When everyone “hastens through by-paths to private profit,” Samuel Johnson remarked confidently in 1756, “no great change can suddenly be made.” So the market can be conservative in its effects. The notion is startling, especially from the pen of an 18th-century Tory, and it hardly matters for the moment whether the market Johnson had in mind was regulated or free. It is startling because, in much of Europe, conservatives were consistently suspicious of private enterprise long before socialism became a party of state, and for good reason. A conservative gentry is unlikely to welcome entrepreneurs who try to break into a social elite or who, with new enterprises like factories and mines, recklessly put wages up. Oddly enough, however, conservatives have recently turned back to something like Johnson’s position, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to think the market socially conservative. Such claims may still look a bit implausible. But in the confident years of the New Right in Europe and America since the mid-1970’s, that hardly mattered. If enough people think private enterprise is conservative, then conservative is what it will be taken to be. Or so runs the wisdom of the age. The meaning of a word is its use.
Conservative competition, for all that, remains a paradox to any thoughtful observer, and the paradox is doubled if, in a series of developments Johnson did not live to see, the market is freed of tariffs and the economy turns global in scale. Nothing, and certainly not socialism, challenges old capital more threateningly than new capital; nothing endangers established interests more than the vulgar new entrepreneur with a clever idea, a bank loan, and an eye for the quick buck. That is how old fortunes are destroyed. Socialism was no such threat, in its day. Capitalists could enrich themselves out of communism, and did; in his autobiography Hammer: Witness to History (1987), Armand Hammer, whose father Julius once helped to found the American Communist Party, told how Lenin, soon after he seized power in Russia, guaranteed him monopoly rights and a strike-free workforce—something no democratic government on earth can offer a budding capitalist. Lenin’s ideas sound pretty conservative, by now, and after his death in 1924 the Soviet system he created became one of the most rigid and backward- looking societies of modern history, ruled by an elite whose lives were eased by country villas, boxes at the opera, chauffeured limousines, and even (as North Korea has recently illustrated) a hereditary succession for the head of state. In economies like that, where inflation was often negligible and strikes rigorously banned, capitalists could make merry and did. In fact, a cynic surveying the Soviet system that collapsed in 1989 might be inclined to wonder why conservatives in the West were so unfriendly to it. The best answer, perhaps, and the kindliest, is that democratic conservatives are democrats as well as conservatives. At all events, and for whatever reasons, they embraced protectionist private enterprise between the two world wars, both in Europe and the United States, and in the mid-1970’s the free market. Which leaves one wondering where in the world the true conservatives are now.
In his casual aside about private profit as a guarantee against large and sudden change, Johnson might be thought to have answered just that, though I have not seen his remark quoted in recent years in the writings of the New Conservatives on either side of the Atlantic, whether Reaganites or Thatcherites. One of Johnson’s sources, in a general sort of way, was John Locke, who is not usually thought of as a conservative. But he had once made a conservative case for elective systems, and in his famous essay of 1690, which Johnson often quotes in his dictionary, he had dared to defend the essential conservatism of free elections. Democracy was still a century and more down the track, but Locke’s argument in his 19th chapter might be said to anticipate the conservatism of the democratic idea. To the familiar objection that it would be ruinous to “lay the foundation of government in the unstable opinion and uncertain humour of the people,” he wrote, in a work published a year after the English Revolution of 1689, there is a simple and reassuring answer. “People are not so easily got out of their old forms as some are apt to suggest,” wrote Locke, urging a renewed loyalty to ancient constitutions. It is an argument that finds a sympathetic echo in an age that survived Hitler and Stalin. Tyranny is naturally radical, Locke argues, and popular government is nothing to be afraid of. By and large, and in comparison with other systems, it is conservative.
Modern conservatives have usually been uninterested in sources such as these. Anyone who asks his conservative friends, as I sometimes do, to explain what is conservative about a competitive free market, for example, is likely to get a blank stare followed by an answer to another question. “It works,” I am told. No doubt it does. But then 1 did not ask what is good about it, but what is conservative about it, and to say that it works is to dodge the question. Oddly enough, the issue is now much the same everywhere in the Western industrial world, and terminology causes little confusion here, though only the British still have a party called Conservative. (The Canadians added the word Progressive to theirs years ago.) But Americans seem no more puzzled than the British at the spectacle of a British Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, which took power in 1979, governing with a radical fervor soon to be echoed, after 1981, by Ronald Reagan in the White House. And if people are not bothered by people called conservatives being radical, then it is plain they are not easily bothered. In fact, it is now widely accepted that a competitive free market is a conservative idea, puzzling as that must be to anyone who knows anything about conservative opposition to free trade in earlier centuries. Conservatives nowadays are the happy victims of an ideological hijack. They were hijacked in the mid-1970’s by an idea so good that even Chinese communists have lately had to make concessions to it. For the first time in history, mankind, or most of it, is governed by a single economic idea.
That is a new place to be. There has never been a global economy before, and scarcely even the idea of one. Even if Louis XIV or Napoleon had succeeded in conquering Europe, they would not have achieved that, or wanted it, and though Hitler and Stalin may have been reaching toward it, they failed. Humanity is now in a new place in the sense of being all in the same place. You can fax faster than you can think. You can buy shares in Shanghai as well as in London, Paris, or New York. There are social effects to the global market that not everybody likes, and the late Christopher Lasch in his last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995), laments the mobility of a new class of managers and their loss to their native soil. But the simple truth is that you have to compete to live, and competition has no frontiers. So the market is not a choice. There is no other way.
That explains, as nothing else can explain, the sudden enthusiasm of the leaders of the right for the free market. There may be nothing conservative about it, but they are past caring. In a recent BBC interview Richard Pearl, who is said to keep a bust of Lenin in his Washington think tank as a joke, has publicly praised the Reagan administration he once served as truly revolutionary in foreign affairs, and hailed the Republican majority in Congress as ready to complete, in home affairs, what he calls the second stage of the conservative revolution. So revolution is now conservative, and conservatism is revolutionary. That has been true for nearly 20 years. In her 11 years as prime minister (1979-90), Margaret Thatcher, newly converted to monetarism and the free market by disciples of Milton Friedman, headed the most radical government Britain has seen since Attlee’s Labour ran out of steam around 1950. What is more, she seems to have enjoyed the ideas of people even more radical than her. In the mid-1970’s it was suddenly, and for the first time in memory, intellectually chic to call yourself a conservative. No holds were barred. One member of her think tank at Ten Downing Street, Ferdinand Mount, who now edits the Times Literary Supplement, had the enormous effrontery early in her premiership to write and publish The Subversive Family (1982), where the adjective is a term of praise. The family, Mount argued, with plenty of journalistic panache and verve, is nothing like the bulwark of established morality it has sometimes been supposed. On the contrary, it is “the ultimate and only consistently subversive organization,” on a long view, undermining the state and hostile to “all hierarchies, churches and ideologies.” Good for the family, one is meant to think. That would be strong stuff even if the author were neither a family man nor a conservative. Mount was (and is) both, and the spectacle of a conservative attack on states, churches, and hierarchies is surely meant to astound. Most people, as Mount knows, have long supposed the family to be the guardian of tradition. Locke and Johnson thought that; so did Marx and Engels. In The Communist Manifesto of 1848 they dismissed aristocratic families as decadent and the proletarian family as almost nonexistent; but the modern family, they argue—the bourgeois family—based as it is on capital and the motive of private gain, is the enemy of all revolutionary change; and unable to accept the loss of wealth and power, it invokes its own destruction. For 100 years and more, that was a familiar and widely accepted view. Mount, in a world in which the left suddenly looked tired and the right radical, has rushed in to offer a wholly new model of the family as an institution: eccentric, creative, and resistant to the corporate disciplines of church and state. Suddenly change belonged to the right.
The notion is plausible enough to excite but perhaps not plausible enough to convince, and it is the contradictions within the New Right that have led to its recent difficulties. Some things must still be said in its favor. In its superior organization and self-discipline it was far more successful than the New Left, which it followed and imitated, in influencing political leaders, and through those leaders the course of events. It was not, like the New Left before it, a species of moral self-exhibitionism. It was sincere and it was tough. The New Left got no nearer to power than the antechamber, as in President Mitterrand’s appointment of Regis Debray, a romantic Marxist in the Che Guevara tradition, to the rank of aide in 1981; and romantic Marxists soon cease to be that, especially in office. The New Right, by contrast, had the courage of its convictions about privatization, low income tax, and deregulation. Where the New Left loved the rhetoric of the barricade, the New Right loved the cabinet room. It was like the difference between Being and Doing.
The New Right, in its day, wasted little time on moral declaration and openly despised speculative thought. “There is no such thing as society,” Mrs. Thatcher once remarked briskly as prime minister—meaning, no doubt, that the word had been vastly overused. Monetarism was not an idea, she thought, still less a theory or ideology, merely something you knew in your bones. “It’s just common sense,” she would tell interviewers, “not to spend more than you have.” Again, the New Right was genuinely internationalist, and without prating about the brotherhood of man, in the sense that it believed we go for the best price wherever it is and welcome capital whoever holds the strings. It personified Christopher Lasch’s revolt of the elites. In Britain it trebled the number of private shareholders in a decade. What is more, it was unsnobbish, rather in the manner of Dickens’ Great Expectations, where the hero has to accept that the money that made him a gentleman came from a convict and not from a genteel old lady. As the Emperor Vespasian put it, money has no smell, though the point is not a traditionally conservative one. By the 1980’s democratic conservatism had ceased to reek of the country club and the wine-circle and had turned populist, enterprising, and brash.
But what, it may still be asked, is conservative about such conservatives? Or, again, where (if anywhere) are the real conservatives now? Who, that is to say, is still opposed to revolution and believes in traditional virtues, the faith of one’s ancestors, and doing what granny says? Throughout the Western world the conservative idea, in the familiar sense, has suddenly lost its home. It has no great party or state, that is to say, like the American Republicans or the British Conservatives between the two world wars—parties that clearly endorsed a status quo and once made people feel cozy and unthreatened. Where now is the old family attorney in democratic politics, experienced, unideological, and safe? That old view even had its philosophers once, though it hardly needed them, and Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics (1962), written long before the rise of the New Right, was its classic statement. We govern, Oakeshott believed, as we ride a bicycle, by the scat of our pants. Rationalism, by which he meant theorizing, hardly comes into it. Theories are bunk, and politics, as he saw it, was not a science but a skill.
Now, with monetarism and strong talk about balancing the budget, we are back to science, or something that claims to be that, and it is a world that leaves no place for Oakeshottians. But if there is no home for conservatives, there are many homes, from the sadly despairing to the ideologically militant and even the downright violent. In Europe the pervading mood on the right is gentler, but it is no less various. In France as well as in Britain, there are now parties that believe that the Maastricht Treaty infringes the age-old sovereignties of nations and threatens their cultural identity. As Margaret Thatcher has said, it is a treaty too far. There may be no violence against abortion clinics, but there is a rising sentiment against sexual laxity. There are occasional bombs planted by ultranationalist groups like the Basque ETA or the Irish Republican Army. And above all there is a sense, less angry than sad, about a loss of the past.
The past, after all, is where conservatives were long supposed in nostalgic admiration to look to maintain the identity of a people and a tribe. Such nostalgia can be petty, like Flemish or Welsh nationalism. It can also have its respectable intellectual side. In Beyond the New Right (1993), for example, John Gray of Oxford, a disciple of F.A. Hayek and a partisan of the free market, has recently come to acknowledge the shortcomings of the Thatcher-Reagan years: not just the technical deficiencies of monetarism, which are clear enough, but what he calls the “neglect of history” by the New Right in its heyday in the 1980’s, which put its supreme trust in mechanistic devices such as restricting the money supply, when “our only support is the vitality of our cultural traditions.” That sounds like the old tune conservatives used to play, breaking through the nostrums of Friedman, Hayek, and their schools. Gray’s last chapter proposes a Green conservatism as a way into the future, but it is also, as he knows, a way back. Green, after all, is what the Tory Country gentry used to be, and long before their party was taken over by free marketeers. Tories fought the railroads; they fought the motorways; and all that for highly selfish reasons that the Green parties of today might well decline to be associated with, in a distant age in which conservatism and conservation went hand in hand. You cannot experiment in the free market without discovering that, with all its virtues, there is nothing conservative about it. Gray, who has not abandoned the idea of the market, now seeks a reconciliation with the past, and he knows that it is difficult: he seeks a market liberalism in “a historical inheritance of norms and traditions.” As he knows, market liberalism is now the almost universal demand of the free world, if only because it is the only system that can “protect values of liberty, independence, equity and prosperity.” That is an enormous admission. It means that a 19th-century liberalism that our own bitter century has spent oceans of ink in trying to discredit—conservative and socialist ink, communist and fascist—has proved, after all, to have been right. That is to understate the matter. It is not just that no other system is as good. No other system works at all. Even Chinese communists now accept that they need the market, though not, or not yet, that they need liberalism. You trade or you starve.
Beyond the New Right is a soberly reasoned book, at once conscientious and puzzled, and it recognizes the difficulties of reconciling a Green program with a free market, on the one hand, and a respect for traditional values on the other. Its mood is exploring. So, on the whole, is the mood of the age. If conservatism has lost its way, no one else, in the opinion of the electorate, has clearly found it. Meanwhile the fragmentation of the right goes on. The death of socialism was bad news for the right, since a dud theory made a perfect opposition. Now conservatives face the harsh prospect of being voted for on their merits, or voted out for lack of them. It is a future to be contemplated with misgiving.
It will be said that we have seen the end of ideology before, and it did not last. But that does not alter the fact that ideologies like the New Left and the New Right have ended. Once again Samuel Johnson, who deserves to be a more fashionable author than he is, sums up the spirit of the age. “Most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things,” he once told Boswell, and that sounds much like where we arc now. The times, if not downright cynical, are wary. Lower taxes sound nice, but they can lead to a mounting national debt and crippling interest payments; indeed the servicing of the American national debt now outstrips the defense budget of the United States. Liberty is good, but family planning and abortion may deny rather than affirm it. A right to independence has often been taken for granted, especially in states as ancient as France or Britain; but a need to trade can lead to regulations that provoke bitter waves of xenophobia and a return to nationalism. In a global economy Johnson’s contemptuous remark about schemes of political improvement may hold good, but the remark I began by quoting looks increasingly hard to believe. Hastening through bypaths to private profit, as he put it in 1756, no longer looks certain to prevent great or sudden change. Johnson wrote all that before the Industrial Revolution and before the American and French revolutions. Two centuries and more on, he would have been in little doubt that hastening toward private profit, whether by highways or byways, can be destructive of ancient tradition and the sovereignty of nations. The market, he would now have to admit, is radical.