By Dave Smith, Contributor, US Daily Review.
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” – Friedrich von Hayek, The Fatal Conceit
Nearly everyone is at least somewhat familiar with Adam Smith and his book The Wealth of Nations. Published in 1776, it remains a highly influential work that delineates why the prevailing mercantilism of the day – the ancestor of today’s protectionism – was not a path to prosperity or a method with which to create wealth. Lesser known, however, is Smith’s earlier work, Theory of Moral Sentiments. While Wealth deals with economic transactions, Theory deals more in what has been described as “social transactions” and the compassion people have for others.
In Theory, Smith also speaks about politics, and he introduces what he calls “the man of system”:
“The man of system… is apt to be very wise in his conceit; …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 on a chess-board.”
In describing his Man of System, Adam Smith showed himself to be as prescient about politics as he was about economics, as he accurately described what fits with a more contemporary phrasing: the “Cult of Personality”. In doing so, he managed to find a common link between two seemingly opposite men: Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
In seeking the Presidency, both men emphasized the singular necessity of their own respective elevation to the White House: for Trump, electing him would do nothing less than “Make America Great Again”. With Obama, his nomination signaled “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”, and his rise to power “was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick”.
The pomposity does not stop there. Candidate Trump promised that “we will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning… We are going to turn this country around.” In his inaugural address, he promised to end the “American carnage” of poverty, deprivation of knowledge, crime, gangs, and drugs, and he repeated his promise of “winning”, this time “like never before”. Once elected, the President began moving the chess pieces: unilaterally imposed (thanks to Congressional shirking of responsibility in favor of executive branch authority) sanctions on imported steel and other goods and services, and threatened tariffs on automobile imports. Never mind that the chess pieces might have alternate ideas in mind – automakers, construction firms, oil and gas companies, and even Campbell’s soup all decried those tax increases, but the Man of System’s conceit is strong.
In like manner, President Obama exemplified the hubris of which Adam Smith wrote. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors,” he famously claimed. He claimed similar superiority in speechwriting and dealing with Congress. Comparing the then-approaching 2010 elections to the 1994 wave elections that brought Republicans to power in the House for the first time in two generations, he reportedly said that the difference was that in 2010, “you’ve got me”. With the Affordable Care Act, commonly called “Obamacare”, Obama enacted a broad overhaul of the health insurance system; never mind which direction the chess pieces were seeking to go, the Man of System knew best what coverages they should purchase and from whom, as well as how much profit insurance companies should make.
These are just a few examples among many. Both Men of System possess what Hayek called the “fatal conceit”: the belief that central planners possess the necessary information and ability to move Smith’s chess pieces effectively – to organize society, to conquer negative outcomes. They see their knowledge as complete, their abilities endless, their wisdom absolute.
Adam Smith wrote Theory of Moral Sentiments over a quarter of a millennium ago. Presidents Obama and Trump show that his ideas are just as relevant today. The Man of System is alive and well across the political spectrum.
Born in the same county as Davy Crockett in East Tennessee, Dave found his way to Texas where he works in the petrochemical industry. He’s written and spoken about politics on various media outlets including Fox, ABC, and Townhall. He is a graduate of Tennessee Tech with a degree in chemical engineering. Follow Dave on Twitter: @semperlibertas.