Part 3o of Chapter 1 of Book 5 of The Wealth of Nations Simplified

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August 1, 2021

193 But there are also some professions which bring no advantage or pleasure to anyone.

The supreme power must alter its conduct with regard to those professionals. It must give them public encouragement for their subsistence. It must provide against negligence by= annexing honours to their profession, establishing a long subordination of ranks and a strict dependence, or some other expedient. Examples are those employed in the finances, fleets, and magistracy.

194 At first sight, it may naturally be thought that ecclesiastics belong to the first class.

Their encouragement, as well as that of lawyers and physicians, may safely be entrusted to the people attached to their doctrines. This will=

  • encourage their industry, and
  • increase their skill daily from their increasing practice, study, and attention.

195 But at closer inspection, we shall find that the clergy’s interested diligence is very harmful.

Every wise legislator will study to prevent it. It even has a natural tendency to pervert the true religion by infusing a strong mixture of superstition, folly, and delusion into it. Each ghostly practitioner will inspire the most violent abhorrence of all other sects to render himself more precious and sacred. He will continually try to excite his audience’s languid devotion. He will pay no regard to truth, morals, or decency in the doctrines inculcated. The tenets which best suits his disorderly affections will be adopted. Customers will be drawn to religious gatherings which address the people’s passions and credulity. In the end, the civil magistrate will realize his big mistake in creating a fixed establishment for the priests.

He can most decently amend such a situation by bribing the priests’ indolence by= assigning them stated salaries, and rendering it superfluous for them to be more active than necessary in preventing their flock from straying to new pastures. In this way, ecclesiastical establishments become advantageous to the political interests of society in the end.

196 But whatever were the effects of the clergy’s provision, they perhaps were unintentional.

Times of violent religious controversy were generally times of violent political faction. Each political party found or imagined it for its interest to be allies with the contending religious sects. This could be done only by adopting or favouring that sect’s tenets. The sect necessarily shared in the victory of its ally over its enemies.

The sect’s enemies were therefore also the party’s enemies. The clergy of this winning sect would become complete masters of the field. Their influence and authority with the people would be at its highest. They would be powerful enough= to over-awe their own party leaders, and to oblige the civil magistrate to respect their opinions and inclinations. Their first demand was generally that the civil magistrate should silence and subdue their adversaries.

Their second demand was that he should bestow an independent provision on themselves. Since they contributed to the victory, it seemed reasonable that they should share in the spoil. They were weary of humouring and depending on the people for subsistence. In making this demand, they consulted their own ease and comfort without foreseeing its effect on their order’s influence and authority. The civil magistrate was seldom very forward to grant it. Necessity always forced him to submit after many delays, evasions, and excuses.

197 If politics never called in the help of religion, it would probably have dealt equally and impartially with all the different sects.

The conquering party would have allowed every man to choose his own priest and religion. There would have been many religious sects.

Almost every congregation would make a little sect in itself with its own tenets. Each teacher would feel the need to preserve and increase the number of his disciples.

Because of the competition, no single teacher would have very great success. The religious teachers’ interested and active zeal can be dangerous and troublesome only when:

  • only one sect is tolerated, the society is divided into two or three great sects, or the teachers of each sect act in concert and under a regular discipline and subordination But that zeal must be innocent when the society is divided into thousands of small sects.

No one could be big enough to disturb the public peace. The teachers of each sect would have more enemies than friends. They would be forced to have that candour and moderation not found in great sects. The tenets of those great sects are supported by the civil magistrate. They are venerated by all who see no other alternative. The teachers of each little sect would find themselves alone.

They would be forced to respect other sects and make mutually convenient and agreeable concessions to one another. In time, it would probably reduce their doctrine to that pure and rational religion. It would be free from absurdity, imposture, or fanaticism, which wise men throughout history wished to see established. This ideal religion perhaps never will be established in any country because positive law was always and will be influenced by popular superstition and enthusiasm. The sect called Independents was a sect of very wild enthusiasts.

Towards the end of the civil war, they proposed a non-ecclesiastical government in England. If it were established, by this time it would probably have produced philosophical good temper and moderation in religion despite having very unphilosophical origins. It was established in Pennsylvania. The law there favours no single sect despite having the most numerous Quakers. It has produced this philosophical good temper and moderation.

198 Even if this equality of treatment does not produce this good temper and moderation in most religious sects, each sect’s excessive zeal would not be harmful if=

  • those sects were sufficiently numerous, and
  • each of them were consequently too small to disturb the public peace.

It would produce several good effects.

If the government left them alone and obliged them to leave each other alone, they would naturally subdivide themselves fast enough to become sufficiently numerous.


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