Sunday, December 12, 2004

Do supermarkets make us free?

The main political debate in Western societies isn't between conservatives and liberals. It's between two different wings of liberalism.

Both wings of liberalism share the same underlying understanding that the purpose of life is to maximise individual autonomy. What all liberals want is to leave individual will and reason unimpeded, so that we can act in any direction and be whatever we want to be.

However, all liberals then have to solve a basic problem with this philosophy. How do you stop millions of individual, competing wills from conflicting with each other and causing chaos?

One group of liberals believe that they have found a solution to this problem in the free market. According to these liberals the market, if left alone, will take millions of people acting "selfishly" (according to their individual wills) and create positive outcomes of prosperity and technological advancement.

Not surprisingly, these right wing liberals focus their attention on the Economic Man. For them it is through the economic market that society is best regulated and that the liberal goals of freedom (the unimpeded individual will) and progress (economic growth and technological advances) are best realised.

Right liberalism became a very popular creed in the nineteenth century when the urban middle class, whose money often came from trade and manufacturing, sought to break down the political dominance of the landowning classes.

Today, not surprisingly, it gets its support mostly from the commercial classes (stockbrokers, corporate lawyers, managers and so on).

A major revolt against right liberalism occurred toward the end of the nineteenth century. For right liberals it was only important that each man was allowed to compete in the market without impediment. Right liberals accepted that there would be unequal outcomes: that some would succeed more than others.

For a right liberal philosopher like Herbert Spencer this meant that even large scale inequalities in life ultimately served the public good. He wrote, in 1851, that,

Pervading all nature we may see at work a stern discipline, which is a little cruel that it may be very kind ...

... those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many 'in shadows and in miseries,' are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence...

It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of a universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence─the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents.

Obviously, the idea that their sufferings were for the long-term good of humanity was unlikely to appeal to the mass of the working class. Furthermore, some liberals couldn't accept philosophically the idea of an unimpeded "right to compete" leading to unequal outcomes; they believed instead that individual autonomy would best be achieved when everyone was set upon equal conditions of life.

The result was the rise of the social democratic movement. This was a movement with much working class support and led by left wing liberals. Such left liberals did not believe in the "solution" of the market to the problem of regulating individual wills.

Instead, they looked to the state to create social conditions in which each individual could follow his own will and reason, and be self-created in any direction.

What this meant was that left liberals replaced a focus on Economic Man with one on Social Man. They also emphasised the idea of public goods (man acting deliberately through the state to achieve social outcomes) rather than private goods (man acting to achieve personal benefits and thereby unwittingly creating a positive social benefit).

So, by the early twentieth century Western societies were already caught in the debate that we are still having today: the debate between left and right liberalism.

It's usually easy to spot which side of the fence liberals are on. Here, for instance, is the Australian journalist Phillip Adams writing about modern childhood:

Yes, there are hundreds of millions of kids running about, but they're not meant to be children any more. This is not permitted. They are, instead, to be little economic units. Diminutive adults with fully fledged appetites for junk - junk food, junk films, junk ideas, junk toys and junk culture ...

Let them be children for a few, short years before they're turned into cannon fodder for the Great God Economy that modern societies seek to serve.

Here we obviously have a left liberal complaining about the right liberal focus on Economic Man. The same complaint pervades the following comments by a President of the Uniting Church in Australia who asks,

What about the estimation of human life where the only value applied to each individual is economic? Or, more precisely, where each individual is only valued as a consumer or as a value-adder? What does that say about life?

What about the totalitarianism of economics, seen in economic rationalism and globalisation ...

Are human beings to be measured primarily, or even solely, as consumers and value-adders?

What does it say about human life if the fundamental factors required for human existence are to be totally at the mercy of the market─the Great International Croupier?

... a society thus defined and based on the totalitarianism of economics can be described as no less than an evil empire. (Age 17/7/2000)

It's not just left liberalism which is easy to recognise. Consider the following statements by George Will, a Townhall columnist. He begins by quoting the left liberal Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson who once asked,

With the supermarket as our temple and the singing commercial as our litany, are we likely to fire the world with an irresistible vision of America's exalted purposes and inspiring way of life?

George Will can see in this a left liberal attack on his own right liberal beliefs and so hastens to defend,

a society that produces the abundance, and honors the emancipation of choice and desire, that results in supermarkets, advertising and other things that are woven inextricably into the fabric of a free society. (Town Hall, 26/10/03)

So, for the right liberal George Will, achieving liberal individualism (the emancipation of choice and desire) means accepting all the trappings of the free market. Individual freedom and supermarkets go together in this world view.

For conservatives, of course, the aim is not the "emancipation of choice and desire" at all, but rather the fulfilment of our higher, given nature as men and women.

What conservatives need to avoid, therefore, is being trapped within the confines of the debate between left and right liberalism.

At times we will agree with left wing criticisms of free market ideology, at other times we will agree with right wing criticisms of the left. What we shouldn't do is react against right wing free market ideology by identifying with the left or vice versa.

As conservatives we will be best placed when we can present ourselves clearly as an alternative to both left and right forms of liberalism.

(First published at Conservative Central 02/11/2003)

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