Thursday, December 02, 2004

Are conservative economics moral?

Sit back and relax, this is a long one.

Publius at Legal Fiction wrote a rather detailed post in response to Jonah Goldberg's comments in yesterday's National Review online, in particular this paragraph:
[O]ne of the reasons Gingrich was such a useful foil for Clinton is the inherent contradiction within the conservative movement. Conservatives are the chief defenders of a capitalist, free-market system, and the capitalist, free-market system is perhaps the most profoundly unconservative social force in human history. Markets topple established customs, they raze settled communities and erase whole ways of life.
Publius praises Goldberg for admitting to what appears to be a contradiction in conservative thought, and goes on to ask
So the question is - why? Why aren't more social conservatives favoring Democratic economics
Publius does not necessarily buy into the fact that there indeed has been a moral decline (as he clarified in his comments to me in an update to his original post), but does assert that families have been harmed by concrete economic forces. As he explains
But let's look at the more local issue of the perceived breakdown of the American family. Is this supposed breakdown of families and communities caused by a decline in values? Again, what does that mean - and how can you test your theory? Doesn't it make more sense to argue that these breakdowns have been caused by the economic necessities that force both parents to work longer and longer hours with fewer vacations? Or by the relentless pressure put on children to get into a good college from age 3 on? Or by the financial stress of lacking health care (over 40 million Americans)? Or by the gadgets that we stare into all day (Playstation, TV, Internet) - gadgets that isolate us from our family and human connections? Or by the economic pressures and hardships that force families to uproot and leave their friends and communities again and again and again? Perhaps it's caused by not stopping mass chains like Wal-Mart and McDonaldÂ’s from sucking local color and money out of smaller communities, and replacing good jobs with horrible ones. [All of these explanations can be assessed empirically.]

It's not that morals have declined. It's that economic stresses are taking their toll. It's that Americans are working themselves to death, and usually to buy stupid shit that no one needs, but is purchased only to compete in the ridiculous status game of "Who Can Conspicuously Display Their Wealth?" Americans are tired, they're isolated, they're sad, and they're lonely. And when you feel this way, you don't feel like helping your neighbor or hanging out with your kids. Quite simply, we have decided to sacrifice our lives to our jobs. In doing so, we have also sacrificed family life.
Some, if not most, of what Publius has written is true to a degree. The family has been ruptured by economic forces that compel women to abandon their children to daycare while they schlep off to a job that seems to do little more than cover the expense of daycare.

He's also got a point about the decline of morality in that it is difficult to say flatly that we are a more morally decadent society than we were a half-century ago, and even if one were to state that there has been a decline in morality, how do we measure that? For example, Jim Crowe was brought up to suggest that things were not so golden in the olden days, a point I readily concede. At the same time, we have a steadily increasing (until the last few years) illegitimacy rate, over one million abortions per year (and evidently even liberals have problems with that), and various other cultural issues - Paris Hilton and the "sluttification" of teen culture, an issue explored on South Park last night - that make most people rather uncomfortable.

Now to backtrack a bit, Publius takes Feddie at Southern Appeal to task for this statement
Sadly, most Americans have bought into the idea that nothing matters more than their personal happiness. But embracing this form of radical individualism has a profound effect on society: It creates a culture of death and despair.
and states that Feddie is sounding a tad like Marx, only in the social rather than economic sphere. Marx, as Publius explains, decried the liberalizing effects of market capitalism as morally bankrupt. Indeed Marx lamented the atomizing effects of capitalism and as such discussed the alienation that results from the free market.

Publius' answer to the problem of family alienation is thus summed up in fairly Marxist terms
You want to know why I'm a Democrat? It's because I think we could be doing more to relieve the concrete economic stress that dominates so many American households - especially those in the middle and at the bottom. I mean, just think of how much better life would be for so many people if everyone had health care? What if no parent ever had to worry about lacking the money to pay for their child's injury or illness? This concrete measure would do so much more than putting up a plaque of the Ten Commandments in a classroom (which would have approximately .0000000000000000000001% effect on people's lives).
I don't have my copy of the Communist Manifesto in front of me, but Marx talks about how the socialist state will enable one to be a farmer during the morning, a hunter by day, and a polemicist by night (or something along those lines). In other words, if the state alleviates the economic worries of individuals they will have greater freedom, families will become more stabilized because parents won't have to work in some factory to feed their children, and life will ultimately be more pleasant because individuals will not have a care in the world.

This, my friends, is the worldy utopia of Rousseau, Jefferson and Marx, and it will not be and cannot be attained on this earthly realm. Moreover, this theory is in fact more cold bloodedly individualistic than the capitalistic system that is under attack.

To explain why, it will be necessary to elaborate on Jefferson and Rousseau (hey, I'm writing my damned dissertation on the two, so it ultimately had to come back to them). I bring them up not as some sort of abstract thought experiment, but because I believe as Irving Babbit that the entire past two centuries has been a battle between the spirit of Burke and the spirit of Rousseau, with Rousseau being represented in America by Jefferson. The ultimate foundation of the Rosseauean-Jeffersonian ideology is the individual. All else is subordinated to the interests of the isolated individual. To see this all one has to do is read the multiple letters that Jefferson wrote expressing his extreme confidence in the individual's ability to reason absent any reliance on historical tradition. Jefferson and Rousseau's rejection of perpetual constitutions, their unmitigated faith in man's ability to promulgate law, and their basic desire to dismantle tradition exemplifies an unbound individualism in their respective philosophies.

But more than being individualists, these philosophers are quasi-utopians. They truly feel that humanity can be remade through either acts of the state or by some other revolutionary tactic. They paved the way for the totalitarian mindset which sought to overhaul the human condition in order to bring about a state of earthly bliss.

So what on earth has this to do with capitalism and the decline in the family? Everything. First off, it should be stressed that Jefferson was not the free market capitalist libertarians believe that he is. He was an agrarian who wrote that property should be allocated evenly throughout the population. He feared the rise of the industrial economy, and challenged Hamiltonian economics. It would be a stretch to call Jefferson a Marxist, but not as much as one would think.

Ultimately, we witness with Rousseau, Jefferson, Marx, and the progressive ideology in general the belief that one can grant more freedom through restricting freedom. Publius mocks Goldberg for stating
Freedom without economic freedom is a farce. And economic security provided by government planners has, historically, been the security of guaranteed impoverishment.
by stating that through the economic interventionist policies that began with FDR people have much more security, and thus more freedom in a sense. But if this is the case, then why is the family in decline? Why is there in fact more, not less economic insecurity? Why have interventionist economic policies failed to deliver the earthly utopia? Perhaps progressives would answer that more has to be done. Fair point, but let's look at that a little closer.

Getting back to Publius' comment noted above where he states "I mean, just think of how much better life would be for so many people if everyone had health care? What if no parent ever had to worry about lacking the money to pay for the child's injury or illness?" Well, who exactly pays for the health care if not the mother and father? The answer: the mother and father. Instead of paying for the health care directly, they just have to pay for it through higher taxes. It's the myth of "free health care" that people seem not to quite grasp.

Oh, but we can just tax the rich even more. Exactly how much would we have to increase taxes in order to cover the health care if "no one" had to pay for it except the most well-off? If health care were free, would you not be less inhibited to go to a doctor for a minor illness? Would not health care costs soar because demand has increased with no corresponding increase in supply? In fact health care costs have risen dramatically precisely because most people don't directly pay for their health care thanks to insurance. What little restraint remains would be lost if suddenly 98.8% of the population did not contribute a cent to their own health care.

What about medical price controls? If we implemented health care cost controls that would drive many companies out of the market because there would be no incentive to develop the medicines that we have come to rely upon. Now perhaps that is yet another reason to criticize the capitalistic ethos, but how are companies supposed to be motivated to spend thousands of hours and billions of dollars to create new drugs or new operating procedure if there is no economic reward? Are they supposed to be motivated by pure generosity and good will? If you think so, then welcome to the real world.

These are just some of the practical reasons to be skeptical of statist interventions in our economic affairs. I have not even mentioned the potential deleterious affects a substantial tax increase to fund this "free" health care would have on our economy. There are more abstract but compelling reasons to remain quite skeptical of progressive economics.

Publius confesses that there is more intervention in today's economy than a century ago, and yet the problems remain for the modern family. In fact we seem less happy than we were years ago. This seems to call to mind the words of de Tocqueville written over 160 years ago as he pondered why Americans are so restless in the midst of their prosperity. He noted that though the material conditions in America were far better than they were in most of Europe, Americans seemed far less content and more unhappy than those poor ignorant villagers in Europe. Americans, he noted, were much more concerned about material possessions because of their wealth, and thus restless to acquire more. I believe that these words still ring true today:
Their taste for physical gratifications must be regarded as the original source of that secret disquietude which the actions of the Americans betray and of that inconstancy of which they daily afford fresh examples. He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.
I believe that de Tocqueville correctly foretold of the dangers of democracy and how the American individualist spirit, if left unrestrained, posed a great danger to our polity. That may sound strange coming from a conservative, but I believe that extreme individualism is a thoroughly unconservative sentiment. It is not that I or fellow conservatives have no appreciation for the individual qua individual, or do not stress the need for individuals to satisfy their own wants, but excessive individualism causes people to look inwards to the detriment of the greater needs of the community. And that brings us to the welfare state.

By absolving individuals of the responsibility of the care and concern of their neighbors save through a rather impersonal welfare system we in effect make it easier for people to stop caring about others. It also sets a bad example about self-reliance. One need not be self-reliant if the nanny state is going to shield you from all bad happenings. People need not involve themselves in the community in order to attain assistance; all they must do is sit in their house and wait for the government check to clear. In short, there is a metaphorical wall that separates us as a society, and the welfare state exacerbates the problem.

That's not to say some form of a safety net is not desired, but the more responsibility you take from people to become actively engaged and the more onus you place on a distant governemental bureaucracy only serves to alienate us more as individuals. Thus statist economic policies, rather than solve the problem of atomization, only contributes further to it. So, ironically enough, greater governmental interference in the economy only enhances the individualistic ethos that it was meant to guard against.

On a more personal note, I must confess to being something of an Augustinian. I reject the idea that we can build something like an earthly paradise that ensures the well-being of all people. A progressive-minded person might contend that they are not seeking to create a utopia, but rhetoric like this: I also want people to be as happy as possible during their short stint on earth. Those are my goals. And I think that targeted, progressive economic intervention is the best way to achieve those goals, though well-meaning, is naive and ultimately works to produce counter-results. The emperical evidence does not seem to suggest that greater governmental intervention makes people happier or families more stable. Nor is the answer necessarily unrestrained, free-market capitalism, though I do believe that economic freedom produces results that allow for greater human happiness. We cannot achieve perfect earthly bliss; we can only hope to create conditions that maximize human potential. As such I think that progressive economic policies do more to hinder society than help.

But to more directly answer Publius' primary question as to how conservatives can support a system that is so unconservative. Even though conservatives are wary of the unrestrained market, they believe that efforts to force equalization are even worse, and that's in fact what I hope to have shown. Further, one must make a distinction between reactionary attitudes and conservatism. Reactionaries fear all progress, but conservatives welcome it, albeit in a more restrained fashion than their liberal or progressive contemporaries. Thus capitalism is the best system we have to advance the human race forward. It is true that capitalism produces some regrettable social consequences, but these are generally offset by the advances that we make that ulltimately liberate the human potential even more.

PS: Sorry for the extreme length of this post, but believe me when I say I haven't even touched about 1/100th of the ground on this topic.


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