Capitalism vs. Conservatism - a Needed Clarification?


I am afraid that the relationship between conservatism and capitalism is often not communicated as clearly as it should be to the politically undecided. When conservative spokesmen like Hannity and Rush extol the virtues of capitalism without restraint and talk about how good it is, I think (or, at least, I hope) they are saying something that they don’t really mean. This, in turn, can create a negative perception on the part of undecided folks at a time when our need to clearly communicate our true beliefs is more critical than ever.


This may sound like a harsh condemnation and even rather anti-conservative, so please give me a moment to explain exactly what I mean. The problem comes in when conservatives APPEAR to view capitalism as a good thing in the literal Judeo-Christian moral sense of good (as in “ . . . and God saw that it was good”). In other words, we appear to regard capitalism as a cardinal virtue that belongs on the same list as things like prudence, justice, honesty and courage. The problem with this impression is that capitalistic principles can also be used for bad purposes. The undecided know full well that a capitalistic market environment can lead to greed, dishonesty, abuse, exploitation, insider deals, special privileges and other dirty work. Let’s face it – a Mexican drug cartel can use the principles of capitalism to profitably sell methamphetamine just as easily as the local businessman can use it to sell groceries.


Now don’t get me wrong . . . I’m certainly not saying that capitalism is a bad thing, but the point is that it is also not a good thing in the literal moral meaning of the term. With respect to this position, I don’t think Hannity or Rush would disagree because the problem is not a matter of what we believe but of how we explain it to those who do not understand the fundamental principles of conservatism.


To better explain our beliefs, we might do well to consider the approach of Second Amendment advocates. Gun people, when talking among like-minded folks, may refer to guns as if they were “good” things. But when sincere and well-studied Second Amendment advocates speak to the undecided, they make it very clear that this is not what they really believe. Fundamentally, they understand that guns are nothing but tools. Of course, they are powerful tools, so they can facilitate either great good or great evil, but they are still purely amoral objects and the moral responsibility lies with the user and not with the gun. In other words, guns belong on a list with things like bombs, shovels and the Internet and NOT on the list where we find things like honesty and justice. 


Perhaps we need to emphasize to the undecided that the same thing can – and should – be said about capitalism. Capitalism isn’t “good” (as conservatives can accidentally imply), but it also isn’t “bad” (as many raging leftists actually believe). Rather, capitalism is an economic tool that can be used for good or bad, based on the morality of those who use it. When used properly, it serves as a legitimate economic tool. In fact, the empirical evidence clearly shows that it is the only decent tool around. If economic systems were guns, capitalism would be the only one known to mankind that actually works without jamming, misfiring, blowing up in the user’s hand or killing three bystanders while totally missing its intended target. But the fact that it is a powerful tool does not elevate it to the level of being a fundamental good or a virtue. It is still a tool and, like a gun, the moral choice still resides with its user. In the hands of moral users, it can be used for great good and it can improve everyone’s economic condition. In the hands of immoral users, it can be employed for great evil. If I may be so bold, I would suggest that many of the current economic problems associated with abuses and scandals are largely due to the fact that there are a lot of capitalists who are not principled moral conservatives.


As I’ve tried to make clear, most conservatives already hold this position, so it may appear that I am stating nothing but the painfully obvious. Well, yes, I am – and that is exactly the point. The painfully obvious is what we are failing to mention and this omission is casting our position in the wrong light with the undecided. Conservatives know full well that the “good” in anything – be it capitalism or a gun or a shovel or a five gallon bucket – comes from the moral choice of the user. But the undecided have been told for decades that the tools themselves are the problem. When we fail to clarify our true beliefs, we can actually add credence to this absurd argument because we appear to believe the opposite – that tools themselves (in the absence of sound morals) are the solution. 


The fact that economic principles are tools subject to both moral use and immoral abuse can be further illustrated by looking at the leftists themselves. A favorite saying among gun rights advocates is “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” and validity of the statement has been repeatedly illustrated by the real-world data. Not surprisingly, the same sort of phenomenon is now manifesting itself in the economic arena in this era of accelerated liberalism. Rabid leftists who castigate capitalism in the real world are tripping all over themselves in an effort to adopt its principles for the purpose of creating and manipulating artificial economies. Here, I am talking about things like “cap and trade” and it is astounding to see how quickly these died-in-the-wool haters of capitalism will take to its principles for the purposes of enriching themselves and their friends while punishing and impoverishing those who they despise. Their goal is to create a fake commodity (carbon credits), then create a fake shortage of that fake commodity (by having experts calculate how much of it will exist) and then create a fake demand for the fake commodity by forcing people to buy it and trade it in order to do virtually anything. Of course, this whole scam is about as far away from free market capitalism as you can get, but the point is that the scammers are exploiting many of the same economic principles (such as supply and demand) that one finds in a legitimate market. The gun is now in the hands of the bad guy and it is being used for bad purposes. It is indeed fair to say that if capitalism is outlawed, only the outlaws will have capitalism.


On a philosophical level, we could argue a great deal about the exact accuracy of this “tool vs. virtue” argument. But in terms of conveying what we really believe to the undecided, I think it provides a far more accurate description of the conservative position than does simply extolling capitalism and creating the false impression that we hold it to be an inherently virtuous moral good. Capitalism is a tool and a very useful tool indeed. But it is still only a tool and the moral choice remains with its user. This viewpoint also brings the debate into the same context as many other issues – conservatives argue that factual truth and proper moral choices are the fundamentals that underpin all of the issues. The liberals, in contrast, scream endlessly that we need regulation – regulation of the guns, the markets, the Internet and even the five gallon buckets. We seem to be making great headway on many fronts, so let’s make sure and include capitalism in the success stories by defining the correct relationship between it and our political beliefs.