Conservatives won’t defend capitalism because they won’t defend its morality, rational egoism, and won’t defend that morality because they’re wedded to religion and its ethic of altruism.

American conservatives once were known (albeit inaccurately) as steadfast, consistent, and principled defenders of economic liberty more than of civil liberty, but now they don’t even defend economic liberty, as noted recently (with chagrin) by conservative Jonah Goldberg:

“At the precise moment when socialism is mounting something of a new Spring Offensive, many conservatives are abandoning their posts and refusing to defend what was once holy ground. President Trump has helped make protectionism more popular on the right than it has been in generations. Socialized medicine or some near approximation remains unpopular on the right, but it now has advocates of a kind it never had before. At various purportedly conservative publications, the New Deal is back in good odor, as are various notions of “economic nationalism.” An editor of American Affairs proposes ditching the Left–Right distinction altogether to forge a new “party of the state” that would have conservatives, among other things, embracing the administrative state rather than dismantling it. Both Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (each nominated for Conservative Book of the Year by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, with Hazony winning) take dead aim at classical liberalism, arguing that the West took a wrong turn when it embraced John Locke.”[1]

Goldberg believes the conservatives’ dilemma is that they can’t decide if economic freedom is a means or an end. But is that why they can’t or won’t defend capitalism? The plausible solution to their self-imposed conundrum, if they truly cared about freedom, would be to leave people free to decide the means-end question for themselves. The philosophically legitimate answer is that individuals are ends in themselves and shouldn’t be used as sacrificial means to the ends of others, that happiness is a fully proper end to which economic liberty and wealth are means.

The conservative, however, agrees heartily with the utilitarian that some people (the successful, the wealthy, the “privileged”) owe a moral duty to aid others who lack such things; the only quibble is about whether the duty should be voluntary (private charity) or mandatory (the welfare state). Increasingly, conservatives push the mandatory at the expense of the voluntary; they’re all-too willing and eager to have some people used coercively as means for others’ ends.

Goldberg suggests that some conservatives are reluctant to declare liberty to be an end, or final goal, because it seems to condone a secular, materialist, pleasurable life, which is irreligious because not sufficiently ascetic. Other conservatives are comfortable viewing economic liberty as a means but believe the product of such liberty (vast wealth) is morally legitimate only to the extent it serves those who Goldberg arbitrarily and sanctimoniously classifies as “unfortunate.”

As a conservative, Goldberg should acknowledge that conservatives won’t defend capitalism because they won’t defend its morality, rational egoism, and won’t defend that morality because they’re wedded to religion and its ethic of altruism.  They’re committed to faith and abnegation, to the irrational and sacrificial; it’s a medieval, not an enlightened view, and all-too-obviously not the basis of capitalism. No wonder conservatives often caricature the selfish pursuit of happiness as myopic and mindless pleasure-seeking (hedonism); we should expect that those who eschew a consistent fidelity to reason will simply assume that mindlessness is ubiquitous.

Goldberg is chagrined that conservatives now seem to suffer from “a new crisis in confidence in the free market,” that “many a new fan of statism on the right has convinced himself that ‘globalists,’ ‘elites,’ ‘cultural Marxists,’ or some other ‘neoliberal’ cabal has rigged the system in its favor.” He reports that “many conservatives have grown disenchanted with the arguments for economic liberty, because they see them either as rationalizations for wicked ‘globalization’ or as inimical to various notions of nationalist solidarity.” Instead of critiquing this hash of name-calling, Goldberg classifies it as an “understandable and defensible proposition” and insists that “it is important to concede that the new planners of the right make some perfectly fine points.” He concedes? That’s “easy,” he says, “because they are not concessions but broad statements of common conservative opinion and sentiment.” To his question – “Will the Right Defend Economic Liberty?” – Goldberg might as well answer: “Of course it won’t, but that’s perfectly justifiable, for sentimental reasons.”

There it is in a nutshell, at least from Jonah Goldberg. The conservatives today simply feel that capitalism is evil and that economic liberties are unjustified. That’s their “argument.”

If it’s easy to comprehend that unprincipled conservatives, out of mere expediency, would selectively jettison reason and succumb to sentiment, it’s equally easy to comprehend why they will not (and cannot) defend capitalism. The case for capitalism must be principled, not arbitrary. Goldberg declares that “no one should worship the market as if it were a religion.” As a conservative he revers religion, so here he implies that the love of money and pursuit of happiness – each sanctified by capitalism – are sacrilegious and akin to worshipping “false idols.” Like other conservatives qua religionists, Goldberg also can’t deny that scripture today is used routinely to morally justify a punitive, larcenous, liberty-abridging welfare state.[2]

Seeking to cure today’s conservatives of their “crisis in confidence in the free market,” Goldberg also echoes today’s libertarian anarchists, advising conservatives to believe that “the villain is the state.” Somehow, that view could vindicate capitalism. In truth, the “villain” is statism, the notion that the state exists above and beyond (and as master of) the individual, that a state should be free to sacrifice individuals and rights as means to whatever ends it (or most of its citizens) desires. A capitalist defends the state only to the extent it respects and protect rights instead of violating them. Despite what anarchists claim, the non-statist state is no oxymoron.

Surely Jonah Goldberg knows that today’s self-styled “bleeding heart libertarians” have allied themselves with the statist conservatives in making peace with the coercive welfare state; they seek to combine the egalitarianism of social democrat John Rawls with the welfarism of conservative Friedrich Hayek; they advocate a state-guaranteed minimum income for all. The statist conservatives and bleeding-heart libertarians alike seem to condone statism because they view its underlying ethic (altruism, the code that counsels human sacrifice) as moral.

Ayn Rand argued more than a half-century ago that conservatives are philosophically incapable of defending capitalism, partly because they go by faith (and assume no rational case can be made), partly because they see man as inherently sinful, and partly because they assume that what’s old is true merely because it’s old.[3]  On the latter point, notice that while “liberalism” is a concept that embeds the ideology of liberty, ‘conservatism” embeds nothing definitive, except perhaps an admonition to “conserve.” But conserve what? Conservatism is contentless; it values only tradition, the old, the past, the unchanging, and the status quo. That means a conservative in the 19th century would wish to conserve the constitutionally-limited, rights-respecting state he sees in his rear-view mirror, but likewise, the conservative in the 21st century would wish to conserve the unconstitutional, rights-abridging welfare state he observes in his own rear-view mirror. It’s no wonder that conservatism is often (and understandably) ridiculed as “backward” (anti-modern), since it’s backward-looking. It’s just not a principled approach.

That conservativism is fundamentally unprincipled and relativistic (i.e., it believes differently, at different times and places) makes it ripe for infiltration by religionists, who claim to find fixity in a deity. Consequently, conservatives just can’t bring themselves to be pro-capitalist.

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[1] Jonah Goldberg, “Will the Right Defend Economic Liberty?” National Review Online, May 2, 2019 (https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2019/05/20/will-the-right-defend-economic-liberty/).

[2] Richard M. Salsman, “Holy Scripture and the Welfare State,” Forbes.com, April 28, 2011 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardsalsman/2011/04/28/holy-scripture-and-the-welfare-state/#da4291c24f25).

[3] Ayn Rand, “Conservatism: An Obituary,” Chapter 19 in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New American Library, 1966).

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Richard M Salsman

Dr. Salsman is president of InterMarket Forecasting, Inc., an investment forecasting and consulting firm in Durham, N.C. and assistant professor in the program on Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Duke University. He is the author of numerous books, chapters and articles, including Breaking the Banks: Central Banking Problems and Free Banking Solutions (1990) and A Gold and Liberty (1995), both of which were published by the American Institute for Economic Research, and The Political Economy of Public Debt: Three Centuries of Theory and Evidence (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017). He is also a Contributing Editor for The Objective Standard.

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