Sorry Neocons, Adam Smith Was Not One of You


Defense hawks seem to be hitting Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations like sophomores cramming for an exam. In the last few days, three separate hawks have invoked Smith three separate times to excoriate the potential defense cuts in the phony debt deal.

John Bolton, the Bush-era neocon whose mustache makes everything he says more menacing, pulled a passage from the book that says that "the first duty of the sovereign" is "protecting the society from the violence and invasion" to warn darkly about all the bad things that would befall America if it doesn't keep pumping about $700 billion a year that it doesn't have into the Pentagon (even if it just goes down the $700 toilet, presumably). Meanwhile, Brian Stewart of National Review Online and David Frum no longer of the American Enterprise Institute paraded Smith's statement that "defense is superior to opulence" to suggest that anyone who questioned why America needs to spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined obviously has zero regard for national security.

Sadly, their interpretation of the great political economist's magnum opus is a bit sophomoric.

Here are the problems: First, Stewart and Frum got the quote wrong—and in an identical way, suggesting that one lifted it from the other without actually bothering to consult the actual text. The exact quote is: "Defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence." (Look it up yourself on page 465 of Volume I of the Liberty Fund edition.)

Two, they got the interpretation wrong. The operative word in the quote is "defence." But America does not have a defense budget—it has an offense budget to maintain far-flung bases and military alliances whose original rationale became defunct decades ago. This is not what Smith was endorsing.

Anyone with any familiarity with the book knows that Smith's whole project in it was to debunk the mercantilist mentality that was causing Britain to bankrupt itself by building a huge military to colonize the rest of the world in search of markets. The entire passage—in which the quote is but one throwaway line—is part of his broader plea to Great Britain to allow free trade. That means deploying its naval forces for defensive purposes—not to keep foreign merchants off its shores or, for that matter, search overseas for monsters to slay. Sacrificing its wealth or "opulence" might be necessary, he agreed, when England had to defend itself from hostile foreign powers, something few today would deny outside the small but eminently adorable band of anarcho-capitalists and pacifists. However, believing, as England did at that time, that it could actually enhance its "opulence" by using its navy to keep foreign merchants off its shores was dumb as hell. Here is the rest of the passage:

The act of navigation is not favorable to foreign commerce, or to the growth of the opulence that can arise from it…[I]f foreigners, either by prohibitions or high duties, are hindered from coming to sell, they cannot always afford to come to buy; because coming without a cargo, they must lose the freight from their own country to Great Britain. By diminishing the number of sellers, therefore, we necessarily diminish the number of buyers, and are thus likely not only to buy foreign goods dearer, but to sell our own cheaper, than if there was a more perfect freedom of trade. As defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence, the act of navigation is, perhaps, the wisest of all commercial regulations of England."

The act of navigation that Smith was referring to was a law that was passed in 1651 to build England's naval forces when it was on the verge of war with Netherlands—and he saw nothing wrong with that. Subsequently, however, the act morphed into enforcing Britain's bald-faced mercantilism—and he saw plenty wrong with that. But nowhere does he suggest that maintaining absolute defense supremacy in the world, as neocons who question any shrinkage of America's global military footprint want, is a remotely worthy goal. To the contrary, there are plenty of other passages in which Smith discusses the futility—both moral and practical—of keeping colonized people pliant to maintain an empire. Indeed, Smith was part of the Enlightenment's anti-imperialistic intellectual tradition whose other major protagonists were Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. Their anti-imperialistic ideas were ultimately challenged—successfully—by John Stuart Mill, who, when not writing genuinely brilliant tracts defending freedom of speech and property rights for white Brits, was busy apologizing for the British empire and its abrogation of those same rights for Indians and other uncivilized brown barbarians!

Actually, the political theorist who shares the neocon national greatness agenda most closely is not Adam Smith but Niccolo Machiavelli. In his Discourses on Livy he makes a case for Roman-style empire building not only to keep potential aggressors at bay—conquer them before they conquer you—but to promote the internal health of the republic itself.  A republic that sought only to maintain its boundaries and not expand its dominion was not sustainable, he argued, because it would have no cause around which to unite the citizenry:

If heaven were so kind [to a republic] that it did not have to make war [to fend off invaders], from that would arise the idleness to make it either effeminate or divided; these two things together, or each by itself, would be the cause of its ruin.

Neocons and defense hawks are using the moral cachet of Adam Smith to justify a national greatness agenda lifted from Machiavelli—which, if you come to think of it, is rather Machiavellian.