This piece originally appeared in FUSION.
A few years back at a conference in New Orleans, after a few sazeracs, a colleague and I got talking about liberalism and its critics. He waxed poetic in his defense of the ongoing importance of classical liberal principles, of their enduring truth, in the tradition of Locke, Mill, Jefferson, and, of course, Adam Smith. I told him that the principles were all well and good, but that he had a deeper problem - the kind of subject whom liberalism imagined had been made obsolete. We’re losing liberalism because we’ve lost the liberal subject. He looked at me like I had a third eyeball.
That feeling returned in reading Erik Matson’s recent essay “Why We Read Adam Smith.” Before Matson makes the case for reading Smith, he needs to consider the case for reading. Because the problem with the case for Adam Smith, and the problem for the Great Books and for those latter-day defenders of classical liberalism, is that the foundations of modern society have shifted beneath their feet. The meaning of these activities, valuable as they may yet be, has necessarily changed. These changes, often unnoticed by people who like to have arguments about Adam Smith, pose a fundamental challenge to assessing what his thought means for us today.
Classical liberalism presupposes the liberal subject. Led by print, societies in the 18th and 18th centuries (especially British society) achieved enough of a space apart from the weight of custom, sociality, and intimate bodily presence to create a new way of being human, with more space for reflection, consideration, discourse, reading, correspondence with intellectual peers, and a resulting intellectual culture that prized clarity and cool rationality. In fields of commerce, science, politics, philosophy, religion, art, and even war, a transformation took place. Liberalism prized cool reason, exercised in reading, reflecting, and writing a response in the solitude of one’s study, and dismissed the heated passions of fevered crowds and collectives.