From Edmund Burke’s distrust of “sophisters, calculators and economists” to Calvin Coolidge’s boast that “the business of America is business” on to George Gilder’s “economy of heroes” has been a long journey that conservatism has not weathered well, either intellectually or politically. What was once a robust philosophy concerned with all of humane culture has been reduced to a few slogans in behalf of the “conservative opportunity society” and “democratic capitalism.” No need to worry about moral philosophy or social traditions: Tax reform will solve the nation’s ills.
Some observers believe that the pressures of competing for political power in a democracy could only produce this kind of degradation of our public discourse. But people seldom pledge their loyalty to a party or a movement solely out of economic motives, and the attempt to build political movements on these motives will prove counterproductive in the long run. The business cycle follows its own pattern, uncoordinated with the election cycle. A governing party that ties itself primarily to economics is betting that the business cycle will always be up in the fall of every even-numbered year. Yet no school of economists has devised a way to ensure that this happens. Defining elections as plebiscites on the business cycle is not just nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense.
Loyalty to a party, movement, or philosophy must be built on foundations that will survive an economic downturn. Will the “yuppies” to whom so much of the political rhetoric about “opportunity” is now pitched remain loyal to the GOP—or even to free-market principles—when their stock portfolios start losing money?
A great deal of effort has been spent on attempts to expand economic doctrines into a rationale for all of civilization. Marxism is one such attempt. To Marx, all of society was merely a superstructure based on the organization of the economy and the distribution of property, Conservatives have long denounced this as a gross distortion of the patterns of human life.
Of course, it is easier to see the flaws in an opponent’s case than in a friend’s. Yet, too many conservatives have made the same fundamental error as Marx. In the attempt to combat Marx’s economic determinism, they have developed an economic determinism of their own. They have taken an economic theory and turned it into an all-encompassing ideology. Trying to fight ideas with ideas and to refute John Stuart Mill’s charge that conservatives were “the stupid party,” the champions of the right have latched onto the wrong ideas—ideas taken from the very school that Mill pioneered.
Since socialism was the enemy, the obvious counter-theory must be capitalism. And the group that developed a positive, intellectual theory of capitalism were the classical economists. Classical economics was, however, only one facet of the larger doctrine of classical liberalism. The task of separating the wheat from the chaff turned out to be difficult. Unwisely, many on the right went from using selected economic arguments in support of traditionalist positions to total ideological conversion. This conversion has produced two major distortions in conservative thought. First, it has led not only to a preoccupation with economic issues but also to fruitless attempts to apply the simple demand-supply model of classical economic theory to social problems that require a different approach. Second, it has allowed other tenets of classical liberalism to penetrate the right on the grounds of intellectual consistency. As a result, many conservatives have forgotten that they were the enemies of Rousseau and Paine before they were enemies of Marx.
These distortions took effect in the U.S. mainly as a result of the “New Deal-Great Society” era, interpreted primarily as an economic victory for socialism in America. During the decades when “conservative” was an unpopular term, many observers claimed—all too often correctly—that 20th-century conservatives were really only 19th-century liberals. Everyone was a liberal at heart, and the “spirit” of 1776 inspired every speaker. Republicans started quoting Jefferson as often as did Democrats. The only question remaining seemed the proper interpretation of liberalism.
Today, “conservatism” has returned from exile and the liberals are the ones looking for something new to call themselves. Modern liberalism has proved itself unfit to rule, but is modern conservatism fit to rule in its place? To the extent that modern conservatism is dominated by classical liberal ideas, the answer is no. Whatever utility the classical view once had as a voice of dissent, it has now outlived its usefulness. And as a philosophy of government its record is one of failure.
Classical liberalism is most closely identified with 19th-century England, an England at the height of its power with a global Empire, industrial prosperity, and a culture that even today continues to elicit admiration and emulation in the former American colonies. Yet, the England of Mill and Bentham, Cobden and Gladstone slid quickly into decline; as its industry faltered in the face of American and German competition, the Empire fragmented and collapsed. Classical liberalism better explains England’s fall than it does its rise. This should not be surprising. Liberal ideas can gain ground only when a society has become overconfident. Traditional values and institutions suddenly appear as restraints rather than supports. Yet when a society believes that success is natural—the result of an “invisible hand” that renders the old creeds of discipline, self-sacrifice, and order obsolete—it is heading for a disaster. When a ship is sinking, we hear the cry “Every man for himself!” As believers in a rampant individualism, the liberals seemed willing to smash the rudder and flood the hold in their efforts to provoke such a reaction.
The liberal view is characterized by a belief that all change is progress. It tells us not to worry if an industry declines or if standards of conduct or morality decline or if the power of the nation itself declines. By definition, it all must be for the best. Why bother with thought or analysis? Those who question the consequences of such developments are reactionary alarmists or mere protectors of endangered special interests.
England’s wealth and power were built on principles quite different from those espoused by the classical liberals. Liberals (and later socialists) constantly denounced the principles defended by Burke and Disraeli, Coleridge and Salisbury, Kipling and Cunningham. England remained in the ranks of the Great Powers through the first part of this century only because some aristocrats, military officers, and statesmen still preserved some conservative principles. But classical liberalism ate away at the cultural and economic foundations for these principles. It was conservatism, not liberalism, which gave a society of rising material abundance a bourgeois rather than libertine character. Of course, the actual period of liberal rule was short, just long enough to undermine conservative institutions without replacing them. Conservatism and socialism each have positive theories of government, but liberalism has only a negative theory.
The void created by liberalism was filled by socialism, as the line between liberalism and socialism blurred during the 19th century. The essence of liberalism was to transform society, to “liberate” it from prescription, prejudice, and superstition and the conservative institutions of church and state. Once a movement takes a revolutionary aim, it is difficult to stop. That classical liberalism was an empty philosophy was felt by many of its adherents who, unable to turn back, plunged ahead into socialism. The progression from liberation to totalitarianism was part of Rousseau’s thought. Even the great liberal himself, J.S. Mill, fell under the influence of a feminist-socialist wife. Today, the democratic left remains a coalition, socialist in economics but liberal in everything else. And both components are dangerous.
The American coalition between conservatives and classical liberals has never been more comfortable than the coalition between the West and the USSR during World War II. The battles between “traditionalists” and “libertarians” have been long, loud, and well-documented. Now that victory over the American left seems within reach, the diverse and incompatible “war aims” of the coalition members will force a parting of the ways. The libertarians have already “turned their guns around” to blast the conservatives. The split has widened on a number of issues, from military strategy to the war against drugs; from immigration control to education policy; from abortion to the trade deficit. The many people who have a foot in both camps on some issues will have to rethink their basic assumptions.
If conservatism is to establish itself as the dominant philosophy of government and society, it must jettison classical liberalism. This means rediscovering a conservative view of economics, for it is only the prevalence of “free market” economic theory that permits libertarians to exercise influence on the right. But conservatives do not need the libertarian corps and its intellectual baggage train in order to defend private property and capitalism.
The real defense of capitalism is prescriptive, not theoretical. Private ownership of the means of production and the use of such assets for the generation of profit is as old as recorded civilization. While history provides examples of many different ways of organizing economic activity, those which have rewarded individual effort and initiative have fared better than those which have attempted to stifle these natural ambitions. In the West, private property has been the normal arrangement since ancient times. Of course, rights of property have been regulated in a variety of ways in the past as they are today. The libertarian ideology accepts no modification of its pure laissez-faire doctrine. In addition to its other unattractive aspects, this inflexibility makes libertarianism largely irrelevant to dealing with the problems of the real world.
The abstract theories of the classical economists actually weaken the defense of capitalism by transforming natural, dynamic activity into just one of several competing intellectual creations as artificial as the ivory-tower creeds of socialism. These theories also tend to isolate capitalism from the mainstream of history. The line taken by many “anticapitalists” is that capitalism started only with The Wealth of Nations or the industrial revolution. Capitalism was not even named until 1867 when Marx’s Das Kapital was published. The conditions of capitalism were unique, the idea was new and untried, it was all a fluke, a mere stage in history through which we will soon pass. Denied its historical roots, capitalism can easily be discarded.
Yet, property and profit were important to businessmen in ancient Athens, in the medieval Hanseatic towns, and throughout Renaissance Italy. Property was given extensive protection by Roman law, preserved in the legal traditions of all Europe. When Columbus discovered America, he was looking for a new trade route to China and the Pacific Spice Islands in order to circumvent the route controlled by Arab traders and the merchants of Genoa and Venice. English capitalists and merchant adventurers (with the support of a sympathetic government) won the global struggle for wealth and power during the mercantilist era. Examples such as these abound. Economic historians do not confine capitalism to merely the last two centuries. This historical record should strengthen the ease for capitalism, but it is often ignored. Libertarian defenders of capitalism dismiss history either because real people in real situations do not conform to their abstract ideals or because reciting slogans is easier than studying history. For libertarians who think of themselves as progressives or radicals, history becomes a loathsome prison.
History is important because it provides perspective. It shows that private property and capitalism predate classical economic theory. Capitalism emerges as both more and less than its classical proponents claim. More flexible and adaptable than the fragile assumptions of the classicals would allow, but less suited to serve as the sole pillar of civilization. In short, capitalism works but liberalism doesn’t. By the same token, the enemies of property and business also predate the socialists. The ancients regarded the battle between the rich and the poor as an abiding political split, the natural division between parties. Conservatives in all ages have had to defend order and hierarchy— the rule by those of talent and demonstrated competence— against radicals advancing the cause of egalitarian rule by mere numbers.
Not that a true conservatism defends wealth and privilege per se. That would remove from the right any intellectual content and would reduce it to merely a politics of economic distribution, the mirror image of the politics of redistribution. Instead, conservatives recognize that since men are unequal in ability and the task of building and maintaining a civilization is extremely difficult, society must elevate its best citizens to the positions of leadership. Not infrequently, these leaders will be found among the ranks of those who have been successful in business. But in a society that more richly rewards rock singers and cosmetics manufacturers than Presidents and generals, private wealth cannot serve as our primary criterion for leadership potential. Often a leader will prove himself in public service first, then draw his material rewards. The important thing is that society attracts and promotes able people to leadership positions.
A conservative view of history refutes the argument that it is necessary to abolish or cripple the state in order to protect capitalism. No sane citizen, least of all a man of business or a holder of extensive property, wants to see rise the serpent head of anarchy. Even Adam Smith knew that it was only by the strong arm of the civil authority that the man of property could sleep in safety. But the state has a larger role to play in the economy than just the protection of property. Robert L. Reynolds concluded as much in his study of the millennium during which Europe Emerges to dominate the globe:
It was a great asset in commerce that European governments put their whole strength behind mercantile enterprise, and considered the devising of ways and means for making their merchants richer and stronger a valid activity. . . . Modern governments which foster trade are following a pattern established by the strong states of Europe some six or seven hundred years ago. Those European governments had a theory that if their merchants were strong and rich, the governments themselves would carry greater weight in war and diplomacy.
Thucydides, Alexander Hamilton, and Amaya Naohiro all shared in this philosophy. Amaya Naohiro, an influential economic strategist in the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry, devised ways for Japanese capitalists to win major victories in the ongoing struggle for control of global production. The need for economic leadership is not confined to business: “visible hands” may also guide the marketplace.
Economics is very important, but so are other things, and if they are neglected economic success will prove meaningless. Certainly the Roman Empire possessed greater economic resources as well as a larger population and a higher level of civilization than the barbarian tribes which destroyed it. Yet its wealth could not compensate for military defeat, internal division, and a general decline in moral discipline. It takes more than “economic opportunity” to hold a society together. Russell Kirk has argued that “In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure.” He has defined the nature of conservative government in moral terms:
The realm of polities and the realm of morals do not exist in separate spheres, Comte notwithstanding; the state exists to enforce a moral system, to redeem men from the impulses of the flesh and their ignorance. And morality must be supported by the sanctions of religious faith, or it cannot stand.
Since World War II the West has been in steady retreat before the barbarians of the East and South. The left has encouraged this retreat in part because it feels a common bond with foreign movements proclaiming socialism. But the arguments used in public by the left have stressed libertarian more than socialist themes and have more often echoed the speeches of Paine and Cobden than those of Marx and Lenin, The Rights of Man more often than the Communist Manifesto, and the ACLU more often than the CPUSA. This anarchic counterculture has done as much or more damage to American society and the national interest than has the Welfare State, and has done so by design. To the extent that the right has been infected with the same ideas, it has been inhibited in the fight against the left.
The business of conservatism is not business, it is society. The task of conservatism is to defend only those ideas which have proved themselves beneficial. It must look beyond any school of economic theory and reject the hobgoblin of “consistency” defined by the libertarians. It is a dehumanizing “consistency” which defines heroin and abortions as just more goods and services to be made available in a “free market” or which treats immigration merely as a problem in wage theory.