On Conservatives Saving Capitalism From Itself

Over at the American Scene, Matt Frost argues that defending capitalism can be conservative:

The institutions that constitute the liberal free market system are our patrimony, and as conservatives we are responsible for their stewardship. Sometimes that responsibility calls us to slow down the rate of change by increasing some transaction costs, but Marusic and Wilkinson might characterize such resistance as outright aversion to markets themselves. What will it be, they ask? Novocain or church? Contact lenses or local produce? Mass immigration or stifling autarky? Make up your mind and get out of the way, because the bulldozer of efficiency is coming through, they might say. Helping to break out of this false choice between creative destruction and cultural preservation is one contribution that free-market traditionalists (and there are plenty of us out there) can make.

Hmm. Frost quite frankly concedes that you can’t have both creative destruction and cultural preservation. So where’s the false choice? The point seems to be that conservatives should retard creative destruction to “keep capitalism from choking on its own excesses.” Well, what market progressives like me want to see from “free-market traditionalists” like Frost, but never get, is actual evidence that the world in which the brake has been appplied tends to be a world in which people are doing better than in the world in which the throttle was left open. I’m on Frost’s side if the question is whether to be for or against rationalist-constructivist Sachs-style “shock therapy” market planning. But that’s not the argument between market progressives and free-market traditionalists.

The problem in my experience is that conservatives tend to argue defensively and ad hoc. The sense of “meaning” or “rootedness” or “identity” conferred by church or local produce or not listening to people speak Spanish tends to be granted however much weight is needed to trump the straightforward humanitarian goods offered by the roiling market. And conservatives are forever seeing their most precious prejudice as the last prop of our patrimony, the liberal free market system. And so, through an amazing dialectical alchemy, the defense of whatever is threatened by economic dynamism becomes its only salvation. If this form of argument could be made in a principled way, I could be persuaded by it.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center