Adoration of the free market has always been prevalent within conservative circles. Particularly since the Reagan era, the mantra of “free markets, free people” has ingrained itself as dogma among the political right. As one of the more recent additions to this rhetorical strain, a good friend of mine, Sam Ng, wrote an article on The Texas Horn advocating for why conservatives should not abandon the free market. Yet while his article is insightful, well-intended, and addresses many objections to greater economic restriction, I believe it misses the ball — not only in advocating the merits of a more open free-market economic system but also in explaining how such a system even adheres to the conservative disposition. Thus, I hope to respond to his piece — not for the abolition of the free market, per se — but rather in favor of targeted, prudential restrictions on it.
Conservative Economics, Properly Understood
Here we must first begin by defining what economics means for the conservative. Conservatism, as drawn from its natural and historic origins, is a simple temperament or disposition which seeks to conserve those things and institutions which are conducive to human flourishing. Namely, the natural law points to religion, family, and community as these vital institutions. Yet so too does the conservative see the fiscal realm as important for human flourishing. As much as religion is his aim, family his home, and community his setting, economics is the engine that allows for the continued operation of and participation in these institutions. Thus, a good economy is itself necessary to conserve. For the conservative, the economy’s role is simple: the fiscal support of a society that its members might flourish. Properly functioning, it works in the background, quietly supporting the other institutions. As such, the conservative seeks to preserve an economy that cooperates with and empowers the goods of religion, family, and community. Anything short of that is contrary to the purposes and convictions of conservatism. For the record, I do not think many modern conservatives would disagree with this notion.
The Issue With An Unrestricted Economy
Modern conservatism’s full-hearted embrace of a radically liberal economic system not only hampers genuine conservation but actively prevents it. This is because the logical end to such a philosophy is collectivization — the concentration of wealth, market share, and resources. Ironically, it also leads to less and less competition and competitors, destroying the very notion of a genuine free market itself! Competition necessarily creates winners and losers — this much is fine. In an unrestricted system, however, winners continue to defeat even more competitors, until only the very top remain. All other players, particularly small local businesses, are left in the dust. As states author Wendell Berry:
“The danger of the ideal of competition is that it neither proposes nor implies any limits… it does not hesitate at the destruction of the life of a family or the life of a community. It pits neighbor against neighbor as readily as it pits buyer against seller.”
This collectivization is how we get the dominant — and often, blatantly progressive — corporate powerhouses which we see today. Squashed by social media giants like Facebook, retail kingpins like Amazon, and agricultural dictators like Cargill, small local businesses — whose immediacy and intimate local knowledge vitalizes community participation, labor, wealth, and responsibility — are left to rot, replaced by faceless corporate entities. The conservative should see this trend as being of paramount danger, something that ought to be opposed.
As such, conservatism ought to take on the liberal market and the problematic consequences that it brings about — implementing restrictions that prevent power players from dominating the market and destroying the economy of place. This is not to say that the free market is evil in itself. Rather, it means that the free market is dangerous if allowed to grow unrestricted, unconstrained by constraints that promote virtue and the common good. This makes an unrestricted market fundamentally anti-conservative. Thus, here I will begin to respond to some of the objections that might arise from a proponent of a more laissez-faire system, namely those from Sam’s article.
A Response to Objections
In fairness, the article does not advocate for a libertarian-esque, completely unrestricted free market. While this is a good point, the concession should say something in itself — implicitly suggesting that there are indeed problems with an unrestricted market. It also claims that the idea of restricting the market (presumably to a greater extent than the article desires) will have grave detrimental consequences. This is where the problems begin.
The article’s first claim states that the American manufacturing industry is not actually losing market share and jobs due to international outsourcing in any significant way, citing that manufacturing remains a top national employer. However, this point is misleading, ignoring the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs off the backend — over five million in the past twenty years. Sure, American manufacturing employs more people than some other industries, but this is because manufacturing had a deep labor supply to begin with — it was once the core of the national workforce. Larger animals take longer to bleed out. So too, due to its low level or required skill, manufacturing jobs inevitably have more workers and job openings than, say, white-collar executive jobs. Although there may still be many individual workers in manufacturing jobs, the percentage decline is huge. One can cherry-pick data to make it look like American manufacturing is alive, but all this does is paint over the cracks, hiding the realities of a deeply ailing industry.
The next point discusses the harm of trade protectionism, namely tariffs, on American industry. I concede that protectionism can indeed have harmful consequences domestically, namely in impacting consumer prices. Indeed, there is valid room for debate as to what solutions we might use to combat economic outsourcing. However, this does not diminish the fact that outsourcing is a problem in that it prioritizes foreign entities over the livelihoods of our fellow citizens. By nature, man has a greater obligation to those closest to him. It is thus our responsibility to protect our workers from outsourcing as best we can.
Here we come to the greatest point of contention. The article suggests that rapid technological growth will have a limited impact on jobs — perhaps making certain jobs obsolete, but (quite optimistically) suggesting that human beings possess the ingenuity to overcome and find something new to do. This notion is an idealistic pipe-dream, prescribing merit based on rash assumption. First, it fails to account for the limitations of man’s ability to transition from one labor field to another. Anyone who says that a farmer or steelworker will be able to seamlessly transition, both physically and intellectually, into a technologically advanced job is lying to themselves. Second, it fails to consider the other harms that this transition could have on a person’s wellbeing — the impacts of moving, unsettling, and relocating one’s family, education costs, and community turnover. Third, it ignores the fact that man is naturally inclined to build and work with his hands — such has been the case since the Garden of Eden. To deprive him of such by forcing him into an artificial, technical job is to strip him of a key source of human good. Typing monotonously in a cubicle does not edify the soul the way that building and nurturing can do. Therefore, conservatives ought to preserve meaningful work, even if it means placing restrictions on the market.
The article also cites Jay Richards’ bookThe Human Advantage, suggesting that even though tech might replace current jobs, humans possess the ingenuity to pursue new intellectual and creative avenues. I agree with the assertion that humans possess qualities that could never be replicated by a machine. However, I strongly disagree with the notion that all men possess the ingenuity to completely transition to a new field, especially later in life. Again, it is unlikely for a blue-collar worker, just replaced by a robot at his company, to possess the skills and background to find a new intellectual, creative, service-based job. Old dogs struggle at learning new tricks. Perhaps a few might get lucky and find something new, but it would be impractical to suggest that this could work on the scale of millions of people. People are each gifted with different skills and strengths. It is not fair to tell people with one kind of strength (i.e. manufacturing) that they must ignore their skills and instead work on something else. This is frankly unjust, uncharitable, and unconservative.
Indeed, perhaps technology can serve as a complement to human life, including in the workforce. However, we should not hide from the reality that technology can also be used for evil, and probably will be used for such, considering our fallen state and degenerate culture. Inevitably, unchecked technological growth will permanently replace jobs for people who are not equipped to do anything else. As conservatives, we are obliged to help our fellow man before we help ourselves to profit and efficiency. If we take this mandate seriously, we must think prudently about how much we integrate technology into our manufacturing processes.
Lastly, I would like to discuss the common good. The conservative debate between the free market and restricted market is one where two sides are attempting to forge a path towards human flourishing. This much I grant. Yet what proponents of a less restricted market fail to understand is that our ends lie beyond the market — that human flourishing is greater than wealth and competition. Man’s ability to do meaningful work, use his God-given gifts, own property, and provide for his family is much more important than efficiency and keeping the price of consumer goods low. Sure, restrictions on the market might have consequences, like (occasionally) increased prices, smaller variety, and even a less efficient supply chain. Yet these things are worthy and minuscule sacrifices for the sake of preserving those actually vital institutions of faith, family, and community.
Ultimately, there exist negative consequences regardless of if we choose to heavily restrict the free market or not — whether those be collectivized corporations or higher consumer prices. Yet what the laissez-faire advocates forget is that there exist certain needs which supersede profit and material gain. While restrictions might harm in some way, they certainly do not harm the human condition nearly as much as the loss of local business, social atomization, joblessness, and community decay. We possess human dignity, a dignity that ought to be conserved over any material good. Embracing an unrestricted market directly harms this good. Thus, any genuine conservative ought to view the unrestricted market with distrust and repulsion, and instead champion a restricted, human-oriented market promoting healthy competition, an even playing field, and virtuous transactions.
“Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” -Wendell Berry
Samuel D. Samson is a fourth-year student studying political philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and an undergraduate fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. His work focuses St. Thomas Aquinas’s natural law theory and the intersection of conservatism with religion, family, community, economics, and culture.