Adam Smith and Propriety in Moral and Political Discourse

20 Pages Posted: 2 Nov 2020 Last revised: 26 Apr 2021

See all articles by Daniel B. Klein

Daniel B. Klein

George Mason University - Department of Economics; George Mason University - Mercatus Center

Date Written: October 18, 2020


My university – George Mason University – has announced a Task Force on Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence. I gave a lecture about the discourse of those advocating such agendas. The lecture draws on Adam Smith and suggests that improprieties riddle such discourse. I treat improprieties of the discourse, not improprieties of the agenda measures themselves – that would be something else again. Drawing on Adam Smith, I offer a distinction between calling loudly and proffering coolly. I realize that these two expressions use different metaphors – “loudly” is about sound and “coolly” is about temperature – but such terminology follows Smith’s talk of calling loudly and reflecting coolly. The impropriety of calling loudly lies in the great distance and tenuous, complex, and highly contested interpretive connections between lower things and higher things in the moral worlds of human beings and in the meanings they make in life. Related to calling loudly are the improprieties of controversial and even outlandish presuppositions and, most of all, abuse of language. The discourse treated often violates semantic conventions and often leaves its key words ill-defined or undefined. I remark on the words diversity, inclusiveness, bias (as used for example in “unconscious bias” and “implicit bias”), anti-racism, and social justice. I present Adam Smith’s tri-layered justice and discuss the unjustness of the discourse treated. I suggest that behind the agenda is an impetus to reduce dissent from leftism. That impetus could well be subconscious.

Keywords: propriety, commutative justice, distributive justice, estimative justice

JEL Classification: A12, A13, B1

Suggested Citation

Klein, Daniel B., Adam Smith and Propriety in Moral and Political Discourse (October 18, 2020). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 20-35, Available at SSRN: or

Daniel B. Klein (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

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George Mason University - Mercatus Center ( email )

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Arlington, VA 22201
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