March 2008 -- Over the years, I have discovered that many of my fellow individualists habitually connect ideas that to me seem quite unconnected. For example, I have no sooner agreed with them as to the necessity of a free society than they expect me to advocate a free-wheeling society. I have no sooner concurred with them on getting judges out of the bedroom than they assume I want to get judgment out of the bedroom.
I can’t see why. As an individualist, I believe that man’s mind is radically independent. I assert that a person’s moral purpose is his own self-realization. I hold that the proper political condition is freedom. But, as a Tory, I also believe in the necessity of hierarchy, the objectivity of morality, and the desirability of tradition.
Moreover, I treasure individualism in part because I expect that it will foster Toryism, promoting greater respect for authority, greater concern for probity, and greater reliance on the familiar.
The Constraints of Liberty
Up until the 1960s, political individualists were commonly mocked as favoring “rugged individualism.” I remember a high-school teacher saying that people who believed in freedom should logically live on self-sufficient farms. It was inconsistent, he thought, to expect “help” from other people (he meant trading opportunities) and yet reject coercive control by those others. Now, of course, that idea sounds absurd. The “return of the market” in postwar thinking has taught most Americans that individualism finds its logical expression in global free trade and thus entails the very reverse of a frontier life.
As an individualist, I certainly embrace the productivity and wealth of a free society. Yet, as a Tory, I also embrace the truth that a free society will indeed be a bit rugged—not because people will live on self-sufficient farms, but because they will shoulder a great deal of self-responsibility.
Consider one example out of a thousand that might be adduced. In a free society, a person will be responsible for choosing his own health care. No licensing boards will prevent him from consulting quacks, charlatans, and mountebanks. Indeed, in a free society, those who today are looked upon as practitioners of alternative medicine, or worse, may constitute the great majority of “healers” and finding a practitioner of science-based medicine may take considerable time and discernment.
Yes, there will be certifying agencies; in fact, there will probably dozens of them, all in competition with each other and each touting a different medical philosophy. Many other forms of help will also be available to a person trying to choose a doctor; Daniel B. Klein discusses several such aids in “Trust for Hire: Voluntary Remedies for Quality and Safety.” At some point, however, each individual is going to have to decide for himself: Whom do I trust?
In a few cases, if a person is very intelligent, he might undertake to educate himself about the fundamentals of medical science and select a healer or medical certifier on the basis of that knowledge. But what will he do when it comes to investing his money or rearing his children? No one has the time to educate himself in all fields or even all the most vital fields. Consequently, I expect, those who will most successfully assume a free society’s burden of responsibility will be not the cleverest or best educated, but people who cultivate both the practical wisdom to discern reliable authorities and the humility to follow their advice—two very Tory virtues.
A free economy’s reliance on self-responsibility is also likely to foster a cautious society, not the madly turning carousel some libertarians envision. In 1963, Alan Greenspan wrote: “It requires years of consistently excellent performance to acquire a reputation and to establish it as a financial asset. Thereafter, a still greater effort is required to maintain it: a company cannot afford to risk its years of investment by letting down its standards of quality for one moment or one inferior product; nor would it be tempted by any potential ‘quick killing.’ Newcomers entering the field cannot compete immediately with the established, reputable companies, and have to spend years working on a more modest scale in order earn an equal reputation.”
Consider, in that light, an œnophile who goes to his local wine store and sees an inexpensive little chardonnay from Ruritania. Surely, this is the global marketplace at its finest: All the wines of earth have been put at his disposal. But would a person in an unregulated world dare to purchase such a wine? True, if something unfortunate happens to him after drinking the Ruritanian wine, his heirs can sue everybody involved in bringing it to market. Much good that will do him. Better, as Greenspan indicates, to buy from a chateau and a shipper who, the purchaser knows, have decades of responsible behavior behind them and hard-won reputations to lose. Better to stick with the tried and true.
From Liberty to Probity
A free society is likely to foster Toryism in other ways as well. In 1978, Daniel Bell published a book called The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. On the one hand, he said, the capitalist economy requires producers who exhibit purposeful, rational behavior; self-control; and delayed gratification. Yet, on the other hand, “the cultural realm [of a capitalist society] is one of self-expression and self-gratification. It is anti-institutional and antinomian in that the individual is taken to be the measure of satisfaction and his feelings, sentiments, and judgment, not some objective standard of quality and value, determine the worth of cultural objects.”
A couple of right-wing responses have been made to this alleged puzzle, and each, in its way, relies on praising young Americans for having somehow transcended Bell’s contradiction. David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise argued that Bell’s contradiction was resolved in the 1990s by the rise of Bourgeois Bohemians (hence, Bobos), who are hard-working producers as long as their job is “an expression of their entire being” and self-restrained citizens as long as restraint is enjoined by their concern for health and the environment. Brink Lindsey, writing in The Age of Abundance, suggests that Bell’s cultural contradiction has been overcome by younger Americans who embrace a “libertarian synthesis”: “more sober, to be sure, than the wild and crazy days of ‘if it feels good, do it,’ but far removed from the old-style bourgeois starchiness.”
What nobody seems to mention is that capitalism’s alleged contradiction did not emerge in a capitalist era. It emerged six decades deep into the Progressive Era. Had the twentieth century actually been a capitalist century, the issue might never have come up.
Here’s why. It is true that a free society permits all behavior except that which constitutes force and fraud, and one might therefore suppose that free citizens would create a plethora of “alternative lifestyles,” only a few of which would be conducive to the running of a capitalist economy. Irving Kristol said just so much in 1973. In “Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism,” he wrote: “[Milton Friedman] seems to assume, as I read him, that one must not interfere with the dynamics of ‘self-realization’ in a free society. He further seems to assume that these dynamics cannot, in the nature of things, be self-destructive—that ‘self-realization’ in a free society can only lead to the creation of a self that is compatible with such a society. . . . The idea of bourgeois virtue has been eliminated from Friedman’s conception of bourgeois society, and has been replaced by the idea of individual liberty. The assumption is that, in ‘the nature of things,’ the latter will certainly lead to the former.” Like a Creationist, Kristol cannot understand how a random process like self-realization could possibly lead to widespread bourgeois virtue and a bourgeois society. And that is because, like a Creationist, he leaves out the pressures of survival.
The inhabitants of a free society, lacking regulation, are heavily dependent on trust and hence on personal character. A purchaser, a client, or an employer needs to know whether he can trust the seller, the professional, or the potential employee with whom he is dealing. Often, he needs to know if can trust in the person’s honesty, fairness, competence, discipline, diligence, perseverance, promptitude, and sobriety. Reputation is perhaps the best guarantor of such characteristics. But when a person’s reputation is unknown or uncertain, the alternative is to look for outward and visible signs of inward and invisible virtues—what ethologists and economists call “signals.”
Daniel Klein, in his article on trust, offered some personal examples: “In my own experience of shopping for a used car,” he wrote, “I have always paid closer attention to the owner and his home than to the car or any of those bewildering components under the hood. If his garage is neat and orderly, with differently sized nails carefully stored in separate jars and a wide range of gadgets on hand, my faith in the quality of the car grows because he seems like the type to follow proper maintenance. If he looks me in the eye, speaks in a clear voice, and wears a firm mouth, my faith in his character grows because he seems like the type to follow probity.”
Exactly so. In a free society, where commercial relationships are so heavily dependent on character and trust, we will probably find people judging each other by the traditional indices of personal solidity—social rootedness (evidenced through long residence, family ties, marriage, and children); community participation (embodied in an affiliation with benevolent, educational, and governmental institutions); and personal respect (exemplified in polite conduct, sensible speech, and good grooming). In short, it may be possible to live half-bourgeois, half-bohemian, as David Brooks believes. But when the marketplace is governed by trust, I suspect, few businesses will be willing to bet on individuals living such centaur lives.
Perhaps that is why we already see a few libertarians, especially those one tends to think of as a bit postmodern, beginning to edge away from a straightforward enthusiasm for freedom. In 2005, Reason editor Nick Gillespie derided a comparative survey of economic liberty in U.S. states, saying he would rather have the positive freedom of Manhattan than the negative freedom of Manhattan, Kansas (“Live Free and Die of Boredom”). In 2007, Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, declared in “The Paradox of Libertarianism” that he now saw “positive liberty (‘what can I do with my life?’) as more important than negative liberty (‘how many regulations are imposed on me?’).”
The Survival of Stablest
Next year marks the sesquicentenary of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help, perhaps the greatest testimonial ever written to the efficacy that the plodding bourgeois virtues have when operating in a capitalist economy. But I fear that those who ought to pay greatest homage to Smiles’s work—the advocates of free markets—will not be heavily represented at the celebration. Many of today’s libertarians seem to be taking their inspiration, in whole or part, from “the kids” of 1960s. They seem to have convinced themselves that the true link is not so much between free markets and free minds as it is between free markets and free spirits. And that, I think, is quite mistaken. If ever we get a free society, I believe, the morality of its citizens will most closely resemble the morality of the freest societies we have so far known: the morality of mid-nineteenth-century England and America, which is to say, Victorian morality. And this will not be principally because freedom cannot survive without the old-fashioned virtues, though that is true, but because those who lack the old-fashioned virtues cannot survive freedom.