Even in the midst of the rubble of today's recession, those who call themselves conservatives have a touching faith in the magic of the market to bring a new Eden to our troubled land. They still believe that applying the market to the ills that afflict us will increase our choices, improve individual liberty, and reduce the role of government in our daily lives — a pretty concise summation of the primum mobile of the conservative creed.
But what, exactly, does a market do? Adam Smith, one of conservatism's patriarchs, described how the "invisible hand" of the market turns thousands of seemingly unconnected individual economic decisions into a system that, over time, balances supply and demand through the mechanism of price. Smith described a kind of ecology, where largely unseen forces, working in subterranean ways, provide people with information so that they can, in the language of the economists, "maximize their utilities."
Wrenching the feudal command economy into the dynamic capitalist market economy did exactly what Smith said it would do: it created the vast "wealth of nations." However, Smith also saw something that darkened his enthusiasm: markets are vicious places. Instead of the rich matrix of social and religious obligations that marked feudal society and, to some extent, provided a cushion against the exercise of raw power, markets reduced everything to what Marx called "the cash nexus": nothing had value unless it had a price, including people. Competition became the reigning metaphor, meaning that the market needed the blood sacrifice of losers to feed its winners, and profit became the only test for usefulness. Smith was not pleased with this situation, but he felt it could not be opposed without interfering with the efficiency of the market to allocate goods and labor.
If the nature and logic of markets, then, reduces everything to a price and makes people fight tooth and nail to survive, why would conservatives, who express deep affection for loving families and intact communities and traditional values like hard work, ever give their allegiance to such a system? It defeats the very values they profess to love. Instead of embracing markets, conservatives should work to mitigate them at every possible turn so that the acidic power of money does not eventually corrode everything they hold dear.
That they don't puzzles me. Take families, for instance. Conservatives may believe that the dissolution of modern families comes from the wicked fruit grown in the 1960s or the erosive power of the Internet or an increasingly "socialist"(!) government or some other source of moral corruption, but very few of them really see how their beloved markets have fractured the family. As many economists have pointed out over the years, family incomes fell drastically after 1973, especially among the bottom half of the society. This forced women into the job market and increased income instability for everyone except for those on the very top of the pyramid. And the purchasing power of these incomes has never recovered, even three decades later.
Now we find that the majority of poor people are not the young, the old, or the infirm but prime, working-age adults. A breakdown in family values did not cause this poverty; the main cause has been falling wages and diminished employment opportunities, direct effects of the market maximizing its own utilities without regard for human consequences. This should appall and galvanize conservatives. Yet so mesmerized are they by their belief in markets that many of them oppose any measures which would go some distance to softening the economic pummeling families suffer (such as increasing the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit). Their love for markets destroys the families they say they want to preserve.
Or take the notion of community. Many conservatives rue the loss of a sense of community in America, mourn the passing of that complex net of obligations and commitments that, in their tale, characterized American life before the 1960s and made a brief comeback with Ronald Reagan. Yet any serpents in the garden that conservatives conjure pale in effect beside the power of the market, which has demolished entire cities and regions, scattered people to the four winds, and fed the very self-absorption in personal success that destroys any sense of a common purpose. If conservatives really wanted to help Americans preserve their communities, they would rein in the market. But their dogma won't let them think that clearly.
Conservatives should fear the power of the market, not venerate it. The market is an acid that eats away any restraint on its effort to transmute every aspect of human life into exchange value. The things that most of us hold dear — loving families, safe communities, worthwhile labor, attentive schools — are, in the logic of the market, "restraints upon trade" and therefore not worth more than grist, and over the years we have seen them all ground mercilessly fine. If conservatives really wish to conserve, to neutralize the acid and not put everything between the grindstones, then they need to examine their allegiance to the market. As a first step, they should pledge never to apply market logic to public communal endeavors, such as schools or health care, where the literal lives of people are at stake. As this small inoculation takes effect, they can then move on to the larger realms of capitalism, building in those restraints upon power that will turn our gilded age into a golden age.
Conservatives as conservators — would that such a thing were true.