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Sep 20, 2016

Adam Smith, Class Warrior: The Left-Right Spectrum

D’Amato argues that Adam Smith’s role as a critic of incumbent mercantilist interests has been wrongly obscured by those who see him as aligned with the right.

In American politics, libertarianism has long been associated—and has actively associated itself—with the political right. This association with the right has regrettably meant that the literature of liberty has long been neglected as a source of insights on a wide range of social and political issues. As Allen Mendenhall observes:

[I]t has become an article of faith among literature scholars that the free market tradition—from John Locke, to Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson to Henry David Thoreau, Frédéric Bastiat to Benjamin Tucker, Friedrich Hayek to Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman to Robert Nozick—has nothing good to offer those concerned with wealth inequality, xenophobia, state violence, sex exploitation, class conflict, corporate corruption, worker mistreatment, and the like.

Yet the association might make sense on its face. Both libertarians and conservatives tend to favor limited, if not minimalist, government, individual rights, and a free-market economy, at least in theory. In practice, then, libertarians and conservatives have tended to embrace the alliance, satisfied of its mutually-beneficial character, both partners tending to believe that through the often-awkward relationship it can persuade the other to become more like itself. True, there are subsets of both that have always regarded the uneasy coalition—identified often as the “fusionism” of the National Review’s Frank Meyer—as ill-advised, balanced precariously on a series of mistakes or false premises. Among libertarians who reject fusionism, many have suggested that a practical alliance with the left would both make more sense and prove more fruitful, arguing that libertarians, ostensibly like progressives, favor an open, tolerant society, not one that exalts tradition.

What’s more, libertarians have good answers for questions traditionally associated with the left. For some reason, though, we have not been able to win converts on the left at the rates at which we win conservatives. Particularly on economic issues, libertarian ideas are dismissed by the left as naïve, unrealistic, or downright evil—a cynical defense of the rich. Indeed, it is often the liberty movement itself that fails to prosecute this case clearly and effectively, falling into confused apologies for the unique iteration of corporate capitalism now prevailing. That’s because libertarians very often don’t understand their own ideas—don’t understand the way the ideal of liberty connects to those of equality, social justice, and others usually identified with the political left. This is not a problem unique to libertarians. Progressives have a similarly difficult time understanding their own ideas and the history from which they arose. Progressivism is an explicit repudiation of eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism. It would appear that progressives, who after all self-identify as “liberals,” are largely ignorant of this fact and its implications. And it turns out that the implications are weighty. A better understanding of the history of our ideas suggests that we shouldn’t necessarily take the common political spectrum at face value. Do the libertarian socialism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the authoritarian communism of Joseph Stalin—plainly polar opposites—really belong together on “the left?” And do the “anything that’s peaceful” libertarianism of Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard E. Read and the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler really belong together on the political “right?” The political spectrum produces apparently baffling, contradictory results, and no one seems to notice. For these reasons and others, a reintroduction of traditional liberalism is in order, one that meaningfully addresses the questions and concerns of today’s left.

Adam Smith, paragon of free market ideas, is a good place to start, first because the treatment of Smith in the popular discourse roughly parallels the treatment of free markets generally. What once was considered a radical condemnation of the status quo is now characterized as a defense of the same. Thus does Smith himself require a reintroduction, for the real Adam Smith has been almost completely obliterated, obscured behind the Smith that has taken on the role of mere totem of the market system—whatever indeed that may be. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was a full-throated and, in Smith’s own words, “very violent attack” on “the wretched spirit of monopoly,” the embodiment of which was a mercantile system that privileged a politically-connected social and economic elite. In his most famous work, Smith gives no quarter to “merchants and manufacturers,” whom he castigates for their “impertinent jealousy,” “mean rapacity,” and “monopolizing spirit.” These unscrupulous merchants and manufacturers, Smith argued, had pulled the wool over the eyes of those who honestly believed that mercantilism served “the great body of the people.” The fallacies embedded in mercantilist ideas about a favorable balance of trade were “so very manifest” and the benefits of free trade so clear that they never would “have been called into question, had not the interested sophistry of merchants and manufacturers confounded the common sense of mankind.” Were the Father of Economics alive today, he would doubtless find a place among the most vociferous and articulate critics of corporate power and the interventionist legal privilege upon which it is built.

Quite unbeknownst to him, Smith’s ideas would also provide the germ for the transformative ideological force that emerged in the next century. Throughout the 1800s, socialist thinkers—including even Karl Marx—would draw on the work of classical economists like Smith and David Ricardo in formulating their approach to class analysis. Indeed, the economic classes and categories set forth in The Wealth of Nations prefigure and inform those we find in Marx’s epoch-making works. Hints of Marx’s concept of alienation under capitalism are similarly anticipated by Smith. The fact that this will surprise so many readers today has much to teach us about the facile approach with which we exert that blunt instrument, the left-right political spectrum. Today’s political groupings simply did not exist when Smith lived and wrote, yet his liberal thought is decidedly left-wing in character. In point of fact, classical liberals did sit on the left side in the French Assembly, from which we derive the well-known left-right political divide. On the right were originally those who supported the Ancien Régime, reactionaries who stood against the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the Revolution. During the early nineteenth century, not only were the forerunners of today’s free market libertarians on the left, they were positioned at the utmost extremes of it. French radical liberals like Charles Dunoyer and Charles Comte, influenced by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers including Smith, presented a pre-socialist class analysis and theory of historical development. As David M. Hart observes, historians of this period “have badly misunderstood the nature of early nineteenth century liberalism by focusing excessively on political and economic policy matters.” Hart argues that Comte and Dunoyer represent the neglected social dimension, attuned to questions of “class, exploitation and the evolution of societies through definite economic stages.” Comte and Dunoyer argued that the state was the foremost historical mechanism of class rule, the bastard offspring of war, conquest, and plunder. When society reached “the final stage of industry,” they predicted, the state and its class distinctions would effectively disappear, replaced by a voluntary order of trading producers.

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