American political vocabulary tends to sort people into liberals on the left and conservatives on the right. All are big-tent labels, and we argue continuously about how to place libertarians, progressives, socialists, theocrats, and others.
But one regular claim in the arguments is that conservatives favor free-market capitalism. Progressives and socialists are hostile to capitalism, and they are on the left, so the capitalists must be on the right with the conservatives.
It’s a claim with a grain of journalistic truth. Yet it has a big problem: for a century the deep thinkers on the conservative side have, almost without exception, argued that conservatives cannot be capitalists. And the deep thinkers on the free-market capitalist side have, again almost without exception, gone out of their way to explain why they are not conservatives. And both sides are correct.
Let’s start with the big-name conservatives. In the American context, there are several sub-species – religious conservatives, neo-conservatives, traditional conservatives, and middle-of-the-road conservatives. So let’s sample what representatives of each sub-species have said about free-market capitalism.
Here is Robert Bork, representing a religious conservatism. Bork was the legal scholar whom the U.S. Senate rejected for a seat on the Supreme Court. This is from his best-selling book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: “Because both libertarians and modern liberals are oblivious to social reality, both demand radical personal autonomy in expression. That is one reason libertarians are not to be confused, as they often are, with conservatives.” Bork goes on to argue that “free market economists are particularly vulnerable to the libertarian virus” and cites errors about ethics and human nature as the root problem — too often the free market economist “ignores the question of which wants it is moral to satisfy” and fails to recognize that “unconstrained human nature will seek degeneracy often enough to create a disorderly, hedonistic, and dangerous society.”
Note the strong language: the free market unleashes degeneracy and is like a virus.
Next consider Irving Kristol, “godfather” of the neo-conservatives, from his contribution to Capitalism Today: “The inner spiritual chaos of the times, so powerfully created by the dynamics of capitalism itself, is such as to make nihilism an easy temptation. A ‘free society’ in [Friedrich] Hayek’s sense gives birth in massive numbers to ‘free spirits’ – emptied of moral substance.”
Strong language again: capitalism leads to chaos, nihilism, and moral emptiness.
Now let’s turn to a traditional conservatism, taking Russell Kirk as representative. As one sympathetic commentator at the conservative Heritage Foundation site puts it: “To Russell Kirk, ‘true conservatism’ – [Edmund] Burke’s conservatism — was utterly antithetical to unrestrained capitalism and the egoistic ideology of individualism.” Kirk himself, in criticizing Ayn Rand’s free-market advocacy, wrote that “we flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already, without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle.” Under ruthless capitalism, Kirk argued, a man becomes “a social atom, starved for most emotions except envy and ennui, severed from true family-life and reduced to mere household-life, his old landmarks buried, his old faiths dissipated.”
So a conservative must be opposed to capitalism’s individualism, atomism, and selfishness.
At the heart all of these conservatisms is a recognition that capitalism threatens traditional morality. As the conservative columnist George Will nicely put it, we have to make a hard choice between two alternatives: “One is cultural conservatism. The other is capitalist dynamism. The latter dissolves the former.”
From the capitalist side, the most prominent advocates of free markets have returned the favor and vigorously critiqued conservatism.
Milton Friedman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist and powerful advocate of free markets, favored both legalizing drugs and gay marriage, thus earning enmity from many conservatives. Friedman was also fiercely opposed to the military draft, a cause often close to conservative hearts. (Recently, middle-of-the-road conservative David Brooks, writing in The New York Times, argued for reinstating a mandatory civilian draft.)
Friedrich Hayek, another leading free-market economist and Nobel-Prize winner, wrote an essay entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, in which he describes himself as a principled liberal. The problem with conservatives, Hayek argued, is that as their label suggests they been concerned with maintaining the status quo and avoiding the extremes of both freedom and authoritarianism. As a result, Hayek pointed out, “it has been regularly the conservatives who have compromised with socialism.”
And the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, in her warrior-like way, characterized conservatism as intellectually brain-dead and attacked its core positions in “Conservatism: An Obituary.” Rand described herself as a radical for capitalism and argued that we need a modern, rational morality to replace the musty old moralities of obedience and faith that many conservatives long for. It’s striking that as harsh as the criticisms of Rand’s views have been from the political left, the harshest criticisms have come from the conservative right.
So we have a pattern: leading conservatives oppose capitalism and leading capitalists oppose conservatism. And we have a puzzle: in popular language, conservatism and capitalism are often confused.
The popular-language issue is easier to explain. There’s a pigeon-holing tendency that leads some to look for simple ideological dualities – liberal versus conservative, left versus right. In the USA, that tendency is reinforced by a two-party system that makes politics seem like only two options are possible. And within the two-party system, the ongoing big-tent efforts can lead factions to overlook or ignore significant differences.
The more challenging problem is philosophical, as the conservatives-versus-capitalists debate reveals two conceptions of morality in collision – one more optimistic and modern, and one more pessimistic and traditional.
Individuals are weak, the conservatives argue, and they will destroy themselves and others if they are left free. Legalizing drugs and alcohol means widespread intoxication, sexual freedom means promiscuity, and lifestyle choice means that individuals won’t belong to meaningful social units unless they are subtly or overtly coerced into them. Human beings need structure – a structure that they do not choose but rather is imposed upon them by family conditioning, the weight of tradition, and backed up by law.
Individuals are competent, the capitalists tend to argue in response. They can handle freedom and use it productively. Yes, some individuals abuse it and fall into addiction and isolation, but most seek meaningful romantic and family relationships and learn to use intoxicants responsibly. Through free experiment and exploration, all individuals can rationally improve their lives. But to enjoy the dynamism of modern liberal societies we need to be willing to modify or even reject the old ways.
Politics depends upon philosophy is another way to put it. The great debates in contemporary politics are, at root, debates about human nature and morality.
Don’t miss last week’s column: The Love Canal Environmental Disaster — Four Decades Later.
Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at .