Sympathy, Poverty, and Justice: Three Essays on the History of Economics with an Emphasis on Adam Smith

Christopher S. Martin

Advisor: Daniel B Klein, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: David Levy, Russell Roberts

Enterprise Hall, #318
April 25, 2012, 10:30 AM to 07:30 AM


Taking the works of Adam Smith as a pivot and point of departure, these three essays explore themes integral to the birth of classical economics.  The first essay, “Adam Smith’s Justice for the Poor,” recovers and develops an older understanding of Smith as an advocate for the poor and powerless.  His arguments and statements supporting this view are largely invisible to the modern reader, ironically because of the great success of Smith (and others) in vanquishing the opposing position.  They only come back into focus when seen against the background of pre-liberal theorizing about the “labouring poor.”  By assembling an extensive catalogue of his statements about the common workers, Smith’s defense of their interests is shown to be entwined with his advocacy of the system of natural liberty.  This interpretation questions recent Smith scholarship that also identifies his friendliness to the poor but instead associates it with government intervention.  The second essay, ‘”The Political Economy of Poverty in Transition,” examines a seemingly minor episode in British economic history that has nonetheless been seen as pivotal by prominent later writers on the history of thought, among them Karl Polanyi and Emma Rothschild.  These later interpreters view the defeat in Parliament of a minimum wage bill, proposed by Samuel Whitbread in 1796, as marking a turn by political economy (including the favored interpretation of Adam Smith) towards the class interests of the rich and away from warmth for the poor. But the surviving records of the debate reveal both a more complicated and a more interesting story than this conventional interpretation.  The politicians of 1796, on both sides of the argument, articulated similar positions about the natural liberty of workers and differed radically from the Malthus-inspired worldview of the next decade.  And it is not obvious that Whitbread’s opponent, William Pitt, was less oriented towards workers’ welfare either in his rhetoric or in the actual effect of his policies.  The third essay, “The Sympathies in Economics,” draws on the Theory of Moral Sentiments (and other early modern writings) to motivate a history and critique of the idea of sympathy.  In eighteenth and nineteenth century usage, sympathy was a multifaceted word with (arguably) four distinct meanings relevant to economics.  One of these meanings, identifiable in the thought of Hume, Smith, Mill, and Darwin (among others), is closely connected to the generation of ethical behavior.  A much different meaning, developed after Smith by Jeremy Bentham and Francis Edgeworth, slowly displaced the previous interpretation and is today the dominant approach to sympathy in economics.  This latter idea, labeled “welfare sympathy” for convenience, is certainly fruitful for conceptualizing resource transfers between persons.  It is however much less suited for explaining ethical behavior.  By rediscovering all four original valences of sympathy, economics will gain tools for a richer understanding of human behavior.