Adam Smith, Alternative Facts, and the Power of Persuasion

If I asked you to name a persuasive person, chances are you might tell me about a car salesman, a lawyer, or some crafty politician. While most people engage in persuasion, the mental images we paint of persuasive figures tend to be unfavorable: persuasive people are dissimulators that need, at best, to misrepresent the truth to make their case more compelling than it is or, at worst, to make us believe “alternative facts.” Despite their ubiquity, persuasive and other rhetorical appeals are often condemned as pernicious, especially in politics and economics.

For instance, Kant snipped that persuasion was the art “of deceiving by means of beautiful illusion,” whose aim was “to win minds over to the advantage of the speaker before they can judge and rob them of their freedom.”1 On Kant’s account, free citizens make clear judgments based on evidence and they respect others’ autonomy by being frank in interpersonal interactions.

But there is a better alternative to this view. Adam Smith wrote extensively on rhetoric and language, which he saw as inextricably linked to political economy. Scholarship on Smith and persuasion has blossomed in the last decade2 and for good reason: Smith was keen to explain how the desire to persuade could be harnessed for economic and social good. Given our current political climate and the constant prattle of “fake news,” we might be able to learn a few important lessons from Smith’s rhetorical theory, too.

1. Facts matter, but so does presentation

It would be difficult to overstate how integral persuasion is to economic and political life. The Kantian picture of rational man reasoning in a void, their judgment impervious to emotional disturbances and better for it, is a chimera that has been consistently rejected by contemporary psychology and neuroscience as a useful model for decision-making.3 Judgment is both rational and affective in nature, and both facts and their presentation are vital components of our judgments and decisions.

Perhaps the most famous line from Smith’s corpus illustrates this point. Smith insists that an individual seeking to trade “will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favor, and shew [sic] them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them…It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” 4

It might be true that we need bread or beer to survive (my fellow Wisconsinites would surely insist on the latter). It also might be true, as Smith illustrates in the Wealth of Nations, that free exchange is individually and socially beneficial, but what ultimately determines whether we eat or drink is how these facts are presented to us—whether or not we are persuaded by the appeals of others. Smith’s teaching here, in a nutshell, is that rhetoric influences decisions.5

2. Sympathetic persuasion is liberating

Engaging in persuasion can be freeing for both the speaker and their audience. Contrary to Kant’s claim that persuasion robs individuals of autonomy, Smith insists that it is in the deployment of rhetoric that we exercise our real freedom while respecting that of others. Smith grounds this claim in his theory of sympathy, the ultimate aim of which is mutual sympathy or the “harmony of affections” between an individual and a spectator of their emotions or actions. In order to win their approval and achieve this harmony, the person principally concerned needs to persuade others to sympathize with her by moderating how she expresses herself. In so doing, she exercises what Smith calls self-command—which is the centerpiece of Smith’s theory of freedom in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

We are fundamentally interdependent creatures according to Smith’s social theory, so our potential for freedom if not autonomy comes in the form of our choice to express ourselves in certain ways. Similarly, we respect the freedom of others when we choose to persuade them without convincing them (to borrow Rousseau’s phrase) of the appropriateness of our emotions or actions rather than to coerce them or to grovel. Free judgment is fundamentally rhetorical.

3. Effective persuasion requires sincerity

Smith’s rhetorical theory makes clear persuasive speakers are sincere speakers. As Dan Kapust and I have argued elsewhere,6 Smith follows Cicero in insisting that sincerity and context shape the decorum or propriety of political appeals. To be persuasive, a speaker has to both walk the walk and talk the talk. Pope Francis’s consistent condemnations of the immoderate accumulation of wealth and ostentation broadly are more persuasive when we consider his own modest lifestyle and eschewal of material wealth. Public audiences look for the fit between the character of a speaker and their speech (what we deem sincerity) to gauge the speaker’s trustworthiness and, ultimately, to evaluate the speaker’s case. We can’t expect to succeed in persuading others of the righteousness of our cause—or even of its rectitude—through deceitfulness.

We sometimes speak of persuasion as if it a panacea in politics—as if it enables us to successfully decry all those facts we don’t like as “alternative.” For good reason, too: how politicians present their appeals to their constituencies matters, however unpalatable they might be without garnishes. But simply saying that presentation matters doesn’t sufficiently capture its limits or why persuasion is critical for democratic societies. Adam Smith reminds us that effective rhetorical appeals demand some self-control and honesty from speakers while they respect listeners’ freedom to make their own decisions.

Photo Credit: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. by Paul Guyer, trans. by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: New York, 2000), 204.

 2Notable examples include Duncan Kelly, The Propriety of Liberty: Persons, Passions, and Judgment in Modern Political Thought (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2010), Stephen McKenna, Adam Smith: The Rhetoric of Propriety (SUNY Press: Albany, 2006), Leonidas Montes, Adam Smith in Context: A Critical Assessment of Some Central Components of his Thought (Palgrave Macmillan: Houndmills and New York, 2004).

Some classic examples in neuroscience are Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (Touchstone: New York, 1996), Antonio Demasio, Descartes Error: Emotion Reason and the Human Brain (Putnam Berkeley Group: New York, 1994); in psychology, Daniel Kahneman recently published Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 2013) and Jonathan Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment, Psychological Review 108(4): 814.

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations. Ed. R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner. Liberty Fund (Indianapolis: 1981), 26-27.

In fact, we learn in Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres that the democratic ethos requires speakers to speak to the private advantage or “real interest” of citizens to be persuasive. See Adam Smith, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.Ed. Ronald Meek, D.D. Raphael, and P.G. Stein. Liberty Fund (Indianapolis: 1983), ii.149.

See Daniel J. Kapust and Michelle A. Schwarze, “The Rhetoric of Sincerity: Cicero and Smith on Propriety and Political Context,” American Political Science Review 110(1): 100-111.

See more posts: Ideas 

You Might Also Like