What Conservatives Believe: Life, Liberty, & that Other Thing – Part I
Updated: Jun 20, 2020
“Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles*
Life, Liberty, and that Other Thing
Among the more familiar bits of the Declaration of Independence is the assertion that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” When Thomas Jefferson drafted this august document he borrowed heavily from the writings of enlightenment figures, not the least of which was John Locke. But Locke was known for a slightly different three-fold expression of essential rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.
Why then did Jefferson, who ranked Locke among “the most important thinkers on liberty,” come to revise this seemingly straightforward phrase by substituting property with happiness? I believe it was because Jefferson was clarifying, not disputing Locke’s claim that the right of property is an essential ingredient to liberty. Property meant a lot more to Locke than that home that you like to pretend you own. He contended, “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labor of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his…The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property.”
If we look beyond the unnecessary capitalization of Words and the 17th-century prose, it appears Locke is arguing that property is more than the stuff you own or the means by which you can acquire more stuff. It includes an ownership of one’s self, a right to personal wellbeing. From this vantage point it’s clear why Jefferson equated a right to property with a right to the pursuit of happiness. The right to own property, the right to freely pursue the accumulation of more property, the right to one’s own self, and the right to pursue one’s self interests are all bundled into the pursuit of happiness.
Capitalism to the Rescue
In order to ensure the right to property is respected, it is necessary for a society to operate under an economic system that does not infringe upon this right. Conservatives have long been opposed to economic systems that empower government to dictate the economy, believing that one can’t very well enjoy the right to property under an economic system that casts the government in the starring role of central planner. The economic system of capitalism—sometimes referred to as the free market system or the free enterprise system—is ideally suited for the conservative interested in defending the right to property. Ironically, the term capitalism was originally used as a pejorative by Marxists aiming to discredit it. Nevertheless, it’s become a term nearly universally accepted to describe an economic system conservatives support.
At the risk of oversimplifying, capitalism is a system in which the price of goods and services are set by supply and demand. That means how much you pay for, say, a pencil, isn’t determined by a group of lawmakers, but by how many pencils exist versus how many people want pencils. As more people desire pencils, the price of the pencil will naturally rise. No one is physically or intentionally raising the price, it’s simply increasing because the scarcity of pencils dictate the price will increase to the point there are as many available as there are those willing to pay for them at that price. In a purely capitalistic system, the government would not be involved in the price of pencils.
If a bureaucrat tried to put a cap on the price of the pencils—arguing that it just isn’t fair that the poor have to pay so much for pencils these days—there would soon be a shortage because there would be more people demanding pencils than the number of pencils that actually existed. If a bureaucrat tried to regulate the specific yield of raw material needed to produce exactly enough pencils for everyone interested in buying pencils we’d soon have an overage or shortage of the things necessary to make a pencil. Despite their best efforts, they’d never hold a candle to the astoundingly accurate job done by the free enterprise system of simply allowing sellers to sell their pencils at prices buyers are willing to pay. Not convinced? Do yourself the favor of reading “I, Pencil” which persuasively argues that, “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make [a pencil].” No mere human has the resources, skills, or knowledge to manage the mind-boggling complexity of pencil-making on their own. How can we expect a bureaucrat to manage ship building, or medical research, or the construction of new homes, or toenail clipper production any better?
At times it is advantageous and desirable for the government to interfere in the free market. Public safety, environmental concerns, and the protection of the American worker and consumer require some level of involvement from the public sector. Sometimes private interests run contrary to public good, such as when a drug manufacturer conceals the actual side effects of a drug or when an investment banker defrauds his clients through some financial Ponzi scheme. But what is certain is that government interference can’t compete with the efficiency, reliability, and prosperity that is produced by the free market. People prosper the most where governments intervene the least. Therefore, the conservative holds that interventions must be justifiable on the grounds they are defending someone or some group’s right to life, liberty, and property, and not on the basis that it will somehow ensure greater efficiency or “fairer” prices. There is more than economic prosperity at stake here. The rights of the individual to freely pursue their own happiness is in jeopardy when governments circumvent the free market.
Competitive Capitalism vs Crony Capitalism
A common misconception often perpetrated by Hollywood depictions of conservatives—and occasionally by misguided conservatives themselves—is that the purest and best economic system is that which prohibits any governmental intervention in the free market whatsoever. If, as a general principle, the highest level of prosperity occurs with the lowest level of government intervention, wouldn’t the most conservative position on the matter be no governmental intervention at all? While this may be well and good in a purely theoretical sense, it ignores the frailty and fallenness of human nature. Capitalism completely free of the restrains of prudent regulation leads to boundless fraud, corruption, and distortions.
This is something I can attest to firsthand, having worked in the public accounting profession for over a decade with a focus on governmental clients in particular. Where there is a lack of sensible regulation or the power to enforce them, there is bound to be fraud, corruption, and rampant inefficiencies. It is wrong to suppose that the conservative position on regulation—much like the conservative position to taxes—is to indiscriminately oppose them all. President Trump’s calls for cutting Federal regulations by 75% isn’t a conservative idea. It isn’t a capitalist idea. It isn’t even a sensible idea. Just like taxes, not all regulations are intrusive, burdensome, unnecessary, or unjustifiable. Some regulation of the free market is necessary to preserve the free market.
If you need convincing the free market needs regulating, take the time to read Extraordinary Circumstances, the story of the WorldCom accounting scandal; The Smartest Guys in the Room, the story of the amazing rise and scandalous fall of Enron; Madoff, a series about the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scandal; The Big Short, the story of the housing market collapse of 2008 (or the movie that followed); or Snakes in Suits, a plethora of stories of psychopaths at work. The stories differ in complexity and circumstances but they all share a common thread: a lack of regulatory oversight led to corrupt and inept people taking advantage of the system and ultimately costing the average Joe billions upon billions.
Because the term government regulation is toxic to the politician claiming to support limited government, there is a staggering void on the political Right of those speaking openly and sensibly about the pressing need for regulations. This void has been filled, in part, by the likes of people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who have made such reforms the cornerstone of their political careers. Make no mistake, however—progressive liberals like these, with their relentless calls for higher taxes and greater concentration of power in a central government, are no ally of the conservative brand of free markets and their ideas of reform have failed to produce. The tepid response of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act did little to reform Wall Street—we still have banks that are too big to fail—and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a perfect example of a good idea corrupted by politicians’ insatiable desire for control. Nevertheless, they occasionally do a better job than most Republicans at pointing out the shortcomings of an underregulated free market. Warren hit the nail on the head in her Unsafe at Any Rate piece:
“To be sure, creating safer marketplaces is not about protecting consumers from all possible bad decisions…Terms hidden in the fine print or obscured with incomprehensible language, unexpected terms, reservation of all power to the seller with nothing left for the buyer, and similar tricks and traps have no place in a well-functioning market…When markets work, they produce value for both buyers and sellers, both borrowers and lenders. But the basic premise of any free market is full information. When a lender can bury a sentence at the bottom of 47 lines of text saying it can change any term at any time for any reason, the market is broken.”
Capitalism includes safeguards. It presumes the buyer and seller have adequate information to make an informed decision. The difference between sensible regulations that keep a free market in check and overbearing regulations that stifle a free market are open for debate, and a regulatory framework that made sense in one generation may need a facelift in the next. But the conservative embraces this difference between competitive capitalism and crony capitalism and seeks to find a balance of regulations that allow a free market to flourish.
Capitalism vs Materialism
The affection with which conservatives speak of private property is often vilified as materialistic, greedy, and outdated. Why not base our society on a system that rewards virtue instead of greed, asked Phil Donahue of economist and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman. His response was brilliant:
“Is there some society you know of that doesn’t run on greed? The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests…And what does reward virtue? You think the Communist Commissar rewards virtue? You think a Hitler rewards virtue? Do you think…American presidents reward virtue? Do they choose their appointees on the basis of the virtue of the people appointed or on the basis of their political clout? Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest? You know, I think you’re taking a lot of things for granted. Just tell me, where in the world do you find these angels who are going to organize society for us? I don’t even trust you to do that!”
Greed, that excessive pursuit of material possessions, is third on the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a condition of the heart and is an ugly, deplorable aspect of human nature. Yet it is not the prerogative of the state to declare an individual’s pursuit of their own self-interest unlawful on the basis it may be motivated by greed. Those who disdain capitalism as if it somehow produces greed are operating under the false assumption that greed stems chiefly from economic structuring, rather than the corrupt condition of the human heart. Of course there are greedy capitalists. I dare say they would be just as greedy, if not more so, under any other economic system.
Granted, it is wise and desirable to organize a society in such a way that minimizes the incentive to behave greedily. Happily, capitalism has a far superior track record to competing economic systems in producing a people of cheerful givers. The United States, whose economic structure is among the most capitalistic, is also unrivaled in generosity. One of the reasons people in a capitalist society are more generous is because capitalism produces greater wealth. And greater wealth provides people with greater opportunities to be generous.
Some who scoff at a capitalist society presumably based on greed advocate the means of production operate under some public-political ownership where all legal production and distribution decisions will be made by the ruling class to ensure “appropriate” distribution of the wealth. In other words, socialism. In a socialist system, if you were in the business of producing pencils you wouldn’t own the company, equipment, or supplies—the government would. Further, the quantity of pencils you would be making wouldn’t be based on how many pencils your customers wanted to buy or how much they were willing to pay, but on the quotas mandated by the government. And let’s not forget your pay: Your salary wouldn’t necessarily increase if you worked hard at making the best or the cheapest or most unique or the most pencils and therefore were able to sell more than your competition. That too would be decided by the government in a manner that was deemed “fair” by faceless bureaucrats you’d likely never meet.
Yet it is not the capitalist but the socialist who is obsessed with property and greed, for the socialist reduces the aspirations of mankind to a question of how we can best spread around all our material possessions. It should not be taken for granted that socialism often strongly correlates with materialism and determinism, which make sense in a reality where humans are nothing more than a grouping of atoms in a pre-arranged universe. Socialism views humans chiefly as material animals rather than spiritual beings, reducing questions of human happiness and actualization to economic formulas. Class warfare, poverty, wants, needs—salvation from all of life’s challenges is to be found in pursuit of materialistic utopia because matter is all there is room for in the socialist worldview. As the Philosophical Conservative blog notes:
“Material substance is the core and the god of socialist ideology. It is the belief that human salvation is a matter of gathering enough material substance and then spreading it about. But there is a little problem known as scarcity. The free enterprise approach understands that the true key is prosperity not wealth. The human assets that separate a thriving society from a failing or an unstable society are not physical, they are: ideas, originality and innovation. The free enterprise system has the intangible as its focus.”
When the state owns the means of production it owns you. The state dictates how much you produce and how much you make. From this vantage point it is easy to see the correlation between freedom and property. If you are not free to own property, you’re not free to produce, distribute, or earn as you see fit. Those who are not free to work, produce, distribute, or earn as they desire are not free to pursue their own happiness. Here again is the link between the pursuit of property and happiness: Humanity’s actualization is to be found in the pursuit of one’s self-interests, not purely material acquisition.
In Part II we’ll turn our attention to the allure of socialism for Millennials.
*The “What Conservatives Believe” series was inspired by Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles”. As a diligent student of conservatism my aim in this series is not to improve upon his manifesto—a task for which I’m hardly qualified—but to restate his ideas in a more digestible manner for the political layman who’d like to know what it means to be a conservative without having to read an academic paper.