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Having It All, Except for the Things That Matter

One funny point about self-conscious anachronisms: they can’t really decide where history should have stopped. In the same issue that feature Fleming regretting the fact that you are not pushing a plough has another writer bemoaning the loss of manufacturing jobs in Rockford, Illinois. Why? Maybe if we lose enough manufacturing jobs, everyone will have to go back to farming. What neither contributor sees is that both the loss of agricultural and manufacturing jobs represents progress in the march of the division of labor. It means the material advance of the human population.

It’s fine and great to love the eternal verities, be in awe of baroque churches, listen to the music of Josquin, master ancient poetry, recite poetry in Middle English. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use a cell phone, know Html, listen to a podcast, and spend your free time improving Wikipedia entries. We do not have to choose between modernism and antiquarian affections. Capitalism allows us to have it all. ~Jeffrey Tucker, Mises Economics Blog

To put it another way, it’s fine and great to love the eternal verities, as long as you don’t take them seriously or regard them as either eternal or true. Capitalism allows us to have a great many things, but it does not allow us to have a traditional, humane society and its attendant virtues. We know perfectly well that “material advancement” results from this system (at least for a while)–that is, if I may be so bold, precisely one of the things wrong with it. It assumes that endless material advancement is good in itself and that it has no serious, negative consequences for human life. There has always been a fundamental choice, which is ultimately as simple as the choice between indulgence and restraint, and blithely pretending that it doesn’t exist is a rather intellectually dishonest dodge of the issue.

We can “have it all” only in the sense that we can purchase things both old and new and maintain the fiction that we have nothing to lose but material deprivation, poor medicine and slow transportation. The cost of such “progress” is considerable, and it begins with the destruction of humane and well-ordered life. Simply put, man does not thrive, cultivate virtue or attain excellence in the modern city. He may possess a great many things, grow fat and live a life of ease, but the crucial point is that all of those things are regarded by the actual adherents of the eternal verities of our tradition as forms of vice, ruin and degradation. The “success” that libertarians and modernists of all kinds repeatedly point to for vindication is, I believe, exactly what the gentlemen at Chronicles find so objectionable.

One important reason why Jefferson prized the agrarian way of life as the mainstay of republican liberty was that it was the only way of life that warded off servility and dependency. It was impossible, he knew well, that men could retain their personal and political independence in the sort of society fostered by merchants and modern urban centers. Men can be self-reliant and self-sufficient, and thus maintain political independence, if they own their own land and support themselves with that land, or they can have one sort of master or another who will command his political loyalty and dictate the life of his community. If Mr. Tucker prefers that submission and dependency, that is hardly surprising, but what will not stand is the presumption that his view is somehow consonant with human freedom. It is not, and never has been.

Complete dependency is the state of each and every single person in a capitalist economy in a way that was simply not true of the old order. The Austrians have taught us to sell ourselves, so to speak, to commerce and consumerism based on the fiction (or is it a lie?) that these things represent a free way of life. These things are, if we are honest and philosophical, chains that are no different, as far as the person and healthy local society are concerned, from chains that shackle us to the state, and the two sets have tended over time to be mutually reinforcing. Commerce and consumerism may feel more satisfying, and they may “give the people what they want,” but an entire economic regime where self-indulgence is the guiding principle and chief good does not create free men. It is the great libertarian lie that the capitalist market and state are always necessarily antithetical to one another. Sometimes rivals, sometimes partners, the two perform a common task of breaking down all values and loyalties unless it is the value of efficiency or loyalty to the state.

Incidentally, I understand Scott Richert’s laments of the decline of American manufacturing as criticism of the current economic regime that is stripping away these last sources of stable, meaningful employment. In much the same way that Dr. Fleming acknowledges that the modern nation-state is in many ways artificial and too far removed from local and regional attachments, but nonetheless affirms the value of the nation-state in resisting the ravages of globalism and multinational exploitation, I believe Mr. Richert values American manufacturing as an element of national economic life that can potentially help to sustain the productivity and strength of the nation and thus as something to be preferred to the alternative of even worse dependency on foreign manufacturing and the reduction of Americans to even more inhumane and empty labour as service sector lackeys.

What never ceases to amaze me about our friends, the libertarians, is how materialistic they are in every sense of the word. In their scheme, rationality is equated with desire, acquisitiveness and the drive for more possessions. It is true that men have striven to improve their material circumstances throughout history. What is also true is that all of history has been subsequent to the Fall, and we should not necessarily take the common activity of fallen mankind as proof that such activity is either natural or desirable. Men have also slaughtered each other and dominated one another out of a desire for power–I doubt very much that the indulgence of these passions throughout history has many admirers or defenders over at the Mises Institute. What libertarians call rationality is what pagan philosophers saw as disordered desire (in fact, the abdication of reason and intellect) and what Christians used to recognise as the will of the flesh, something unnatural and contrary to rationality and spiritual well-being.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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