Can ‘Unbridled Capitalism’ Be Tamed?

March 26, 1997 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

“I am anti‐​Wal‐​Mart,” declares Don Eberly, head of the Civil Society Project. William Schambra of the Bradley Foundation opines that he might vote to keep Wal‐​Mart out of a small town. America’s community institutions, he warns, are threatened by “an unholy marriage between the marketplace and radical individualism.”

Wal‐​Mart, founded by the most conservative of men and managed with an evident concern for its employees, has become the symbol of evil for, of all people, conservatives. In a world where the market is everywhere constrained, hampered and regulated, they warn against “unbridled capitalism.” The latter, explains William Bennett, is “a problem for that whole dimension of things we call the realm of values and human relationships.”

In recent years the most vocal critics of capitalism have been on the left. But Europe has long hosted a Tory conservatism that also opposed the classical liberalism that preached human freedom and animated the American Revolution. Today this same Tory conservatism is growing in America.

Taming the Marketplace

Having accepted at face value President Clinton’s assurance that big government has been tamed—despite the continued growth and intrusiveness of government during Mr. Clinton’s tenure— many conservatives now talk of the need to tame the marketplace. Congressional Republicans, for instance, may tweak one or another program, but they will eliminate no government function, cut no department, end no entitlement program and block no regulation. Conservative intellectuals like Howard Wiarda of the Center for Strategic and International Studies frankly argue for recognizing the permanence of the welfare state. Republicans, he says, should just argue that they can “manage, streamline and administer the programs better than the Democrats.”

Some conservatives want to go even further and use government for their own ends. For instance, Sen. Dan Coats (R., Ind. ) supported federally mandated family leave. Now Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council defends Social Security because it provides “special compensations for couples who devote themselves to rearing children during their active years. ” Indeed, Mr. Bauer argues more generally: “No matter what the market does, why do we think the nation will be better off by forcing workers to put their money into stock rather than, say, spending it on rearing children?”

But those advocating the privatization of Social Security want to create a retirement system that providers higher payments to all beneficiaries, including widows. Particularly curious is the phenomenon of some conservatives, who ordinarily decry the welfare state, defending Social Security, which after all is just another welfare program. And just like other welfare programs, it isn’t family friendly: Social Security transfers some of the responsibility for the care of one’s parents to the state.

Even programs directed at the family, such as family leave, create a precedent for government intervention that is usually harmful. After all, if government may rightly set employment terms based on public whim and interest‐​group pressure, then conservatives have no complaint when states, say, force insurers to include drug treatment benefits in health care plans—making abstemious workers pay for the sins of their co‐​workers. And if family‐​friendliness is the goal, then why not a federal mandate that spousal equivalents receive the same benefits as spouses?

What some social conservatives overlook is that, while the market possesses no morality of its own, it accommodates individuals who value more than just money. In fact, most enterprises are built on a dream and end up losing money. Yes, entrepreneurs usually desire material rewards. But the satisfaction from creating an enterprise or product that will make a positive contribution to the world is also an important factor. The fact that capitalism protects the right to profit does not mean entrepreneurs are not often engaged in sacrificial and even noble endeavors.

Even in today’s world of supposedly unbridled capitalism, many parents forgo economic opportunities in order to raise their children. Many companies assist workers who place their families first. Such choices entail costs— costs that are made more obvious in the marketplace. But accepting such costs is the price of acting virtuously. If we truly believe in the idea of individual responsibility, then the state shouldn’t relieve us of that responsibility, even in the name of helping the family.

Religious conservatives should be particularly wary of the statist temptation. After all, the Apostle Paul instructed Christians that they were to care for their families; if they didn’t, he said, they were “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). He didn’t say that it was their employers’ responsibility. Or their co‐​workers’ responsibility. Or the government’s responsibility. It was their responsibility.

The mere fact that a law may benefit families doesn’t justify forcing everyone else in “the village”—including singles and childless couples— to pitch in. If so, there is no end to the duty. If family leave is justified, then why not a family wage? Why not subsidized housing tied to family size? Although the ends of promoting morality and family are desirable, they do not warrant any means. Neither moral nor constitutional principle justifies government conscripting co‐​workers, employers and taxpayers to pay for other people’s families.

Nor does it make any sense to use government to preserve some groups’ preferred visions of community. Consider Wal‐​Mart. The objection to Wal‐​Mart is simple: It charges lower prices, drawing customers away from established businesses, hurting “the community.” The problem is not really Wal‐​Mart, however. Rather, it is economy‐​minded customers who desire increased choice and lower prices. Thus, instead of barring Wal‐​Mart, honest critics should favor arresting anyone who shops at any discounter—even by mail. This is the logical, if nonsensical, consequence of the anti‐​Wal Mart worldview.

Equally dangerous is the use of government in an attempt to rebuild America’s moral standards— statecraft as soulcraft, to use George Will’s venerable phrase. “If good laws are used judiciously,” contended one leading conservative at a recent strategy session, “they can be used to revitalize and remobilize civil society.” Another conservative activist spoke hopefully of using government “temporarily, for the next 10 or 20 years,” to remedy problems that have become too severe to deal with any other way.

Unfortunately, government does a hideous job of molding souls. The state is good at simple tasks, like killing people and seizing their wealth. It has far more trouble reaching inside individuals and making them good. Even attempting to do so is risky. For one thing, once government becomes keeper of the nation’s moral code, those who hold traditional values have no principled complaint if the morals advanced are not their own. It was, after all, a public school system that assigned “Heather Has Two Mommies.”

Moral Restoration

Turning morality over to government risks having the same effect as turning charity over to government‐​reducing the role of private people and institutions. One of the chief responsibilities of civil society, especially the family, churches and community institutions, is creating and enforcing a moral code. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has written, “When we speak of the restoration of civil society it is a moral restoration we should seek.” Accomplishing that moral restoration won’t be easy. But conservatives of all people shouldn’t fall victim to the illusion that big government can somehow make the job easy and painless. Concentrated power in the hands of sinful man is more likely to produce sin than anything else. To encourage virtue, we must protect freedom.

About the Author