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The Marketplace of Morals, the Moral Marketplace and Other Contradictions in Terms

Rubbish to all of that, I say. The spread of moral codes works on market principles just like the financial realm. Bringing the government in creates unfair competition with society’s moral institutions. ~Peter Suderman [1], Alarm!

Elsewhere in the entry, Mr. Suderman says that “[f]ree market economies are not at odds with high moral standards, and those concerned with creating a moral society should push for greater freedom from government intervention.” He goes on to suggest that Rod Dreher, whose Crunchy Cons book he links to, moves “dangerously away” from supporting the free market while he “pretends” to support it.

On the question of the crunchy attitude to “the free market,” Mr. Suderman seems to be reproducing a common prejudice against the crunchies that they are keen to regulate economic activity by means of government intervention. In what other sense could he mean that they move “dangerously away” from support for the free market model of exchange that they otherwise pretend to support? The “crunchies like government regulation” meme was a tired one the first time it was used, because for the most part one looks entirely in vain for any discussion of government regulation among crunchies at the now-concluded CC blog [2].

In general, what distinguishes crunchy cons from the anti-crunchies is their abhorrence of consumerist expressions within a market economy and their opposition to a cultural mentality, which they hold is as prevalent among conservatives as among their neighbours less interested in enduring truths and the Permanent Things, that prizes consumption and acquisition. If Mr. Suderman wants to associate that critique of excesses and resistance to self-indulgence writ large with moving “dangerously away” from support for the free market, he is not doing “the free market” any favours.

Where there is some concern for regulation might be in the area of conservation, but to endorse conservation in principle and to believe that public authority has legitimate responsibility for protecting the natural world against ravages of irresponsible stewards are not the same as believing that the EPA needs to harrass more farmers and ranchers for the sake of regulations of dubious value. For the most part, however, in the immediate and middle term the crunchies call conservatives to live according to their own principles in how they participate in the market economy and to demonstrate their solidarity with those people embodying these principles in the way they run their businesses and farms. One of the long-term goals would be to reestablish some sense of community norms on a local level that would restrain the kinds of excess, indulgence, vulgar display and architectural ugliness that plague so many American cities and towns, and this would be accomplished not primarily through government regulation but through transformation of culture away from one that elevates the pursuit of an individual’s desires to an excessive and unbalanced degree.

Far from the “anti-market” bogeymen that some would very much like to make them to be, the crunchies propose to work towards restraining and limiting the excesses of the market through changes in their own habits (and by encouraging others to do likewise) in part so that the moral integrity of the society that makes the functioning of the market possible is not consumed in the fires of “creative destruction.” Burke said liberty must be limited in order to be possessed, and economic liberty is no different; if our people lack internal restraint in how they use that liberty, constraint will eventually be imposed from without to curtail the worst excesses of disordered desire.

Unless libertarians really maintain that there is no such thing as disordered desire or vicious indulgence that actually sap vitality and hinder the successful functioning of the free exchange of goods and services, which relies to such a great extent on the integrity of high moral standards (and which, when a people lacks these standards, suffers from the consequent government regulation and oversight implemented to guarantee honest business), there is very little trouble that they should have with the crunchy idea. Unless, of course, they really want to subscribe to a view of man and society in which there can be no legitimate social arbiters in a community of what is and is not virtuous.

Many libertarians do subscribe to this “marketplace of morals,” which will continue to make them unwitting accomplices with increased government regulation as they tend to dismiss forms of social control and traditional authority as being as equally undesirable as government regulation. But so long as man needs some constraints to check his willfulness and passions, the less people rely on non-governmental mechanisms of social control the more they consign themselves and their posterity to the caretaking of the state. I think this is the very concern that Mr. Suderman expresses when he worries about introducing “unfair competition with society’s moral institutions” by involving the government.

What troubles the crunchies, as it troubles me, about an undue regard for the virtues of “the free market” is that this sort of market, when not restrained or regulated either by its participants or, in the last resort, by the state, breaks down the very forms of social control and traditional authority needed to keep the state from becoming involved. (In so doing, it is also consuming the very corrective forces that keep the entire system from succumbing to massive corruption–think of this social control as a kind of balm for the market’s self-inflicted wounds that keeps them from becoming horribly infected and gangrenous.) Unfortunately, this very dissolution of traditional social bonds is something that far, far too many anti-crunchy and libertarian proponents of the market make out to be a positive good and a “liberation” from the outmoded, patriarchal and repressive norms of bygone days. Larry Kudlow, call your office.

In other words, the more one wishes to keep the state out of the business of regulating morals the more one should be keen on the crunchy idea of self-restraint, rejection of consumerism and all the tawdry and vulgar products that the allegedly “moral marketplace” spews forth. The marketplace is only as moral as its participants, and it is only as consonant with virtue as the attitudes of its participants, so if a large number of those participants embrace a mentality of unrestricted consumption and acquisition (which has frequently been married to a debased aesthetic sense of the mass man and a crude ethic of self-gratification) the market will go from being a merely disruptive force in social life to a positively harmful engine of cultural rot. This, I submit, is not the kind of market Mr. Suderman wants to defend. But if he wants to insist that the crunchies are, in some measure, hostile to his idea of the market, he will find himself stuck with the sort of market that drives cultural rot.

There is more that should be said about the inextricable nature of morality and law, but I do not have enough time today. I will try to say a few things before I finish. There is the need here to recognise that law always embodies someone’s idea of morality. This is why our increasingly permissive society no longer criminalises sodomy or adultery, to take two notable examples. This is not because we have achieved some more pure arrangement where people take their cues on sodomy and adultery from the “proper” authorities in the Church or elsewhere in society, nor is it because we have suddenly realised that the state is not at all a moral arbiter, but because our society has ceased to take these norms seriously and will no longer actually prosecute or punish the trangression of these norms.

Without some mechanism for enforcing these norms, be it informal and “social” or formal and juridical, they gradually weaken and disappear and what was considered vicious 50 or 100 years ago becomes relatively acceptable or at least tolerable. In the Anglo-American world, we have tended to more closely elide the enforcement of social norms with legal punishments, and arguably this is a weakness in how English-speaking peoples have conceived of morality, but particularly in an age when rampant individualism and dissolution or weakening of intermediary authorities have sapped other authorities of the ability to enforce moral norms there is a certain necessity in looking to some level of government (though I should hope I never propose looking to the federal government for this) to create some significant disincentives for various kinds of excess and vice. It would, of course, be ideal to rely strictly on mechanisms of social control to regulate the moral life of a people and to leave the government out of it as much as possible, but man being the fallen being he is this is not always possible and it is not always desirable.

There are some kinds of immorality, murder being the most obvious, that we generally all accept can only be appropriately or legitimately punished by public authority under the law. Part and parcel of devolving moral regulation to a society’s various moral institutions is also returning to the rougher, swifter justice of self-help and vendetta, for example, which have their legitimate value in places where the writ of law does not run or has broken down but which is probably not the sort of society Mr. Suderman is envisioning when he proposes to decouple morality and government in such a thoroughgoing way. Then again, perhaps Mr. Suderman would welcome a return to self-help and vendetta, and similar phenomena of extensive social controls on behaviour enforced by family, church and community through the return of a culture of honour and shame that involves punishments of ostracism and exclusion of social deviants. I find much that is worthwhile in such arrangements, and a society that trusted to self-help more and the present day judiciary less would have a good chance of being a more just society, but I suspect Mr. Suderman’s libertarian sensibilities would chafe at these sorts of arrangements just as he chafes at morality being imposed through government. I would be glad to be wrong about that.