Social Rank, the Corruption of Our Moral Judgment, and the Effect on Liberty

As we can see through the case of the poor law, our ability to fairly judge the behavior of others and therefore determine who should be objects of our sympathy is often corrupted by our propensity to substitute wealth for virtue and by the distance between peoples of different social status. As Smith puts it, “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments” (TMS I.iii.3.1). The poor law played upon this propensity and corrupted the moral judgment of those involved. The terms of the Settlement Act put laborers in the position of being scrutinized and looked down upon by the overseers. This tendency of not seeing the poor as people worthy of sympathy or worthy of trust that they would do their work without taking advantage of the relief rolls was very widespread. Smith reflects, “There is scarce a poor man in England of forty years of age, I will venture to say, who has not in some part of his life felt himself most cruelly oppressed by this ill-contrived law of settlements” (WN I.x.c.59).

Understanding the ways Smith suggests that distance in sympathetic relationships can be overcome is important, and yet they demonstrate why his discussion of the poor law is even more crucial—because the law inhibits these solutions and preys upon the natural propensities that corrupt our moral judgment. Because the law puts the laborers in a subordinate position to the overseers and the rest of society, everyone is encouraged not to experience the poor as sympathetic beings, but instead to treat them as objects to be administered. Therefore it was very difficult for those who most needed work to find it. Smith argues that the unequal price of labor between parishes makes it so that those who have the potential to be bigger burdens on parish relief rolls are less likely to be given a certificate to work in another parish: “A single man, indeed, who is healthy and industrious, may sometimes reside by sufferance without one; but a man with a wife and family who should attempt to do so, would in most parishes be sure of being removed, and if the single man should afterwards marry, he would generally be removed likewise” (WN I.x.c.58). Ironically, those with families and children who would be the biggest burden on a relief roll are the ones least likely to be given a chance to find work. Their social rank precludes any potential for them to be seen as people worthy of sympathy. Additionally, Smith notes that because the certificates do not tell anything more than the origin of the laborer and perhaps also his family situation (i.e., the amount of relief the parish would be responsible for should he need it), they are not a good representation of character. The laborer’s certificate, by indicating their potential burden in numeric terms only precludes any opportunity for those administering them to sympathize with them. Yet the overseers used these certificates as though they did determine the character of the worker, merely because they indicated his social rank. Smith describes the problem saying, “Though a certificate carries along with it no testimonial of good behaviour, and certifies nothing but that the person belongs to the parish to which he really does belong, it is altogether discretionary in the parish officers either to grant or to refuse it” (WN I.x.c.57). Because of its requirement of establishing residency and obtaining a certificate from one’s previous parish, the poor law promoted the judgment of poor laborers as social deviants, as objects, rather than people deserving of sympathy.

The sympathetic distance between rich and poor is also reflected in the vast difference in wages between physical distances. Smith describes the gap created between different parishes and unequal wages of labor in terms of distance: “Yet we [Scotland] never meet with those sudden and unaccountable differences in the wages of neighbouring places which we sometimes find in England, where it is often more difficult for a poor man to pass the artificial boundary of a parish, than an arm of the sea or a ridge of high mountains, natural boundaries which sometimes separate very distinctly different rates of wages in other countries” (WN I.x.c.58). Just as it was difficult for poor men to pass the physical boundary between parishes as though there were physical impediments, it is also difficult for them to surpass the sympathetic boundary between them and men of higher rank. The way Smith describes this boundary is striking. The distance between parishes and between the poor laborers and everyone else is as tangible, in Smith’s account, as physical boundaries like water or a mountain.

As we have seen, for Smith, the poor law violated more than economic liberty. It also violated natural liberty and justice. The distance between rich and poor prevented overseers from sympathizing with the laborers they were responsible for judging and administering. Worse than this, their own rank and their propensity to look down upon the poor caused the overseers to judge them as moral miscreants whose only value was their social rank, rather than as people worthy of sympathy. The parish officers prevented workers from finding jobs and establishing residence in their parishes because they assumed they would become a burden to them. Smith argues, “To remove a man who has committed no misdemeanour from the parish where he chuses to reside, is an evident violation of natural liberty and justice” (WN I.x.c.59). As he points out here, the poor law distorted more than the liberty of the market. He clearly states that the consequences of the law had moral effects for the natural liberty of the workers and for standards of justice more broadly defined.

Smith also laments that the masses cannot see the impropriety and injustice of the law. They cannot see how it affects not only the workers’ liberty and well-being, but theirs as well. First, Smith reflects on the negotiations of wages between masters and workmen and how this affects both the economy and moral relationships between rich and poor (WN I.x.c.60-63). He recalls an earlier discussion about the organization of workers as opposed to the organization of masters. “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters” (WN I.x.c.61). The imposition of the legislature into issues of wage labor rarely favors the workers, Smith tells us. When the legislature tries to regulate the wages of labor, they favor the masters, partly because of their ability to sympathize with those who are in the same social situation as they are, and for the other reasons Smith gives for why the poor are often not considered as objects of sympathy. Here again is another argument for the ability of the market to improve the condition of the least well-off. Smith notes a similar problem with negotiations over the wages of labor between masters and workers. He argues that while people typically think of workers organizing to raise their wages, masters also collude to lower the wages of labor, often with the help of the civil magistrate (WN I.viii.14).

Smith also worries about the common citizens of England who are negatively affected by the way the poor law frames the poor among them, their fellows: “The common people of England, however, so jealous of their liberty, but like the common people of most other countries never rightly understanding wherein it consists, have now for more than a century together suffered themselves to be exposed to this oppression without a remedy” (WN I.x.c.59). Again, it is not only the overseers who cannot view the poor as people worthy of sympathy, the masses cannot and do not either; however, Smith notes that they should, because their liberty is also affected by the economic and sympathetic distortions the law causes. Though we have a “sacred regard to general rules” and therefore the natural standards of justice are strong within us and are supposed to prevent us from making judgments according to custom and fashion, as Smith demonstrates in this example, sometimes our sentiments, and even our moral standards, can be corrupted (TMS III.5.2). Because of the structure of the law, even the general citizens of England fell prey to self-deceit, being more concerned about “the thought of their own safety, the thought that they themselves are not really the sufferers” than realizing how they were being deprived of their liberty because of the harm done to the economy and their relationship with their fellow citizens (TMS I.1.4.7).

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