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Conservatism at the Crossroads

As the story goes, Robert Johnson [1], the legendary blues singer, while standing at some Mississippi crossroads at midnight, sold his soul to the devil so that he could become one of the greatest guitar players that has ever set foot on earth.

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”
(“Crossroads Blues [2]”)

Not too long after that alleged transaction, Johnson died at the young age of 27. Perhaps this is why we employ the phrase “arriving at a crossroads” when you have to choose between worldly success and integrity of soul.

American conservatism, it seems to me, is at such a crossroads. It is one at which its advocates must choose whether the movement will be guided by a conservatism grounded in unchanging truths of human nature that incline us in the direction of the good, the true, and the beautiful, or whether it will align itself with a conservatism of the mere market.

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The latter – which I call market conservatism – is the view that because free markets have been so efficient and successful in producing wealth and prosperity, and thus allowing us to enjoy many other goods, the reasoning of the market should be applied to all aspects of life. Because the value of commodities is discovered by calculating the price for which people are willing to pay for them, the values of all apparent goods – including the traditional moralist’s inclinations of human nature – carry no normative weight whatsoever for the market conservative.

As he sees it, these givens, far from being basic truths of human nature on which the common good depends, are constraints on the liberty of each individual to pursue his own subjective vision of the good life. For this reason, for the market conservative, the almost exclusive goal of politics is limited government, by which he means not only a free market economy but also the elimination of laws or customs that interfere with the pursuit of the desiring self. Thus, on this account, the common good (if you can even call it that), is measured by how unencumbered the individual is from tradition, nature, familial ties, religion, etc., to acquire what he wants and when he wants it.

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And yet, in practical politics, market conservatives and traditional moralists have often found themselves employing similar vocabulary and arriving at similar conclusions on matters of policy, though their underlying rationales are remarkably different. Like the market conservative, the traditional moralist often advances the cause of “limited government.” So, for example, both will support free markets, for such an economic system has the best track record of raising standards of living [5].

But what’s the point of raising standards of living? For the market conservative, “the great end,” as C.S. Lewis put it in The Abolition of Man, is “to get people fed and clothed.” (Lewis himself was no market conservative). The question of how these citizens conduct their lives – whether they follow the precepts of natural justice – is outside the law’s jurisdiction as long as their conduct does not interfere with the private choices of their fellow citizens to pursue their own visions of the good life.

Although the traditional moralist agrees with the market conservative that the acquisition of wealth and being fed and clothed are good things, he views them as worthy of pursuit only because they assist him in advancing his natural duties to spouse, progeny, neighbor, nation, and God. For the traditional moralist, liberty is the freedom to pursue the unchosen goods of natural justice unencumbered by certain external agents, such as criminals or unjust governments. For the market conservative, liberty is freedom to pursue whatever one desires unencumbered by any non-chosen obligations to spouse, progeny, neighbor, nation, or God. For the traditional moralist, the good is what is desirable in itself, while for the market conservative, desiring something is what makes that something good.

As long as free markets and their moral limits were contextualized within a cultural infrastructure that was not consciously inimical to the goals of the traditional moralist, an alliance between market and moral conservatism made a lot of sense. The traditional moralist had good instrumental reasons to support free markets, while the market conservative had good pragmatic reasons to accept the givens of the wider culture, whose mandarins did not have as their primary mission to crush traditional institutions and ways of life, and any public dissent that may flow from them.

But that’s not the world we live in anymore. We reside in a world in which major corporations have created a cultural cartel – a moral monopoly [6] – by which they hope to make the price of acquiescence so cheap and resistance so expensive that their ideological competition will either undergo a hostile takeover or declare civilizational bankruptcy.

Perhaps, as some have noted, the market conservative was never a true friend of the moral conservative. It was just a marriage of convenience that was headed for divorce once one of the parties found a better suitor. Although I think that theory is a bit simplistic, we cannot ignore the place and time at which we find ourselves: it’s midnight at the crossroads.

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Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).