Thursday, October 16, 2008

Morals or Markets? Conservatives: "Yes!"

Nicola Karras has given a just-so story of her passage to conservatism, which includes this epiphany among others:

Once, [Robert Nisbet] argued, both our material and spiritual needs had been met by non-state institutions. The family was a locus of identity, as well as the vital economic base for food, housing, and education. Churches and guilds provided economic support as well as creating identity. Still, Maslow was right: when the expanding liberal nation-state began to usurp their economic functions, and to perform them more efficiently, people no longer turned to these intermediate institutions. Without the strong connection of physical need, bonds between individuals and institutions grew tenuous and no longer created meaning and community.

The fundamental political problem, I’ve concluded, is in how we think about the state. If we look to it as arbiter of legitimacy, safety, or morality, we have already neglected the sources of real meaning in our lives.
Once upon a time, so this tale goes, families, churches, and guilds were the means by which people sustained themselves in every way: physically, emotionally, spiritually. And then in came the "expanding liberal nation-state," boorishly crashing the tranquil scene and sundering the bonds that assured us of who we were and what we lived for.

In characteristic conservative fashion, that's as far as it goes, and it hangs together more or less convincingly if you wish away everything that happened in the way of intrusive institutions between, say, 1700 and 1900: namely, the rise of corporate capitalism.

Indeed, while the reputation of my love for sunshine, kittens, apple pie, America, and her troops might be imperiled for saying so, the rise of the "liberal nation-state" makes little sense unless it's seen as a direct response, sometimes adversarial but mostly congenial, to the rise of corporate capitalism. Corporate capitalism was (and is) the horse and the state was (and is) the cart attached to it.

So here today, well past the tight-knit pastoral settings of our forebears, we definitely do live in a world beset with isolation, rootlessness, and every manner of agonizingly fundamental questions about agonizingly fundamental things.

If we take Nicola Karras at her conservative word and chase away the state, we will not have accounted for the homogenizing and deracinating effects of Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Nike, Safeway, Microsoft, Apple, Ford, Toyota, Bank of America, New York Life, Time/Warner, GE, and all the rest. The objects and ideas of our daily life are produced, peddled, and aggressively propagandized by remote, unnamed parties with whom we share no organic tie. The same is true of the people themselves: good luck knowing as much about your everyday human peers as you know about Tom Cruise or Paris Hilton. The marketplace is pressing from all directions at all times, and it has a very strong interest in what we consider hearth and kin.

Speaking from what claims to be another faction of conservatism, Will Wilkinson is not worried:
As the socioeconomic structure shifts, the means of achieving moral ends shifts. But there is an inevitable lag in moral culture, in the evolution of our shared moral sentiments. Free markets precipitate extremely fast socioeconomic change, and therefore market cultures are most likely to see a mismatch between the traits of moral character valued by the culture and the traits of character actually effective as means within the existing structure for achieving moral ends. So you can (I think we do) have a situation in which people may seem debased according to the superannuated standards of our lagging moral culture while the system simultaneously delivers moral goods more effectively than at any time in human history.
Wilkinson is a CATO guy and that's a very CATO-y answer: morals shall forever be honed by the forces of creative destruction, so wipe away your tears, buck up, and hold tightly your bootstraps. If capitalism doesn't deliver anew the attachments it has sundered, freshly repackaged in compelling new styles and sold at affordable prices, just wait longer. Never mind that in the long run we're all dead; that's loser talk, and coffee is for closers.

It's quite possible I've not said everything that ever needs to be said on this important and rich tangle of topics. There's much more here, among other places.

1 comment:

larryniven said...

I'm a little shocked, actually, that anyone - even market-worshipers - could presume to insult the government for providing us protection and legitimacy. What could be a more basic function of governments than to ensure that all citizens go through life being treated equally as human beings? Families and businesses and religions simply can't achieve that, and history has been a witness to their failure in that regard.