Though it has
been more than two centuries since Adam Smith, a capable
review of his writings would be well advised. In essence,
such a retrospective look could prove clarifying. Among
other things, it could help to explain Americans’
incessant search for gratuitous wealth.
It remains an
incoherent search, one that impairs the broader society
in several different and force-multiplying ways. Currently,
even the standard American wealth policy preference for
strong retail sales is proving injurious. This preference,
prima facie, increases inflation and animates future interest
rate hikes by the Federal Reserve. US retail sales jumped
3% in January 2023, the most since March 2021.
apparent strengths and debilities, the American economic
realm exhibits antecedent thought. For better or for worse,
this realm represents not just self-centered considerations
of money and finance, but also the cumulative outcome of
humane analytic examinations. These examinations should
always be premised on the unifying idea of “system,”
that is, on the unceasing interrelatedness of all things.
To a fine point,
economics and the recent pandemic are inextricably intertwined.
It would be futile, therefore, to expect any progress in
the other-directed (“attention-seeking”) world
described by Adam Smith without also achieving certain science-based
advances. In philosophic terms, the connections inevitably
come down to this “equation”: Death is the prototype
of all injustice – including economic failure –
and American death rates during periods of “plague”
are especially unjust. Here, together with certain other
tangible standards of epidemiology, mortality figures are
closely linked to national wealth distributions.
There is more.
Intellectual obligations are overriding. Immediately, in
such matters, Americans should learn to go beyond the banal
observations and clichés of the country’s acrimonious
national politics. This means purposefully recalling classical
economic theory in its most densely-layered and nuanced
content. Accordingly, we ought now to look with suitably
“modernized” detail at Adam Smith’s Theory
of Moral Sentiments (1759) and also at his better-known
Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of
Back in the
18th century, and without any benefit of computers or electricity,
Smith managed to examine the bewilderingly complex elements
of international trade policies within a broad intellectual
context. Our current and upcoming political leaderships
should at least recall such informed background, and work
to bring it into line with purposeful national policies.
The outcome could help an other-directed nation better understand
its most persistent policy distortions.
Adam Smith knew
many things. Among most evident and most important, he understood
that thoughtful economic insights were not just about impressive
fiscal numbers or expanding personal bank accounts. Wealth
was not published in 1776 to advance the monetary or social
interests of any one particular class or another. Rather,
at a time when cultural and historical literacy were still
expected of public commentators, Wealth’s author acknowledged
the essential “oneness” of human affairs. In
essence, this meant the core human singularity hailed, among
others, by Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius and the Jewish Scriptures,
not to mention both Hinduism and Buddhism.
an acknowledgment, Adam Smith would have amounted to little
more than the barely-literate and half-educated commentators
we Americans are currently forced to endure. Abjuring banalities,
this seminal economic thinker from Scotland sought to understand
the most intricate operations of society and the market
place, including their more-or-less plausible interactions.
Surely he would have agreed with German philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche’s later instruction in Zarathustra never
to seek the “higher man” at a “marketplace.”
Significantly, as we can recall the dissembling Trump years,
Smith had taken special pains to highlight the errors of
baseless protectionist strategies, most notably contrived
tariffs that could easily be reciprocated.
There is more.
Famously, economist Smith identified an “invisible
hand,” a credible “convergence of satisfactions.”
Together with any such gainful fusion, he calculated, the
perpetual collisions of individual self-interest with the
presumed interests of nations could generally be reconciled.
Eventually, in the language of today’s career economists
or financial managers, such reconciliations could prove
How might such
classical insights help us today? What might this 18th-century
stance on money and markets have to do with our present-day
American economic system, a complex network functioning
as part of a much larger worldwide economy and civilization?
The best answer should begin with questioning the widespread
American belief that accelerating consumption is gainful
per se or even indispensable. As for salutary effects on
the country’s general welfare, there can be little
doubt that these consequences remain examples of analytic
simplification and intellectual disfigurement.
United States, Adam Smith was prophetic. Let us be candid.
In the United States, economics is really about “attention.”
In this deeply anti-intellectual country, you are what you
a plutocrat, Adam Smith argued persuasively that certain
arrangements of private wealth enhancement could at least
permit the poor to live tolerably. Rejecting contemporary
Jean Jacques Rousseau’s expressly contrary position
– that is, that “the privileged few…gorge
themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude
are in want of the bare necessities of life” –
he foresaw in capitalism not just an enviably rising productivity,
but the necessary foundations for political liberty. In
judging whether or not he was correct in this assessment,
the answer will ultimately depend upon who is being queried.
Karl Marx (lambasted
by American politicians, but never actually read) offered
an alternate view to Smith’s general optimism on capitalism.
From the standpoint of his own formal disciplinary framework
– a multi-layered academic context fashioned with
analytic dexterity and authentic scientific underpinnings
-Marx saw in capitalism a corrosive source of personal defilement
and communal self-destruction. Was he entirely mistaken?
In his own time,
Adam Smith was undaunted by any determinedly specious political
arguments detached from meaningful considerations of intellect
and learning. By applying various capitalistic modes of
production and exchange, he asserted, an inextinguishable
social inequality could still be reconciled with measurable
increments of human progress. In those troubling cases where
prevailing facts could have taken him in starkly different
directions, he could have felt bound to accept certain corresponding
modifications of his basic socio-economic theories.
Even among former
US President Donald Trump’s most senior economic advisors,
there never was an Adam Smith, never anyone who was even
minimally capable of comparably complex intellectual understandings.
However much these servile advisors may have sought to wrap
themselves in certain quotable insights of Wealth, they
wittingly ignored the depth and exertions of Smith’s
conceptual thought. Unsurprisingly, they freely disregarded
that Adam Smith’s preferred system of “perfect
liberty” could never be made consistent with the partisan
encouragements of a fevered accumulation.
legacy of these sycophantic advisors continues to direct
and define Trump’s would-be successors.
There is more.
Back when the United States was officially “born,”
on a date that coincides with publication of Wealth, Adam
Smith already understood what later-day Trump trade policies
so blatantly disregarded. This is that certain inexorable
laws of the marketplace, driven by natural human competition,
demand a principled disdain for vanity-driven consumption.
It’s not a particularly complicated set of laws. But
it does call for at least some modicum of serious study
and intellectual exertion.
Adam Smith could
never have championed or abided “conspicuous consumption,”
a phrase that would later be used more popularly and effectively
by sociologist Thorsten Veblen. This most vulgar species
of consumption, one driven by variously recalcitrant cravings
related to feelings of individual self-worth, ought never
be mistaken as a rational engine for economic or social
improvement. This point should resonate loudly and instructively
with all who would still heap gratuitous praise upon a Trump
White House that equated personal financial success (however
garnered) with the “attentive” envy of others.
Under no imaginable circumstances could Adam Smith have
favored a system of consumption premised on the notion that
material acquisition should stem from a wish to impress
Adam Smith understood
the psychological and economic dynamics of “conspicuous
consumption.” But he also feared and perhaps even
loathed these frivolous dynamics. From his personal point
of view, it was reasonable that the marketplace should regulate
the price and quantity of available goods according to “natural”
arbiters of public demand. This marketplace, he urged convincingly,
should never be manipulated from above, either by governments
or by deceptively manipulative government policies.
With the Trump
presidency, Americans lost all residual sight of Adam Smith’s
“natural liberty.” In vain, this nation still
attempts to construct a viable economic posture upon shallow
slogans and empty witticisms. At the core, our derivative
national problems of orchestrated trade barriers and adrenalized
hyper-consumption are not fundamentally or genuinely economic.
Rather, as Smith himself would have warned, because they
are spurred on by seemingly ineradicable personal doubts
of self-worth and self-esteem, these problems should be
examined at readily identifiable psychological levels.
But who today
would even want to undertake such a complex examination?
What would be
already believe that their national economic efforts should
be oriented toward status-based purchasing. Oddly enough,
however, almost no one seeks to inquire: “What sort
of society should we expect from an economic system that
is based upon feverish social imitation and embarrassing
crass conformance”? The answer, in part, is a flaccid
society of “mass,” a disordered and disordering
amalgam of non-reasoning people who no longer expected to
operate as thinking individuals.
the middle of the nineteenth century, the American Transcendentalist
philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, remarked presciently on
“self-reliance.” Any foolish “reliance
upon property,” Emerson warned, is the predictable
result of a “want of self-reliance.” But what
suitable corrective was needed? Emerson answered succinctly,
and without any discernible hesitation: “High thinking
and plain living.”
Can anyone in
the present-day United States even begin to understand such
clear and compelling advice? How far have we come from such
a once hopeful conjunction? Today, the relentlessly conformist
call of American mass society remains loud, exploitative
and distressingly persuasive. This was especially the case
under the aegis of a president who conducted a ceaseless
and systematic war upon intellect, education and learning.
“I love the poorly educated,” said Trump during
his 2016 presidential election campaign. “Intellect
rots the brain,” said Third Reich Minister of Propaganda
between these sentiments is not nearly as great as might
In his Theory
of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith noted that human beings
are not made happier by their possessions, but that the
rich, in seeking the “gratification of their own vain
and insatiable desires,” may still (though unwittingly)
advance the “interest of society.” With remarkable
originality, Smith explained that the wealthiest members
of the nation, without consciously intending any such generalized
benefit, “are led by an invisible hand” to bring
forth necessary reductions in social inequality.
Back in the
18th century, Adam Smith would have shuddered with any foreknowledge
of today’s callous system of American economic exchange.
This is the case not only because he would have been unsympathetic
to the self-seeking supporters of an inglorious plutocracy,
but because he would also have recognized the implacable
consequences of any market theory founded on self-delusion.
As long as our American economy remains animated, at its
core, by rabid conspicuous consumption and by trade wars,
an accelerating process of class/cultural conflict will
be our principal driving narrative.
As long as we
inhabit a society that. at least in significant part, takes
an evident pride in a doctrinaire anti-intellectualism,
disease and economic dislocation will not merely coincide.
They will crush out any tangibly discernible remnants of
a once-promising American civilization. But then it will
already be too late for any pertinent national rescue.
At this fearful
moment, one when “plague” and nuclear war could
erupt more-or-less simultaneously, the “whole”
of an American catastrophic outcome could exceed the sum
of its grievous “parts.” In the end, learning
from Adam Smith, warnings about this portentous product
could be anything but hyperbole. As always, thinking seriously
is a sine qua non for survival, but such thinking must be
undertaken in advance.
few Americans (and certainly few American politicians) could
conceivably read and understand Adam Smith. But there is
still abundant cause for broader American society to favor
Reason over political manipulation and contrivance. Any
failure to understand this vital obligation during a “force-multiplying”
time of disease pandemic and economic uncertainty could
be more than just discomfiting. It could prove abundantly
and irremediably lethal.
So what happens