What conservatives ignore in Adam Smith's message is killing our economy
In the name of capitalist hero Adam Smith, Americans are told to shop 'til they drop to stimulate our economy. But Smith actually condemned vanity-driven consumption. Are we building our economic recovery on the sand?
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Whether Democrats or Republicans, most voters believe that our national economic effort must be oriented toward buying more, as they have been led to believe by pundits and economists alike. No one seems to inquire: Exactly what sort of society can we expect from an economic system that is based upon imitation and conformance?Skip to next paragraph
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Contrived demand has not always been a basic driver of our economy. Before television, and before our latest social networking gadgets, such demand could not have had nearly such overwhelming power and effect.
Writing in the middle of the 19th century, the American transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, spoke presciently of “self-reliance.” Foolish “reliance upon property,” Emerson had understood, is the unwanted result of “a want of self‑reliance.”
Now, living apprehensively amid a literally delirious collectivism, the ever-fearful American wants, more or less desperately, to project a “successful” image. This projection, in turn, remains founded upon material acquisition of “all the right things.”
In the final analysis, as Adam Smith himself would have understood, it will be the relentlessly conformist call of American mass society that critically undermines our core economy.
Time to move away from mass consumption
To create a robust economy, and a stable stock market, we Americans will finally have to reorient our larger society away from its long-corrupted ambience of mass taste.
In that expansive part of America that still knows very little of Wall Street, there is now great fragility and a palpable unhappiness. Taught again and again that respect and success will lie securely in high salaries, and corollary patterns of high consumption, the compliant American mass dutifully celebrates “fitting in.”
At the same time, the majority of this nation’s people seem to widely avoid real literature and difficult ideas. Not surprisingly, our universities, for the most part, now appear more genuinely concerned with popular magazine ratings and “branding,” than with serious learning.
In his “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” appearing in 1759, 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,” simultaneously “advance the interest” of society as a whole. Without intending any such general benefit, the wealthiest members of the nation “are led by an invisible hand” to bring forth reductions in social inequality.
None of this should ever be understood to mean, however, that the preferred path to economic growth and stability ought to come from any specifically engineered patterns of hyper-consumption.
Even if we can accept Smith’s entire core argument about the “invisible hand,” America’s best path to economic well-being can only lie in a steady retreat from mass societal consumption, and in sturdy new personal affirmations of “self-reliance.”
Louis René Beres is a professor of International Law at Purdue University. The author of ten major books and several hundred scholarly articles on world affairs, his columns appear in many major American and European newspapers and magazines.