referring to is the dependency of servants on masters. In his Lectures on Jurisprudence he writes that disorders in France:
… seem to be owing to the vast number of servants which it is fashionable for the great to maintain … These servants, being frequently turned off for misdemeanours and therefore without any recommendation, are the most helpless set of men imaginable. Their idle and luxurious life in ease and plenty when with their masters renders them altogether depraved both in mind and body, so that they neither are willing nor able to support themselves by work, and have no way to live by but by crimes and vices.
Smith argued that the solution to this problem of dependency was to move away from feudal relationships of servitude and expand the market. This would make people more independent. He wrote:
The establishment of commerce and manufactures, which brings about this independency, is the best police for preventing crimes. The common people have better wages in this way than in any other, and in consequence of this a general probity of manners takes place through the whole country. Nobody will be so mad as to expose himself upon the highway, when he can make better bread in an honest and industrious manner.
Smith’s ideas are relevant to today’s debates over the causes of public disorder. But to understand how they are relevant we need to slow down. The same tools that make it easy to snatch out of context quotes also make it easier for patient readers to access the original texts.