Paleoconservatism, Part Six: Three Cheers for Free Markets, Zero for Capitalism

The family is not the only natural social institution  that is being undermined by the modern state.  Men are by nature competitive, and they created war and games, politics and the marketplace, to satisfy their need to contend for status, wealth and power.  One of leftism’s greatest successes has been to adopt the social language of Christianity and to transfer it from enclosed households (which are naturally communal and socialist) to the open fields where men do battle with each other.   

This is a point I made briefly in The Morality of  Everyday Life and which has been expanded upon in early chapters of Properties of Blood.  Here is an oversimplified summary:  Human social life and its institutions are an interplay between the forces of love (friendship, charity) and the forces of strife (hate, competition).   While the power of love realizes itself in families--Frost's concept of home as "something you somehow haven't to deserve--and church parishes, the power of strife is expressed in competitive markets and athletic events in which family ties ordinarily take a backseat to ability and competitive excellence.  There are two deformations of the natural social order:  To subject the family to competitive strife and market forces and to impose the rules of love upon competitive institutions like the free market.

A simple definition of socialism is the pretense that the nation is a family or a village, where everyone takes care of everyone else.  Socialism, whether it takes the form of social security or welfare payments or aid to higher education, not only undermines the authority of the family, but it also obscures the whole point of competition which cannot be defined as the struggle for money and power but as the pursuit of excellence (what the Greeks called arete and the Romans virtus).  

The declared goal of socialist societies is to spread a minimum level of mediocrity (e.g., of affluence, free time, education, beauty, virtue, erotic pleasures) as broadly as possible throughout the population, while the goal of any honorable society is to foster the pursuit of excellence by individuals and within communities.  Judged in socialist terms, America (and her NATO allies) falls dismally short of social justice, but judged by the standards of 6th century (B.C.) Greece, Medieval Pisa or 19th Century Europe and America, we are a nation of savages.  In the life of the mind, where the pursuit of excellence has all but disappeared, the socialist approach has reduced our colleges and universities to assembly-line factories that turn out sensitive, non-judgmental, anti-intellectuals, the worst of whom are hired to keep the machinery running.

Private property and the free market are essential to any nation’s health, and both are being eliminated by big government and the state-capitalist internationale  that is quickly assuming total control over the global economy.  Paleoconservatives may have disagreed over the merits of free trade, but anyone calling himself a paleoconservative or “paleolibertarian” who does not unequivocally oppose NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO is either dim-witted or duplicitous.  These acronyms represent global organs of trade control, and even a half-bright liberal should know better than to advocate the kind of world government that would persecute anyone to the right of Hillary Clinton.

Competition and family solidarity are the dynamic forces that generate human society.  The theory of equality (and the politics of envy which it generates) is fatal to both of them. In the real state of nature, as opposed to the destructive myth put forward by philosophers (Spanish Jesuits, British Whig liberals, French philosophes) out to destroy the social order, women defer to men, children to parents, young to mature, strangers to natives, low-status natives to high-status natives.   

Traditional conservatives were instinctively revolted by egalitarianism, but they were often deluded into ascribing mysterious virtues to the upper classes.  Unfortunately, ruling elites--whether they are 18th century aristocrats or 19th century plutocrats--are often as stupid and futile as the English Stuarts, who brought ruin to their country, or the French Bourbons, who saddled their country with a centralized bureaucracy, waged aggressive and destructive wars for the sake of making aesthetic improvements to their cartographic hexagon, and sold out Christendom to the Turks.  The mere fact that conservatives acknowledged the importance of status and hierarchy should not have blinded them to the shortcomings of the American ruling class--and not just the ruling class that is content with the choice between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, Al Gore and George Bush, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.  At least since the 1870’s, the upper echelons of the American elites have been manned by venal and unprincipled fixers, who made their money not so much by building better mouse-traps as by fixing government.  From Jim Fisk and Jay Gould to Armand Hamer to Michael Millken and Ross Perot, our ruling class has thrived on the manipulation of government.  

Tell this truth to the rank-and-file libertarian, and he is offended.  (A great many libertarians are offended by reality, which is why they prefer dope and the internet to marriage and retail business.)  And if you criticize the depredations of multi-national businesses that destroy local economies, the “paleolibertarian” will call you a socialist.  The truth is (and this point needs future development), the libertarian attitude has destroyed the free market in America.  

Paleoconservatives, by contrast, stand--or rather stood--staunchly in defense of free markets and free enterprise, and make a general point of opposing every attempt made by the central government to control the market.  We know, as neither liberals nor libertarians seem to, that those who write the regulations control the market, even if those regulations are theoretically on the side of business and free enterprise.  The reality is that regulations or business or programs designed to support agriculture impose disproportionately heavy burdens on small entrepreneurs and producers and confer correspondingly richer benefits to the monopolists.  

Agribusiness was created by government; so were chain stores and mega-banks that have benefited from regulations and court decisions that struck down the rights of states and local communities to regulate their own economic affairs.  However, the way to liberate the economy from the monopolists is not through any government policy but this one: Strip all three branches of the national government of the power to regulate all business, manufacturing, and agriculture that takes place outside the District of Columbia.  Then, if the people of Peoria are ready to eat real spaghetti at Luigi’s and bank with their neighbors, they will have the power to shape their economic destiny.  If they prefer the microwaved garlic powdered plastic at the Olive Garden (a corporate chain that funds the infanticide lobby and represents all that is wrong in America), then they will have the life they deserve.

States rights, the rallying cry of Jeffersonians and Southerners, is not simply a constitutional matter.  Even if we were to adopt the completely false view of the Constitution as a document that created a powerful central government, political reality would dictate the principle known variously as autonomy, subsidiarity, and (in earlier times) federalism.  It is one of the insights of the Aristotelian tradition that culminates in the Catholic Saint Thomas and the Calvinist Althusius and the deist Jefferson.  (As an aside, Robert Nisbet--one of the original political thinkers America produced in the 20th century--said in a review that in my first book I had proved that God was an Althusian.)

Many traditional conservatives have opposed the free market, because in their hearts they believed that Marx and Engels were right in declaring that capitalists had dissolved every bond between man and man except the cash nexus.  But Marx was wrong.  It was not businessmen who made the revolution that began the destruction of England and America, but political liberals, the direct ancestors of the Tony Blair/Al Gore leftists who want to create a global government that will finish the job, whether in the name of elevating the world's poor or saving the planet.  

In cozying up to fascist and authoritarian regimes, traditional conservatives betrayed their fundamental ignorance of the nature both of a legitimate commonwealth and of the modern state.  The commonwealth can only create conditions that are propitious for the good life.  It cannot compel good books to be written or moral lives to be led.  That was the wisdom of St. Thomas, and it is a pity that modern Catholics have so distorted his teachings.

It is not any traditional social order but the modern state that makes the claim to create beauty and enforce virtue.  Those of us who have to live with the results ought to know better than ever to entrust any government with such power again.  Rebuilding Christendom will take far more work than the restoration of Rome to its condition in the age of Constantine (the goal of many a Renaissance humanist), but it will not be done by any government.  No government (or series of individuals) created civilization in its variety of forms.  Civilization was made by a society informed by a classical sense of beauty and a Christian vision of life.  Restoration of that sense and that vision is the task--apparently impossible--that lies before us.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Konstantin Solodov says:

    I wonder what would choose Saint Thomas – a planned economy or a free market?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    That is, as contemporary Americans would say, a “no-brainer.” All planned economies serve the interests of the planning class. In traditional Catholic moral theology, for Peter the bureaucrat to fill his own pockets by robbing Paul the worker is a sin crying out for vengeance. A perhaps equally grave concern is that planned economies for the past 100 years have given Christians incentives not to practice charity, because they have already given through the IRS

    It is not that Thomas would object to various moral rules imposed by Church and king for good purposes, but he was, as an observer of market forces, less inclined than Cicero to impose restrictions. While I cannot go all the way with my friend Rothbard, in his history of economic thought, where he argues that “just price” really means market price, there is certainly an element of the free market in his thought.

    Just as there cannot be political freedom without economic freedom, and no economic (or political) freedom that is not grounded in moral freedom, so too is the reverse order: Moral freedom for most of us–this is the burden of Aristotle’s argumentation on this–requires economic autarkeia, that is, sufficient means and economic liberty for us to be able to manage our household affairs.

    Naturally, neither Aristotle nor his great Italian disciple regarded economic freedom and autarky as ends in themselves, but as means toward leading that good life which culminates in the contemplation of the divine good.

  3. Clyde Wilson says:

    It was long ago established that the cultural destiny of America would be the lowest common denominator.

  4. James D. says:

    Dr, Fleming,

    What are your thoughts on Chesterton and Belloc’s distributism? Libertarians often slam it and claim that everyone would starve to death if it were the reigning economic order.

    Due to my profession, I have seen, firsthand, how any profitable business or industry is quickly snatched up and controlled by large investors with unlimited credit money. It has gotten to the point that it is nearly impossible for smaller entrepreneurs to compete. Their only option is generally to sell out to the monied interests or be crushed by them.

  5. James D. says:

    It is essentially Earl Butz’s “get big or get out” across all industries.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Re distributism, it is obviously not so much a purely economic theory as an ethical way of living prescribed by the Church. On the economic side, it was all rather fuzzy, and it some Fascist dictator were to implement it fully, he would have done harm. However, Mussolini and Franco were pragmatists who understood reality, as was Petain. I don’t know if Chesterton, Belloc, or Fr, McNabb, if they had miraculously come to power, would have enforced their “ism” on Britain. I should hope they would have been wise enough not to make that mistake. The important aspect of their thought is that it was a re-expression of apostolic thought in an industrial age, giving decent and not entirely unreasonable ideals. In this, of course, they shared a good deal of common ground with the Southern Agrarians, most of whom would have been opposed to any state-imposed plan for implementing their ideals.

    There are practical and non-coercive measures that an agrarian-distributist government could undertake in the USA, for example, to take away the right of the Federal government to strike down local and state laws that privilege local businesses. Once upon a time, some states prohibited out of state banks from operating, while others prohibited multiple branches. Naturally, some leftist today would argue that all such laws were racist, sexist, and nativist. The proper answer has always been, “So what?” It is not my business to tell gender-bending New Yorkers who to misrule their lousy city, and neither they, nor the urban rats of ChicagoPhiladelphiaNewarkLASanFranciscoWashingtonDC etc be in a position to dictate to Knoxville or Duluth.

    As in all projects for reform, it is important to bear in mind a simple rule: Before embarking on new construction of utopian communities, one must first dismantle the concentration camps erected by a degenerate ruling class for over 100 years.