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The Greying of the Conservative Idea: Freedom and the Social Order


Ours is a time without a consistent ideological or philosophical direction. The utopian dreams that dominated more than three-quarters of our century have lost their attractiveness for most people, after the attempt to implement them produced nothing but death camps, slave labor, and mass terror. Fascism, National Socialism, and Soviet communism, in their historical forms, seem to be dead.

Even in Eastern Europe, where some of the renamed former Communist Party organizations have come back to power, e.g., in Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary, they have proposed neither party programs nor governmental policies that call for the reestablishment of the prior system of comprehensive central planning and one-party rule. Instead, they have declared their desire to implement privatization, foster market reform, and encourage foreign private investment. They insist that their agenda is one of “social democracy,” or the “socially oriented market,” which boils down to welfare statism, economic interventionism, and “industrial policy.”

In Western Europe, the countries comprising the European Union (or Common Market) are all suffering from crises of the welfare-interventionist state. Welfare programs are threatened with elimination, and some have actually been cut back. The tax burdens and the costs of deficit spending have become too great to sustain all the promises governments have made over several decades. Labor-market restrictions, business taxes, and industrial regulations have produced a large group of permanently unemployed and unemployable workers. Even the World Bank has recently issued a report which calls for deregulation of industry and greater competitiveness in the labor markets of Europe, if economic and social stagnation is to be overcome in the long run.

In the United States, proposals for expanding or reforming the welfare state have become bogged down in a labyrinth of conflicting special interests, arguments over the financing of the proposed changes, and a general suspicion and doubt over the results to be expected from the changes, if implemented.

Whether in Eastern or Western Europe, on one side of the Atlantic or the other, confidence in the state and its ability to provide cradle-to-the-grave security or to assure boundless economic growth through government spending and controls has been thrown into doubt. The money and resources upon which the state feeds are approaching their limits. The welfare-interventionist state survives and is perpetuated because of the power of pragmatic politics and no clearly defined and articulated alternative.

Now is the time to challenge the premises and practices of the welfare-interventionist mentality — now when it is losing its capacity to fool the general public because it can no longer deliver the goods — and now at a time when disillusionment has begun to set in about its ethical and philosophical luster in the eyes of that general public.

Yet now, when a “window of opportunity” has opened up to challenge and maybe eliminate the last of the 20th century’s collectivist delusions, there are few voices speaking up to meet this challenge. Indeed, some voices are pointing potential friends of freedom in a wrong direction.

Dr. John Gray is a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and author of several books on John Stuart Mill, F. A. Hayek, and the evolution of liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. He has recently penned a monograph entitled The Undoing of Conservatism (London: Social Market Foundation, June 1994), in which he concludes that conservatism in the Western world has been irreversibly undermined by market or classical liberalism and hotly argues against “the permanent revolution of unfettered market processes . . . that are bound to undermine social and political stability, particularly as they impose on the population unprecedented levels of economic insecurity with all the resultant dislocations of life in families and communities.” Dr. Gray insists that “a fetish is made of individual choice and the needs of solidarity and common life go unrecognized and spurned.” And he opposes the “fetish” of free trade for the same reasons.

What are his arguments? He says that, traditionally, conservatism rested upon three basic ideas. First, individuals are not atomistic individuals. Rather, they are rooted in and are part of the community and society in which they have been born and raised. Their life and sense of identity are tied to and defined by these local relationships and points of orientation. The individual loses his bearings concerning who and what he is and what is important in life when these cultural roots are torn away or are open to frequent and rapid change.

Second, what is important in human life is stability, not progress. The reduction of the “meaning of life” to unending material progress distracts men from the richer details of human existence that are the true defining measures of man’s life in society. Furthermore, in a world in which continual material progress is not assured, failure to attain it may serve as the basis for societal friction and instability if there are no other cultural pillars upon which the social order can stand.

Third, culture is primary, and market relationships are subsidiary to and dependent upon the particular, wider “parent” culture in which those market relationships emerge and exist. Man is not merely and basically an autonomous “choice-making” being; rather, he is often the result of chance, luck, and fate. The chance, luck, or fate of the culture into which we are born and raised shape the values we hold dear, the choices we make, and the form of the market institutions in which we work, “choose,” and consume. Hence, each culture defines and determines what are “proper” or “appropriate” market relationships; there is no single “market model” that is true or valid for all societies at all times.

In Dr. Gray’s view, the conservative movement has been undermined to its very root in not seeing that market or classical liberalism respects none of these ideas. Market liberalism calls for a universal or cosmopolitan culture that would uproot man from his local traditions and his natural cultural differences. According to Dr. Gray, classical liberalism reduces man to homo economicus, a being who only cares about his material wants and desires; it fails to appreciate culture and its enveloping influence on market institutions; and it makes the exchange relationship the only binding cord by which men are held together. By fostering these ideas and views of man, market or classical liberalism leaves man naked, insecure, and susceptible to collectivist and tribalistic appeals that promise to reestablish meaning, order, stability, and a sense of “belonging” in people’s lives.

Nothing would be more dangerous, he believes, than the opening of Europe’s and the world’s doors to global free trade — including the free movement of capital and men, as well as goods — across the borders of the various nation-states. Global free trade, he says, would have “costs in human suffering that may come to rival those of twentieth-century experiments in central economic planning.” Since “economic change is continuous and unavoidable, [it] must therefore be channeled . . . it cannot be let to run its course with the devil taking the hindsight.” There must be, Dr. Gray argues, security and stability, and these must be provided by the state in the form of regulated competition, controlled markets, minimum-income guarantees, urban and rural planning, and active monetary and fiscal policy to maintain “macroeconomic” order in the community.

This is the agenda for the good society by one of the leading proponents of liberty in Great Britain. This, in Dr. Gray’s view, is the starting point for a revival of conservatism and freedom in the next century.

To begin with, who shall define and determine what are the appropriate forms of competition and market interaction and trade and the patterns of urban and rural development that are most desirable? The only clue Dr. Gray provides is that this will have to be “arrived at by reasoned public discourse.” While Dr. Gray disparages much of modern economics, including the “public choice” approach developed by James Buchanan, what Buchanan and others have demonstrated rather conclusively is that as long as the state has the power to influence the allocation of resources and the distribution of income, biased special-interests groups will have disproportional incentives to lobby — and lobby hard — to manipulate public policy in their own direction. If government continues to have the authority to intervene in the market, as Dr. Gray’s proposals require, then at the end of the day, the results will not be much different than they are now — results that even Dr. Gray, as a “soft” advocate of the market economy, bemoans as harmful.

But more to the heart of Dr. Gray’s argument, it would, of course, be possible to find particular advocates of liberty who have seemed to view men in “atomistic” terms, who have disparaged or ignored the influence or role of culture and community in the social order, or who have insisted that one “model” of market institutions could be mechanically applied everywhere and in all places. But this has not been the case for most proponents and defenders of the free society, in neither the 19th century or 20th century.

The idea of an unregulated market economy — and of the free society in which it operates and upon which it is dependent — originated in the theory of a spontaneous social order first developed by the classical-liberal thinkers of the late 18th century. In the words of historian Ronald Hamowy in his essay The Scottish Enlightenment and the Theory of the Spontaneous Order (1987):

The theory, simply put, holds that the social arrangements under which we live are of such a high order of complexity that they invariably take their form not from deliberate calculation, but as the unintended consequence of countless human actions, many of which may be the result of instinct and habit. The theory thus provides an explanation of the origin of complex social structures without the need to posit the existence of a directing intelligence. Rather, such structures come into being as a consequence of the aggregate of numerous discrete individual actions, none of which aims at the formation of coherent social institutions.

This theory of the nature of society and the evolution of the social institutions into which each generation of men is born, is raised, chooses, acts, and works emphasizes the societal context in which the human being lives, values, and functions. It sees society as more and greater than the state and that whenever those who control or administer the state attempt to manipulate or dominate the wider social order, it introduces dysfunctionality into the social system. It sees in the free, spontaneous social order a capacity for incremental and flexible adjustment to every changing human circumstance that is far greater than any governmentally planned attempt to control or restrain the processes of change.

In the free society, each man has roots and relationships in the communities and associations in which he lives and earns a livelihood. They give meaning to his life and enable him to achieve ends beyond his own individual capability; they provide support and stability to him in times of personal and social change; and they reinforce values and moral standards in different contexts. These intricate webs of societal connections between people surround each individual, yet they are responsive to the needs, desires, and changing wishes of the individuals who comprise them. They are voluntary and dependent upon the consent and participation of its associates. They are society’s institutional network of human intercourse and interdependency that makes up what is known as civil society (see “Individual Liberty and Civil Society,” Freedom Daily, February 1993).

In his monograph, Dr. Gray lays the blame for society’s present problems on the shoulders of classical liberalism. Yet, ours has not been a liberal era in the classical sense since before the First World War. If our cities are in decay, and if communities have been dehumanized, the responsibility lies with decades of local and regional social engineering in the form of urban planning and zoning practices. If technological and industrial change constantly transform the workplace and the methods of earning a living, but men find themselves unemployed rather than retooled to fit the changing market environment, the causes can be found in trade-union restrictions, welfare benefits that make unemployment more attractive than work, and other political barriers to labor mobility.

If in the pursuit of material progress and rising standards of living, pollution and environmental hazards seem to harm the quality of human life, the fault is primarily due to the political failure to define clearly — or allow the establishment of — private-property rights that would delineate responsibilities and make each person more fully pay for the consequences of his personal or business actions. If people seem morally disoriented and to lack the traditional social anchors that can give guidance and stability to their lives, this has been the result of an ever-expanding welfare-security state, in which the individual has been deprived of responsibility for himself and those for whom he might love or care; and with a growing number of people not learning the traditional values of responsibility, obligation, and voluntary giving within the family or the surrounding community — because the state has nationalized the functions for which those values were historically transmitted between each new generation — they have been weakened and, in some cases, lost.

If these values are to be regained — if these connections and relationships of community and society are to be rediscovered and expanded to meet an array of new and changing circumstances — then these areas of life must be denationalized and privatized. The social networks and institutions of free men will not be remade over night. As with all social processes, they will take time to form and stabilize. But there is no hope for this ever to occur until we accept the fact that it is the state that is the barrier and stumbling block for this process even to begin.

When looked at and understood from the right perspective, there is no irreconcilable conflict between the conservative emphasis on tradition and community, and the classical-liberal emphasis on individual liberty and voluntary association. But they are only reconcilable in an environment of freedom. Once the state is allowed any role beyond protector and enforcer of human rights to life and property, it creates the very cultural decay and societal instability that Dr. Gray views as the scourge of the late 20th century. If conservative thinkers come to view liberty as the enemy of social order and the state as its supporter, the withering welfare-interventionist state may have new life breathed into it by the very people who say they decry the effects of this last vestige of the collectivist system.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).