By: R.J. Moeller
Back in November of last year I began publishing essays here at A Voice in the Wilderness under the “Mere Conservatism” heading. My intentions in formulating and disseminating Mere Conservatism are simple: I want to explain the core tenets of conservatism, as well as the thinking behind them. We’ve learned liberalism from liberals in our schools, universities, and media, but rarely do we have the opportunity to learn what conservatism truly is from actual conservatives.
Here's an example of someone doing just that:
The process of learning what constitutes Mere Conservatism involves analyzing the socio-political world around us through the three intellectual lenses of Theology, History, and Economics. I’ve already written essays on Theology and History, so today we close out the trio of clarification pieces with a treatment of Economics. In Part I here below, I will explain what underlies a Mere Conservative‘s conclusions about economics, and in Part II next week, I will explain in more detail what specific, free market conclusions this Mere Conservative has come to.
Part I - How we think about economics
Part II - What we think about economics
But to start us all off on the right foot and same page, I quote now from Fredric Bastiat’s The Law:
We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life – physical, intellectual, and moral life. But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. In order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.
Life, faculties, production – in other words, individuality, liberty, and property – this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.
In these two paragraphs, Bastiat masterfully melded his own views on theology, history, and economics into one glorious commentary on the human condition, and our duties as Creator-endowed beings in a fallen world. A significant part of what it means to be human is on display when our “marvelous faculties” combine with “natural resources” to create goods, services, and property. This is the beginning of Economics.
Economics, it has been said, is a way of thinking. Whether you realize it or not, Economics is a part of your worldview and life philosophy. It impacts and influences nearly every part of your daily life. It is so much more than numbers and charts and long-run aggregate demand curves being drawn on a chalkboard as you sleep-walk your way through freshmen year of college. It touches where you work, live, and worship. It impacts your bank account, the prosperity of your nation, and the ability of charities to help the needy. Economics touches everything.
If you’re looking for a basic, academic definition, I defer to the insights of Dr. Samuel Gregg of the conservative, free market think-tank, The Acton Institute, who says, “Economics is the study of how free persons choose to cooperate through voluntary exchanges to satisfy their own and others’ needs in light of the reality of scarce resources.”
Fair enough. But before I learn all the jargon, terminology and data involved in Economics, I need to begin formulating a strategy for what faculties I will draw upon to analyze the things I learn. How does one approach an issue as broad and diverse as Economics? What is the best plan of attack for the average, concerned citizen who wants to move beyond high school English teacher talking points about how “greedy” all businesses are (and, conversely, how benevolent all government programs could be if we only spent more on them) to get to the heart of the economic matter?
I believe the following formula not only helps one to think through matters of Economics, but will be a tremendous aid in thinking through many important issues of life.
Economics = Math + Morality + Experience
There are two categories that must be distinguished when discussing Economics. The first is the “Math” side of things, where numbers, statistics, charts, and trends come into play. This is the realm of what can be called “economic theory.” As Dr. Walter E. Williams of George Mason University’s School of Economics explains in his book Liberty Versus the Tyranny of Socialism, economic theory deals with normative, or objective, questions and answers. Discovering where tax dollars are spent by the federal government is an objective task. Insisting that tax dollars would be best spent on welfare or national security is a subjective claim. So keep in mind that the “Math” part of my equation deals with economic theory, and the statistical, quantifiable side of things.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the second category: “Morality”. It is here where we factor in such things as: personal beliefs about God, mankind’s purpose on this earth, distinctions of “right and wrong”, and political ideology. Here is where our subjective views of life, love, God and politics can (and should) find a home. Here we say “The room should be longer” instead of “The room is 20’ X 20’”.
What we want to be true is often much more important to us than what is true. What is true is often not an easy sell to voters if you are a politician trying to get elected. We all hope that the two line up, that what we believe and what is best are one in the same, and I believe in the case of free market conservatism they do; but anyone who claims that their personal convictions about the existence of God or the nature of “good and evil” does not impact their understanding of Economics is not being honest with you, or is not being honest with themselves.
Straddling the two extremes of what constitutes my Economics equation is “Experience.” We all live and breathe and work and die on the same planet, but our personal experiences as cognizant creatures are just that: personal. We are uniquely created. This isn’t by mistake, either. Our input, our unique perspective and our talents are what make a free society (and economy) work, and work well.
We learn facts (“Math”), we are convinced of what is right and what is wrong (“Morality”), but until something can be felt, can be experienced, it is difficult for human beings to grasp an idea’s true, full meaning.
But experience is a double-edged sword. The things you know from your life are facts to you, but something as simple as a hazy memory about a particular event or a misinterpreted gesture between friends can fundamentally alter the “facts” of your experiences. Sometimes we don’t learn anything from our experiences, or worse still, learn the wrong thing.
Perhaps your dad was a union worker and your idealized notion of what it was like back in the “good old days” influences how you vote, when in reality he had been coerced into joining a union and resented the fact that his union’s strong-arm tactics led the company he worked for to re-locate factory jobs to Mexico.
Or maybe you grew up in a cozy suburban town enjoying the benefits the child of a successful entrepreneur enjoys, and instead of being appropriately grateful for the type of economic system that could produce such wealth and comfort, you ended up resenting what you’d been given and began supporting far-Left, progressive economic policies that punish hard work and success by “spreading the wealth around.”
Experience can aid both “Math” and “Morality”, but it can also distort them. We can tend to rely solely on experience because it is the only thing that falls right in our lap just by waking up and living every day. The truth is – you need all three. You need all three to interact in your heart, mind, and day-to-day life.
But for free market capitalism to entrench itself in the hearts and minds of Americans, ultimately you need to provide people with some concrete, specific ideas that they can really know for themselves (and then can impart on to others). You need to move from the abstract to the tangible, to what people know.
Let me give you one quick example of how this Mere Conservative processes an economic issue using my “Math + Morality + Experience” equation. Let us suppose that an American president actually said out loud that the best and quickest course of action to “fix” a broken economy is to spend money we don’t have on health care reform most people don’t want. My train of thought goes like this:
We are already in staggering debt as a nation, and the idea that we can add more than 30 million people to any system and end up with better, cheaper results does not add up (Math). It is not the job of the American government to run something as massive as health care, and for other moral and religious reasons I feel that families, charities, and churches are the primary groups that should be helping the needy (Morality). The experiences of life, and the wisdom I’ve soaked in from those I love, trust, and respect, confirm that while reform is most certainly needed in our health care system, we need reform away from government involvement and towards free market solutions, more consumer choice, and tort reform (Experience).
There are six specific points that create the intellectual framework for the Economics of Mere Conservatism. These six points are what I consider to be concrete realities of this world. These six ideas and concepts are the starting point for any future analysis of economic issues done here at A Voice in the Wilderness.
They are: scarcity, private property, division of labor, competition, law and order, and religion and morality.
I will explain each of these in “The Economics of Mere Conservatism: Part II” next week.
Until then, watch this:
(for Part II of the Economics of Mere Conservatism, click here)
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What is “Mere Conservatism”?
The basic ideas, ideals, and values that generally define and characterize the central tenets of what today might be termed "modern conservative thought."
We believe that a proper understanding of history, economics, and theology leads to certain conclusions. Many of these are the same conclusions our Founding Fathers arrived at in constructing a "more perfect union."
All ideas and opinions are welcome; not all are correct.
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