10 January 2012

'Conservatives' vs. Capitalism: a Republican crack-up?

Rare is the day when I can say "Rush Limbaugh is absolutely right," but that's pretty much the case when he takes fellow Republicans to task for criticizing Mitt Romney's business practices and complaining about his wealth. His dismay at the spectacle seems refreshingly sincere and he seems honestly at a loss to account for the apparent hypocrisy from the party of capitalism. He turns to a National Review Online columnist, Jay Nordlinger, to help figure it all out. Nordlinger notes, and Limbaugh seems inclined to agree, that only Romney among the Republicans, the one who seems the least Republican to other Republicans, has the guts to defend capitalism as an economic system. Limbaugh seems to think that Romney himself is overrated as a capitalist, but he appears to concede Nordlinger's point. This alone is unlikely to reconcile Limbaugh to Romney, but today's observations raise a question neither Limbaugh nor Nordlinger may care to confront: how strong is conservatism's commitment to capitalism? The alliance of the two phenomena is relatively recent. In the 19th century, self-styled conservatives often opposed laissez-faire capitalism because the conservative position then was statist and upheld the state's prerogative to regulate trade. That battle was lost, but self-styled conservatives in many countries took the lead in introducing social-welfare provisions -- Germany under Bismarck is the noteworthy case -- on the assumption that it was better for society for some people to be dependent on the state than for them to join a revolutionary mob. In the U.S. in the 20th century, anti-communist conservatives rallied to capitalism because it was part of an entire socio-cultural order that communism threatened -- but how essential is capitalism to that order? How many people became conservative primarily because they thought communism would confiscate their houses or demolish their churches? You don't have to endorse capitalism in all its splendor to believe in private property, after all, just as you don't have to be a communist to criticize capitalism. If most self-style conservatives in America today see themselves as defenders of a moral order, as seems to be the case, how essential is capitalism to that order? As Thomas Frank and others, on both left and right, have noted, capitalism as a system of perpetual "creative destruction" is in many ways inherently corrosive of traditional order and traditional morality. Frank has noted for years that moral conservatives' alliance with capitalism has been consistently self-defeating, yet right-wingers have persisted in it on the assumption that the baby of traditional order would go out with the bathwater of laissez-faire if the left took over. Meanwhile, Nordlinger and Limbaugh cite the wisdom of Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator who advised Republicans never to defend free trade on the stump because those who benefit from it don't realize how they benefit, while those who suffer no exactly why they suffer. If we enlarge the scope from free trade to free enterprise, a time comes inevitably when more people suffer than benefit -- Limbaugh himself cites the 2008 crash as an example. Is the majority to be consoled with the usual warnings against envy and the familiar reminders that life's not fair? What is conservative, exactly, about those opinions? Envy is on the loose in the primary field among people who are not otherwise unconservative -- depending on your perception of Newt Gingrich, of course -- and the bulwark against envy is the man normally regarded as the least conservative Republican, and whose likely victory is increasingly perceived by his rivals as unfair. We've been led to believe that a true conservative would not complain about the triumph of a Romney, in business or in politics. So are Gingrich, Perry et al not true conservatives, or are they not true Republicans? The distinction may matter more than people think somewhere down the line.

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