A Voice in the Wilderness In Defense of "Mere Conservatism"


Reagan and the Evil Empire

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the speech in which Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union precisely what it was: an evil empire.  Speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Reagan made his case for Judeo-Christian values and called God-fearing Americans to action in the struggle for moral clarity at home and abroad.

I think what is most shockingly refreshing about this speech is the candid, frank way a President of the United States used to be able to speak.


To put the importance of this speech in to some proper, historical perspective, here is Newt Gingrich's presentation at the American Enterprise Institute.


Sowell’s “Intellectuals and Society”

intellecutuals_society_thomas_sowellBy: R.J. Moeller

G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “Cruelty is, perhaps, the worst kind of sin; and intellectual cruelty is the worst kind of cruelty.”

Written a century after Chesterton’s remarks, Thomas Sowell’s latest effort, Intellectuals and Society, is, broadly speaking, a 317-page cultivation of precisely those sentiments.  Combining the heady ideological exegesis of Conflict of Visions (1990) with the utterly graspable dissemination of facts and statistics in both Basic Economics and Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One, Dr. Sowell offers the reader of Intellectuals and Society a part-academic lecture, part-fireside chat, and part-Greek tragedy glimpse into a world few of us would otherwise ever experience.

That world is the realm of the “Intellectual”.  It is a world where ideas, so long as they conform to the agreed upon norm, reign supreme, and consequences are rendered inconsequential by the insulation afforded to the idea-makers by things like academic tenure, a highly complicit media, and the unnecessary (and unhealthy) intimidation John and Jane Q. Taxpayer feel in the presence of intellectuals and their ideas.

Sowell’s intent in this book is to explain what an intellectual is, expose what it is an intellectual actually does, and examine what impact an intellectual’s end-product (ideas) has on the society around them.  I picked up on seven primary themes/concepts which are developed throughout the entire book.

1)    It’s not enough to know; you must be able to apply (and apply correctly).

Using the formula “Intellect < Intelligence < Wisdom”, Sowell stakes out his position on the undue levels of prestige given to those who are, as my generation would say, “book smart.”  He explains:

The capacity to grasp and manipulate complex ideas is enough to define intellect but not enough to encompass intelligence, which involves combining intellect with judgment and care in selecting relevant explanatory factors and in establishing empirical tests of any theory that emerges.  Intelligence minus judgment equals intellect.  Wisdom is the rarest quality of all – the ability to combine intellect, knowledge, experience, and judgment in a way to produce a coherent understanding.  Wisdom is the fulfillment of the ancient admonition, “With all your getting, get understanding.”

2)    Incentives and Constraints are universal

”Intellectuals”, as a group, are people whose professional task it is to create and cultivate ideas, as opposed to implement them.  An intellectual is a member of an occupational category, and the behavior of the members of this category can (and should) be studied to discover characteristics and patterns among them.  In Sowell’s mind, the pivotal question that is asked far too infrequently is: What incentives or constraints affect the behavior and patterns of Intellectuals?

Society as a whole suffers when people erroneously assume that the only people with incentives (i.e. money, fame, advancement of ideological beliefs, prestige amongst colleagues, etc.) are “capitalist fat-cats” in expensive suits.  Another serious error occurs when people assume that to put any constraints on an Intellectual, on a professor for example, is a horrible thing that will limit creativity or curb academic curiosity.  This is rubbish.  Without constraints of any kind you have anarchy, even in the academic world.

3)    If you ain’t Left, you ain’t right

The “realm of ideas” in which Intellectuals reside is overwhelmingly Left-of-Center in its political and economic ideology.  Sowell defines the “vision of the political left” as follows:

…Collective decision-making through government, directed toward – or at least rationalized by – the goal of reducing economic and social inequalities.

The majority of the academic world is progressive, liberal, or far-Left.  The majority of the academic world would be included in Sowell’s definition of an Intellectual.  You do the math.

4)    It’s nice to be needed

Intellectuals tend to “manufacture” a public need for their ideas.  There are three basic explanations Sowell offers for why this happens.

The first is completely understandable: intellectuals, like anyone else, want what they do to matter and have a positive impact on the world.plato2

The second is not very flattering: ego.  From the time an intellectual is a young student in junior high or high school, they have been told they are the “smart” kid.  After attending the best universities for undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate degrees, many intellectuals succumb to the notion that they are the “philosopher elites” envisioned by the likes of Plato and Karl Marx, destined and ordained to guide the un-enlightened masses to social utopia.

The third explanation for why intellectuals often “manufacture” a public need for their ideas (and services) is, put simply, “dolla’ dolla’s bills ya’ll.”  By manipulating the very free market principles so many of them hold in open disdain, intellectuals help to create a demand for themselves, which they are only too happy to supply.  Intellectuals need funding, and it is hard to get a grant from the federal government if your area of intellectual expertise involves the teaching of such ideas as limited government.

5)    Intellectuals have an influence on society and culture, and friends to help facilitate that influence

After creating a need for themselves, it comes as no surprise that intellectuals end up having a tremendous impact on the society and culture around them.  Intellectuals influence public opinion, which is the very air politicians (the decision-makers) breathe, even though the vast majority of Americans do not know the names and faces of the intellectuals who have influenced them.

A largely complicit media do what they can to advance the ideas of intellectuals, and thus their influence grows and grows.  In the chapter entitled “Optional Reality in the Media and Academia”, Sowell discusses the ease with which the Intelligentsia (Intellectuals + Gate-keepers of information) ignore facts that contradict their worldview, manipulate data that doesn’t corroborate their hypotheses, and in some extreme cases, lie as if their trousers were engulfed in flames.

Like the militant Muslim who has convinced himself that it is okay to lie under oath to “infidels”, the insulated, self-satisfying world intellectuals can create for themselves is a place where the truth is secondary to the “cause.”

6)    Heads in the proverbial sand

It isn’t just that intellectuals, like all fallible human beings, have been wrong about certain things, but it is that they seemingly refuse to learn from their mistakes, and the mistakes they make involve some of the most important things with the furthest-reaching ramifications.

In chapter three, “Intellectuals and Economics,” Sowell gives the example of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs enacted in 1930.  In the year following the stock market crash of 1929, unemployment topped out 10%, and by the time the federal government took its first (of many) giant Keynesian steps and signed the protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff into law, unemployment had already dropped to just over 6%.  The stated goal of the tariffs was to reduce unemployment, and was based on the idea driven by leading intellectuals of the time that the State must act, and act big, to save an economy from crisis.  By 1931, however, unemployment was more than 15% and in 1932 it was 25.8%.

Have intellectuals learned their lesson in subsequent decades regarding the detrimental nature of government intervention into the economy?  NOT EVEN CLOSE!

See: The Obama administration, one saturated with intellectuals, and its preposterous economic antics of the previous year-plus.

7)    How are the people who won’t change their minds called “progressive”?

There are three reasons why intellectuals typically do not learn from their mistakes.

First, their presumptions about human nature and knowledge are innately flawed.  Intellectuals, on the whole, tend to believe that human beings are inherently “good”, and simply need guidance and direction from the powers on high.  This then leads to their fundamental error in how they view knowledge.   Knowledge is dispersed among the people and no one person, or oligarchy of intellectuals, can know everything.  This logically infers that it is impossible to centrally plan something as big and vast as a nation’s economy (or educational system).  A refusal to accept this truth is, as F.A. Hayek wrote, the intellectual Left’s “fatal conceit.”

Second, intellectuals tend to be removed from the results of their ideas.  There are so few external tests or criteria for an intellectual to meet.  An engineer building a bridge is judged on the soundness of the bridge.  Vince Lombardi was judged by his winning record.  Intellectuals who come up with a horrendous idea, say, for example, that paying able-bodied “poor” people not to work, and preventing them from saving or investing the money you pay them, will have no ill effects on society, suffer no real consequences for their wretched schemes.

Third, and final, they are surrounded by so many like-minded people, who hail from equally impressive intellectual backgrounds and pedigrees.  How can I be wrong when so many of my colleagues (i.e. the other “smart” kids) think the same way?  In business they call it “group-think.”  In the land of the intellectual, it’s known as “progressive thought” to walk lock-step in line with your peers.

Thomas-Sowell-Don’t think for a moment that Dr. Sowell isn’t aware of the fact that his is a book about the potentially dangerous influence intellectuals can have on society, written by an intellectual trying to influence society.  Sowell is open, honest, frank, and uncompromising in his assessment of the career he chose for himself.  His aim is to educate, not indoctrinate; lead a horse to water, not drown it in elitist condescension.

Thomas Sowell’s writing is an oasis of reasoned thought and discourse, and after finishing (and thoroughly enjoying) Intellectuals and Society, I can confidently say that I’ve been refreshed.

(Do yourself a favor and watch the 5-part interview with Sowell at National Review Online here.)


The Economics of Mere Conservatism: Part II

by: R.J. Moeller

Economic freedom is an essential requisite for political freedom.  By enabling people to cooperate with one another without coercion or central direction, it reduces the area over which political power is exercised.  In addition, by dispersing power, the free market provides an offset to whatever concentration of political power may arise.  The combination of economic and political power in the same hands is a sure recipe for tyranny.

Milton Friedman, Free To Choose

Let’s not kid ourselves: Everyone has an opinion on the matters that matter most.  Despite the pervasive lack of understanding in this country about even the most basic economic terms and concepts, I’d love for someone to try and convince me that economic matters – your job, income, investments, personal property, charitable donations, and taxes – don’t matter a great deal to every Tom, Dick, Harry and Sally in your neighborhood.

Of course they matter.  They matter more than almost anything else.

Happy Rich BusinessmanContrary to the caricature perpetrated, it’s not only “greedy” conservatives and Republicans who are interested in how goods, services, and taxes are saved, spent, regulated and collected.  In fact, the exact opposite is true: modern American liberals and progressives fervently believe that economic issues are the most important factors to consider in nearly every single political, cultural, and moral decision a country makes.

But where the Left relies upon flawed ideology and fickle emotional pleas to make their case for top-down socialism and the systematic re-distribution of wealth, those of us who champion personal liberty, free enterprise and property rights stand on the firm ground of quantifiable facts, recorded history, Judeo-Christian teachings, and common sense. There is, of course, an emotional aspect to the “case for free market conservatism”, but it is a thin layer of topsoil above deep bedrock of truth, wisdom, and experience.

If you haven’t already, you should be asking yourself, “How is it then that liberalism, and progressive economic policies, so dominate the national consciousness?”

Dr. Thomas Sowell of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution believes the answer is fairly simple: because the Left believes so deeply in having the government “fix” things, their solutions are always political and political solutions are much more glamorous and get much more attention from a complicit media (and academia).  The Right believes in personal responsibility, free market competition, and limited government.  Not very sexy.

You won’t see George Clooney starring in an Oscar contending film about a hard-working, God-fearing businessman who just wants to live within his family’s budget and appreciates the freedoms his forefathers procured for him.

As Sowell puts it in his book Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One: Politics offers attractive solutions but economics can offer only trade-offs…Economics cannot answer all of your questions.  It can only make you aware of the need to ask them.

Well, fortunately for us, mankind has been asking economic questions for millennia, and those interested enough to seek for answers (and wise enough to discern them) have found many unavoidable truths.  The United States of America, blessedly, has applied some of the best of those answers and truths in its on-going attempt to “form a more perfect union.”  Last week in The Economics of Mere Conservatism: Part 1, I teased six of the most important answers (scarcity, property rights, division of labor, competition, rule of law, and a need for religion and morality among the citizenry).  We have succeeded where others have failed because of these things.

Today we move from the birds-eye view of Economics in Part I and descend to the on-the-ground facts that ground free enterprise in reality instead of just theory; truth instead of emotion.

What follows are brief descriptions of the six things you must know, and be able to explain, should you hope to identify yourself as a proponent of the free market system that has enabled the United States of America to become the freest, most prosperous civilization in the history of the planet.Woods_crash

1. Scarcity- We live in a finite world.  There is only so much of everything.  This doesn’t simply pertain to oil or diamonds or beach-front property or even Kanye West’s talents.  There are only so many hours in the days, people who can drive a 3-wood (and Cadillac SUV) like Tiger Woods, and jobs you can work at the same time.  There are only so many people born to rich families who waste their un-deserved good luck, just as not everyone born into poverty overcomes great odds to play a piano like Ray Charles.

The miraculous nature of the human mind is such that we can apply our Creator-endowed talents to natural resources in order to produce many things that we would otherwise be lacking.  But even to what we produce or engineer there is a limit to the amount of money we have to use to buy all of those equally limited goods or services.

Because scarcity is a reality, the world we live in is a world of trade-offs.  This means decision-making abilities are paramount, and experience, although not infallible, becomes a prized asset.  We all have to make value judgments every day about which products we want/need to buy, how much we will work, where we will live, and whom we will give charity to.

Some Left-of-Center ideologies would prefer to make most of your decisions for you, but then a society quickly learns how scarce things like freedom and liberty are in this world.

2. Private Property (Property Rights)- The term “private property” can conjure up images of a foreboding “No Trespassing” sign in a Scooby-Doo cartoon.  In a sense, this is completely fair and accurate, for “private property” essentially means that an individual owns something to the exclusivity of others.  Or in other words, it’s yours and no one else has claim to it unless you say so.  (So stay out, you meddling kids.) The alternative to being able to (legally) own something that someone else cannot take or use without your consent is tyranny.  It is collectivism, socialism, and communism.

Despite admittedly boiling down centuries of meaningful thought and discourse on the matter, so much of the modern disagreement over the importance of “private property” can be explained by the differences in worldview between two particular people: the Brit John Locke (17th century) and the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau (18th century).

The constitutional and cultural fascination with personal freedom and liberty that is uniquely American comes from the school of Locke.  Building upon the Judeo-Christian belief that man is created “in God’s image”, Locke maintained that while we all enter the world with the same “natural rights”, the individual could (and should) claim ownership over something as simple as a piece of fruit they themselves climbed a tree to pick.

In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke states:

God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed He meant it should always remain common and uncultivated.  He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, and labor was to be his title to it.

This is a very basic and simple concept: If a man works, he should be compensated.  If he buys, he should own.  If he owns, then someone else cannot take.

But some are not happy with that kind of set-up.  Jean-Jaques Rousseau did not care for the accent mark of mankind’s history to be put over the individual and his or her rights.  Rousseau believed that in order for a society to truly progress, individuals needed to forfeit their claims to natural rights, individual liberty, and the entire concept of private property.  He taught that man derived his purpose from the collective.

From this type of thinking we get socialism, Marxism, and leaders like Hugo Chavez.

Private property, and the property rights that logically spring forth from it, is the basis of economic, political, and religious freedom.  It gives the individual a vested interest, a meaningful stake, in the world, nation, state, town, and neighborhood around him.  It creates incentives to work harder, save more, and spend wisely.  To deny that human beings are hard-wired to respond to incentives is counter-intuitive and a key reason for why Left-of-Center thinking is inherently flawed.

al-gore-404_682507c3. Division of Labor- In the past, a farmer and his family would have to produce for themselves nearly everything they needed to survive.  Other than the occasional 4-mile horseback ride to borrow a cup of sugar from the neighboring farm to make those Johnny Cakes your brother Zebedee loved so very much, families relied on what they could make or grow, and the lack of technology, transportation, and communication prevented Americans from effectively maximizing their time, resources and talents.

Whereas Joe, Jim, and Jack used to have to each grow their own corn, milk their own cows, and raise their own hogs for bacon, it became more sensible (and cost effective) for Joe (who lived for tilling the fields) to grow corn, and Jim (who raved about his cows) to focus on dairy-related products, and Jack (who never met a BLT he didn’t love) to raise himself some pigs.  That is “Division of Labor”, or "specialization", in a nutshell.

I think it is fairly obvious how much more effective and productive this way of doing things is as compared to the “self-sufficient” farms of centuries past, or the centrally-controlled planning systems of Soviet Russia, but I’m not sure most people appreciate just how important Division of Labor is to their own lives.  Although not everyone gets the job of their dreams (see: scarcity), the fact that human beings can even theoretically pursue the career they want is a direct result of the fact that you do not have to churn your own I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter or extract the Guava for your herbal shampoo.  Think about it.  I barely tolerate having to dress myself in the morning.  I cherish Division of Labor.

4. Competition- When you combine scarcity with property rights and division of labor you eventually arrive at “Competition.”  When a man decides to become a dentist, he has chosen a profession that will require him to be reliant upon other people to produce his food, clothes, and shelter (Division of Labor).  The dentist is able to purchase the goods and services he wants and needs because the fruits of his labor (i.e. clean teeth, root canals, etc.) were rewarded with compensation from his patients and he has exclusive claim to said compensation (Property Rights).  His patients came to him because there are only so many people who choose to be dentists (Scarcity).mcgwire-juice

But while there are many dentists listed in the Yellow Pages, his patients chose his office because he was either better or cheaper than the dentist down the street.  This is Competition.  It is as natural as fish in water or syringes in Mark McGwire’s back-side.  Competition breeds invention and innovation.  Competition, in its proper legal and moral context (more on this in a second), is necessary for human beings to achieve their full potential in the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.  Please understand that I’m not advocating the “Gordon Gekko” cut-throat, self-indulgent caricature of competition that unfortunately exists in any system that offers personal freedom.

Competition is what makes sports worth watching.  It’s what spurs bio-chemists to create a life-saving medicine quicker than the “other guy.”  It’s what keeps people on their toes and from growing complacent and indifferent in their work (a hallmark of communist societies).  If everyone won, if the entire world was run like a grade school’s Field Day Awards Ceremony, you can rest assured you wouldn’t be reading this essay on your iPhone right now.

But there is an even more important benefit of competition to consider: de-centralization of power.  People hate monopolies in business, but often don’t know why.  The reason monopolies are almost always a bad thing is because they leave the consumer with no options or recourse if they are unsatisfied with the good or service the monopoly provides.  The same idea rings true in terms of how powerful a government becomes.  When everyone is an employee of the “State”, when a federal government knows the people have to come to them for everything, freedom disintegrates.

5. Rule of Law- Without law and order, economics, like most everything else in a society, is chaos.  If I cannot trust that the local government will do what it can to protect me from burglars, my habits will change (or my address will).  If I cannot trust the state government to enforce the laws the legislature has voted into law, I have no way to gauge the impact zoning laws will have on my business.  If the federal government cannot be trusted to protect me from foreign invaders, I will spend less time working and more time at a target practice range.

Private property is meaningless if it cannot be protected and legally enforced and recognized.  If I produce pencils in my factory, but I cannot rely on the government to enforce a broken contract between me and my lumber supplier, I will not keep the factory open and all my employees lose their job.  If I invest my money in an institution that is, unbeknownst to me, buying bad loans that are subsidized by the federal government (via Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae), I lose my shirt and never trust the market again.  No one wins.

Everything is dependent upon the rule of law.  Our “law”, at a very basic, foundational level, is the Constitution.  The Founders envisioned a republican democracy (as opposed to a straight democracy and “mob rule”), with a limited and de-centralized government.  It should come as no surprise to any of us that as both political parties have wandered off the Constitution’s reservation; we’ve seen the economy grow more and more volatile.  A significant reason for this is that Americans involved in the private sector cannot rely upon the public sector (our government) to abide by the same “rules” year-to-year.

Economist Milton Friedman explained it as follows:

Just after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, I used to be asked a lot: "What do these ex-communist states have to do in order to become market economies?" And I used to say: "You can describe that in three words: privatize, privatize, privatize." But, I was wrong. That wasn't enough. The example of Russia shows that. Russia privatized but in a way that created private monopolies-private centralized economic controls that replaced government's centralized controls. It turns out that the rule of law is probably more basic than privatization. Privatization is meaningless if you don't have the rule of law. What does it mean to privatize if you do not have security of property, if you can't use your property as you want to?

For the college student returning from a semester abroad in a poorer country than their own, the reason your adopted homeland isn’t better off usually has little to do with the price of Italian beef in Chicago and everything to do with the rampant, unfettered corruption at every level of that country’s government.  Will every country have the advantages and wealth that the United States has?  Of course not.  But does Costa Rica or Ghana or a former member of the Eastern Bloc have to remain a slave to 3rd world-like conditions?  Absolutely not.  The rule of law, and the protection our military affords us, is the thing that enables prosperity to flourish.  Throwing money at the problems other nations will only exacerbate the problem if it is not coordinated with the implementation of stable governments.

But, you ask, what about human nature and the fact that people, even in free, safe America, will always look for ways to circumvent the law?

I’m so glad you brought that up.

6. Morality and Religion- It is in this sixth and final category where Mere Conservatism parts with the secular-progressive thought of modern liberal Democrats in the media and academia, and stands with the Founding Fathers (and their innumerable influences).  Many people would be thrilled to support the first five concepts I’ve described already, but stop short when discussions of morality and religion enter the equation.  The problem with stopping short is that you end up denying the one thing that really can be proven about religious, Judeo-Christian teachings: sin and the fallen state of mankind.

As I explained in the Theology of Mere Conservatism, the often unpleasant realities of this world mandate we impose constraints on ourselves, and when necessary and appropriate, on one another.  In a relatively free society such as our own, unless the citizens are accountable to something higher than their government, you will end up with either anarchy or tyranny.  Too little constraint will bring anarchy; too much, tyranny.  The Founding Fathers, even those only nominally religious, understood that an immoral and irreligious country was a doomed country.

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” –John Adams

"For my own part, I sincerely esteem it [the Constitution] a system which without the finger of God, never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interests." -Alexander Hamilton

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God?” -Thomas Jefferson

“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We’ve staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity…to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” -James Madison

If such quotes come as a shock to you, relax: you’re a normal American and likely a product of the public school system where the entirety of the history you learned consisted of Hiroshima, Jim Crowe, and the economic salvation FDR offered to a beleaguered nation that had been abused by capitalism.

My purpose, and the quotes I’ve used to help supplement it, is not to castigate the non-religious among us, but simply to clarify what values underpin our national identity.  That identity is one of political, religious, and economic freedom.  You cannot separate the three, and you cannot truly experience any of them without a citizenry predominantly comprised of moral and religious people.  Values matter, and you’ve got to be able to define and explain those values if you hope to maintain them for future generations.  It is my opinion that “You are a collection of randomly-gathered protoplasm” doesn’t have the same effect as “You are fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator” when attempting to explain to a young person why they should care about the rule of law or property rights.

And so we come to the end of my description of what "The Economics of Mere Conservatism" entails.  If you’ve read this far, you at the very least recognize the importance of engaging ideas and thinking through what it is you believe, and why you believe it.  There is more to learn, more specifics to grasp, and I would suggest as a jumping off point from here that you familiarize yourself with the “Invisible Hand” theory 18th century philosopher-economist Adam Smith developed in his classic Wealth of Nations.

Economics is an exciting, multi-faceted topic, with endless sub-sets of concepts and ideas, but what I hope you take away from this piece is the general outline of what one means when they use the term “free market conservative” to describe themselves.cheney_snarl

If Americans don’t begin to think more seriously and substantively about economic matters, others will do our thinking for us.  Are you comfortable any longer with that set-up; with trusting politicians and bureaucrats to make decisions in your best interest?  Does anyone really believe that the economic crisis we find ourselves in is the result of George W. Bush’s “dumb” accent and Dick Cheney’s sullen demeanor?  Or equally as silly a notion that Barack “How Organized Was My Community” Obama and “Fighting” Joe Biden have “fixed” thing by spending more in one year than their predecessors’ previous four?

Develop a set of criteria by which you can judge everything from an economic policy touted by a politician to a seemingly attractive loan offered by a bank.  If you aren’t reading contemporary economists such as Thomas Sowell (Stanford’s Hoover Institution) Arthur Brooks (American Enterprise Institute) and Walter E. Williams (George Mason University), if you aren’t even loosely familiar with the prolific ideas espoused in Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose and F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, you are less wise than you might otherwise be.  There are great minds and articulate thinkers out there, providing intellectual ammunition for the cultural battle currently (and perpetually) being fought over the type of economy and government we will have over the next 100 years.

Read.  Study.  Pay attention.  Teach yourself so you can teach your kids.

Freedom and liberty, the kinds Americans have generally enjoyed for more than two centuries, are at stake.


The Economics of Mere Conservatism: Part I

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:

bastiatfredericWe 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 + Experience3152260769_691c4b9cf6

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.the_worlds_greatest_union_worker_button-p145659852682902930t5sj_400

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. Suburban Kid

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.

Mere Conservatism Links:
 Econ Part I  |  Econ Part II
Intro  |  Theology  |  History

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