A Long Divorce? Let's Stay Together For the Kids' Sake.

Over at James’s old digs, Damir Marusic calls me out for being a conservative who quotes Karl Polanyi, claiming that (I think this is how the referential layers work) my own surprise over Polanyi’s anti-capitalist endorsement of English royalty’s anti-market behavior means that I’m ignorant of the inherent tension between capitalism and tradition:

Contra Mr. Frost, there’s really no contradiction in a skeptic of capitalism praising conservative governance, because there’s absolutely nothing conservative about capitalism. The Enclosure Acts, which Polanyi tells us the Stuarts and Tudors so wisely opposed, were nothing less than the groundwork for the establishment of private property. Without the ability to own land for private use, the profit motive could never successfully have taken hold and the Industrial Revolution would not have happened. The downside, as Polanyi points out, is that the Enclosure Acts absolutely ravaged the English countryside, destroying traditional rural life and forcing countless thousands into increasingly overcrowded cities.

Now as even “tedious socialist” Polanyi notes, the end result is that we’re all a whole lot better off due to the innovations of capitalism. The average member of the working class in the United States today enjoys more comforts than Pharaohs in Egypt could hope for. But we should never forget that capitalism is a revolutionary force that changes—and often violently destroys—anything that stands in its way.

Recognizing that capitalism — or, for that matter, autonomous property — is a threat to settled social arrangements is the political equivalent of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Those of us too lazy to read Schumpeter can get the point from Will Wilkinson. When Marusic suggests that “conservatism and capitalism are headed for a long and painful divorce” because the Republican party can’t reconcile the two forces, he’s describing a tension that everyone who’s flipped through The American Conservative is familiar with.

There’s a reason that I call Polanyi an unlikely source for a conservative quote: as a man of the left and a critic of capitalism, he praises “society” but only in general terms and without any respect for settled institutions as such. By the time The Great Transformation reaches its denouement, Polanyi calls for subordinating the economic order to “society,” but “society” cashes out as the liberal managerial state. The state, in its infinite rationality, will put an end to the “myth” of a free labor market and allocate land to the “right” use. This is why Polanyi has so many ardent fans among New Deal nostalgists.

Private property and free exchange of goods and labor are fundamental to liberty. But the market is made of institutions, some of which are better than others, and some of which sustain both economic progress and settled patterns of existence. Preserving those institutions that protect economic freedom and cultural heritage against the encroachment of Polanyi’s bureaucracy is an inherently conservative project, and it demands the same stubborn devotion to the settled order that slowed down enclosure. This is the contradiction, not the now-unremarkable observation that capitalism is disruptive.

Polanyi aside, It’s wrong to say that there’s nothing conservative about capitalism. 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. We can argue productively over things like the optimal scale of capital aggregation,or over the best regulatory institutions to protect capitalism from choking, a la Schumpeter, on its own excesses.

But I agree with Marusic that Grand New Party itself shows the fault lines along which the American right is splitting:

Though Grand New Party’s thought-provoking prescriptions attempt to harness market forces to help the working class, I don’t doubt that if push came to shove, Ross Douthat would favor curtailing capitalism in order to conserve aspects of society he thinks are vital. (I can’t guess what Reihan would say, as his writings are often so eclectic that they frustrate easy summary.)

Indeed, the Douthat/Salam voice contains perhaps a few multitudes too many, and after Reihan eventually uses a combination of neuro-linguistic programming and Facebook to stage a coup and install himself generalissimo, historians will spend generations wondering how a technocratic cosmopolitan dynamist like him ended up amidst these religious reactionaries.