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The Conservative Curmudgeon
November 4, 2008

Economic Crisis Shows Capitalism Not An End in Itself
by Allan C. Brownfeld

Our economic meltdown has, quite properly, generated much discussion about the future of capitalism.  What has failed, however, was not capitalism or the free market, but something quite different.  What failed was the capitalist imperative that rewards achievement and punishes bad economic decisions.  Men and women in our financial sector, the automobile sector, and other areas of the economy seek to privatize their profits and successes and socialize their losses. Businessmen, all too often, believe in free enterprise when they are doing well — and socialism when they are not.  The massive bipartisan bailout of Wall Street indicates that this pragmatic outlook has its rewards. Those who irresponsibly managed our financial institutions are able to get the rest of us to bear the burden of their decision-making.  Capitalism used to involve a degree of risk. That seems to be a thing of the past.

Genuine capitalism, in principle, is the best possible way to organize economic life.  Those societies that have embraced free enterprise have thrived, and those that have followed various forms of socialism have impoverished themselves.  Beyond this, free enterprise is the form of economic organization most consistent with other freedoms, including freedom of speech, the press, and religion.

But capitalism, we often forget, is not an end in itself.  We tend to overestimate its place in the lives of men and nations. The purpose of life is not to amass material goods, and the purpose of a society is not to provide the atmosphere in which greed is given full sway. Our own society has provided its citizens with the most advanced standard of living in the world; yet our families are in a state of collapse, our educational system is in a shambles, and crime and drug use are proliferating.

Conservatives, in particular, have often betrayed their own larger calling by embracing a crass materialism which, in the end, is not radically different from that which Marxists embraced by Marxists. To the extent that one believes that man is simply a material being and his purpose in this world is to increase his material wealth, the twin philosophies of Marxism and, say, the virtual anarchy of the followers of thinkers such as Ayn Rand, tend to merge. Genuine conservatism recognizes man's essentially spiritual nature and embraces the free market as the most efficient way to organize an economy — not as an ultimate value in itself.

Discussing similar trends in England, where a crass materialism accompanied the Thatcherite revolution, Peregrine Worsthorne, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, at that time, noted that “a healthy society needs both custodians and innovators.  It needs custodians — oh dear, does one really have to explain to a Tory audience why a society needs custodians?  It needs them because without people who feel an obligation to pass things on to the next generation, society falls apart, loses all its savor, all its beauty, all its charm, all its virtue.”

Simply because we believe that economic freedom is the best way to organize our economy does not mean that the amassing of wealth is the ultimate goal for individual lives.  In his classic book, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton provides this assessment:  “The materialist theory of history, that all politics and ethics are the expression of economics, is a very simple fallacy indeed.  It consists simply of confusing the necessary conditions of life with the normal preoccupations of life that are quite a different thing.  It is like saying that because a man can only walk about on two legs, therefore he never walks about except to buy shoes and stockings.”

Chesterton points out that, “Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing grounds; and that is why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.  Sheep and goats may be pure economists in their external action at least; but that is why the sheep has hardly been a hero of epic wars and empires thought worthy of detailed narration; and even the more active quadruped has not inspired a book for boys called Golden Deeds of Gallant Goats or any similar title.” 

He continues, “But so far from the movements that make up the story of man being economic, we may say that the story only begins where the motive of the cows and sheep leaves off.... It will be hard to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south.  And if you leave things like the religious wars and all the merely adventurous explorations out of the human story, it will not only cease to be human at all but cease to be a story at all.  The outline of history is made of these decisive curves and angles determined by the will of men. Economic history would not even be history.”

To believe that society's most important purpose is to minister to man’s material needs — rather than his more complex spiritual requirements — is to misread man's nature. Dante, writing in the l4th century in De Vulgari Eloquentia, described man in these terms:  “That as man has been endowed with a threefold life, namely vegetable, animal, and rational, he journeys along a threefold road:  for in so far as he is vegetable he seeks for what is useful, wherein he is like nature with the plants; in so far as he is animal he seeks for that which is pleasurable, wherein he is like nature with the brutes;  in so far as he is rational he seeks for what is right — and in this he stands alone, or is a partaker of the nature of the angels.”

The amorality of American business has a long history. During the Cold War, many capitalists fulfilled Lenin’s prophecy that businessmen would sell the rope with which to hang them.  Communist loans from Western banks multiplied from $32 billion in l976 to more than $80 billion in l98l. Did the bankers think there was anything improper in financing the military development of our enemies —those against whom we were arming at the cost of billions of dollars? The answer is: No. Morality and national interest, the bankers seemed to be telling us, were no concern of theirs. Citibank’s senior vice president, Thomas Theobald, said:  “Who knows which political system works?  The only test we care about is: can they pay their bills.” Bankers said the same thing about loans to Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany prior to World War II. Another banker told The Wall Street Journal:  “Most bankers think authoritarian governments are good because they impose discipline.”

Today’s bankers may respect discipline in others, but they seem to have none themselves. What the fact that our government has bailed them out will mean for the future remains to be seen.

We have learned how to conduct a productive economy, but we have forgotten how to build strong families and communities and how to provide men and women with purpose in life beyond the acquisition of riches. The one without the other will lead only to decadence.  It is the growing spiritual vacuum in our society that should be the focus of our attention in the future.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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