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Posted
November 26, 2005

Market Boundaries and the Commons of a Conservative

Ideas associated with the commons find surprising support among some political conservatives.

For people whose work is the written word, reporters can be stunningly indifferent to what words actually mean. The word “conservative” is a prime example. We have today a President who thinks the federal government is going to bring democracy to the Arab world. He has intruded that government into the affairs of ordinary Americans to a degree not seen before, and he has run up staggering deficits to boot. Yet this is a “conservative” President, for no apparent reason other than that he says he is.

Usually, when reporters use the word “conservative,” they actually are referring to a cynical right-wing politics that is closer to corporate Jacobinism. It is the belief in the use of the corporate market to bring about radical upheavals in American values and mores, all the while preaching the sanctity of those values and mores, and blaming people they call “liberals” for the upheavals. Few things would so clarify American political debate, as to begin to get a grip on the term “conservative.” It also would help to understand why the commons will be central to the next big turn of the ideological wheel.

From the daily media, one might surmise that conservatives are people who hate taxes and gays, and love the market and the military (even though they want neither to serve in the military nor to support it with their taxes.) But the conservative tradition runs deeper than that; and in some ways it runs contrary. It is first of all a way of thinking about the nature of society and the qualities that help maintain it. Edmund Burke maintained that a society is an organic whole, a “community of souls,” as his follower Russell Kirk put it. Milton Friedman would support rent control before he would say something like that.

This view of society had large implications. For one thing it meant that people have a duty to support the whole with taxes. “Are all the taxes to be voted grievances?” Burke asked rhetorically, and dismissively, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. For another thing, it meant that humanity must take the long view. Society is a partnership “not only between those who are living,” Burke wrote, “but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” We who inhabit the earth today are merely “temporary possessors and life-renters,” and we have no moral right to “cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance.”

That thought would sit more comfortably in a Sierra Club report than in one from the Club for Growth. It is true that private property played a central role in the original conservative view. But this was individual and not corporate property, embedded in the webs of social sanction and mutual obligation that individuals themselves were. The modern corporation was not yet a presence in Burke’s time; Adam Smith himself had said it never would be. This was a moment in history at which private property and the market still loomed as bulwarks of freedom against overweening royal rule; and before the corporation had turned private property itself into another version of overweening power.

As the corporation began to emerge as the dominant institution in modern life, and as the market came to dominate more of time and space, some writers in the Burkean tradition saw the threat to conservative values from this new source. One was Kirk, who was an intellectual godfather of the modern conservative movement. His book, The Conservative Mind, from Burke to Eliot bristles with concern about the commercial culture. He cited with approval Coleridge’s view that the source of England’s problems was the “overbalance of the commercial spirit in consequence of the absence or weakness of counterweights.” Kirk actually called the automobile the “mechanical Jacobin” for its disruptive effects upon traditional moral values.

Yes, Kirk was in some ways a fusty aristocrat. But he was honest enough to acknowledge as a conservative that the market needs boundaries, just as the state does. Others were more explicit. Wilhelm Ropke, for example, was an Austrian economist who was greatly influenced by Ludwig von Mises, among others. Towards the end of his life, Ropke wrote a book called A Humane Economy, in which he reflected on the limits of the market he had championed all his life. “The highest interests of the community and the indispensable things of life have no exchange value and are neglected if supply and demand are allowed to dominate the field,” he wrote. “_The supporters of the market economy do it the worst service by not observing its limits and conditions._” (Emphasis added.)

This is not a liberal talking (except in the classical sense.) It is an economist who, according to the Ludwig von Mises Institute, “devoted his scholarly career to combating collectivism in economic, social, and political theory.”

This part of the conservative tradition has not been much in evidence in recent years. It is not often that one hears a member of the Bush Administration talk about the limits of the market, as opposed to what else should be given over to it. The Administration does acknowledge the point tacitly, through its support of restrictions on abortion and stem cell research, for example; and its “War on Drugs” and its crusade against dirty words on radio. These all are things for which there is market demand.

But the administration justifies such restrictions on grounds – e.g. the sanctity of the fetus – that keep the issues cordoned off from a larger debate about the corporate market. Values must be compartmentalized where the corporation is concerned. What really prevails in Washington is not conservatism but the opposite. It is a belief system that says that it is okay to lay waste to the patrimony so long as somebody makes money doing it. Yet as this phony conservatism becomes more self-congratulatory and aggressive, it is prodding a real conservatism out into the open.

Thus Phyllis Schlafly fights corporate huckstering in the public schools – much to the discomfort of Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, who has sold his services to one of the prime hucksters, Channel One. Donald Eberly, a former Reagan Administration official and co-founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative, who now runs something called the Civil Society Project, opposes Wal-Mart because it decimates the social commons of traditional Main Streets. “Economic life has to be anchored in the moral and social life of the nation,” he says.

Then there’s Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation and an early leader of what is now the not-so New Right. Weyrich is not above the tendentious polemic that flourishes on the Right. Yet now he has a new cause: public space. In a recent column on the web site www.theconservativevoice.com, Weyrich argues that conservatives have to get beyond their shopworn stable of issues and take on new ones, public space among them.

Why is public space important? Here’s his answer:

Because if we are to be citizens of a republic and not mere consumers in an administered state, we need to both have and want contact with our fellow citizens. When life is privatized, lived largely or almost wholly behind walls, doors and security control points, society withers. We come only to care about ourselves and those who share our private space. What happens to the rest of society is not a concern, so long as we are OK.

Okay, so Weyrich can’t quite bring himself to say that something besides government and liberals could be to blame. Thus the strange locution “consumers in an administered state” as though government bureaucrats are responsible for the commercial culture, and not the corporations that spend more than a quarter of a trillion dollars a year promoting it. Still this is a big step. One senses a man whose sense of reality is starting to press against the strictures of his political affiliations, even if it has not quite broken through.

Weyrich goes on to cite Europe – Europe – as a place where public space still flourishes. He applauds the New Urbanism which “makes cities into places where people want to go.” Something is happening here. People on the Right are starting to realize that the market isn’t everything, nor the answer to every problem, just as the left had to do regarding government.

What then? One course is a mushy amalgam of market and state, of the kind favored by so-called “centrists” of both parties. The other is to look outside both, to what is around and between. This is the commons. It is the conviviality of traditional Main Streets and public spaces, the freedom of the internet, the fertility of knowledge in the public domain. It is the oceans and atmosphere, the rivers and public lands – the patrimony of nature that we are bidden to pass along improved rather than diminished. It is all those things the government can protect but not create, and that the market increasingly threatens.

The left can like it because it isn’t the market. The right can like it because it is not the state. It is where the new conservatism and the new progressivism can merge – not on all points but on many. My hunch is that the next politics is going to start here.