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Smith Didn’t Build That


Over at the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik assures us that Adam Smith would have had no trouble with Barack Obama’s recent remarks about how the existence of public roads nullifies the significance of individual accomplishment and justifies the administrative state.

Count me a skeptic. Gopnik is certainly right to say that Smith believed that markets were created and sustained by public policy, and that building infrastructure is an important public purpose which government should pursue. Everyone else believes that too. Obama’s assertion that his opponents disagree with that is preposterous. But as Gopnik also notes, Smith was an ardent critic of what we today would call crony capitalism. His case for the approach he lays out in The Wealth of Nations begins from a critique of the then-reigning economic approach known as mercantilism, under which each of the European powers set market rules that served the interests of a few large domestic manufacturers and trading companies that worked closely with the government—putting economic policy in the service of what they took to be the national interest, in order to advance the nation’s trading position. Smith argued that legislators should instead govern the market in the interest of the common consumer, and that the interest of that consumer would be best served by intense, open competition among producers that did not privilege large and well-connected businesses over smaller and newer rivals.

Crony capitalism—and a preference for a few large companies in each part of the economy that will function as agents of the government and be rewarded and protected accordingly—is the core of the Obama administration’s approach to the economy. It’s the essence of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, for instance. And it is decidedly not about open competition in the service of the common consumer’s interest. You can name your new agencies consumer protection bureaus all you like, what they’re doing is making the economy more consolidated and easily manageable from the center, rejecting competitive enterprises in favor of public utilities. That’s basically the opposite of Smith’s vision.

And that is what Obama’s critics are criticizing—not his view that roads and bridges are necessary for commerce, but his ludicrous assertion that the very existence of public infrastructure (funded by the wealth produced through commerce, by the way) somehow diminishes the value of private enterprise or should silence critics of bureaucratic micromanagement and crony capitalism. Adam Smith would be no friend of that view, to put it mildly.

Reflecting on the technocratic hubris of Obamacare in particular, I’m often thrown back to this observation of Smith’s about the overconfident legislator:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

It is no stretch to say that this does not appear to be Barack Obama’s view of the world.