The Impartial Observer

I have been away from blogging the last few weeks, devoting my discretionary writing and thinking time to preparing a speech commemorating the Immortal Memory of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose birthday is today, and is celebrated each year at Burns Suppers around the world.  My speech this year, delivered at a Burns Supper on Saturday, touched on a diverse topics, including tattoos, absinthe and extreme metal music. (Really!). But I am writing about it here, because in the course of my research I was surprised to learn that Burns was an incidental economist of sorts.

I suppose I had long been vaguely aware that Burns and Adam Smith were countrymen and contemporaries. But I had not known that they were mutual admirers, much less that Burns had modeled one of his most famous rhymes on a passage from Smith.

In “The Theory of the Moral Sentiments,” Smith argued that human conduct would surely improve if we could become “impartial observers” of ourselves:

Self-deceit, this fatal weakness of Mankind is the source of half the disorders of human life.  If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable.  We could not otherwise endure the sight.

This notion crowns the poem “To a Louse,” in which Burns, contemplating a well turned-out lady at church who does not realize that a parasite is quite publicly creeping up her Sunday bonnet, proclaims (in Scots dialect):

O wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us

Now if only this power were given to the House Democrats, who can’t seem to understand that they have become political laughingstocks for their apparent inability to pass the Senate health care bill, with or without improvements through reconciliation, declare victory, and move on.

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