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The Sacred Mysteries of Adam Smith

Jonathan D. Askonas

A few years back at a conference in New Orleans, after a few sazeracs, a colleague and I got talking about liberalism and its critics. He waxed poetic in his defense of the ongoing importance of classical liberal principles, of their enduring truth, in the tradition of Locke, Mill, Jefferson, and, of course, Adam Smith. I told him that the principles were all well and good, but that he had a deeper problem - the kind of subject whom liberalism imagined had been made obsolete. We’re losing liberalism because we’ve lost the liberal subject. He looked at me like I had a third eyeball.

That feeling returned in reading Erik Matson’s recent essay “Why We Read Adam Smith.” Before Matson makes the case for reading Smith, he needs to consider the case for reading. Because the problem with the case for Adam Smith, and the problem for the Great Books and for those latter-day defenders of classical liberalism, is that the foundations of modern society have shifted beneath their feet. The meaning of these activities, valuable as they may yet be, has necessarily changed. These changes, often unnoticed by people who like to have arguments about Adam Smith, pose a fundamental challenge to assessing what his thought means for us today.

Classical liberalism presupposes the liberal subject. Led by print, societies in the 18th and 18th centuries (especially British society) achieved enough of a space apart from the weight of custom, sociality, and intimate bodily presence to create a new way of being human, with more space for reflection, consideration, discourse, reading, correspondence with intellectual peers, and a resulting intellectual culture that prized clarity and cool rationality. In fields of commerce, science, politics, philosophy, religion, art, and even war, a transformation took place. Liberalism prized cool reason, exercised in reading, reflecting, and writing a response in the solitude of one’s study, and dismissed the heated passions of fevered crowds and collectives.

But the individual produced by the reign of print (the essay, the novel, the report, the magazine, the newspaper) has been replaced by a “dividual” reared by ascendent digital media (the livestream, the tweet, the Substack, the ‘gram’). The dividual charts a completely different relationship between the parts and the whole, between the classes, between the economic and the political, between individual and collective identity. Watch Zoomer TikToks and tell me with a straight face where their notions of the human person fit in the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The past twenty years have seen the demise of a society based on serious reading. President Trump may be the first modern president to basically refuse to actually read his briefings, but this is just yet more evidence that he’s a man of the people.

The New Yorker ran a stunning report on the death of the English major. It quoted a senior Harvard professor reflecting on the way her students have changed:

“Young people are very, very concerned about the ethics of representation, of cultural interaction—all these kinds of things that, actually, we think about a lot!” Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and an English professor, told me last fall. She was one of several teachers who described an orientation toward the present, to the extent that many students lost their bearings in the past. “The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences—like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,” she said. “Their capacities are different, and the nineteenth century is a long time ago.”

While American media discourse tends to fixate on the Ivy League, in this case it helpfully establishes a high-water mark for American literacy. Recently, at a seminar dedicated to understanding John Locke’s writings on public religion, a number of fellow academics and I got to talking. One professor recounted a student turning in a term paper on Shakespeare’s politics that exclusively used quotes from “No Fear Shakespeare.” Another pointed out the popularity of a“translation” of The Federalist Papers (written around the same time as Smith’s Wealth of Nations into “modern English.” But she also admitted that her students found reading The Federalist “in the original” to be basically incomprehensible.

One of the hazards of being the sort of person who likes to write essays about political philosophers is that one forgets how strange an enterprise this is. As Smith wrote, “A philosopher is company to a philosopher only; the member of a club, to his own little knot of companions.” Many of Matson’s arguments assume an audience that is both capable of reading Smith’s stilted 18th century prose and that views Smith, for better or worse, as a kind of authority.

I deny the premise! There is a steep drop off in awareness of even the barest basics of Adam Smith’s life and thought for those raised after the demise of print culture (born after, say 1990). Not only my undergraduates, but the vast majority of, for instance, Brookings Institution research fellows or staff economists at the Federal Reserve have no special opinion of Smith. At best, they view him as a kind of founder. They have heard of him in the same way that a modern chemist has heard of Boyle. At worst, they simply have no idea of his life and thought: they place him in the same category of vague antiquity as Parmenides or Zoroaster.

For instance, I have a good friend who was an economics undergrad at an Ivy League school, did a masters in economics at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and was later a McKinsey Consultant. He’s curious and reads a lot, is fluent across a number of subjects, makes for a wonderful companion at dinner parties, and is exactly the sort of person who will be at the heights of economic policy in a decade or two. He said he had never read a word of Adam Smith; none of his classmates and colleagues ever had (save a sole, lonely economic historian at Oxford); and Smith at no point showed up on a syllabus.

If Smith is no kind of shared authority or figure, why, then, read Adam Smith? I can think of two reasons which are in actual accord with the society of dividuals.

The first is to join the cultus of Smith, of his latter-day disciples, those who keep alive his project and that of his friends and contemporaries in the liberal tradition, of those who have owned (or have ever been tempted to purchase) an Adam Smith necktie or scarf. During the so-called Dark Ages, enlistment in the Great Books canon of the Roman ecumene was no surety that a text would survive. Rather, it was those ancient thinkers who had developed an on-going following in the new dispensation of Christianity whose manuscripts were painstakingly copied and re-copied over the centuries.

As we enter a new Dark Age, characterized not by a loss of material but the total neglect of the inheritance of the past as our common culture disintegrates, maintaining and extending the teachings of a great thinker will not be a shared cultural project but one taken up by a self-selecting group who see something important in that work.

In practical terms, this is overwhelmingly where and why people are likely to be exposed to Smith today. He is off the curriculum almost everywhere except for a handful of Great Books schools like St. John’s. But his memory is kept alive by the network of Smith scholars and devotees, often associated with places like the Mercatus Center (where I first seriously read Smith on a graduate fellowship), that put on seminars and programs supported by a handful of libertarian and conservative foundations.

To the extent that Smith continues to be anything like an “authority,” it will be because of the beliefs, arguments, rhetoric, and influence of individual people formed by and within this network. Already, Smith is long gone from what passes for the American intellectual “mainstream” (itself an obsolete concept).

But even for those who decline to don the Adam Smith necktie, there is another reason to read Smith, though it is a bit different than what Matson claims.

Reading Smith, what impresses you is not his relevance but his alienness. The Theory of Moral Sentiments seems not like a description of a universal human condition, but a theory of the world premised on the manners, mores, and social world of 18th Century Britain, after print but before industrialization and electronic media. The Wealth of Nations is written at the dawn of global commerce but before financialization, integrated global supply chains, multinational corporations, and competition in innovation.

Exchange value depends on scarcity. As the number of people familiar with Adam Smith and our inheritance of economic thinking declines, the value of reading Smith paradoxically increases. Stuck as we are in increasingly presentist, flat, technocratic approach to economics (and social science generally), Smith’s rich observations and different set of problems reward readers with a new vantage point from which to understand the problems of their own day. And the difficulty of the task (especially as our skill in reading books like Smith’s declines) ensures that, like other kinds of what Cal Newport calls “deep work,” only those who have the passion and focus to endure the text will be able to benefit. Paradoxically, it is wrestling with a great book of yesteryear, something everyone read and discussed in a prior era, which can provide unique insights in the present day and in the future.

In the introduction to his essay, Matson poses the question of the value of Smith in terms of the “opportunity cost” of reading him (held by the economics profession to be too high). But “opportunity cost” barely enters in to “non-economic” social and human activities (which also happen to have highly nonlinear economic returns) — initiation into a fraternal organization, devotion to a sacred text, a voyage of discovery beyond the horizon where dragons dwell. These are the reasons to read Adam Smith.

Jonathan Askonas is an assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.


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