Adam Smith on What Is Wrong with Economic Inequality

DENNIS C. RASMUSSEN
AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 110.2 (2016): 342-352

Abstract: This article explores Adam Smith’s attitude toward economic inequality, as distinct from the problem of poverty, and argues that he regarded it as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as has often been recognized, Smith saw a high degree of economic inequality as an inevitable result of a flourishing commercial society, and he considered a certain amount of such inequality to be positively useful as a means of encouraging productivity and bolstering political stability. On the other hand, it has seldom been noticed that Smith also expressed deep worries about some of the other effects of extreme economic inequality—worries that are, moreover, interestingly different from those that dominate contemporary discourse. In Smith’s view, extreme economic inequality leads people to sympathize more fully and readily with the rich than the poor, and this distortion in our sympathies in turn undermines both morality and happiness.