Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Conservatism and “Distributive Justice”

If Conservatism means holding to the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, and of generally rooting oneself in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers as well as those great statesmen like Abraham Lincoln who walked in their stead, then call me a conservative. But please, if you do so don’t confuse me with those who call themselves conservative using “free market capitalism” as their defining attribute, and don’t get caught up in knee-jerk “ditto’s” with those same neo-conservatives who’ d automatically insist I’m therefore some type of socialist. Like any balanced view, my conservatism requires nuance; it also requires, if it is indeed balanced, listeners who are themselves level headed. Thus, it is to the levelheaded – whether or not that includes the ditto headed - that I call to mind an alternative conservatism, what I believe is a truly conservative conservatism.

As an introduction to this form of conservatism, I’d like to start with a basic truth: “Governments are instituted among Men… to secure… certain unalienable Rights… among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The genius of our founders, however, did not stop at this and other phrases of the Declaration of Independence. In later producing the Constitution, they recognized that government itself needed built in checks and balances to prevent it from also violating our unalienable Rights. What the founders established, therefore, was a form of government, which checked and balanced itself, though was still strong enough to secure the external conditions necessary for individual liberty. Liberty, however, is not license.

Understanding the unalienable right to liberty, the second right of the Declaration, is crucial, I believe, to understanding the limiting function of government. Clearly, liberty to pursue happiness cannot mean a pursuit by means, which would interfere with another’s pursuit of happiness, so that a vision of the common good - one, as Jefferson might say, that includes the rights of each individual - presents itself as the defining context for excluding the wrong sorts of means. In other words, each individual has the right to pursue the good life (happiness) for himself, thus anything, which infringes upon the conditions necessary for each individual’s opportunity to do so must be protected against by law; this is what securing liberty, the proper function of government, means.

According to neo-conservatives, however, economic matters can never infringe upon the conditions necessary for individual liberty; they are, instead, always part of the conditions themselves. I’ll give three reasons why I believe this view not only false, but also hypocritical.
1) Any criticism of our capitalist system brings the cha rge that such a system brought unparalleled prosperity, but what brought – and generally brings – national prosperity was Alexander Hamilton’s system, later dubbed the American System, which imposed high tariffs to protect and encourage manufacturing. Hamilton’s prudential economic measures were anathema to free trade proponents, as were those of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and other great men.
2) Every sane neo-conservative will make an exception and admit that breaking up monopolies is a federal obligation. Unconditioned capitalism tends naturally to monopolistic practice, and thus to destroy the conditions requisite for liberty. If economics is not subordinate to the common good, that is, to the conditions for liberty, then we have no basis for breaking up monopolies.
3) Prosperity depends on stability, and economic stability, unfortunately, has had to come at the hand of Keynesianism, of stimulating demand through governmental means. Moreover, these periods of stability are cyclical, and each upset requires more government involvement, thus, as we currently witness, more dependency. Neo-conservatives, in defending our prosperity, unwittingly defend the very socialistic means they claim to detest (for no self-respecting neo-conservative will propose that government, whose constitutional duty is to “promote the general welfare”, should just let the economy crash).

What, then, is the alternative? Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent encyclical titled Caritas In Veritate, referenced “distributive justice”; the reference is older even than the Catholic Church, originating in that great common sense conservative, Aristotle. The beauty of it is, it falls perfectly in line with the principles of our great Democracy, and is really the only thing that can save it. Attempting to abolish capital ownership leads only to the communist debacle, it merely transfers power to elitist bure aucrats. But working through legislation to preserve the conditions requisite for liberty by promoting, as far as possible, widespread ownership in the means of production through, for instance, employee ownership initiatives; that is the way to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth. That is the way to ensure self- reliance and independence. That is the way to ensure limited government. That is the way to promote both ancient and revolutionary-period conservatism. In a word, that is the way to implement a conservatism, which the great intellect G.K. Chesterton appropriately dubbed - Distributism.