Conservatism and Capitalism…

All major conservatives have emphasised the value of trade and the dangers of expanding the state. Nonetheless, it is peculiar that since the times of Reagan and the Iron Lady “the Right” has been associated almost entirely with cash – not tradition, or prudence, or social order but the free market and its promise of prosperity.

It was not always thus. Kirk, in “Why I Am A Conservative”, dismissed a prevalent false dichotomy: “one may safely cry up the virtues of big business, or may safely preach the gospel of the omnicompetent state…but neither attitude is conservative”. “The American industrialist,” Kirk wrote, was afflicted by “an obsession with economics” that was destructive whether “Benthamite or Marxist”.

There were several factors that helped to steer conservatism away from this view. The cruel tyrannies of Russia, China and Cambodia encouraged the perception that the Cold War represented the difference between state enslavement and personal freedom – or, in other words, totalitarianism and liberalism. Conservatives identified themselves more and more with this single value. The decline of faith also unloaded religious enthusiasm into ideologies that had no time for virtues of prudence and restraint: Rand’s objectivism, for example, with its ardency for acquisition, or neoconservatism, with its idealisation of US power.

A third movement, of course, was represented by the libertarians, who emerged from schools of free market economics to become a new and strange cultural force. In struggles against state interference, and on behalf of private property, conservatives could be their allies, but the differences were always in plain view. Kirk delivered an uncharacteristically hostile assessment of libertarianism in his essay on “chirping sectaries”; abhorring their “fanatical attachment to a single solitary principle; that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the sole end of civil order”. To think of conservatives and libertarians as one, he wrote, was like attempting to join ice and fire. Michael Oakeshott was measured but nonetheless damning when he criticised the ideological impulse in Hayek. “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite,” he reflected in one essay, “But it belongs to the same style of politics”.

It would take Herculean efforts to unite even such diverse schools of thought. Libertarians, in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, see liberty as being the freedom to enjoy whatever life one happens to desire. Conservatives tend to see it as the ability to live out particular visions of the good life. Libertarians tend to be optimistic about human nature, believing that man can live in more or less harmonic order free of restraints. Conservatives tend to assume that without traditional institutions man’s worst impulses would doom societies to chaos and degradation. Libertarians subordinate cultural customs to the goal of liberty. Conservatives think they aspire to health yet reject food and water.

With three such novel and ambitious ideologies jostling for space on “the Right” it is no surprise that there has been confusion as to which values to uphold. One of those which unite all of these disparate thinkers is enthusiasm for the virtues of free trade, so capitalist values have been enshrined as sacred.

One must note another, more compelling factor behind the “obsession with economics”. The twentieth century saw the opening of markets in Asia and Europe and significant improvements in living standards. Once moribund nations like Japan and South Korea became giants. There was great optimism for the future of free trade. (Disasters like Russia, plunged into a state of shock when the markets were flung open in the 1990s, gave cause for a sober assessment.)

How might the conservative feel? Sceptical. It would be presumptuous in the extreme for anyone, still less myself, to insist on there being a single virtuous position. There is not. Yet wherever one might stand on regulation, taxation, welfare et cetera it must be with doubt; the market is, like all of man’s creations, a flawed beast with the potential for harm. Let me offer examples.

Capitalism, of course, responds to human needs – and the smart capitalist is also skilled at exploiting them. Man has constant desires for identity, belonging and sensual satisfaction but the means by which such desires can be met are numerous. These are more or less conducive to good lives and functioning societies but the market subordinates such concerns to the essential goal of commercialisation. That which is valuable is that which can be slapped with a price tag.

Conservatives recognise that man has needs which cannot be fulfilled by commerce. I recall an advert, for example, which depicted relatives enduring an insipid Christmas, brightened only by computer games. Family love itself, in the dreams of these businessmen, relied on their products. Madsen Pirie, meanwhile, of the Adam Smith Institute, has lauded the sense of identity and belonging that people can find in brands. It is true that people can be passionate customers but if the human tribal instincts that millions have fought and died in expressing can be fulfilled by Apple computers it will surprise me. Even steadfast champions of free market economics must appreciate that culture cannot be defined by consumption, nor man by his material desires. Oakeshott reflected, in “Work and Play”, that…

A creature composed entirely of wants, who understands the world merely as the means of satisfying those wants and whose satisfactions generate new wants endlessly, is a creature of unavoidable anxieties.

The profit motive can also be an agent of destabilisation. Not always. Britons would not have been as safe, healthy and free as they were throughout recent decades had businesses not been allowed to make their millions. Yet as Ed West notes in The Spectator, what conservatives believe are pillars of civilisation, businesses can see as obstacles to progress. Family, faith and nationhood can all obstruct the goals of cheap labour and loyal customers and may be sacrificed for them. In a globalised world the super-rich can have little attachment to societies and little need to fear the costs of social disorder. Even when this is untrue, their time preferences can be limited to the year’s returns, and long-term problems can be ignored as money rolls in.

Capitalism transcends communities, nations and continents and raises issues of scale. Kirk, in his tribute to Wilhelm Röpke, praised the German economist’s opposition to the “cult of the colossal”, and wrote in defence of “artisans, small-traders, small and medium-sized businessmen, members of the free professions and trusty officials and servants of the community” who are forced out by centralised power and mega corportions. He was not proposing that we raze all supermarkets and subsist off whatever might be grown in nearby fields but he feared that Western economies, like old Eastern states, were operating with an inhumane indifference to individual and local character in their worship of what W.A. Orton called “the Great God efficiency” – a joyless system that also undermined its own foundations in “public energy, private virtue, fertility of imagination”. Conservatives should defend limits of scale, in homes, in neighbourhoods, in cities and in nations.

I shall end by repeating that this is not an attempt to prescribe particular economic policies. Yet it is an attempt to endorse an attitude towards economics – one that recognises the dangers of human institutions beyond those of states, acknowledges the need for prudence in material affairs and appreciates that money is indeed not everything.

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About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
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