Was Adam Smith the Anti-Capitalist?

The American Churches of Laissez-Faire Capitalism (typified in denominations like AIG, Blackwater, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Exxon, Enron, Monsanto, and Wal-Mart, indebted to the teachings of the prophet Milton Friedman, and defended by learned apologists for the faith such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Dick Cheney) worship “one like a son of man,” named after humankind itself: Adam Smith. This Adam Smith (18th century author of The Wealth of Nations) was the first to call God by the shockingly intimate name, “Invisible Hand,” while everyone else was still calling him “King George, Sir.”

The American Churches of Laissez-Faire Capitalism (also called the ACLFC) believe that Adam Smith was sent to earth to reveal the true nature of God, the “Invisible Hand,” to display in his very own writings how this God is ever at work behind the scenes, creating prosperity out of the random collision of wills that is the “free” market, a market dubbed “free” because it is free from any and all government interference (the technical theological term for which is “demon-possession”), except when the market requires a quick pick-me-up or when denominations file for tax exempt status which is given as a reward for exporting missionaries offshore overseas, in the name of the invisible gospel. The Invisible Hand, or the “God We Trust” (as his name appears on their sacramental elements), is the one who takes this random collision of self-interests and with the power of his Word declares, “Let there be equity and the just distribution of goods.” And presto-chango, it’s all good.

Needless to say, as the official religion of the United States government, the LFC faith has begun to attract millions in recent decades, after the conquest of strategic pieces of land promised by God to the agents of his gospel. Laissez-Faire Capitalism is quickly becoming a dominant religion across Europe, Asia, Australia, parts of South America, and (fingers-crossed) the Middle-East.

In recent years, however, critical scholars have embarked upon a search for what they call the “historical Adam Smith,” and their results have frequently been surprising. Denounced or more often simply ignored by self-styled “orthodox” proponents of Laissez-Faire Capitalism, historical Adam scholars have nonetheless insisted on understanding Adam’s words within the context of several of the other words, sentences and paragraphs that tend to surround them. More controversially, they have advocated a literal reading of some sentences, sentences that have always been interpreted metaphorically or allegorically by leading scholars of Smithian doctrine such as George W. Bush and the community of ascetic Smithian scribes referred to derisively by socialists/atheists as the “right-wing blogosphere.”

Critics of historical Adam scholars often level accusations of “cherry-picking” or “insubordinate unfamiliarity with the larger body of Adamic tradition.” Defiantly, historical Adam scholars claim that familiarity with the larger body of Adamic tradition is often detrimental to a proper understanding of the historical Adam. One scholar plainly admits, “I didn’t do any research at all on Smith. I just read him. There’s no research. Just read it.”1 As for the accusation of “cherry-picking,” this scholar believes it is the traditionalists, not the critical scholars, who are guilty of that. “People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn them into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits.” This scholar argues, against the grain of the larger body of Smithian tradition, that this is “very explicit in Adam Smith,” adding, with a boyish grin, “It’s so obvious that any ten-year-old can see it.”2

Despite reasoned and careful summary denunciations from mainline LFC apologists and mega-church pastors, “far-left loons” like this scholar are not alone. As more and more scholars and ten-year-olds actually decide to read the LFC Bible, a growing consensus is emerging concerning what the historical Adam Smith believed and taught about LFC, leading some to ask the question, “Was Adam Smith the Anti-Capitalist that televangelists such as Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck keep warning us about?”

One study summarizing the findings of those who have read The Wealth of Nations concludes that Adam was actually opposed to official Smithian dogma in at least seven ways:

1. Adam was pro-labor and had a negative view of labor-masters
2. Adam distrusted and denounced the capitalist class
3. Adam argued against special corporate privilege and called for the dissolution of corporations
4. Adam argued for investment at the local or domestic level and decried globalization
5. Adam advocated taxing the rich to give to the poor
6. Adam observed that state power could be used to protect human rights
7. Adam looked to government-supported education to mitigate the effects of the division of labor

The Pro-Labor Adam

In defense of their radical claim that the historical Adam favored the working-class over against those who were generous enough to pay them a minimum wage, scholars appeal to passages like this:

They [union protesters] are desperate, and act with the folly and extravagance of desperate men, who must either starve, or frighten their masters into an immediate compliance with their demands. Yet the workmen, accordingly, very seldom derive any advantage from the violence of those tumultuous combinations [now called unions, or atheist leagues], which . . . generally end in nothing, but the punishment or ruin of the ring-leaders.

Defenders of the traditional Adam argue that this passage is a polemic against unions and protesters. “The language is clear,” Bill Hannity explains. “Listen to the language. ‘Folly! Desperate! Violence! Tumultuous! Ruin! Frighten their masters! Ring-leaders!’ These people are monstrous traitors and should be shot! That’s what Adam is saying. He’s saying that in their minds they must either starve or steal. It never occurs to them to work to put food on their table, to FEED THEIR OWN CHILDREN WHO ARE DYING!!! Because, uh, because, uh, because they’d rather complain than earn their money–which is a gift from their mast-, their employers. They didn’t have to employ them. They didn’t have to hire anybody! Wage-labor is a GIFT, you UNGRATEFUL, ANTI-AMERICAN, GODLESS LAYABOUTS! Stop driving up inflation and go back to work!”

But critical scholars disagree. Critical scholars see an Adam that is actually sympathetic to the plight of laborers and critical of labor-masters. They see evidence for this reading of Adam in other texts, as well. For instance, elsewhere Adam declares that

It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.

Moreover,

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must . . . have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. . . . Masters are always and every where in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination [alliance], not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. Masters too sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

While critical scholars understand this to be an indictment of an asymmetrical power arrangement, traditionalists maintain that this passage is prescriptive rather than descriptive.

The Anti-Capitalist Adam

A favorite passage of traditionalists demonstrates to them Adam’s strong opposition to demon-possession, or “government intervention” in secular vernacular. Indeed, at congressional events, tithers (known to outsiders as “corporate lobbyists”) will often be seen waving cardboard signs that read “Smith 1:11!” The passage reads: “The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention.” Traditionalists see in these words a warning against regulating industry.

But critical scholars have argued that a reading of this passage in its literary context and with an understanding of its genre as words on paper produces jarringly different results:

The rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with the prosperity, and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich, and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin. The interest of this third order, therefore . . . is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public . . . to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers . . . but to narrow the competition . . . can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it. (Emphasis mine.)

One historical Adam scholar concludes, “Read in context, it becomes clear that Smith is not condemning government intervention in corporate interests, but corporate intervention in public interests. Although, understandably, the passage would be difficult for the lay practitioner who is not always versed in the original language.”3

Scholars find further evidence for this reading of Adam elsewhere. They argue that Adam saw lobbyists, or tithers, themselves (seen as central to the institutional church of LFC today) as major impediments to the genuine free trade that he advocates. The “private interest of many individuals” Adam called “unconquerable.” The monopoly of manufacturers was “like an overgrown standing army.” These manufacturers “become formidable to the government, and upon many occasions intimidate the legislature.”

Here as elsewhere, traditionalists have insisted that this passage was intended to be prescriptive–a utopian vision, if you will. Yet critical scholars remain skeptical of such readings.

The Anti-Corporate Adam

Critical scholars further believe that Adam spoke of capitalist corporations derisively as “tyrants,” and that he argued that they were frequently more tyrannical than monarchical dictators. Adam writes that

no other sovereigns ever were, or, from the nature of things, ever could be, so perfectly indifferent about the happiness or misery of their subjects, the improvement or waste of their dominions, the glory or disgrace of their administration, as, from irresistible moral causes, the greater part of the proprietors of such a mercantile company are, and necessarily must be.

Traditional apologists argue that “this is classic Adamic irony.” Rush Beck explains, “Adam was actually talking about, um, actual monarchial [sic.] sovereigns. He referred to them as a ‘mercantile company’ ironically, which was his way of showing how, although they claim to be as generous and equitable as a multinational corporation, that is all propaganda; they are really just socialists who hate America because that’s what Nazis do.”

But at least one scholar believes that “Smith regarded the corporation as another impediment to free trade, which needed to be weakened by removing its special privileges.” At least one passage seems to agree with this conclusion: “Let the same natural liberty of exercising what species of industry they please, be restored to all his majesty‚Äôs subjects . . . that is, break down the exclusive privileges of corporations.”

But conservatives argue that this passage needs to be read in context. Some point out that although they don’t know for sure what words are hidden behind the ellipsis in the above quote, they believe one of those words is probably the word “not.”

The Anti-Globalization Adam

Perhaps the most-controversial finding of the historical Adam scholars has to do with the most sacred of the LFC sacred-cows, the doctrine of the Invisible Hand itself. The nucleus of the doctrine as traditionally understood is found in this passage:

By directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an Invisible Hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Here, traditionalists argue, is the classic expression of the doctrine of the Invisible Hand which is central to LFC belief. The prophetess Ayn Rand and clergyman Gordon Gecko were both inspired by this passage to make millions of dollars of other people’s money for the common good. But historical critical scholars argue that reading this passage with attention to what linguistic experts refer to as its “antecedents” may shed a different light on this once unassailable doctrine. The passage, together with its “antecedents,” reads:

But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (Emphasis mine.)

One scholar paraphrases: “In other words, by preferring to employ capital domestically, traders benefit the society more than they know or intend. This theme of giving precedence to domestic deployment (investment) of capital flies in the face of business and financial globalization as currently practiced under the rubric of ‘free trade.'”

Other scholars4 are more radical, arguing that Adam is here “both a little right, and a little wrong.” He continues, “Adam is certainly right that domestic industry benefits a society, and that taking industry overseas is detrimental to the good of a given society. He is also right that domestic industry benefits the industrialist him or herself. But he is wrong to conclude that it is impossible for an industrialist to intentionally promote the good of society. All it takes is the realization that domestic industry is better for one’s country than foreign industry, then to act upon that realization. Unlike Adam, I believe that self-interest and interest in the common good are not mutually exclusive, and ultimately that interest in the common good is more beneficial to one’s self than pure self-interest. But I’m not a member of the LFC, I’m a Christian. LFC scholarship is just, one might say, a personal interest of mine.”

While it is uncertain whether such liberal critical readings of Adam will even gain a hearing among traditionalists, constructive criticisms like this seem to be common among those who have actually read Wealth of Nations.

The Pro-Tax Adam

One of the strongest tenets of LFC is the doctrine of the “unfair tax,” which basically states that taxing the wealthy to distribute goods among the impoverished is technically an “injustice” since it is the wealthy and not the poor who do all the hard work in society. While this doctrine may appear incontrovertible to most proponents of LFC, historical Adam scholars have uncovered evidence that Adam himself may have held the opposite view. They refer primarily to passages such as this one:

When the toll upon carriages of luxury, upon coaches, postchaises, etc., is made somewhat higher in proportion to their weight, than upon carriages of necessary use, such as carts and wagons, etc. the indolence and vanity of the rich is made to contribute in a very easy manner to the relief of the poor.”

Readers of Adam believe this indicates in him an attitude of disdain for the wealthy classes, referencing primarily vocabulary like “indolence” and “vanity” and “of the rich.” Traditionalists, however, are divided on how to interpret this text. Some argue that Adam was here being metaphorical, but this camp is further divided between those who believe the metaphor referred to the indolence and vanity of Nascar aficionados (in which case those being taxed are actually poor, not wealthy), and those who believe the metaphor referred to a 19th century boardgame called “Tax the Rich, Ye Richer.” Liberal scholars object that since Adam wrote in the 18th century he could not have known about a 19th century boardgame, but traditionalists respond that Adam was clearly prophesying.)

Other traditionalists eschew metaphorical interpretations and argue that the word “rich” is simply a scribal error, because “indolence and vanity” is normally considered to be a property of the poor, not the wealthy (who can afford not to be vain). According to this camp, however, the text was “inerrant in the original autograph.”

Another group argues similarly that those envisioned as being taxed here are not the wealthy but the poor. Yet this group argues not that the word “rich” was a scribal error, but that it was an ironic appellation applied to the poor who had obviously stolen luxury items from the wealthy at gunpoint. One prominent African-American member of the ACLFC was the first to espouse this view. O’Reilly the Televangelist commented that he’s glad to see that “black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves.” Several African-American “atheists” replied, “People of color in the ACLFC aren’t thinking for themselves. They’re thinking for the structures of domination that continue to enslave them and their brothers and sisters on the Continent in the name of the ‘free’ market. The free market is free for some people; but the rest of us pay dearly for it.”

Other traditionalists have given up all hope of trying to understand this passage, and others like it. They say that the existence of so many confusing interpretive options indicates that the text is obscure and may never be fully understood. “Perhaps we’re not meant to understand it. But one thing we do know. It’s not advocating the redistribution of wealth. That’s what Nazis like Stalin stood for. Not Americans!”5

The Pro-Intervention Adam

Scholars believe that Adam may also have favored government intervention into the market in certain circumstances, such as when the social conditions were not equitable so as to ensure a properly free market. They base this controversial understanding of Adam off of passages like the following:

The law, so far as it gives some weak protection to the slave against the violence of his master, is likely to be better executed in a colony where the government is in a great measure arbitrary, than in one where it is altogether free. In every country where the unfortunate law of slavery is established, the magistrate, when he protects the slave, intermeddles in some measure in the management of the private property of the master; and, in a free country . . . he dare not do this but with the greatest caution and circumspection . . . But in a country . . . where it is usual for the magistrate to intermeddle even in the management of the private property of individuals . . . it is much easier for him to give some protection to the slave; and common humanity naturally disposes him to do so. That the condition of a slave is better under an arbitrary than under a free government, is, I believe, supported by the history of all ages and nations.

Official ACLFC apologists respond by arguing that, because this passage is taken out of context, it is clear that Adam is not talking about the market, but about the issue of slavery. “Slavery was unjust,” they explain. “But the government-free market is the very definition of justice.” Liberal scholars frequently attempt to point out (1) that such reasoning is circular and that (2) when read in context, it is clear that Adam is applying this analogy to the free market, to which the apologists reply, “Yes, but only when read in context.”

The Pro-Intervention Adam, Again

Finally, historical Adam scholars have concluded that Adam believed that certain government funded ventures were necessary in order to maintain the health and viability of a true democracy. “While Adam expounded upon the virtues of the division of labor early in the book, he simultaneously abhorred the effects of the division of labor, upon which capitalism is founded, and recommended government sponsored education to compensate for its deleterious effects.”6 They point to passage such as the below in support of their theory:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations . . . generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging; and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life . . . renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance, in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. . . . in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

Some historical Adam scholars believe that although the above quotation refers to the problem of education among the poor, his logic could rather seamlessly be applied to the health care debate current in the United States, landing Adam firmly on the side of those who support government regulated, universal health care. On Adam’s logic, the more citizens in a society whose illnesses go untreated, who go into deep debt to pay for medical expenses, or who die from lack of coverage, the fewer soldiers, laborers, teachers, artists, entrepreneurs and engaged citizens a society will have. “In every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” It would seem that by today’s standards, the principal architect of capitalism… was a socialist!

Conclusion

One scholar summarizes the significance of Adam, from a historical perspective. “While Smith acknowledged that government policies may be counterproductive or even stupid, Smith claimed that it was private power that acted in a truly malicious fashion.” While, “governments, however imperfect, can be brought under a degree of democratic control,” such democratic control is undermined in a society where “the public has no direct input as to how powerful private individuals or businesses deploy their capital.” Moreover, “as Smith described, those who profit from such corporations also have a disproportionate influence on the legal system. Only the legal institutions of governments can challenge excessive private power.”

While the evidence uncovered by radical historical Adam scholars may be clear, the impact such actual reading of his book will have on North American Smithians in particular remains perniciously unclear. Some traditionalist Smithians are already conversant with historical Adam scholarship, and have begun to make a distinction between “high” Smithologies, in which Adam continues to be appreciated within the framework of the theology of the Apostle Milton and others, and “low” Smithologies, in which Adam is understood in light of the historical and textual evidence. One such traditionalist remarks, “While low Smithologies certainly have their place and help us to understand how the Hand worked over the past few centuries to lead us from Adam to our faith as it is today, ultimately it is impossible for the high Smithologies to be displaced, because they have been confirmed to us by our own experience of the free market. What can we say? We have seen the Invisible Handiwork, and we have benefited.”

  1. Noam Chomsky, Class Warfare (Monroe: Common Courage, 1996) 19. [BACK]
  2. Ibid., 19-20. [BACK]
  3. A given ten-year-old. [BACK]
  4. Me. [BACK]
  5. Cf. YouTube [BACK]
  6. Source. [BACK]

One thought on “Was Adam Smith the Anti-Capitalist?

  1. “Adam Smith is widely regarded as a spokesman of early capitalism. Actually his viewpoint was similar to that of the American agrarians. The main purpose of ‘The Wealth of nations” was to oppose government intervention in economic matters on the ground that it resulted in monopolies and special privileges for the business classes. he advocated competition as the best method of ensuring that businessmen would genuinely serve the public interest, and assumed that in a regime of free competition property would be widely distributed. In Smith’s opinion the interests of the business classes were contrary to those of the community (since they usually wished to restrict production and to keep prices high). Competition was usually disliked by businessmen, and was a necessary measure of discipline. The American agrarians generally spoke of Smith with strong approval, while the exponents of business enterprise (such as Hamilton) criticized him.” Henry Bamford Parkes, ‘The American Experience,’ 1959 Vintage

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