Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 1

The Original Principles of Government

by Adam Smith Icon
6 minutes  • 1081 words
Table of contents

Two principles induce men to enter into a civil society:

  • Principle of authority
  • Principle of utility

Four things give one man authority over another:

  • Superior abilities of body and of mind
  • Superior age and long possession
  • Superior wealth
  • Ancient family

Principle of Authority

  1. Superior abilities

At the head of every small society, or association of people, is a person of superior abilities.

  • In a warlike society, he is a man of superior strength.
  • In a polished one, he is of superior mental capacity.
  1. Age

Age and a long possession of power also have a tendency to strengthen authority.

  • Age is naturally in our imagination connected with wisdom and experience.
  • A continuance in power bestows a kind of right to the exercise of it.
  1. Wealth

But superior wealth contributes to confer authority more than age or long possession. The authority from wealth does not come from our dependence on the rich, because we can support ourselves by our own labor. This comes from our sympathy with our superiors being greater than our equals or inferiors. We admire their happy situation, enter into it with pleasure, and try to promote it. This principle is fully explained in the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

  1. Family

Superior abilities of body and mind are not so easily judged of. It is more convenient and common to give the preference to riches. An old family, long distinguished by its wealth, has more authority than any other family.

An upstart is always disagreeable because we envy his superiority over us. We think ourselves just as entitled to wealth as he is. If a man’s grandfather was very poor and dependent on my family, I will grudge very much to see his grandson in a station above me. I will not be much disposed to submit to his authority.

Principle of Utility

Everyone knows the need for utility to preserve justice and peace in society. By civil institutions the poorest may get redress of injuries from the wealthiest and most powerful. There may be some irregularities in particular cases. But we submit to them to avoid greater evils.

Men are influenced to obedience through the sense of public utility, more than of private utility.

It may sometimes be for my interest to disobey and to wish government overturned. But I know that other men think differently, and would not assist me in the enterprise. I therefore submit to its decision for the good of the whole.

Authority is perfect if=

  • government has been of a long standing in a country, and
  • it is supported by proper revenues, and
  • it is at the same time in the hands of a man of great abilities.

In all governments, both these principles take place in some degree.

  • In a monarchy, the principle of authority prevails.
  • In a democracy, the principle of utility prevails.

Britain has a mixed government. The factions had names of ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’.

  • The Whigs were based on the utility of government
  • The Tories were based on divine institution. They thought to offend it was equally criminal as for a child to rebel against its parent.

Men follow these principles according to their natural dispositions.

  • The principle of utility predominates in a bold and daring man.
  • A peaceable easy turn of mind is usually pleased with a tame submission to superiority.

Britain believes that the social contract, a doctrine peculiar to Great Britain, is the foundation of allegiance to the government. But this is not the case because=

  1. Governments takes place where social contracts were never thought of.

Ask a common porter or day-labourer why he obeys the civil magistrate, he will tell you=

  • that it is right to do so.
  • that he sees others do it
  • that he would be punished if he refused to do it, or perhaps
  • that it is a sin against God not to do it.

But you will never hear him mention a contract as the foundation of his obedience.

  1. When certain powers of government were at first entrusted to certain persons, the obedience of those who entrusted it might be founded on a social contract. But their posterity have nothing to do with it since they are not conscious of it and cannot be bound by it.

They say that by remaining in the country you tacitly consent to the social contract and are bound by it. But how can you avoid staying in it? You were not consulted whether you should be born in it or not. How can you get out of it?

Most people=

  • know no other language nor country
  • are poor
  • must stay near the place where they were born and labour for a subsistence

Therefore, they cannot consent to a social contract, though they may have the strongest sense of obedience.

To say that, by staying in a country, a man agrees to a contract of obedience to government is the same as bringing a man into a ship and, after he is far from land, to tell him that he has contracted to obey the captain by being in the ship.

Not everyone know of their duty to the government.

They must have some idea, however confused, of the principle on which they act. But by the idea of a

The idea of the social contract supposes that=

  • by leaving the state, you end the contract and its obligations.
  • foreigners who move into a country consent to it.

Yet every state=

  • punishes its subjects for leaving their country. This would be an injustice if the government were based on a social contract.
  • suspects aliens to keep their allegiance to their mother country, and so states do not depend on them as their native subjects.

English law is so influenced by this principle that no alien can hold a place under the government, even though he were naturalized by act of parliament.

Besides, if such a contract were supposed, why should the state require an oath of allegiance, whenever a man enters on any office?

For if they supposed a previous contract, what occasion is there for renewing it? Breach of allegiance or high treason is a much greater crime.

It is more severely punished in all nations than breach of contract, in which no more but fulfillment is required. Therefore, they must be on a different footing. The lesser contract cannot involve in it the greater contract. Therefore, contract is not the principle of obedience to civil government, but the principles of authority and utility formerly explained.

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