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Observed without Sympathy: Adam Smith on Inequality and Spectatorship


  • Kristen R. Collins


Responding to socioeconomic inequality and the decline of political participation, theorists of “audience democracy” emphasize citizens’ spectatorship of political leaders but neglect how citizens experience being watched themselves. I turn to Adam Smith's arguments about the effects of inequality on spectatorship, highlighting his criticisms of the public's disdain for people living in poverty. By comparing Smith's arguments about misperceptions of people living in poverty to his discussions of an innocent man accused of a crime, I show how mistaken spectators demoralize even morally judicious individuals. I also expand on an example of unjust censure that Smith suggests but does not discuss in detail: the social shame directed at a survivor of rape. I conclude by using Smith's insights to reflect on the social and interpersonal dynamics of surveillance that render contemporary welfare programs degrading for many participants and help transform socioeconomic inequality into political inequality.

Suggested Citation

  • Kristen R. Collins, 2020. "Observed without Sympathy: Adam Smith on Inequality and Spectatorship," American Journal of Political Science, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 64(4), pages 1034-1046, October.
  • Handle: RePEc:wly:amposc:v:64:y:2020:i:4:p:1034-1046
    DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12544

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    8. Sebastiano Nerozzi & Pierluigi Nuti, 2008. "Adam Smith and the Family," Working Papers - Economics wp2008_04, Universita' degli Studi di Firenze, Dipartimento di Scienze per l'Economia e l'Impresa.
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    Cited by:

    1. Kristen R. Collins, 2023. "Michelle Schwarze, recognizing resentment: Sympathy, injustice, and liberal political thought," The Review of Austrian Economics, Springer;Society for the Development of Austrian Economics, vol. 36(4), pages 605-609, December.

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