Social Distance and the New Strangership in Adam Smith.
This paper explores the social and moral physics underlying Adam Smith’s
system of thought. Smith describes a society of commercial strangers
that has developed under the pressures of material progress and social
and economic expansion. He outlines the social psychology of a world
that has moved from homogeneity and the exigencies of security to
differentiation and the demands of commerce. The new exchange culture is
more impersonal and permits great levels of liberty and independence
than any stage before it.
Smith thought that society could be adequately regulated and held
together by the cool virtues, the division of labour, a minimal and
properly managed state, a regular system of justice and police and the
social physics generated by sympathy and the impartial spectator. Smith
approvingly describes an atmosphere permeated, not by the spontaneous
vitality of benevolent warmth but by the constancy of legal rules and
the steady constraints of commercial virtues and social decorum. His
ideal (proto liberal-commercial) society is more pacific, orderly and
predictable than its stadial predecessors partly because its regulating
mechanisms are generated outside intensely emotional, exclusivistic and
dependency-generating social units like the family, the village, the
/umma/ or the feudal estate.
School of History and Politics
University of Adelaide