Published On: Mon, Jul 27th, 2020

Thinking Seriously While There Is Still Time: Classical Economic Wisdom at the Eleventh Hour

At this fearful moment, when plague and nuclear war could erupt more-or-less simultaneously, the “whole” of  any American catastrophic outcome could far exceed the mere sum of its grievous “parts.”
Prof. Louis René Beres

 “The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world….At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him.”-Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

President Donald Trump’s jumbled economic policies, resembling his corona virus policies and public policies in general, remain fundamentally anecdotal and conspicuously incoherent. Because they are detached from any sound theoretical foundations, these programs will be continually disruptive without adding any compensating benefits for the United States.  Lamentably, all this largely self-imposed economic dislocation is taking place at a time when rampant biological plague is quite literally decimating the American Republic.

This decimation is palpably sweeping, and includes precipitously rising population levels of food insecurity. In brief, under President Donald J. Trump, the United States is becoming an increasingly disadvantaged and sorely imperiled nation. Along certain explicit and authoritative criteria of taxonomic division or status-differentiation, we are now a “third world country.”

Irrefutably.

It is high time for appropriate warning bells to go off. It is finally time, therefore, to think seriously and to properly value serious thought. Though it has been more than two centuries since Adam Smith, a capable look back over his classical and well-catalogued insights would still be well advised. In terms of the pertinent parlance of contemporary social scientific classification, such a retrospective look would prove “cost-effective.”

Assuredly.

As is true for any other disciplined sphere of human study, the American economic realm is a product of antecedent thought. For better or for worse, this means not just self-centered considerations of money and finance, but rather the cumulative result of genuinely human and humane examinations. Always, moreover, these examinations must be premised upon the core idea of “system,” that is, on the persisting interrelatedness “of all things.”

There is more.  Economics and the pandemic are inextricably intertwined; it would be foolish and futile, therefore, to expect any progress in the former without achieving corresponding scientific advances in the latter. In relevant philosophic terms, death is the prototype of all injustice –  including economic failure –  and American death rates during the current plague have had a great deal to do with prevailing distributions of national wealth. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s very curious sense of logic, death rates will not decline if the nation cuts back on Covid19 testing.  Indeed, that any single American with an elementary school education would be unable to recognize the overwhelming fallacy of such “logic” is altogether difficult to process.

There are overriding intellectual obligations here that warrant mention. Americans must go beyond the barren observations and clichés of current presidential policies; inter alia, this means purposefully recalling classical economic theory in its most densely-layered and meticulously nuanced content. Soon, we should look with suitably “modernized” detail at Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and also his better-known Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). To be sure, very few Trump-appointed policy makers or followers  actually read books – especially books that call for some serious analytic or scholarly exertions –  but there would still be some tangible recompense. This recollected scholarship would “pay for itself.”

Already, back in the 18th century, and quite plainly without benefit of any computers or electric light, Smith managed to examine certain bewilderingly complex elements of international trade within an impressively broad intellectual context.

Adam Smith knew many things. For one, he had already understood that thoughtful economic insights were not just about disjointed numbers or reassuringly growing  bank accounts. Wealth was not written to advance the monetary or social interests of one particular class over another. On the contrary, at a time when cultural and historical literacy were expected of European public commentators, he openly acknowledged the essential “oneness” of all human affairs.

This meant a core human singularity hailed, among others, by Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius and the Jewish Scriptures, not to mention Hinduism and Buddhism.

Without such an acknowledgment, Smith would have amounted to little more than the current crop of half-educated Trump commentators one is now forced to endure on television, in  the newspapers and online. Abjuring banalities, the seminal economic thinker from Scotland sought to understand genuinely intricate operations of society and the market place. More than likely, he would have agreed with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s later instruction in Zarathustra not to seek the “higher man” at any place of commerce. In essence, Adam Smith took special pains to highlight the prospective errors of analytically-baseless protectionist strategies, most notably of tariffs that could very plausibly and quickly be reciprocated.

Most famously, of course, Smith identified an “invisible hand,” or a credible “convergence of satisfactions.” Together with such a markedly gainful fusion, he reasoned, the perpetual collisions of individual self-interest and the myriad interests of nations could somehow be reconciled. Moreover, in the trendy language of today’s career economists or financial managers, such reconciliations could eventually prove “optimal.”

But how might these classical insights help us today? What might this 18th-century stance on money and markets have to do with our present American economic system, a complex network functioning as part of a much larger worldwide economy and civilization? In part, the best answer must begin with the widespread American belief that accelerating consumption is per se indispensable to economic well-being – both individual and collective.

Though never a plutocrat, Smith had argued persuasively that certain arrangements of private wealth enhancement could at least permit the poor to live tolerably. Rejecting his contemporary Jean Jacques Rousseau’s fully contrary position –  that is, that “the privileged few…gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life” –  he foresaw in capitalism not just an enviably rising productivity, but also the necessary foundations for an enduring political liberty. Naturally, whether or not he was actually correct in this assessment depends pretty much upon who exactly is being queried.

Karl Marx had offered a plainly alternate view to Smith’s general optimism concerning capitalism. From his own formal disciplinary framework – a multi-layered academic context that was fashioned with intellectual underpinnings and a corollary analytic dexterity (this point is frequently overlooked amid the visceral chorus of dismissals shouted by American politicians, especially those who could never make it through even a single page of Capital) –  Marx had seen in capitalism a hideously corrosive source of  personal defilement and communal self-destruction.

In his own time, Adam Smith was undaunted by any determinedly specious political arguments that were detached from core considerations of intellect. By applying various capitalistic modes of production and exchange, he asserted, an inextinguishable social inequality might still be favorably reconciled with measurable increments of human progress. In those especially troubling cases where the prevailing facts could have taken him in variously different directions, we may presently assume, he would have felt bound to accept certain corresponding modifications of his own basic theories.

Conspicuously, even among US President Donald Trump’s most senior economic advisors,  there is no Adam Smith, not one who is even close intellectually. However much these shamelessly servile advisors may seek to wrap themselves in the presumed propagandistic messages of Wealth, they wittingly ignore the daunting depth and visible exertions of Smith’s conceptual thought. Unsurprisingly, in light of their almost uniformly undistinguished academic  credentials, they freely disregard that Adam Smith’s preferred system of “perfect liberty” can never be consistent with narrowly partisan encouragements of crude and feveredaccumulation.

Back when the United States was born, on a date that coincides exactly with publication of Wealth, Adam Smith already understood what present-day Trump trade policies so blatantly disregard. This is the fact that certain inexorable laws of the marketplace, driven by a natural human competition, demand a principled disdainfor all vanity-driven consumption. It’s not a particularly complicated set of laws; nonetheless, it does call for some modicum of intellectual exertion.

Adam Smith could never have abided a Black Friday-type “conspicuous consumption,” a phrase that would later be used more popularly and more effectively by sociologist Thorsten Veblen. This especially vulgar species of consumption, one driven by variously recalcitrant cravings related to assorted feelings of individual self-worth, ought never expect to become a rational engine for economic or wider social improvement. This still crucial point should resonate loudly and instructively with all who could still heap gratuitous praise upon a White House that equates personal success with the elicited envy of others.

To be sure, the Trump White House makes its principal stand upon precisely such a humiliating equation. Reciprocally, at a moment when substantive wealth gaps in the United States augur fundamentally undemocratic odds of living and dying, Donald Trump’s endlessly committed supporters stay “loyal” for one presumed reason above all others. This is the notion that their own personal economic success – including the “elicited envy of others” – requires another four years of Trumpian ant-reason.

In essence, this means another four years of communal citizen disdain for more serious and challenging thought.

There is more. Under no imaginable circumstances could Adam Smith have championed a system of consumption premised on the demeaning notion that material acquisition ought to stem from a craven wish to impress other people.

Although Adam Smith had already understood the psychological and economic dynamics of “conspicuous consumption,” he also feared and even loathed these dynamics. From his personal point of view, it was entirely reasonable that the marketplace should routinely regulate the price and quantity of available goods according to certain unchanging and “natural” arbiters of public demand. This marketplace, he had urged accordingly, should never be manipulated from above, by governments,  and by way of deceptively manipulative policies.

Now, in the withering declensions of Donald Trump’s dissembling rule, America is losing all residual sight of Adam Smith’s “natural liberty.” In vain, this nation still attempts to construct a viable economic posture upon great oceans of shallow slogans and on twisting rivers of hideously empty witticisms. At their core, our derivative national problems of orchestrated trade barriers and manipulated hyper-consumption are not primarily economic. Rather, as Smith would himself have warned, because they are spurred on by seemingly ineradicable personal doubts of self-worth and self-esteem, these problems should be examined at a more appropriately psychological level.

But who today even wants to undertaken such an examination?

All Americans already believe, and more or less directly, that our national economic efforts must be oriented toward status-based purchasing.  Oddly enough, however, disregarding Adam Smith altogether, almost no one seeks to inquire: “What sort of society can we ultimately expect from an economic system that is based  upon feverish social imitation and on absolutely crass conformance”?  The answer in part, is a flaccid society of “mass,” a disordered and disordering amalgam of unreasoning people who are no longer thinking individuals. Hence, we elect Donald J. Trump.

Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, the American Transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had remarked presciently on  “self-reliance.” Any foolish “reliance upon property,” Emerson warned, is the predictable result of a “want of self-reliance.” What suitable corrective was needed? Emerson had answered succinctly, and without any discernible hesitation: “High thinking and plain living.”

How far have we now come from this once hopeful conjunction? Today, the relentlessly conformist call of American mass society remains loud, manipulative and seemingly persuasive. This is especially the case under the aegis of a president who is conducting ceaseless and systematic war upon intellect, education and all vulnerable elements of genuine learning. “I love the poorly educated,” said Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign. “Intellect  rots the  brain,” said Third Reich Minister of Propaganda in 1934.

The true difference between these sentiments is not as great as might first be presumed.

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith noted that human beings are not made any happier by their possessions, but that the rich, in seeking the “gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires,” may still advance the “interest of society.” With remarkable originality, therefore, Smith explained, the wealthiest members of the nation, without ever consciously intending any such generalized benefit, “are led by an invisible hand” to bring forth necessary reductions in social inequality.

Back in the 18th century, however, Adam Smith would likely have shuddered with any foreknowledge of today’s brutally callous system of American economic exchange, not only because he would have been unsympathetic to the self-seeking supporters of such an injurious plutocracy, but also because he recognized the implacable consequences of any market theory founded upon  delusion. As long as our American economy remains animated, at its core, by rabid conspicuous consumption and by generally correlative trade wars, an accelerating process of class/cultural  warfare will be our sole driving narrative. As long as we inhabit a society that. at least in significant part, takes an evident pride in a presumptive presidential infallibility and a doctrinaire anti-intellectualism, disease and economic dislocation will not merely coincide.

They will crush out any tangibly discernible remnants of a once-promising American civilization.

Looking ahead to the November 2020 election, Donald Trump will remain fixedly intent upon garnering “the attention of the world.” Among many other grievous consequence of this president’s incoherent war against intellect and thought, this childlike objective will undermine America’s economy, safety and national security at the same time. Though Adam Smith could likely never have imagined any such far-reaching impairments spawned by crudely self-centered national goals, the largely unexamined synergies of pandemic and anti-reason could prove authentically lethal to the United States.

Perhaps even sooner rather than later.

At this fearful moment, when plague and nuclear war could erupt more-or-less simultaneously, the “whole” of  any American catastrophic outcome could far exceed the mere sum of its grievous “parts.” In the end, learning from Adam Smith, warnings about this portentous product could be anything but hyperbole. As always, thinking seriously is indispensable, but such thinking must also always be undertaken in advance, “while there is still time.”

Very few “loyal” followers of Donald J. Trump could conceivably read and understand Adam Smith, but there is still abundant cause for the broader American society to favor Reason over further presidential manipulation and contrivance. Failure to understand this utterly vital obligation during a time of disease pandemic and economic uncertainty could prove not just discomfiting. It could also be abundantly lethal.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy

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