What Conservatives Believe: Life, Liberty, & that Other Thing – Part IV
“Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles*
In Part I of this series we discussed capitalism as the ideal protector of an individual’s natural right to the pursuit of property. We also touched on the competing economic system of socialism. In Part II we discussed the allure socialism has over Millennials in particular. In Part III we discussed the difference between the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, and the idea that people have a right to something as nebulous as free healthcare. If you’re reading this series for the first time be sure and check out Part I, Part II, and Part III.
Some Objections to Private Property
Legions, volumes, mountains of books have been painstakingly written both extoling and condemning capitalism and the possession of private property. I am under no delusion that this tiny post is up to the task of settling the matter once and for all. Nevertheless, in this final post I’d like to offer some rebuttals to some common objections to capitalism.
First, critics of capitalism often point out that those who presumably “deserve” to be rewarded for their efforts are often overshadowed by the less deserving. Why are professional athletes provided contracts worth millions while teachers earn a salary barely above the poverty line? Why should someone in a blue-collar position working more than 80 hours a week and exerting an immense amount of physical labor be paid half what someone in a part-time white-collar consulting position makes? Capitalism doesn’t necessarily favor the most deserving or the hardest working.
This is a tragedy—an injustice even. But it doesn’t follow that the solution to injustices we perceive are produced by capitalism will be resolved by forcibly confiscating the wealth of those we deem less deserving and spreading it out to those we decide do deserve it. The true injustice is that humans consistently hold things of baser value in high regards, not the mere mechanics of how dollars are allocated. Confiscating wealth will not only fail to resolve this injustice, it will produce other injustices in limiting the right we have to pursuing property.
The reason those athletes earn such obscene profits is because multitudes of people—those virtuous teachers among them—freely choose to spend what they’ve earned in such a way to signal to those who own professional sporting teams that they are worth it. Should we have the “right” to spend what we’ve freely earned as we think best? If so, we must accept what comes with it: that some will spend what they’ve freely earned on things we judge foolish or detestable. But deserving or not, people have the right to enjoy what others have freely invested in them.
A second objection is raised in arguing that capitalism is bad for you. As this 8-Bit Philosophy video puts it, “Workers are not simply alienated, they’re subject to a process that strips them of their very humanity…capitalism is an iron cage that exposes workers to incapacitating anxiety all for the accumulation of profit.” Well now, that sucks. To the overworked, exhausted employee painstakingly trying to make a living by the sweat of his brow in the rat race, this argument rings true. Why do I work so hard? Because if I don’t, someone else will work harder than me and take my job. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Capitalism enslaves the worker, always striving for the necessities of life.
But once again we’ve blamed capitalism for something inherent in human nature. The Philosophical Conservative explains:
"The obvious problem with this claim is that the free market system did not create the human need for the necessities of life, nor did it introduce the perpetual struggle and hardship that men face in attempting to acquire these necessities. It is a part of nature. Mankind for most of history has lived hand to mouth in scarcity and uncertainty, dependent upon simple agricultural skills and subject to drought, famine, pandemic disease etc. It was Industrialism spurred by Capitalism that lifted him far above this mode of life, making the quality of life known in the modern world a possibility. The fact that many men must struggle to acquire the necessities of life is not the doing of Capitalism, but the fact that they do so now under profoundly better conditions of life, and with a wider range of options than they have ever had throughout history is indeed the work of Capitalism."
Finally, there’s the objection that capitalism is an unjust system that conspires against its workers. This argument takes various forms, but perhaps the picture below will help illustrate the point best. Capitalism is seen as a hierarchy of injustice, exploiting the working class for the benefit of those supposedly pulling the strings.
The argument is tempting because it appeals to our natural bias to distain or disregard those who are different than us. Under this view things would be quite alright if it weren’t for those rotten billionaires who profit from the system at the expense of people like us. Since most of us don’t personally know billionaires, it’s all too easy to blame our economic woes on this elite, shadowy class supposedly pulling all the strings.
Yet once again, this argument takes for granted that such a hierarchy may still exist in all other “systems.” Capitalism didn’t create the hierarchy. Capitalism entails the right to freely sell one’s goods or services at whatever price they deem best and the right to pass one’s wealth to the next generation as they deem best. Why would it be any more unjust for a billionaire to exercise this right many of us would defend for those who live in poverty?
Capitalism has done more to level the hierarchy than alternatives. When Milton Friedman was asked what would be so wrong with taking money from people who had “Oodles and oodles” of it and “didn’t need it” he responded:
“What do you suppose they do with [the money]? Do they invest it in factories? Does some of that money end up in machinery? Do those factories and machines provide for ordinary people with jobs? What do you suppose the productivity of this country would be…if the total capital today was what it was a hundred years ago? Where do you suppose the improvements in productivity comes from except from the investment by people from their savings? Nirvana is not for this world. There is no paradise. Of course we’ve got a lot of people that are poorly off. But if you look at it over time—if you get a sense of proportion—the wellbeing of the ordinary people has been the main thing that has been improved by economic progress and economic development.”
The Advantages of Private Property
While natural rights should be defended for no other reason than the simple fact it is the duty of government to defend natural rights, it should be duly noted that the right to pursue property carries with it many benefits for both the individual and the society. As Russell Kirk wrote:
“Private property has been a powerful instrument for teaching men and women responsibility, for providing motives to integrity, for supporting general culture, for raising mankind above the level of mere drudgery, for affording leisure to think and freedom to act. To be able to retain the fruits of one’s labor; to be able to see one’s work made permanent; to be able to bequeath one’s property to one’s posterity; to be able to rise from the natural condition of grinding poverty to the security of enduring accomplishment; to have something that is really one’s own—these are advantages difficult to deny. The conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully.”
The pursuit of property has proven a stabilizing force wherever it’s been permitted to persist. The responsibilities inherent in ownership develops industriousness, cooperation, resourcefulness, innovation, philanthropy, stewardship, and a greater awareness of the needs of others. When each individual is free to pursue property they act in the best interest of one another because they freely conduct business in a manner that’s mutually agreeable.
The conservative recognizes the right to the pursuit of property as a natural right, much like the right to life and liberty. While history has shown that capitalism is the best economic system for protecting this right, the conservative is also mindful that some government regulation is necessary to prevent crony capitalism that benefits the few at the expense of the many. Capitalism isn’t perfect; it produces many inequalities and fails to meet the needs and desires of all people. Yet it is the best system known to mankind that provides for the common welfare and protects our natural rights.
*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.