‘Mob’ is an interesting word because of its dual meaning. It means not only ‘organized crime’, that is, a small group of men working corporately and criminally in their own self-interest, but it also means a large group of rancorous, disgruntled people rioting for special interests they share in common. This irony is particularly interesting in an age when both crony capitalism and the egalitarian spirit that seek to redistribute wealth are rampant. When neither the ‘free-market’ capitalists nor the equalitarian mass of men are willing to accept prudent restraints upon their unbridled avarice (something to which they insist they have a right), these two wrongs are likely to feed to the dogs whoever is leftover whose behavior is guided by a more transcendent set of values. As a society, are we capable of constructing a civilization instilled with a justly ordered liberty when it seems liberty itself is a candle that is being burned at both ends? Edmund Burke asked: “But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”
William F. Buckley regularly made the remark that “the problem with socialism is socialism, but the problem with capitalism is capitalists.” History teaches us that there are always going to be capitalists who care about nothing but getting richer at any cost and who will not only sell the family heirloom passed down from their great-grandmother but they will step on their grandmother to do it. These are a kind of the ‘Hollow Men’, the stuffed men, whom T.S. Eliot saw straight through; all avarice, with only financial expansion and the gratification of their lowest appetites as their aims.
Burke reflected: “The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints. Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate, insulated, private men, but liberty, when men act in bodies, is power.” In other words, just as we judge individuals by their actions—what they do with their freedom—we should judge what people do when they join together to become corporations, interest groups, or governments. We conservatives, cherishing liberty and the free enterprise market system ourselves, can find much agreement with our libertarian friends who clearly see that governments are capable of evil and therefore require prudent restraint. With Burke we can agree with our libertarian friends: “It is better to cherish virtue and humanity by leaving much to free will, even with some loss to the object, than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence. The world on the whole will gain by a liberty without which virtue cannot exist.” But ‘free-market’ libertarians seem to dismiss or downplay the notion that corporations and people are capable of evil or whether their passions and avarice need to be restrained to prevent civilizational disaster. History teaches that to discount man’s destructive desires is a fatal conceit.
In an anarcho-capitalist market system touted by many thoroughgoing libertarians today, the Hollow Men are given free reign. From them we’ll hear remarks like, “I alone can judge what is in my self-interest,” and “I should be given unfettered freedom in deciding what I want.” Indeed, Burke remarked, that “each man has his own relish,” but that doesn’t mean we can muster a ‘good society’ if everyone is hot-dogging it and everyone has their own unique moral code of wrong and right. If every man is his own priest, professor of ethics and his own personal dictator accountable to no set of moral rules but his own, the consequence, as Richard M. Weaver predicted, “is anarchy which threatens even that minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.” Under the auspices of an exalted abstract and absolute Freedom, these people pursue freedom to be as bad as they want to be. They believe that an anarchical ‘free market’ economic system can be constructed that is so near to perfection in its efficient operation that it won’t matter whether men are good or bad. They seem unwilling to consider whether any ‘bad’ forces that are at liberty to act within that system might cause the collapse of the very system they so cherish. They inevitably prescribe an easy and simple remedy to the problems of freedom: more freedom. Their entire world view becomes one which absolutizes free-market principles for every aspect of society and places that free-market construct beyond the realm of good and evil. They suggest nothing is good or bad so long as someone wants it. After all, “who are you to decide what is good or bad behavior?” we’ll often hear them ask. “If some behavior is truly bad,” they’ll say, “merely permit the consequences of that bad, and eventually people will choose to avoid that behavior.” History since the fall of man, however, is littered with examples of people choosing the bad with their eyes wide open. This is of no matter to the freedom crusader; every bad is permitted by them under the auspices of self-interest and that all-atoning name of liberty, but with a catch, “so long as it doesn’t interfere with someone else’s freedom or take someone else’s property.” As Edmund Burke incisively foresaw:
This sort of people are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgotten his nature. Without opening one new avenue to the understanding, they have succeeded in stopping up those that lead to the heart. They have perverted in themselves, and in those that attend to them, all the well-placed sympathies of the human breast.
Aristotle’s question continues to stick its nose in the matter, by asking: do democracies like the kind of behavior which supports democracy (self-rule) or do they like the behavior which, in the long run, destroys democracy? Everyone knows that there can be too much of a good thing and that freedom can be used for evil as well as for good. Even those who deny that evil exists will at least recognize that others’ self-interest can be invaded and destroyed by the actions of those who don’t respect others’ freedom and property. The problems come, of course, when morality is dismissed as mere personal subjectivity and evil is given free play under the auspices of self-interest and freedom. For my money, Solzhenitsyn was among the best to break out of the box which attempts to lock all thinking in a tight little economic structure of utilitarian self-interest confined by nothing but a legal system that punishes theft and fraud but otherwise permits everything else. In his ’78 Harvard address, he presaged:
Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.
I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.
And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.
Nowadays many people of the libertarian stripe will even go so far as to suggest that our system of laws, our legal system, that is, our government, should not be given a monopoly on coercive armed force to enforce the laws of that system because of its tendency to become corrupted by people pursuing their own self-interest and aiming to use the government to get what they want, but if we cannot even enforce the laws through armed force, if the laws protecting property and the laws of fair play in the marketplace aren’t defended by a government given the monopoly on coercive force, then laws will be easily broken even by those who don’t possess an armed force of their own. Men barely operate within the limits of the law as it is, if the law is not backed up by force, all hell breaks loose. Edmund Burke again:
You would not cure the evil by resolving that there should be no more monarchs, nor ministers of state, nor of the gospel; no interpreters of law; no general officers; no public councils. You might change the names. The things in some shape must remain. A certain quantum of power must always exist in the community in some hands and under some appellation. Wise men will apply their remedies to vices, not to names; to the causes of evil which are permanent, not to the occasional organs by which they act, and the transitory modes in which they appear. Otherwise you will be wise historically, a fool in practice.
I turn to another Russian, Dostoyevsky, who said that “to begin with unlimited freedom is to end with unlimited despotism.” If our government doesn’t have the monopoly on coercive armed force to back up its laws, then persons and corporations can easily violate the laws with impunity so long as no other person or corporation has the will to use their weapons to stop them. The market war between Pepsi and Coke becomes a real battle where bullets fly and blood runs on the floors of your grocer’s soda aisle. If Pepsi’s self-interest is merely increasing shareholder value, why not violate every law of fair play, use every dirty trick to gain market share over Coke, or even to corner the market by sending thugs out to intimidate every purchase point? Why not? The government, divested of armed coercive power to enforce laws would be incapable to stop them. The grocers would have to arm themselves or hope that the community would band together to help him combat the soda company working merely in its own self-interest.
Some may suggest I’ve gone too far and that the voluntary community would band together, not with their weapons, but in their united decision not to buy the soda of the despots and thereby put a check on the offending company causing that company to fall in line with the morality of the community, but I would challenge them with the question: when everyone is purely pursuing their own self-interest and are really only interested in getting the lowest price, why is it in the people’s interest to risk their necks for some grocer who finds himself in the middle of a price war? The People have proven their propensity to stand on the sidelines and patronize whichever enterprise prevails in price wars, regardless of whether the winning tactics were unscrupulous or monopolistic. People still shop at Walmart even though it killed lots of mom and pop stores. What’s a couple more grocers getting pulverized by the marketplace, so long as I think I am getting “always the low price,” right?
Therefore we arrive at a paradox; without a government that has the power to protect self-interest and property, the whole system would collapse into chaos and corruption, but on the other hand, self-interest understood in mere materialistic terms means that everything short of theft and fraud is permitted, and from there it’s only a chip shot away from the selfish drive which believes that it’s not really theft or fraud to use the government as a means of pursuing self-interest by legally passing legislation which benefits one’s own self-interest at the expense of others. As Ralph E. Ancil has said about that mindset, “it’s okay to end up in hell so long as one does it ‘properly.’” A government that began by attempting to protect liberty and property becomes the protector of privilege and perverts its laws to legalize plunder. Can we have one without the other? Can we have a capitalist system that doesn’t drift toward corporatism? Can we have an elected republic in which the majority of the people resist voting themselves the largesse of the nation’s wealth? John Adams answered plainly: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people it is wholly inadequate for any other.” When a society becomes decadent and loses the moral stamina to resist the temptation to use legislation to pick winners and losers, the government becomes merely a weapon into the hands of those Nietzschean supermen who have ‘the will to power’ and a mass of men who’ll elect anyone who promises something for nothing. As Burke foresaw of France: “In this political traffic, the leaders will be obliged to bow to the ignorance of their followers, and the followers to become subservient to the worst designs of their leaders.” José Ortega y Gasset had a vision of the Matrix long before Neo stepped on to the silver screen:
Society, that it may live better, creates the State as an instrument. Then the State gets the upper hand and society has to begin to live for the State. . . the people are converted into fuel to feed the mere machine which is the State. The skeleton eats up the flesh around it. The scaffolding becomes the owner and the tenant of the house.
Robert Nisbet’s explication enters this tragic scene: “Increasingly the objectives of economic and other interest associations become not so much the preservation of favored immunities from the State as the capturing of the political power itself.” And in this process of capturing political power, the advantage goes to the behemoth corporations because they have the capital resources to bribe the legislators, whereas mom and pop are unlikely to organize collectively to stand up to them. It becomes the war between the organized versus the unorganized. This capturing of power by the organized to be wielded over the unorganized works itself out also in sectors we don’t typically consider when we discuss the marketplace. Think of how organized teachers unions are steamrolling local communities’ parent organizations, or think of how communities who wish to uphold certain community standards, mores, customs and religious values are being overrun by an organized atheistic secularism, or the ‘freedom movement’, or the Pink Hand. No communities are free to organize their community on any set of moral standards when the crusaders for freedom would deny the communities the right to protect themselves from widespread licentiousness of the few. After all, what right do we have to tell them that the self-interest they are pursuing is evil, right? To the crusaders for absolute perfect Freedom, all morality is simply subjective and cannot enter into the questions with which communities wrestle in constructing protective bulwarks around their chosen modes of life. The crusaders for freedom want the right to do almost anything but they will not permit a community, a state, or a nation, the right to its laws. In this respect they are hostile nihilists of all authority, custom, convention, ethics, and morality. All things become permitted this side of fraud and theft. But as we’ve seen, even plunder can be made legal if you have the votes. Burke again:
Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances and admit to infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.
There is a balance that we must vigilantly guard between self-interest and public interest. No doubt, competition is the great spring to innovation, to increased quality, improved efficiency, and the reduction of price. Free enterprise in a competitive market system has permitted greatest and most widespread rise in personal wealth, but it can also be the spring to corruption, shameless self-regard, and an over-extended consumerism. For the providing of human wants there has been no better system devised than our capitalist system—or at least no devised system has been proven better than our market enterprise system undergirded by private property, but if Buckley was right that the problem with capitalism is capitalists (that is, sin in pursuit of self-interest), then we at least know what one of the key problem is, and our efforts can be to construct a system that anticipates and combats that sinful self-interest while protecting virtuous self-interest and private property. We must, in Hayek’s words, “plan for competition” but we shouldn’t “plan againstcompetition.” The careful cultivation of a just and ordered liberty in and out of the marketplace is the only way a civilization can continue to rise in dignity and raise its wealth. Again, Edmund Burke:
Those who know what virtuous liberty is cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths. Grand, swelling sentiments of liberty I am sure I do not despise. They warm the heart; they enlarge and liberalize our minds; they animate our courage in a time of conflict. . . To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power, teach obedience, and the work is done. To give freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; it only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government, that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind. This I do not find in those who take the lead in the National Assembly. Perhaps they are not so miserably deficient as they appear. I rather believe it. It would put them below the common level of human understanding. But when the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators, the instruments, not the guides, of the people. If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors who will produce something more splendidly popular. Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause. Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards, and compromise as the prudence of traitors, until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper and moderate, on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines and establishing powers that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.
As Ralph E. Ancil, in a series of sagacious essays recently published on The Imaginative Conservative, has written what is needed is “a restoration of those values among market participants and policy-makers, a restoration which begins with the admission that self-interest alone is self-destructive and proceeds to locate economic action in the proper place in the hierarchy of human goods and in the service of a vision of the good society.” There are those who say that the market and society shall spontaneously and naturally organize itself like a jungle. Ortega cuts through this fallacy thusly:
Nature is always with us. It is self-supporting. In the forests of nature we can be savages with impunity. . . . people who are perennially primitive. . . .This is what happens in the world which is mere Nature. But it does not happen in the world of civilization which is ours. Civilisation is not “just there,” it is not self- supporting. It is artificial and requires the artist or the artisan. If you want to make use of the advantages of civilisation, but are not prepared to concern yourself with the upholding of civilization—you are done. In a trice you find yourself left without civilisation. Just a slip, and when you look around everything has vanished into thin air. The primitive forest appears in its native state, just as if curtains covering pure Nature had been drawn back. The jungle is always primitive and, vice versa, everything primitive is mere jungle.
The anarcho-capitalist says, “Welcome to the jungle,” but the conservative continues to cultivate the fine art of living and the prudential skills of statesmanship which balance the needs of justice and order with the virtuous springs of freedom and competition in order to combat the primitive impulses of naked envy and avarice. Conservatives and libertarians can find common cause against the centralizing force of collectivism which aims at creating heaven here on earth but which only brings a new set of terrestrial hells. However, conservatives should diverge from those who are shooting for a capitalism that is merely a hell on earth in the form of a dog-eat-dog, unrestrained war of all against all. If we go down that slippery stairway, with the lovable fictional accountant, Norm Peterson, we’ll find out that many of us are wearing Milkbone® underwear. -And that is hardly a vision of society worth toasting with cheers.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.