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The Anti-Capitalist Impulse on the Right

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Irving Kristol, who died last month at age 89, inspired some highly mixed feelings in me. On the positive side, this renowned public intellectual was possessed of political realism, a firm anti-utopian grasp of the possible. Like Thomas Sowell and P.J. O’Rourke, though more understated, he had a superb gift for deflating the morally-charged conceits and histrionics of Left egalitarianism. On the negative side, he exhibited a shockingly narrow and vitriolic view of contemporary culture. That hatred, unfortunately, did much to sour his view of capitalism. And his widespread influence on this count has become painfully apparent.

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Arguably more than anyone else in the 20th century, Irving Kristol and Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) defined, in different ways, the American Right’s view of capitalism. Each thought little of latter-day liberalism and the capitalists who accommodated it, but Kristol believed that businessmen who behaved contrarily to civilized (or “bourgeois”) norms were at least as bad as socialists. Established political authorities thus have an obligation to ban certain buyer-seller transactions – a great many of them, actually. Modern societies, like ancient ones, must affirm objective truths.

Mises, by contrast, saw projecting motive onto capitalists and their customers as a futile and potentially tyrannical exercise. In his book, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, the preeminent Austrian economist observed that animosity toward capitalism is manifest in a dislike of capitalists. Opponents of business, he argued, view businessmen as profit-obsessed reprobates undermining societal well-being:

As they see it, this ghastly mode of society’s economic organization has brought about nothing but mischief and misery…For these scoundrels nothing counts but their moneyed interests. They do not produce good and really useful things, but only what will yield the highest profits. They poison bodies with alcoholic beverages and tobacco, and souls and minds with tabloids, lascivious books and silly moving pictures. The ‘ideological superstructure’ of capitalism is a literature of decay and degradation, the burlesque show and the art of strip-tease, the Hollywood pictures and the detective stories.

These words, though written more than 50 years ago, have an oddly contemporary ring. More to the point, they refer to moralists on the Right as much as those on the Left. That’s all the more troubling since many among the former – like Irving Kristol – have been professed friends of free enterprise. The truth is that the Right carries a cartload of petty anti-capitalist resentments of its own.

This goes against the grain of accepted wisdom, which sees anti-market attitudes as an almost exclusively Leftist vocation. Such a view is understandable. The Left’s reigning idea is that the market, left to its own devices, is incapable of providing moral justice. While capitalism may be efficient, its enormous social costs require rectification through outside control. Inevitably, that means a massive expansion of the State, so long as the “right” people (e.g., Barack Obama, Hugo Chavez) run it. Yet traditionalists of the Right have their own pedigree of fear and loathing of capitalism long predating the rise of the Left. Their arguments raise the age-old philosophical distinction between “wants” and “needs.”

For many centuries, almost all societies were de facto “conservative.” That is, the main tenets of classical conservatism, steeped in reverence for hierarchy, were so ingrained that they required no political movement to promote them. People simply “knew their place.” Those of low hereditary status risked severe sanctions if they pulled rank on their social betters.

Luxury, a manifestation of early capitalism, thus was something to be feared. Its widespread availability, authorities believed, would lead to sloth, lechery or worse. In later centuries, those justifying such a moral code frequently pointed to fallen ancient civilizations whose masses of people had grown spoiled, soft and weak from luxury. Only landed nobility had the right to fulfill wants. Everyone else had to be content with rigidly-circumscribed needs. In his book, Luxury: The Concept in Western Thought, Eden to Smollett, John Sekora notes:

(T)he pursuit of luxury, however considered, was viewed as a fundamental and generic vice from which other subordinate vices would ensue. In the Old Testament, where it is equated with disobedience to God, it is the cardinal sin of the Israelites. In Plato and Aristotle, the Cynics and the Stoics, it is the first and most important violation of nature and reason. For the Roman historians, it is the primary factor in the dissolution of the Republic. For the Christian theologians, it is prima facie evidence of both disobedience to God and love of a degraded world.

The prohibition against luxury also assumed a common legal dimension: sumptuary laws. Such enactments reinforced existing hierarchies. By making food, clothing and other consumption items associated with aristocrats off-limits to commoners, those in power could be insulated from challenge. During the ancient Roman Republic, authorities published a book containing the names of everyone found guilty of luxurious living. England during the Middle Ages prescribed the color, material and type of clothing for people of various ranks and trades. Such laws were not necessarily rigorously enforced, but their mere existence inhibited the development of business culture. For if shame and approbation were attached to living “too well,” what intrepid entrepreneur would service such illicit desires?

Sumptuary laws pretty much had become extinct by the close of the 18th century, as modern ideas of sovereignty, rights and contract took hold, but the instinct to mistrust and punish those of low status has remained powerful. Military life, where rank is paramount, is probably the clearest example of tight restrictions on dress, speech and other outward behavior. Countless unwritten laws of etiquette still prevail. An employee does not, for example, drive a flashier car than the boss without inviting suspicion. Highly liturgical religions also have maintained a strict code of appearances, as do various sectarian cults. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, isn’t that far-fetched.

Capitalism, more than any other institution, dissolved the idea of the forbidden in everyday life. Under the Austrian or libertarian view, capitalists have the right to offer “frivolous” goods and services, and consumers have the right to buy them. Economic knowledge is subjective. The people best able to calculate the wisdom of economic decisions are those participating in them. Parties outside their frame of reference, especially in the realm of government, lack the knowledge or moral standing to intervene.

Traditionalists generally find this infuriating. For them, the exercise of personal freedom is tantamount to its misuse. A healthy culture, in their minds, must prevent adults from attending immoral concerts, watching immoral TV programs, and reading immoral magazines (or allowing their offspring to do likewise). This was the rock upon which Irving Kristol stood, not to mention Robert Bork, Walter Berns and David Lowenthal, all enthusiastic supporters of censorship. As licentious appetites must be whetted in today’s carnival of consumption, they argue, authorities should restrain people from indulging those appetites. Capitalism, while more efficient than socialism, undermines virtue. New sumptuary laws, of a sort, are needed.

This is the central argument of Kristol’s popular 70s-era book, Two Cheers for Capitalism. For him, capitalism earns a cheer each for efficiency and liberty. But it doesn’t earn a third cheer because it lacks the means of satisfying the search for existential authenticity. Worse yet, it lends credibility to darker existential impulses if money can be made. For the remainder of his career, this view would be his leitmotif. As long as people such as Hugh Hefner are permitted to run profitable enterprises, Kristol argued, capitalists would be the gravediggers of capitalism.

It was Kristol’s founding partner of The Public Interest, sociologist Daniel Bell, who gave this view its fullest expression. In his own 70s-era book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell, a self-described socialist in economics, liberal in politics and conservative in culture, was apoplectic that the “counterculture” was becoming integrated into capitalism. America apparently was better off with its artists starving. While running a successful business still requires traditional economic calculation, he argued, marketing and advertising require pandering to base instincts. “The consequence of this contradiction,” writes Bell, “…is that a corporation finds its people being straight by day and swingers by night.” Bell reveals his hysterical authoritarianism in the following passage: “The question of who will use drugs, engage in orgies and wife-swapping, become an open homosexual, use obscenity as a political style, or enjoy ‘happenings’ and underground movies is not easily related to the ‘standard variables’ of sociological discourse.”

Many conservatives, in fact, since have made the argument that rising discretionary income has had the unintended effect of stimulating amoral wants. The late Canadian social philosopher, George Parkin Grant, a self-described conservative, defended socialism on precisely such grounds. And a new generation of “crunchy” American conservatives, such as Rod Dreher, Jeremy Beer and John Zmirak, are hardly friends of the market either.

Kristol was of the same cast of mind. Contempt for cultural freedom was his trump card. Though hardly a socialist, even socialists didn’t arouse his ire as much as counterculture-friendly businessmen did. He supported the idea of a “conservative welfare state,” and even defended “soaking the rich” under certain circumstances. One wonders whom he had in mind.

All of today’s arguments on the Right against “amoral” capitalism in a real sense ratify the Kristol-Bell thesis. Public policy, in their minds, must wage all-out war against anti-bourgeois forces masquerading as legitimate businessmen. This view, unfortunately, is akin to destroying the village in order to save it. For there would be no end to the Torquemada-like enthusiasm for rooting out immorality for fun and profit, replete with boycotts, censorship, arrests, and confiscatory taxes on luxury items. This obsession reaches its apogee in ceaseless (and baseless) campaigns against “Hollywood,” typically led by people who admit to not even seeing films they denounce. Since capitalists can’t be trusted with capitalism, they must be brought under strict social control. That advocates of this view haven’t necessarily practiced what they’ve preached (e.g., Bill Bennett’s costly casino excursions) does not invalidate their principle that liberty must play a subordinate role to hierarchy and tradition. The neoconservative critique of modernity isn’t that huge of a leap from Marx’s denunciation of the “fetishism of commodities.”

My response is this: Certain people at any given time will misuse their freedoms. But that in itself is insufficient cause for yanking freedoms from everyone. Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Robert George, Roger Kimball and Robert Bork, among others, don’t see things that way. Casting dark shadows of dispersion upon the pursuit of happiness, they would remove the freedom of the great many to enjoy the fruits of others’ creativity. Filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood, Peter Jackson and David Fincher would be looking for alternative work. So would stand-up comics such as Margaret Cho, Chris Rock and Richard Lewis; musicians such as Depeche Mode, the White Stripes and Iggy Pop; and novelists such as Philip Roth, Gore Vidal and Chuck Palahniuk. What a dreary world these defenders of tradition would have us endure!

The Left, we are told, wants to create a “nanny state,” regulating adults as though they were children. That’s largely true. Yet moral busybodies of the Right have their own idealized nanny state. They may be comfortable with fatty foods, tobacco and alcohol, but they seek to banish film, drama, painting, literature, music and other cultural expressions not meeting their religious or cultural criteria. Such an impulse is not only bad civil liberties, it’s also bad economics. That’s why in the end, Ludwig von Mises, though not without his flaws, far more than Irving Kristol is a lodestar in the quest for human liberty.

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