Adam Smith is known as the founding theorist of capitalism. Surprisingly, he agreed with many of his contemporaries’ criticisms of emerging commercial civilization. He acknowledged that the division of labor produces inequality and can weaken virtue. Like Rousseau, he understood that we see ourselves through others’ eyes, turning us into envious rivals. He recognized that commercial society fosters desires it cannot fulfill.

In the end, Smith endorsed the market and the social transformations associated with it, but he did so for cultural and political reasons. The commercial revolution is defensible because it civilizes.

 “Nothing tends so much to corrupt and enervate and debase the mind as dependency,” Smith argues in his Lectures on Jurisprudence, “and nothing gives such noble and generous notions of probity as freedom and independency.” Commerce frees us from corrupting dependence on the “benevolence of our fellow citizens.” In the market, we depend on hundreds of customers or trading partners; commerce diffuses dependency so that we’re not mastered by any particular benefactor.

In the much-quoted passage from Wealth of Nations, Smith claims we don’t get our dinner because of “the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker. . . . [W]e address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” As Luigino Bruni puts it in his book The Wound and the Blessing, “market relationships allow us to satisfy our needs without having to depend on others’ love.” The market elevates and dignifies the common laborer. In the bakery, we’re not beggars, serfs, or vassals. We enter the butcher shop as an equal, to strike a bargain that meets the interests of us both.

Smith’s target is usually feudalism, which he, like other Enlightenment thinkers, considered a brutal, violent, and oppressive system. During the Middle Ages, “depredations were continually committed up and down the country,” and “violence, rapine, and disorder” were widespread.

The market has a double effect on feudal war. On the one hand, Smith was as worried about the enervation of martial virtues as anyone. Trade “sinks the courage of mankind, and tends to extinguish martial spirit,” a worrisome development since war “is certainly the noblest of all arts.” On the other hand, the commercial revolution pacified Europe. A feudal lord expended his surpluses to maintain a retinue of soldiers, while merchants and industrialists spend their surpluses on luxury goods. Both lord and merchant are selfish, but the self-indulgence of the latter supports hundreds of laborers in gainful, productive, peaceful employment. By undermining the economic supports for warrior society, the market curbs the wasteful expense of war.

In short, Europeans “lived almost in a continual state of war with their neighbours, and of servile dependency on their superiors,” and the alleviation of these evils is “by far the most important of all [the] effects” of commerce.

Smith didn’t believe all social life should function by the principles of the market. Market relationships don’t express or depend on filial affection or self-sacrifice, but such virtues should thrive in private society. The market is the school of the “prudent” virtues of thrift, reliability, cooperativeness, but gentler virtues—“generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem, all the social and benevolent affections”—are cultivated in the feminine zone of the home.

Love isn’t a public virtue, and doesn’t need to be. Public life is lubricated solely by self-interest and justice. This is good for love, which gets contaminated by the grit of commerce. Better to leave love at home, where it can stay pure.

Smith’s distinction between market and social relations is unstable. If master–slave relations are uncivilized and unjust in public, why are they tolerated in the family, church, school, or village? Why, indeed, are businesses organized by a hierarchy of manager and laborer? John Stuart Mill was extending Smith’s civilizing mission when he argued that that since “the only school of genuine moral sentiment is society between equals,” the family must adapt “to the normal constitution of human society.” And if liberty and equality must transform the family, why not every other region of social life?

Since Marx, critics have attacked the “commodification” of life under capitalism. Joseph Schumpeter, Robert Nisbet, and many others, however, recognized that capitalism has a subtler and more paradoxical effect. Capitalist economies depend on traditional, non-egalitarian associations like the family and local community. Can capitalism thrive if these associations are remade into the image of the market? When the market colonizes territory beyond the market, Smith’s civilizing mission runs aground on the shoals of its own success. 

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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