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Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Destructiveness of Capitalism

Is rapid change in economic methods and conditions incompatible with conservatism?

A reader recently emailed the following excellent question:

“I enjoyed the piece you wrote for the IntellectualConservative [website] on Adam Smith.
“Here is the dilemma some of us on the conservative side confront. I would be interested in your thoughts. I will quote George Will:
“True conservatives distrust and try to modulate social forces that work against the conservation of traditional values. But for a century the dominant conservatism has uncritically worshipped the most transforming force, the dynamism of the American economy. No coherent conservatism can be based solely on commercialism, but this conservatism has been consistently ardent only about economic growth, and hence about economies of scale, and social mobility. These take a severe toll against small towns, small enterprises, family farms, local governments, craftsmanship, environmental values, a sense of community, and other aspects of humane living. (The Pursuit of Happiness).”

My reply:

Mr. Will seems to be equating preservation of intangible tradition with the material conditions of the economy.  The latter will inevitably change, though the former ought to remain constant in a good society.

Conservatism’s subject matter is the unwritten constitution of society, what can be summed up as law and order.  The point is to have an enduring framework to cushion the inescapable vicissitudes of the material world. 

Ironically, it is secular and materialistic socialism that aims to prevent the dynamic changes associated with capitalism and to offset that stagnation with an “evolving,” arbitrary social structure that is controlled by intellectual planners and armies of bureaucrats. 

French and German citizens, for example, loathe the dynamism of competitive markets and speak of the “humane” nature of collectivized economies where everything is carefully regulated by bureaucrats in Brussels.  Individuals, having no meaning outside their roles in carrying out the aims of the national state (perhaps soon of the European Union) are passive pieces on a chess board which the state planners may position in any configuration theorized to be the optimum.  As Tocqueville described the conditions in socialist France in the 1850s, French citizens were prepared to endure any degree of political tyranny, so long as they got their welfare benefits and the tyrant gave lip service to the ideal of equality.

Socialistic state planning, because of its fiat nature, results in abrupt and jarring changes that are far more destabilizing and wreak far more hardship on the general populace than the localized effects of rises and falls in specific companies or industries.  Just look at the still disastrous effects of President Roosevelt’s New Deal in agriculture and the welfare state that by now has entirely eliminated net private savings and turned our nation’s purpose into an obsession with hedonism.

Yet, for all the problems arising from globalization and outsourcing, the United States economy is growing and creating new jobs and opportunities for young people.  Moribund France and Germany are in the python grip of labor unions, welfare-state entitlements, rigidly structured educational and management hierarchies, and sky-rocketing unemployment.  That’s a very high price to pay for preservation of state-favorite companies and regulatory barriers against closing plants or laying off workers.

It must be recognized that it is human nature, and not capitalism per se, that produces dislocating changes in economies and societies.  As far back as history reaches, there have been dislocating changes: hunter-gatherer societies lost out to farming communities; Middle Eastern city states gave way to the Akkadian Empire, then to Babylon, Egypt, the Hittites, Persia, Alexander the Great, and the grandaddy of them all, the Roman Empire.

People seemed to have suffered less from economic dislocations than from the loss of their local histories, traditions, and religions, the intangibles that defined who they were as a people.  It was in that broad sweep, which Eric Voegelin called the ecumenic period, that Christianity spread so rapidly.  Christianity was a universal religion offering common identity in the kingdom of heaven and spiritual peace on earth to individuals, regardless of station or ethnic identity.  When the Western Roman Empire collapsed around 500 AD, it was spiritual Christianity alone that preserved Roman law, education, and traditions of government; it was Christianity alone that created Western civilization and preserved it in the face of endless barbarian raids and, after 622 AD, relentless savagery from the Muslim world.

That, it seems to me, is the true nature of conservatism: to mitigate the inevitable ravages of chance in the material world by preserving the intangible traditions of religion,morality, private property, and the rule of law.

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