Is Conservatism Incoherent? (Or, Pogo Was Right)

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The question posed in the title might itself be somewhat problematic, since “conservatism” is not one thing, but a rich and often contentious variety of positions. Nevertheless, a sufficiently large portion of conservatism marries a social and religious traditionalism with a more or less pure capitalism. But is this a suitable marriage? For what we call “capitalism” is merely the Marxist epithet for what was originally called “economic liberalism.” And this liberalism forces us to accept arguments on the economic level that we must then turn around and reject on the social level.

Our situation then is that we keep meeting in the social realm arguments we have already conceded in the economic realm, and we wonder why our social arguments seem to carry no weight. And we are constantly surprised that what we win in elections we lose in ruling; that no matter what the regime, the results are the same: a bigger state, a larger burden, and a smaller sphere for local self-government. The state grows larger, and the access to the public purse for large corporations grows greater, while the role of the citizen is diminished. The spaces that were once occupied by small retailers and manufacturers are colonized by a few large firms, and political life becomes, more and more, the domain of powerful pressure groups quarreling over their share of the public booty. The political and economic freedom of the family shrinks until it becomes no more than a mere client of the state and the corporations.

A recent article in First Things drives home this point. It was Robert Miller’s attack on Alisdair MacIntyre, entitled “Waiting for St. Vladimir.” Robert Miller is certainly a conservative scholar who has made many contributions to the cause.  Nevertheless, one can fault this article on the grounds that Miller makes an irreducibly liberal argument for capitalism, which is the only ground on which it can be defended. Miller argues that capitalism is an arena of pure freedom which does not have any particular goals of its own. But a conservative might critique Miller’s argument on at least three grounds. The first is that he offers us no clue of what he means by “freedom.” We can only glean from hints in the article that it means doing whatever you wish to do—that is, pure “self-interest.” But such an unrestrained pursuit of desire is not liberty, but license, and license always ends up negating liberty. Christian freedom is always oriented towards the good and is never reducible to pure “free choice.”

To take an example, one has a free choice of whether to take one’s cocaine in crystal or powdered form. One can compare the marginal utilities of both and arbitrate the differences through a price system, and proper marketing campaigns can help us to elucidate the relative benefits of each. However, while this may be a free choice, it is never a choice of freedom, since either choice leads to slavery. Licentiousness negates freedom, yet it is this licentiousness, this “freedom” from traditional moral constraints and authorities, which is the essence of liberalism. We cannot endorse such licentiousness in the economic realm and not expect to meet it in the social and political realms; that is simply too much to ask.

Miller roots the “justice” of capitalism in the claim that free bargaining will give to both capital and labor what each actually earns, but there is nothing in capitalism which ensures this. Indeed, Adam Smith himself pointed out the fallacy of this theory. Success in bargaining goes to the stronger side, and Smith noted that this would always be the “Masters” and that such contracts could never ensure that labor would get its fair share of production. Contracts arbitrate power, not productivity.

Finally, we can note that Miller asserts that capitalism has no end in itself, but only provides a mechanism for the pursuit of ends that individuals choose for themselves. So if one wants to pursue the sane and limited ends of what Aristotle and Aquinas understood by “economics,” the proper provisioning of the household and the common goods of society, and another chooses to pursue the infinite acquisition of money and purely individualistic ends, capitalism does not discriminate between them. But surely, there are no “neutral” systems. Institutions reward some pursuits and punish others, and those who pursue insane and infinite ends (and insane because they are infinite) will tend to crush those who pursue sane and limited ends. And this is precisely what we see in the market today. Moreover, firms interested only in the infinite pursuit of wealth and guided only by the “logic” of self-interest will not be able to resist the temptations of “regulatory capture,” that is, of capturing the mechanisms of the state and using them to their private ends; of treating the public purse as a private preserve. Any supposed “market discipline” will be undermined by sheer political power.

Not that ethics are to be excluded entirely by Miller’s argument, but they enter the economic realm only as a matter of private choice, not public policy. As a private choice, ethics have the same status as any other consumer choice, take it or leave it, as one’s “utility” dictates.

However, this claim of “moral neutrality” hides a practical claim of moral superiority. Most of our actions are, in some sense “economic,” and all of our actions are material; even prayer requires the expenditure of energy, an energy that will have to be replaced, most likely in the realm of economic exchanges. This realm of exchanges is to be guided, according to the predominant theory, by the pure pursuit of profit. Now, since morality is about the realm of actions, and much of this action takes place in the economic realm, then the unavoidable conclusion is that most of our actions should be guided by the pursuit of profit, or at least of self-interest.

We may ask about the source of our dilemma, and it arises, I think, because we have been presented with a false choice. The economic realm got divided between “communism” and “capitalism,” and all other choices were excluded; the two cooperated to label any other choice as archaic. But surely, economic systems are as varied as are any other social and political systems. Not only is this a false choice, but it ends in the same place: production is gathered into vast collectives run by small groups of bureaucrats, and the space for freedom and economic initiative vanishes. The only “question” is whether the bureaucrats will rule in the name of the people or in the name of the shareholders. In truth, there isn’t much difference, because in both cases the bureaucrats actually rule for their own benefit. “Shareholder democracy” sounds nice in theory, but it only works in small companies. In practice, the right to vote is meaningless in most cases, since only those with vast sums of money can bear the expense of a proxy fight, and those who can are usually fighting not for the shareholders, but for an alternative group of bureaucrats. Corporate elections are the ultimate one party system, and as in communism, it is the party of the bureaucrats.

All this, I think, is the answer to the question of why “movement conservatism” doesn’t work. The reason is that there is no conservative movement, only a movement in which the concerns of conservatism are subordinated to the needs of economic liberalism. This will never work, or at least, it won’t work for conservatives; they will be forever wondering why they can run but cannot rule. They will always wonder why, after getting their friends into office, bad things happen, the same bad things, more or less, that happen when their enemies get into office. The same things happen because the same ideas rule, merely in left- and right-wing variants, which really aren’t all that varied. Pogo was right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

There needs to be, I believe, some soul-searching on the right. For the only way to free ourselves from liberalism is to do so at all levels; this is simply to say that if we wish to be “conservatives,” we must cease being Liberals. And we must do so because there is one thing alone that is certain: in any argument between a liberal and a liberal, the liberal will win every time.

John Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He has authored the book The Vocation of Business, and Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.

Originally published in Ethika Politika, the blog of the Center for Morality in Public Life, a nonprofit charitable body focused on providing a forum for engaging and discussing issues in the humanities concerned with societal flourishing and the common good.