Adam Smith, political pundit

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Last night I was reading (actually, rereading) Gertrude Himmelfarb's luminous The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, and came across this quotation from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.

"In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have always been two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time, of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people; the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion."

In crystal clear prose and with her characteristic deftness, Himmelfarb shows us Smith's argument.

"The 'liberal' or 'loose' system, favored by 'people of fashion,' was prone to 'vices of levity'—'luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity . . . ' The 'strict or austere' system, generally adhered to by 'the common people,' regarded such vices, for themselves at any rate, with 'the utmost abhorrence and detestation,' because they knew—or at least 'the wiser and better sort' of them knew—that these vices were almost always ruinous to them; a single week's dissipation could undo a poor workman forever. This is why, Smith explained, religious sects arose and flourished among the common people, for they preached the system of morality conducive to the welfare of the poor."

Ruinous to the poor: Smith anticipated the New York City of the Lindsay administration, which I wrote about in its first month in office. As Myron Magnet has explained in The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass, published in 1993, 117 years after Smith's book, the "loose" morality promoted by affluent liberal New Yorkers may not have hurt them very much, but it hurt the poor of New York and all our major cities very much indeed. The "common people" were onto Lindsay. In two general elections for mayor he lost the four outer boroughs of New York City. He was elected, with pluralities rather than majorities, because he carried Manhattan, especially its affluent neighborhoods, by wide margins. It was a contest between the beautiful people and the dutiful people, and the beautiful people won—with horrifying results for the city. If you doubt that, read the definitive book on the Lindsay administration, Vincent Cannato's The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and the Struggle to Save New York.

You can also see what Smith describe in today's politics. It's most visible in Wyoming, our smallest state. Wyoming is full of what Smith calls "the common people," and in 2004 it voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. He carried every county but one. That was Teton County, which includes Jackson Hole, the ultraexpensive resort inhabited primarily by what Smith calls "the people of fashion." This is what I called the trust-funder left in a column last March, and you can see their influence in the huge majorities for John Kerry in such trust-funder havens as San Francisco and Berkeley, Aspen and Telluride, Martha's Vineyard and Manhattan.

Interestingly, I got a lot of angry E-mail about that column. It evidently irritates many liberals to point out that their party gets heavy support from superaffluent "people of fashion" and does not run very well among "the common people." They like to think of themselves as tribunes for the ordinary person, ready to spend the government's money to help him bear the travails of life, and they are puzzled when these people do not respond with proper gratitude. That puzzlement made a bestseller of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, which argues that the common people are voting against their economic interests.

But of course it's up to citizens themselves to determine what their interests are. "People of fashion" vote Democratic primarily because of the liberal stands on cultural issues, and they should not be puzzled when "the common people" vote Republican because of their conservative stands on those same issues. If it's OK for rich people to vote on cultural issues, why isn't it OK for ordinary people to do the same?

And maybe these "common people" have some inkling of what the "people of fashion" are empowering by their votes. They are empowering the teachers' unions to drain the public treasuries and to insulate themselves from any accountability for the poor job their members are doing of educating the poor. They are empowering the transfer of billions of dollars of assets from large publicly held corporations and their shareholders—who include, through personal holdings, mutual funds, or pension plans, many ordinary citizens—to a small gaggle of trial lawyers. They are empowering trade unions who represent a shrinking segment of the labor force to block free trade agreements that make possible cheaper goods and services for us all.

Sophisticated Democrats will admit that their party truckles to the interests of teachers' unions, trial lawyers, and industrial unions because it needs their support in order to win, and they will argue that Republicans truckle to similarly nefarious interest groups for the same reason. I put that argument aside for another day. I bring it up only to suggest that, on economic matters as well as on cultural issues, the common people may have a lot more common sense than the people of fashion who revel in looking down on them.

I look forward to Adam Smith's debut as a political analyst on Fox News Channel.