Liberty and Community: Marx and Smith on Commercial Societies

According to Professor James Otteson, one of the greatest challenges often presented against individual liberty and free markets is that they are atomizing. Essentially, it is claimed that people within a commercial society begin to view one another as competitors. This critique goes as far back as at least Karl Marx.

Although there is some truth to this, what is often overlooked by these critics is the enormous amount of social cooperation that takes place within a commercial society. For instance, a raggedy old wool coat may seem simple enough, but bringing that coat to the market required countless individuals to cooperate with one another. It required people to raise and take care of sheep, harvest wool, transform wool into a usable material, dye material, cut material, sew material into a coat, and transport the coat to market. Each one of these steps required social cooperation and tools made by other people. This insight goes as far back as at least Adam Smith.

Bringing this insight into the 21st century, with all the goods and services that are available to us, you can begin to see the massive amount of social cooperation that takes place in a modern commercial society.


  1. Greg Gauthier

    It is the STATE that ‘atomizes’ communities. It is the STATE that teaches us to be suspicious and cynical of each other. It is the STATE that sets each and every one of us against each other, in an aggressive ‘war of all against all’. It is the STATE that presumes that the only relationship possible between two people is an adversarial one. It is the STATE that insists the only means of accomplishing a social goal, is by threatening people with violence. It is the STATE that assumes that economic well-being is a closed system, in which anyone who "wins" is necessarily causing someone else to "lose". 

    Marx and his ilk are engaging in a little psychological dysfunction called "PROJECTION".
  2. Ryan Boyd

    In reality, there needs to always be competition and cooperation. Without competition we leave our fates to the hands of the monopolies (private or state owned) and without cooperation we fail to achieve any of the wondrous advances we have made over the past millenia. 

  3. taschrant

    It’s just like that essay "I, Pencil."  It’s amazing how much trading and cooperation come from people of different races, religion, political beliefs into making that one pencil for you.

  4. Damian Gunjak

    This is an old argument about self sufficiency vs specialization which is only possible thru trade and interdependence.  The question is whether the current version of crony capitalism controled by larger goverment or inter national organizations like NAFTA, EU, EAU  will permit the benefits of trade and specialization to outweigh the negative consequenses of globalization.

  5. Keith Knight

    The fact that statists see the government as more representative of peoples beliefs than the free market amazes me

Leave a Reply