• Josh Lewis

How does a Conservative differ from a Socialist? Part 5 (The Fatal Conceit)


If you have read through the previous posts in this series, you may have noticed much of the criticism leveled against socialism could just as easily come from a capitalist point of view as it could from conservatism per se. And, while I have noted that conservatives are, generally speaking, capitalists, I have not taken for granted that capitalism and conservatism are not synonymous. Rather, I’ve taken the long way round to now explore what conservatism offers that capitalism, taken by itself, does not.


Namely, conservatism offers a comprehensive worldview beyond a mere economic point of view. What of it you may ask? Well, if we are simply pitting capitalism against socialism, the socialists have the advantage. For they too offer something akin to an all-inclusive worldview. As we began to explore in Part 4, socialism is far more than an economic system. It is an all-encompassing effort to redesign society in a manner that’s morally acceptable to the socialist. Socialism is appealing precisely because it extends beyond economics and into questions of justice and equity and thereby offers a deeper sense of moral purpose and community for the socialist.


That’s a tall order to ask of an economic system, but socialism manages to pull it off, whereas capitalism is a pitiful substitute for a moral code. That’s not to say some haven’t tried to make capitalism into something akin to an all-encompassing worldview. The writings of Ayn Rand and her homegrown philosophy of objectivism stop just short of making a religion out of the pursuit of one’s own self-interests in the free market. I will save my criticism for this approach for another day. Suffice it to say for now, I hardly think it’s controversial to suggest that objectivism has utterly failed in making capitalism as appealing to the masses. Objectivism is a lonely religion.


“Conservatives are cracking open Atlas Shrugged and shouting about socialism”—worries New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, referring to Rand’s most famous treatise—“but they seem to have lost the appetite for thinking through the problem of community in an individualistic age—which is, of course, precisely the problem that makes socialism so appealing in the first place.” In an age of hyper-individualism, many will naturally seek solace in the community spirit of either socialist collectivism or Burkean/Tocquevillean conservatism.


“Man is a social being, and his desire for community will not be denied,” Douthat continues, “The liberated individual is just as likely to become the alienated individual, the paranoid individual, the lonely and desperately seeking community individual. And if he can’t find that community on a human scale, then he’ll look for it on an inhuman scale—in the total community of the totalizing state.” Douthat’s statements are insightful and eloquent, but hardly original. Half a century earlier, American sociologist Robert Nisbet issued a similar warning in relation to socialism’s radicalized offspring, Communism:

“To say that the well-fed worker will never succumb to the lure of communism is as absurd as to say that the well-fed intellectual will never succumb. The presence or absence of three meals a day, or even the simple possession of a job, is not the decisive factor. What is decisive is the frame of reference. If, for one reason or another, the individual’s immediate society comes to seem remote, purposeless, and hostile, if a people come to sense that, altogether, they are victims of discrimination and exclusion, not all the food and jobs in the world will prevent them from looking for the kind of surcease that comes with membership in a social and moral order seemingly directed toward their very souls.”

Douthat’s contemporary Jonah Goldberg has similar misgivings about attempting to defend capitalism on purely economic grounds: “The true defender of free markets, and of liberty itself, must go outside the walled citadel of capitalism and fight on the muddier battlefields of morality…In every generation, we see capitalism threatened not by dangerous economic arguments but by seductive moral claims.”


Socialist Seduction

Conservatism offers us community, tradition, and the combined moral codifications of Western civilization ethics and Judeo-Christian teachings. What “seductive moral claims” does socialism offer? As we explored in Part 4, socialist rhetoric belies far more than promises of greater economic efficiency and material prosperity. It includes the promise of addressing what’s wrong with humanity. Socialism is the moral critic of inequalities, injustices, and historical grievances coupled with the promise of setting things right and thereby alleviating what ails humanity. In short, socialism is the attempt to make people good. As former socialist Irving Kristol warned:

“All of modern socialism is a movement that says it will create a good society, which will then create good people…It is true that a good government can improve the people somewhat, with difficulty. But the notion that a handful of true believers can, be manipulating the mass of the people, create a good society inhabited by good people is pernicious nonsense. All such movements end the same way, coercing people ‘for their own good’ until, at a certain point, the people who are doing the coercing forget why they are doing it and come to regard the coercion, in and of itself, as legitimate.”

Socialism has the formula exactly backwards. It is not good society that makes good people, it is virtuous people who have a shot at producing a good society. I say “virtuous” here instead of “good” to sidestep the religious/philosophical arguments about whether humans can be “good” or what we even mean by “good”. Suffice it to say, for purposes of erecting a stable society where both liberty and the pursuit of virtues can be enjoined, a certain quantum of republican virtues are necessary ingredients. But these virtues do not arise from government programs or economic systems. Instead, they are dependent upon tradition and liberty.


How so? “What economic liberty actually means becomes obvious when we state that the contrary of it is compulsion,” cautions German economist Wilhelm Röpke. “Every limitation of economic liberty, every state intervention and every single act of planning and directing, contains some constraint.” An economic system that fosters liberty leaves individuals alone to pursue lives of virtue (or vice). An economic system that enforces some idea of morality cannot make people moral, and in coercing them into state-approved behavior it is likely to lead to resentment, complacency, and stagnation of character development.


The conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans put this idea rather forcefully: “The free economy permits morality but does not guarantee it; the coerced economy guarantees immorality.” I’m not entirely inclined to agree as I believe people are capable of moral behavior no matter what economic system is in place, but the point remains: coerced economics does not make people good and is far more likely to breed immorality.


We might agree that people ought to be more charitable but redirecting their personal property and hard-earned wages to charitable organizations isn’t charity but confiscation. While the state may coerce certain actions that appear charitable on the surface, the human heart either isn’t reached or, worse still, is hardened and learns to equate ideas such as justice, charity, and love as acts of the state rather than duties of the individual. This is the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. When his fellow capitalists approach him and ask if he’d like to contribute to their collection for the poor for Christmas, Scrooge replies, “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” Charity, to Scrooge, was the goal of the state, not the duty of the individual.


The great allure of the morality offered by socialism is that we get to define “morality” on our terms. And by “we” I mean the enlightened few who have appointed themselves to the socialist priesthood. Kristol offers some justification for such an approach: “The distribution of income under liberal capitalism is ‘fair’ if, and only if, you think that liberty is, or ought to be, the most important political value”—for what it’s worth, if we’re choosing the “most important political value” my vote is for prudence, but the point remains—“This distribution of income under capitalism is an expression of the general belief that it is better for society to be shaped by the interplay of people’s free opinions and free preferences than by the enforcement of any one set of values by government.”


This may be a hard sell for some. Is it “fair” to give up our shot at defining a moral code that promises to make people good and to end inequalities, injustices, perhaps even racism, sexism, bigotry, and class struggle all in the name of “liberty”? Laying aside the very real problem of whether the enlightened priesthood could actually make people good, let’s turn to an even more fundamental concern: how do we reach consensus on what’s “fair”? Economist (and another former socialist) Thomas Sowell acknowledged the free market doesn’t always produce results that are “fair”, but points to the problem in trying to enforce “fairness”:

“It is unfair when some people are unable to earn as much as others with similar skills and diligence, because of innovations which were as unforeseen by most of the people who benefited as by most of the people who were made worse off. Yet this unfairness to particular individuals is what makes the economy as a whole operate more efficiently for the benefit of vastly larger numbers of others. Would creating more fairness among producers, at the cost of reduced efficiency and a resulting lower standard of living, be fair to consumers?”

The Altruism of the Enlightened Priesthood

But let’s back up further still. Supposing the enlightened priesthood could devise an economic system that makes people good, and supposing they (and we) could reach some agreement on what we all mean by “fair”, it still doesn’t follow the sort of centralized control that’s needed to enforce this new morality would be used by altruistic forces. Why should we expect our new masters to be any better than the freely chosen actions of private interests and individuals? It is a mistake to think of the role the state plays in a socialist system as being somehow outside of the natural constraints, passions, and temptations of human beings, says Sowell:

“The market is as moral or immoral as the people in it. So is the government. The fact that we call one set of people ‘the market’ when they engage in transactions among themselves and another set of people ‘society’ when they exercise political power over others does not mean that the moral or other imperfections of the first set of people automatically justify having the second set of imperfect people over-ruling their decisions.”

Let me emphasize that the real question isn’t whether we want an economy that’s controlled by “private” or “public” actors, but whether we want an economy that’s “controlled” in this sense at all. I am not suggesting private business owners are more virtuous than men and women who dedicate their lives to public service. I have worked for both private and public employers and can attest they are comprised of both good and bad actors. It is not at all inconsistent with capitalism to have a negative view of many—even most—capitalists and to fear a world in which they are “in charge”.


Yet this false dichotomy is ingrained in the socialist mindset. If the self-appointed enlightened priesthood—with their best of intentions—aren’t directing the show, how awful to think that those dastardly, greedy capitalists who were born with silver spoons in their mouths and have more than they need are the ones calling the shots. “For intellectuals generally, the feeling of being mere tools of concealed, even if impersonal, market forces appear almost as a personal humiliation,” Hayek observes. “It evidently has not occurred to them that the capitalists who are suspected of directing it all are actually also tools of an impersonal process, just as unaware of the ultimate effects and purpose of their actions.” Capitalism does not mean those who own capital are “in charge” but that individuals have the liberty to act in their own best interests.


I said above that even if we allowed an enlightened priesthood could make people good via the proper economic system that we could all agree was “fair”, it simply doesn’t follow we should trust they would behave any better than a system in which capitalists were truly in charge. In fact, we do not have to wonder how the enlightened priesthood would behave, for we have ample examples just such experiments. I’ve intentionally waited until this last post to bring this up as objecting to socialism on the grounds it’s “all been tried before and found wanting” is certainly low-hanging fruit. But the fact remains, it has been tried before. Over and over and over.


But, That Wasn’t Real Socialism

Yes, I am aware that many socialists will insistent that each example of socialism offered somehow wasn’t real socialism or that it would have gone better had the state not fallen into the wrong hands. But let’s take just a moment to examine the sheer magnitude of the number of socialist experiments that somehow don’t count as real socialism.


To begin with, there are the multitude of countries that went hard-core socialist by instituting Communist totalitarianism:

Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Belarus, Benin, Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Congo, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, East Germany, Grenada, Hungary, Laos, North Korea, Mongolia, Mozambique, Poland, Romania, Somalia, Tuva, Russia/Soviet Union, Ukraine, North Vietnam, South Yemen, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia.

Then there are the countries who tried a variety of socialist systems outside of Communism:

Burma, Cape Verde, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea, Iraq, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Zambia.

What about countries with multi-party systems that had majority socialist or Communist parties at one time or another? Glad you asked:

Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Barbados, Congo, Djibouti, Ecuador, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Mauritius, Mozambique, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Portugal, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Syria, Tanzania, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

I’ll spare you Wikipedia’s list of seventy-five—seventy-five!—additional short-lived political entities that “emerged during wars, revolutions, or unrest and declared themselves socialist under some interpretation of the term, but which did not survive long enough to create a stable government or achieve international recognition”.


What remains is the Nordic Model, which includes the “socialist” countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Indeed, American socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez often point to our European allies as their preferred form of socialism. This would be worth debating if it weren’t for the fact the Nordic countries abandoned socialism in the last century. In that same century, Irving Kristol observed that “people who persist in calling themselves socialist, while decrying the three quarters of the world that has proclaimed itself socialist, and who can find a socialist country nowhere but in their imaginings—such people are anachronisms.”


The Fatal Conceit

Anachronistic, yet doggedly persistent in their belief that they can succeed where all others have failed. But let’s take another look that “them”—this enlightened priesthood. Who are these self-appointed moral modernizers? They claim to speak on behalf of the workers of the world—those who are exploited by greedy capitalists—but we should not take it for granted that their ranks are rarely comprised of the sort of actual workers they claim to be working to benefit. They are, more often than not, the elite of society. The are college educated, professional, and—above all—intelligent. “The higher we climb up the ladder of intelligence, the more we talk with intellectuals, the more likely we are to encounter socialist convictions,” posited Hayek. Why is that?


“One’s initial surprise at finding that intelligent people tend to be socialists diminishes when one realizes that, of course, intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence, and to suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilization offers to deliberate design rather than to following traditional rules, and likewise to suppose that we can, by exercising our reason, eliminate and remaining undesired features by still more intelligent reflection, and still more appropriate design and ‘rational coordination’ of our undertakings. This leads one to be favorably disposed to the central economic planning and control that lie at the heart of socialism.”


Who else but the most intelligent among us would fall prey to notions that they were capable of redesigning morality, economics, and human nature? This is what Hayek referred to as the “fatal conceit”. The mistaken belief that “the ability to acquire skills stems from reason.” But this is not so, as we have explored throughout this entire series. “It is the other way around: our reason is as much the result of an evolutionary selection process as is our morality.” What makes the socialist conceit “fatal”? In their well-intentioned efforts to redesign the world based on their reason alone, they destroy the very tradition that made the complexities of the free market possible in the first place. Without this tradition humanity is cast back on its pre-civilized method of acquiring goods and services through violence instead of careful cooperation and mutually beneficial rules.


“Priding itself on having built its world as if it had designed it, and blaming itself for not having designed it better, humankind is now to set out to do just that,” continues Hayek, “The aim of socialism is no less than to effect a complete redesigning of our traditional morals, law, and language, and on this basis to stamp out the old order and the supposedly inexorable, unjustifiable conditions that prevent the institution of reason, fulfilment, true freedom, and justice.” In the end, socialism destroys what capitalism has achieved: prosperity, opportunity, and freedom from coercion.


But I am not ignorant to the fact capitalism has not brought us utopia. There is still poverty, corruption, greed, exploitation, and want. And, even where those are minimal, there is the sad malaise of a society sinking into complacency and mediocracy. Irving Kristol’s writings—perhaps because of his socialist origins—contain a grain of sympathy to his old comrades:

“A free market responds, or tries to respond, to the appetites and preferences of common men and women, whose use of their purchasing power determines the shape of the civilization. Since common men and women are likely to have ‘common’ preferences, tastes, and aspirations, the society they create—the ‘consumption society,’ as it is now called—will be regarded by some critics as shortsightedly ‘materialistic.’”

The enlightened priesthood may not be all wrong in their critics of capitalist society. Of course it matters what the people consume and what kind of people we become. But socialism does not offer us the salvation they would hope for. Neither does capitalism. For that we need the sort of tried and true traditions conservatism defends.