Capitalist Globalism

“Citizen of the world,” as I have explained, was a phrase picked up from the Stoics and adopted by intellectuals like Voltaire and Adam Smith.  The coupling of Adam Smith with Voltaire is bound to annoy “conservative” defenders of capitalist ideology, but a few words on his globalist tendencies may help to explain why Republicans were so quick to condemn any attempt to defend the American people from predatory multi-national corporations.

Smith is frequently invoked as the godfather of the free-trade globalism advocated by both American political parties today, and although this is hardly fair to a man who wrote of the wealth of nations and not of global corporations, we should not be too quick to exonerate him. Smith’s Impartial Spectator—the suprahuman conscience that rises above all personal concerns and judges them objectively—gives off a decidedly universalist and globalist odor. And what of the mysterious mechanism that Smith uses in The Wealth of Nations to explain the workings of the market—the Invisible Hand?  

Smith argues that every individual “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.”  This selfish activity thus raises the overall income of the society and contributes to the greater good.  How does this miracle take place?  The individual who intends only personal gain “is …led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith had anticipated this argument:

“The rich … are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.” (TMS IV.1.10)

Smith’s latterday disciples, prone to interpret any invocation of God or even nature as Christian, are usually uncomfortable with the invisible hand, which they insist is merely a metaphor for competition and market forces, but they need not worry about any particles of faith lurking in the recesses of the canny Scotsman’s mind.  Indeed, from the Christian perspective, Smith’s famous invisible hand looks to be either mysticism or deceit.  Deceit, because despite all the defenses made of Smith by American conservatives, he is clearly not an Orthodox Trinitarian Christian. That is clear from the decidedly ideologlical account he put out of the peaceful and saintly death of David Hume, which occasioned the famous interchange between Smith and Dr. Johnson:

“Sir, you lie,” declared the Doctor, to which Smith replied: “You are a son of a bitch.” 

As it turns out, Johnson was probably right about Hume’s death being something less saintly than than Stoic resignation. A servant of Hume is known to have said more than once that her master was only calm in the presence of visitors, but was in great distress as soon as they left.

Like other religious skeptics (Lincoln, for example) Smith likes to invoke the deity or providence as the ultimate justification for his views, but he never invokes Christ—except to misquote or misinterpret him—and only speaks of religion per se in deprecating tones. H e was also no mystic, but, despite his cautionary remarks on Epictetus, he had been powerfully influenced by ancient Stoics and their famous doctrine that one should live according to nature. This nature was a rational cosmological system—the logos, a cosmic fire.  To live according to nature means ultimately to despise all those things that are personal and peculiar—distinctions of rank or nationality—and the Stoic goal was to be a cosmopolites, a citizen of the world.

Adam Smith, philosophically if not politically, was an “enlightened” globalist.  First, he invokes the impartial spectator as a means of rising above the personal and local point of view, and then he turns to the invisible hand as a force of nature—or the deity, if you prefer—that turns unregulated international trade and global commerce to the advantage of the human race. Even if it were to fail, from time to time, Smith’s theory would make those failures trivial in comparison with the cosmic order that makes everything turn out for the best. This is the point at which Leibniz’s argument that this is the best of all possible worlds converges with Scotland’s residual Calvinism that denied all secondary causes and attributed everything that happens, including apparent evil, to the direct will of God.

It is easy to see, then, that from the perspective of the postmodern West, the two dominant political ideologies—Dictatorial Marxism and Democratic Capitalism—are strongly tilted away from the petty concerns of family, tribe, and nation, in the direction of a global order, whether that order is represented by the Armed Forces of NATO and the United Nations, as they make war on little nations that make the mistake of standing up for their own interests, or the World Trade Organization and other tools of multi-national capitalism, relentlessly seeking the destruction of small businesses and communities.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Dominick D says:

    Stoic nature seems rather unnatural.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It would be a bit off topic to explore what they meant by nature, but it was a development from Plato and Aristotle. In everyday English we tend to think of nature either in Wordsworthian terms–trees, flowers, etc.–or as the object of scientific study. The primary Greek conception of physis derives from a verbal root that refers both to existence and growth. For the early Greek philosophers known as “physicists,” nature was what is and the way things really are, and the way things really are does not always correspond to our perception of them. For the Stoics, nature is the well-organized kosmos or universe, and through reason and the practice of virtue we can live in accordance with this vast system. It was as obvious to them as it is to us that different sorts of beings–plants, cows, lions–lived by different rules and patterns. Man as the highest organic being had the capacity to rise to the greatest height of understanding and conduct, thus in one sense to live according to nature meant to lead a life of virtue. The problem with Stoicism was not their conception of nature but t heir tendency toward extremism–only the perfectly wise and good man (a great saint) could be considered good or virtuous. A basically good man, who took care of his family, fought for his country, obeyed the laws, helped his friends, could not be considered virtuous or wise, so long as he had a touch of folly or vice. Their opponents never ceased to ridicule the Stoics for this position, though it was modified to a great extent to suit the more pragmatic Roman character.