Eliminate poverty and economic inequality disappears. Not so, says DePaul Political Science Professor David Lay Williams, who treated a recent Mess Hall audience at the SSRC to a preview chapter from ‘The Greatest of All Plagues’: Economic Inequality in Western Political Thought, a book he’s writing for Princeton University Press.
Returning to an examination of seminal free-marketeer Adam Smith, Williams traces the recurring theme of economic inequality throughout Smith’s writings, particularly in his less celebrated book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And while he finds Smith’s solutions for alleviating desperate poverty stronger than those addressing economic inequality, he points out that Smith was quick to recognize potential pitfalls of inequality at the nascent roots of capitalism.
Smith, whose own 18th Century Scotland was marked by great economic inequality, ascribed its development to a combination of people’s tendencies to base their actions on self-interest, the desire for rank and distinction, and an appetite for both superiority and domination over others. In commercial societies where people are considered responsible for their station in life where success is measured by wealth and poverty equals failure, two separate moral codes can evolve, observed Smith. People’s inclination to worship the rich allows the rich to indulge in a very lax moral code, one that tolerates their foibles while subjecting the poor to life-long punishment for theirs. Likewise, greater wealth will also enjoy greater political authority, continues Smith’s critique.
To Williams, relieving poverty wouldn’t address the pathologies Smith identified or control badly performing political institutions. What Smith described as the “natural selfishness and rapacity” of the rich has both individual and societal implications. Pitted against the morally corrupting effects on individual character that Smith warned of, the interests of the poor barely register on the radar of the rich, Williams said. The more disproportionate the wealth, the more violently and unjustly the rich will treat the poor, a Smithian observation not generally remarked on, Williams noted.
In other chapters of his book, Williams will examine the issue of economic inequality through the lens of Plato, St. Augustine, Hobbes, Rousseau, Mill, and Marx.