October 8, 2008

On Conservatism and Capitalism

By: Damir Marusic

In response to a cracking good post by James Poulos over at Culture11, Matt Frost inadvertently hits upon something I’ve been working over in my head ever since Grand New Party came out: that conservatism and capitalism are headed for a long and painful divorce.

James, writing about a lecture by Harvey Mansfield the other day, presents the question for conservatism as a choice between going backwards and going slowly. This prompts Frost to muse thusly:

But one quote that springs to mind comes from, of all people, tedious socialist Karl Polanyi, who, despite his leftist bona fides, exhibits the wistful conservatism typical of the intellectual diaspora of Austria-Hungary.

He goes on to approvingly cite a passage from Polanyi’s essential The Great Transformation which praises the cautious approach the Tudors and Stuarts took towards the privatization of land in England.

Contra Mr. Frost, there’s really no contradiction in a skeptic of capitalism praising conservative governance, because there’s absolutely nothing conservative about capitalism. The Enclosure Acts, which Polanyi tells us the Stuarts and Tudors so wisely opposed, were nothing less than the groundwork for the establishment of private property. Without the ability to own land for private use, the profit motive could never successfully have taken hold and the Industrial Revolution would not have happened. The downside, as Polanyi points out, is that the Enclosure Acts absolutely ravaged the English countryside, destroying traditional rural life and forcing countless thousands into increasingly overcrowded cities.

Now as even “tedious socialist” Polanyi notes, the end result is that we’re all a whole lot better off due to the innovations of capitalism. The average member of the working class in the United States today enjoys more comforts than Pharaohs in Egypt could hope for. But we should never forget that capitalism is a revolutionary force that changes—and often violently destroys—anything that stands in its way.

The fact that conservatives in the United States are also free marketeers is a historical aberration. Though Grand New Party‘s thought-provoking prescriptions attempt to harness market forces to help the working class, I don’t doubt that if push came to shove, Ross Douthat would favor curtailing capitalism in order to conserve aspects of society he thinks are vital. (I can’t guess what Reihan would say, as his writings are often so eclectic that they frustrate easy summary.)

It’s a fissure that will only continue to grow in the Republican Party as the irreconcilability of capitalism with traditionalism inevitably works itself out.