Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Adam Smith on Distance and Concern

As a follow up to,  Please Note: I Really Don't Care About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the best summary of Adam Smith's view on this topic comes from Russ Roberts in his book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life:

Writing in 1759, Adam Smith made the observation that we feel worse, much worse, about the prospect of losing our little finger than we do about the death of a multitude strangers far away. That's human nature the same in 1759 as it is today. Television and the Web make far-off tragedies more visceral than in Smith’s time but Smith's insight remains true. He starts by imagining the earthquake.
 Let's suppose that the great empire of China, with all of myriad of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe with no sort of connection with that part of the world will be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity
 How would a man of humanity in Europe act?
He would, I imagine, first of all,  express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which the disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe and the trade and business of the world in general.

 So yes, says Smith, we'll make a show of caring and express our sadness and maybe wonder the effects. We’ll make the right noises and the right facial expressions.

But these are fleeting....

For better or worse life goes on...

 [T]he most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a  more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren, and destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

(Adam Smith quotes from The Theory of Moral Sentiments)


  1. Yeah, who cares about presidential candidates meeting with Israel's leadership (then care enough to wonder why Trump is acting as an agent for Israel). Or, that we give $3 to 15 Billion annually to Israel only for them to buy 14 fighter jets. Or, that this "ally" is a problem in the Middle East (along with Saudi Arabia) for the U.S., then puts blame on the U.S. for being too hawkish (and rightly so).

  2. The Great Mel Brooks:
    "Tragedy is when **I** cut my finger. Comedy is when **you** fall into an open sewer and die."

  3. I was a libertarian until I realized such reasoning precludes any building of alliances between nations. It amounts to nationalism to the nth degree. As a libertarian I can't be concerned about any other nation but my own (in fact, I'm not certain I can be concerned about my own). As the socialists gradually destroy the rest of the world libertarians can take solace in the fact that we did not interfere in foreign affairs. But it will still be us against the rest of the world.

  4. I'm glad a tongue in cheek comment provoked you to share this gem Robert. The truth is that all the incessant occupation over "peace processing" has been a very lucrative business for elitist Israelis, Palestinians and Westerners, who keep on using this moral puzzle to elicit all sorts of emotions from people who shouldn't get involved. This way they can jetset, and a bunch of bored lefties in the West can persuade themselves that they have found meaning in their dull suburban lives.