Almost eighty years ago, in The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell described the sorry condition of the English working class (both employed and unemployed) amid rising fascism in 1930s Europe. In the final chapters of his book, Orwell warned his fellow socialists of the need to reflect upon their unfavorable political situation, suggesting that socialism was doomed unless socialists took pains to understand what it was that non-socialists didn’t like about them. These things included everything from worship of industrialism, to adulation of Russia, to rigid materialist ideology, to boorish pseudo-intellectualism. According to Orwell, “Socialism is too often coupled with a fat-bellied, godless conception of ‘progress’ which revolts anyone with a feeling for tradition or for the rudiments of an aesthetic sense.”
Orwell was no ordinary socialist, certainly not one of the doctrinaire variety. For him, socialism was about justice and freedom from oppression and tyranny, not about atheism, materialism, or any other of the -isms fashionable in his day. Nor did he find it necessary to give up Beethoven—as Lenin did—to be a good socialist. I don’t know whether or not Orwell had taken a cue from Marx’s dictum that the problem with capitalism was capitalists, and then applied the dictum to socialists, but it certainly sounds as if he had. In any case, it takes little imagination to realize that the “fat-bellied, godless conception of progress” that Orwell applied to socialists might be applicable to more than a few capitalists as well.
I am convinced that, regardless of the anathema on socialism among conservatives, we need to reflect on Orwell’s thoughts. This is especially true for cultural conservatives like me who believe that issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and religion in the public square are the most important for the long-term health of our society.
We need to think hard about what it is our opponents don’t like about us. Do they really believe that we are intolerant, medieval Neanderthals who want to turn back the clock to the Dark Ages? Do they really believe that we are boorish, rigid ideologues who want to keep women barefoot and pregnant?
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I don’t think so, and I don’t really think that the majority of Americans think so either. In fact, I believe that most Americans believe pretty much what we do. They believe that abortion is wrong, that religion has a place in public life, that people have a right to their property, to be let alone, and to decide for themselves how to raise their children as they see fit. They don’t even want to think about same-sex marriage—an unfortunate reluctance on the policy front that virtually assures gross over-representation of gay marriage proponents in the public debates.
In other words, they believe in traditional American values, the ones the Founders believed in when they rose against the British and adopted the Constitution. Of course, I am speaking here about the majority of ordinary people, not the majority of the “chattering class” that is much over-represented in business, government, and academia.
There has been much talk about the problems of the Republican Party stemming from internal fragmentation, the changing demographics of American society, and (supposedly) outmoded ideologies. Although these problems are real, there is no reason they should sound a death knell.
It is true that many young Americans either support or are indifferent to abortion, same-sex marriage, and other so-called “lifestyle” issues. But is their continued support (or indifference) really inevitable? After all, however tolerant of homosexual relationships one is, it remains true that the redefinition of marriage to include such relationships threatens destruction of the most fundamental and time-honored institution known to man. Likewise, however sympathetic one is to a woman’s desire to control her own body, it remains true that abortion is the deliberate snuffing out of an innocent human life.
Why do we seem to be unable to convince so many of the supporters of such acts that they are wrong, or at least should not be legitimized in public policy, when they are still opposed by a majority of Americans? And why are we unable to convince so many ordinary Americans who appear to agree with us on these fundamental issues to vote for Republicans—thus far the only viable option for cultural conservatives?
A plausible “Orwellian” answer to the question of why we are unable to convince ordinary Americans to vote Republican is that conservatives are perceived as being in bed with some very controversial people.
Ordinary people know that you can’t have a healthy society by killing millions of unborn children, or by uprooting centuries-old traditions based on little more than the sexual preferences of a small minority of people, or by banning religion from public discourse. But they also know that you can’t have a healthy society if your economy is run by financiers who make off with the investments, pensions, and homes of ordinary people and then get bailed out by taxpayers instead of going to jail.
Most Americans believe in free markets, but have seen enough crony capitalism mixed up with free-market rhetoric to render them understandably suspicious of such talk. Continuing efforts to justify state-sanctioned corporate plundering by invoking the nostrums of the free market are wearing thin. Leaders in the conservative movement need truly to be leaders and set this error right. They must call more strongly for congressional oversight of the financial services industry and aggressive prosecution of Wall Street criminals, and they must educate the public on the difference between crony capitalism and free-market theory. To be sure, some conservative leaders—especially those closely associated with the Tea Party—are beginning to do this, but the apparent discomfort of the traditional Republican Party establishment with the Tea Party underscores my point.
As to why we seem unable to convince supporters of abortion, same-sex marriage, and the like that such practices are wrong—or at least that they should not be legitimized in public policy when they are still opposed by a majority of Americans—the answer is a bit more complicated. We clearly have the moral high ground on these fundamental issues, but it is difficult to hold that high ground when we also seem to be defending exploiters of the poor and the oppressed. Young people may be more tolerant these days, but they are also very insecure economically.
Rightly or wrongly, economic conservatism has gotten most of the blame for the financial manipulations that led to the 2008 collapse. It didn’t have to be that way. Of course, no one is going to advocate crony capitalism publicly, but why did Mitt Romney, in his 2012 campaign, fail to emphasize the close ties between the Obama administration and the very people who arguably caused the financial collapse of 2008 (“Government Sachs,” etc.)?
I realize that recent public opinion polls indicate an upsurge of support for abortion and same-sex marriage. But that is exactly my point. Morality is not a matter of public opinion, and the question remains: might these numbers be different if we did not appear so often to be backing the wrong economic horse?
Supporters of abortion and gay marriage argue that we are being unjust in denying our fellow citizens basic human rights. But the fact remains, for example, that in order to sustain the “right” to an abortion, one must argue that the right to that liberty trumps the right of an unborn child to live. You can have life without liberty, but not the other way around. That is the high moral ground.
The point is this: our stances on abortion, gay marriage, religion, and related issues are fully in accord with traditional American values, with the values of the Founders, with natural law, and with basic common sense. Not so an economic ideology that seems to justify the depredations of irresponsible financial institutions, stock speculators, and corporate economic elites. Not so taxpayer bailouts of failed financial institutions. Not so gambling with other people’s money for gain without assuming the risk of loss. The situation today has much in common with that described by G. K. Chesterton a century ago:
I am well aware that the word “property” has been defied in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property; because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land; but other people’s.
Chesterton’s statement springs from an economic philosophy called Distributivism, a commonsensical viewpoint that has been shamefully ignored throughout most of the past century. Distributivism was developed in the early twentieth century by Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and others as an alternative both to unbridled capitalism and to the socialist collectivism that Orwell avowed.
It is based on the quasi-Jeffersonian idea that a healthy, free society requires an economy characterized by the widest feasible distribution of individually owned property. According to Robert Nisbet in his introduction to Belloc’s classic, The Servile State, under a distributivist system:
all people would own property, would be self-supporting and therefore free and able to fend for themselves against efforts of governments to constrict freedom through passage of coercive laws in the name of humanitarianism and social security.
Distributivism is grounded largely upon the principle of subsidiarity, according to which social, economic, and political functions are best performed by the lowest (most local) organizational level that can competently perform the function. The principle was articulated by Pope Pius XI in the 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which states that “it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” This principle is applicable all the way down to the level of families and individuals.
The connection between subsidiarity and Distributivism is clear. Subsidiarity guarantees more localized decision-making, which means that there are more decision-makers, more people having a say in how they are governed, more people in control of nature’s bounty, and thus more adequate distribution and better use of society’s resources; in short, there is more democracy in both the political and economic spheres. A political economy characterized by subsidiarity and Distributivism would also be more closely attuned to American traditions and to the ideas underlying the Founders’ Constitution than is today’s consolidated centralized government and economy.
Our current statist economic and political order has generated a political economy with a small number of remote decision-makers. This is an elitist system in which fewer and fewer people control the important decisions that affect their lives and the lives of others, and in which fewer and fewer people are in control of the material resources without which their lives cannot be sustained. In short, our current form of government has given us less democracy.
This kind of system is worlds apart from the one envisioned by the Founders. And this is why the constitutional transformation initiated during the Progressive era, launching the career of the “living Constitution,” required a transfer of effective power away from the people’s representatives in Congress and state legislatures, and toward less accountable, or unaccountable, bureaucrats and judges.
In the economic sphere, subsidiarity and Distributivism work against the kind of consolidation that characterizes today’s corporate institutional structure and the culture that accompanies it. In the political sphere, it calls us back to federalism and the Founders’ Constitution. Although there are important distinctions between the two principles, taken together they offer a healthy alternative to parasitic capitalism and rampant statism.
To return to the central point: the irresponsible acts of economic and political elites (both Democrat and Republican) during the run-up to and aftermath of the collapse of 2008 must be condemned in the strongest possible terms by conservative leaders. If cultural conservatives are seen as supporting such acts, then the moral high ground that we have on other fronts will be severely compromised.
Conservatives who want to preserve America’s finest ideals must divorce themselves clearly and completely from any worldview that appears to justify such behavior, remembering that human flourishing in the widest sense must be the goal of any just socioeconomic order. Accordingly, the means to pursue happiness must be advanced for all.