Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Adam Smith: father of savage capitalism or philosopher of moral sentiment?

Adam Smith's An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Thomas Jefferson's, et al the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine's Common Sense and Edward Gibbons' first volume of History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were all published in 1776 and could be considered the four foundational literary corners of the new nation.

Early Americans prized an economics of liberty, a politics of independence and a belief in the lessons of the past. While they prized the dignity of the individual, they also had a communitarian streak knowing that if they didn't hang together, they would hang separately...so to speak.

The great Scottish Enlightenment thinker, Adam Smith, is often referred to as the father of capitalism. He is almost as frequently caricatured as the father of Gordon Gecko, greed, and government indifference to the impact of market forces on the common good. Those on the Catholic left use him to curse democratic capitalism and free markets.

Smith was also the author of A Theory of Moral Sentiments. This is the so-called kinder and gentler Smith, the Smith of empathy, benevolence and public virtue.

If you're beginning to feel the clutch of a false dilemma, you're right. Was Adam Smith really a split personality, a sloppy, unintegrated thinker? Be suspicious of those who claim that men and women of genius didn't know themselves as we, centuries later, have so wisely come to know them.

Smith wasn't a fragmented personality desperately in search of inner unity. He knew that the wealth of nations didn't require the abandonment of moral purpose. Quite the opposite. Doing good and doing well could reinforce one another.

For Catholics, who believe that love is both our supreme honor and duty, economic and political systems must strengthen human dignity and serve the common good.

In the words of Benedict XVI: "Truth preserves and expresses charity's power to liberate in the ever-changing events of history...Development, social well-being, the search for a satisfactory solution to the grave socio-economic problems besetting humanity, all need this truth. What they need even more is that this truth should be loved and demonstrated. Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present.

"“Caritas in veritate” is the principle around which the Church's social doctrine turns, a principle that takes on practical form in the criteria that govern moral action. I would like to consider two of these in particular, of special relevance to the commitment to development in an increasingly globalized society: justice and the common good." (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, 5-6).

It's time for Catholics to take another look at the common good thinking of Adam Smith. In a review of 2007s New Perspectives on Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments edited by Cockfield, et al, James Halteman writes: "Moral behavior is determined by the complex interaction of human passion, one’s need for social approval, and the impartial spectator. All of these conform to the design of God in nature and, when coupled with the proper social institutions, such as orderly markets, they lead to a coherent and prosperous society. While this view may be new to those still seeing Smith’s system as dominated by narrow self-interest moving toward universal opulence, it is now the generally accepted view of those who see sympathy, the impartial spectator, nature, and the design of the Deity in the eighteenth century context of the TMS. This book not only enlightens us on these topics, but it stands as an exemplar of good exegetical work in the history of economic thought."

If you're tired of cliches from the left and the right like
-change you can believe in,
-stealth socialism,
-take back America, 
-human rights are  more important than property rights,
-we need targeted tax cuts for middle class working families,
-the wealthy don't pay taxes

If you are tired of hearing political arguments that always seem to end with "You're a Nazi" or "You're a Communist", "He's just like Hitler" or "He's just like Stalin" then read Benedict's Caritas in veritate or John Paul II's Centesimus Annus or the book of Proverbs or the prophet Isaiah. And remember that the political lexicon of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives have brought us to our current impasse. Isn't it time to try something different? Why not the teaching of the Catholic Church?

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