AdamSmithWorks Teaching Resources


Adam Smith and the Tempation of Power

"Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority."   -Lord Acton

“It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.” -David Brin


What questions should we debate about the quest for power by politicians, and the effect on elected officials who wield power even in democratic government systems? 

Is there a natural tendency for citizens to revere elected officials, leaders and persons of rank?  How might a free and responsible citizenry  encourage such undesirable and potentially destructive behavior by political figures? Adam Smith described our “obsequiousness to superiors” in this disturbing way:

The strongest motives, the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment, are scarce sufficient to balance this natural disposition to respect them: and their conduct must, either justly or unjustly, have excited the highest degree of all those passions, before the bulk of the people can be brought to oppose them with violence, or to desire to see them either punished or deposed. Even when the people have been brought this length, they are apt to relent every moment, and easily relapse into their habitual state of deference to those whom they have been accustomed to look upon as their natural superiors. They cannot stand the mortification of their monarch. Compassion soon takes the place of resentment, they forget all past provocations, their old principles of loyalty revive, and they run to re-establish the ruined authority of their old masters, with the same violence with which they had opposed it. The death of Charles I. brought about the Restoration of the royal family. Compassion for James II. when he was seized by the populace in making his escape on ship-board, had almost prevented the Revolution, and made it go on more heavily than before.

What drives politicians’ lust for power? What differentiates the hunger for power of a politician from the greed of a business person? To what degree do you believe our reverence for Kings, Queens, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Governors and other “individuals of rank” contributes to a lust for power?

Your team at AdamSmithWorks would love to hear from you about class discussions that might ensue, use of any of the resources provided and of course, how the texts of Adam Smith might inform your conversation about power and the politician. 

The AdamSmithWorks Team

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Straight to the Source


The AdamSmithWorks reading guides use three types of questions and highlighting to help guide readers. The three types of questions are based on the Great Books Shared Inquiry Handbook


This excerpt with embedded questions is from TMS Part 1specifically Section III, Chapter II, "Of the Origin of Ambition, and of the Distinction of Ranks." 

Sample questions from this section include:

  • How does Adam Smith explain our admiration for people of “higher rank”?
  • What kinds of people in the world today get the kind of treatment Adam Smith describes here? Does admiration (or lack thereof) come from the same source as Smith describes here?
  • Do you think that Smith believes that air, manner, and deportment of important people deserves our admiration and praise? Why or why not?

If you missed our collection of Online Teaching Tips, you can find them and more in our TEACH collection. And check out the lesson plans below of relevance to this issue's theme.

  • Ghost Story. Newly elected American President Elizabeth Montgomery faces an economic crisis.The night before her State of the Union address, she is visited by the ghosts of Smith and John Maynard Keynes.
  • Adam Smith and the U.S. Constitution. In this lesson, students read and discuss an essay by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass North. They learn how Adam Smith’s ideas influenced the thinking of the Founders who wrote the U.S. Constitution. 
  • An Evening with the Wise Guys. Over an imaginary dinner, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Benjamin Franklin discuss their views regarding economics and the relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies.

And don't forget our video series, with classroom conversation starters, An Animal That Trades. Part 5, The Role of Authority, is particularly relevant to this collection.

Are YOU interested in submitting a Lesson Plan for possible publication? Contact us at

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