What does it mean to be a conservative? In the American sense of the word, it largely means a commitment to two things: the free market and traditional values. The modern GOP, as allegedly supportive of family values as it is of low corporate tax rates, is the embodiment of such a seemingly natural harmony.
However, as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, these might be mutually exclusive ideas. That is to say, gains for one will come at the expense of the other. His main point is, I think, an obvious one, but one that those on the American right seem unwilling grasp: capitalism tends to destroy traditional values and ways of life. As Sullivan puts it:
The turbulence of a growing wealth-creating free market disrupts traditional ways of life like no other. Even in a culture like ours used to relying from its very origins on entrepreneurial spirit, the dislocations are manifold. People have to move; their choices of partners for love and sex multiply; families disaggregate on their own virtual devices; grandparents are assigned to assisted living; second marriages are as familiar as first ones; and whole industries – and all the learned skills that went with them – can just disappear overnight (I think of my own profession as a journalist, but it is one of countless).
Capitalism is in this sense anti-conservative. It is a disruptive, culturally revolutionary force through human society. It has changed the world in three centuries more than at any time in the two hundred millennia that humans have lived on the earth. This must leave – and has surely left – victims behind. Which is why the welfare state emerged. The sheer cruelty of the market, the way it dispenses brutally with inefficiency (i.e. human beings and their jobs), the manner in which it encourages constant travel and communication: these, as Bell noted, are not ways to strengthen existing social norms, buttress the family, allow the civil society to do what it once did: take care of people within smaller familial units according to generational justice and respect. That kind of social order – the ultimate conservative utopia – is inimical to the capitalist enterprise.
Sullivan’s delivers a message that might make most on the American right uneasy, but I don’t see how anyone can deny their general veracity. Capitalism has indeed played a prominent role in undermining, dismantling, and displacing traditional norms and practices. It has attacked the integrity of family-life, forcing both parents into the workforce and demanding that more and more of their time be spent on the clock instead of at home. It uproots individuals from their communities, mandating relocation to whatever faceless city their job takes them, breeding isolation and detachment. Its emphasis on efficiency and growth at all costs has created a nation of homogeneous strip malls and bland suburbs at the expense of local forms of culture and expression. And its willingness to commodify anything and everything has stripped sex of any sanctity or purpose it once possessed, rendering it as nothing more than a marketing device that is used to sell shampoo and beer (hat-tip to Mark Shea). The mantra of modern capitalism tell us that if you can profit from it, sell it; if you can afford it, buy it; and if you earned it, keep it; it’s all yours. Nothing is off-limits, nothing is sacred, nothing is required of you. Traditional understandings of limits and obligations are rendered moot.
Modern capitalism has also contributed to the demise of another cherished conservative principle: small government. As Sullivan points out, the welfare state has come about as a realistic response to the hardships and poverty imposed on society by the free market. For while capitalism might mean that more people are winning and in a bigger way, there’s little point in denying the fact that there have been losers as well. With traditional support structures on the demise (see above), the state is forced to step in and provide the charity that the sick, impoverished, and elderly had received from their families and communities in previous generations.
But aside from being born of a “humanitarian” impulse, the safety net is also a measure of practicality and self-preservation; too many have-nots, and capitalism would fall victim to a disenchanted proletariat. A minimum of wealth redistribution is a small price to pay for the safeguarding of a system that allows those on top to rake in excessive profits. This dynamic is best embodied by the current presidency: under Obama, both corporate earnings and the number of people on food stamps are at an all-time high.
So what are we to make of capitalism, and its apparently adversarial relationship with all else conservatives hold dear? Sullivan offers this stark close to his piece:
In my bleaker moments, I wonder whether humankind will come to see this great capitalist leap forward as a huge error in human history – the moment we undid ourselves and our very environment, reaching untold material wealth as well as building societies in which loneliness, dislocation, displacement and radical insecurity cannot but increase. It seems to me this is not the moment for Randian purism.
Do we not as conservatives have a duty to tend to the world we helped make?
In reading this, I can’t help but think that Sullivan is limited by the same parameters that prevented John Mackey from realizing that “conscious capitalism” would not be enough. Mackey suggests that capitalism simply needs an ethical element to it; Sullivan seems to acknowledge the need for social welfare programs. But are these are only options? Can we not articulate an approach that correctly notes that capitalism is merely the machinery and not the operator? It seems like any critique of where we are today must acknowledge our prevailing philosophical assumptions, how we view man, his nature, and his place in society, and not just our economic systems.