Matson & Ballor: Smithian Liberalism and Christianity

In pockets of discourse among some religious conservatives, “liberalism” has become a secular, rationalistic bogeyman to which we can attribute many of our spiritual, social and economic ills. A common charge is that liberalism entails a false anthropology—one that conceives of human beings as isolated, self-sovereign individuals, and of social units from community to nation as a matter of voluntary association and contract.

But such charges elide the fact that there have been different sorts of “liberals” corresponding to different sorts of “liberalisms.” While there are certainly figures associated with variants of liberalism that advance false anthropologies, distorted social outlooks and wrongheaded public policies, these views do not represent the whole of liberalism. Many Enlightenment figures espoused a vision of liberalism that is compatible with traditional Christianity, including economist and philosopher Adam Smith.

The Rise of British Liberalism

At the turn of the 18th century, the word “liberal” seems to have gained frequency in English discourse in the context of discussions about religious toleration. The term gradually took on a more definitely political meaning toward the middle of the 18th century, and strikingly in the 1770s, especially among the Scots. “Liberal” took on a political aspect, for instance, in Volume I (1761) of David Hume’s “History of England” and in William Robertson’s (1769) “View of the Progress of Society in Europe.”

In 1776, Adam Smith clearly used the term in a political sense when he wrote, in “The Wealth of Nations,” of the “liberal plan” of “equality, liberty, and justice” and “the liberal system of free exportation and importation.” Smith’s contemporary and first biographer, Dugald Stewart, would describe Smith, in his 1794 “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith,” as advancing “liberal views of commercial policy.” Edmund Burke, too, uses “liberal” in this Smithian way.

In the years after 1776—perhaps as a consequence of the popularity and influence of “The Wealth of Nations”—the use of “liberal” markedly increased as a political descriptor in English. Phrases such as “liberal principles,” “liberal government,” “liberal ideas” and “liberal policy” became commonplace. The case could be made that “liberal” political semantics were imported to the European continent from Britain—especially via the political economy of Adam Smith. F.A. Hayek in fact made that suggestion in 1960 in “The Constitution of Liberty”; this argument has recently been revived and advanced by Dan Klein. The British developed a political and economic philosophy that they themselves came to describe as “liberal” in the 18th century.

Although the “-ism” wouldn’t come until the 19th century, we can reasonably describe the philosophy that came forth in 18th-century Britain, culminating in Adam Smith’s “liberal views” (as Dugald Stewart described them), as a form of classical liberalism. This classical form of British liberalism escapes many contemporary critiques levelled by some conservatives at “liberalism” generally. It builds from principles and assumptions consistent with and influenced by traditional Christian perspectives. But its teachings are accessible and beneficial for the theist and atheist alike. It offers us enduring insights and a viable approach to politics.

Nature, Progress and Providence

In “Why Liberalism Failed,” political theorist Patrick Deneen contends that liberalism has failed because it succeeded. Liberalism has failed to advance the good, the right and the beautiful in human life because it is an ideology built upon a false anthropology. It can never truly enhance human life, for its success involves widespread perversions of our beliefs about human nature, morality and politics. Such perversions lead to distortions in practice and dissolve our economies, relationships and souls.

We certainly take no issue with the claim that some philosophies that have flown under the banner of “liberalism” presuppose conceptions of human nature at odds with long-standing Christian perspectives. But Deneen would be hard-pressed to prosecute such charges against many of the 18th-century British liberals, including Smith and Burke.

One critique of liberalism pertains to its conception of nature. Around the time of Francis Bacon in the early 17th century, new experimental science and natural philosophy, we are told, self-consciously looked to overcome and conquer the natural world. Bacon certainly seems to have been animated by such an enthusiasm, but many important thinkers in the British tradition—including Smith—were not.

Our knowledge of the natural world improves, and that improvement enables scientific and technological progress. But that kind of progress need not be conceived as a conquering of nature—it can just as well be understood as participating in the creative potential of the natural order. That participation requires adherence to certain moral principles and traditions—e.g., respect for the life and property of others and the love of our neighbors—that Smith described in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” as the “laws of the Deity.”

It was partly in this spirit that the science of political economy emerged in the works of Smith and others. They believed the right political, economic and cultural institutions enable cooperation and unleash human creativity, thereby providing abundantly for human needs. To put the point (as it was often put) in theological terms: A rightly ordered social sphere enables us to live out God’s command to be fruitful and multiply and to enjoy the goodness of the created order. God’s “liberal Hand”—to borrow a phrase from Locke—is effectuated as we respect one another’s property, extend the division of labor and peacefully cooperate in exchange and production.

When we act in line with our moral faculties, Smith argued, we “co-operate with the Deity . . . to advance, as far as in our power, the plan of providence.” Many 18th- and 19th-century Christians believed political economy illustrated the workings of that plan, and it is in this sense that we may consider that science as emerging partially as an extension of natural theology. In representing the market process as extending “universal opulence” and facilitating the “cooperation of many thousands,” Smith depicted liberal, commercial society as natural and providential.

Human Nature and the Classical Liberal Vision

When many think of early modern British thought, they focus on provocative thinkers like Hobbes, who articulated, from within a strictly materialist philosophy, a view of human beings as pleasure-seeking, self-interested animals. More radical thinkers like Hobbes have become popular in later historiography precisely because of their extreme arguments. But in many cases, provocative ideas are the exception rather than the norm.

Many British Enlightenment figures steered clear of reductionist accounts of the human person, favoring anthropologies largely consistent with Christianity. This is not, of course, to claim that the British classical liberal philosophers were all Christians, though many were. It is rather to argue that their philosophies display a broad consonance with Christian perspectives.

Smith’s anthropology, for example, emphasizes the dignity and moral equality of persons—street porters, philosophers and statesmen alike. Each is a vicegerent of God on earth; no one can elevate himself ethically over the multitude of humankind. Smith affirmed ordinary life and our ordinary human efforts to honestly better our condition as meaningful, illustrating through social and economic theory how that work contributes to the good of society.

On the other hand, Smith was aware of our corruptibility and our tendency to privilege our own interests over the good of others. He keenly perceived the dangers of social faction and violent religious fanaticism and the self-deception that those forces involve. Writing with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the sack of Magdeburg and the English Civil War in the not-too-distant past, Smith was aware of the slippery slope toward persecution, violence and disorder. He worked to advance a political order of peace, toleration and restrained political discretion in which all could pursue their interest in their own way within the rule of law.

Smith and his intellectual allies joined a long tradition privileging mutual persuasion over violence as the basis of social order. Michael Novak highlights Thomas Aquinas in this tradition, and Wilhelm Röpke argues that it extends back to Rome, Athens and Jerusalem. The tradition, Burke argued, builds from a set of “prejudices” or prejudgments—a culture and set of shared moral sentiments. It rests upon a principled anthropology, a view of the human person as dignified but corruptible, desirous of the good but capable of evil, limited in knowledge but with great potential for peaceable cooperation.

It is precisely such an anthropology, in Smith’s view, that recommends a tendency toward limited government and decentralization, toward a social and political order in which the worst people can do the least bad and in which affairs are organized in the context of a robust array of voluntary civil associations.

Instead of wholesale rejections of “liberalism,” we ought to work to retrieve and preserve the best of the liberal tradition. Adam Smith ranks high on that list. His ideas ought to be considered today, by Christians and non-Christians alike, as guiding lights toward the principles of a prosperous society.

Erik Matson is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center and the deputy director of the Adam Smith Program at George Mason University

Jordan Ballor directs the research agenda of the Center for Religion, Culture & Demoracy

This article was previously published in Discourse Magazine