Plato, Relevant Still: The Concept of the Uniquely Appropriate
by Samuel Hux (December 2015)
Back when I was a socialist, a card-carrying member first of DSOC (Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee) and then its successor DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) and a regular contributor to Dissent. . . I was aware, fully so, of the darker possibilities inherent in the socialist vision. After all, one would have to be stupid not to know that what was often called (in contradistinction to ideologues’ dreams of what might be) “actually existing socialism” (that is, Communism), was not merely a passing Stalinist aberration. One reason for the awareness was the observable mentality of some of one’s colleagues (but not the best of them!), the arrogant and almost limitless certainty and impatience with nuance, that which is so observable today in the unearned confidence brooking no dissent of an Ivy-credentialed but un-cultured narcissist like Barack Obama.
The ellipsis in the preceding paragraph just before “I was aware” should indicate an interruption. Because I was about to say “Back when I was a socialist I was even then a conservative.” I remember briefly calling myself a “Left Conservative.” (I think it was Norman Mailer who invented the term, to distinguish himself from the young “New Leftists”: “I’m not sure I want a revolution. Some of these kids are awfully dumb.”)
That is, I thought democratic socialism would be more respectful of and conserving of what was best in Western civilization, in Judeo-Christendom if you will, in the “permanent things” as Russell Kirk used to say. Well, I have made my peace with democratic socialism’s rival, capitalism—but it is a peace which has not dispensed with alert border guards. For now that I am a conservative without “left-” as an adjectival prefix, I am aware, fully so, of the darker possibilities inherent in the capitalist vision. I don’t delude myself that I am alone among conservatives in this respect: I am fond of quoting that Hungarian-American Tory, John Lukacs, that conservatives cannot be capitalist enthusiasts. But this is not precisely the focus of this essay. Rather:
On the American scene at least—which is where I am looking—there are several varieties of self-proclaimed conservatives. Not to make an uncontrollable list, there are “The Traditionalists” (I hold up my hand and announce “Present!”); there are “The Paleo-Conservatives” (Paleo-Cons) who have such contempt for “The Neo-Conservatives” (Neo-Cons); and there may be a slew of single-issue brands as well, not only “The Libertarians” about whom more later.
But there is one brand which has no identifying name (as yet) although it is very large in enrollment I am sure. Every single subscriber to this brand I have ever met personally is a male, so I can dispense with the he-or-she and him-or-her verbal badge of political correctness. The virtues and values that have traditionally marked a conservative disposition have little purchase for him. He is not concerned with religious values, the cultural heritage, the sanctity of traditional marriage, you-name-it; questions of the size of government are no big deal except in so far as politics impinges on economic issues. His one big thing is the worship of and defense of capitalism. That is the extent of his “conservatism.” Privately (until now) I think of him as a “Putative Conservative,” or if you will (or even if you won’t), a Put-Con.
Since I don’t think the Put-Con necessarily understands the economic faith within which he worships, what follows is a discussion of that faith and his relationship to it.
As a function (forget ideologies for the moment) what we blithely call “capitalism” is an arrangement whereby capital formed by any of several means (money being a human convenience, not a creation of nature) is put to work in production of goods manufactured by labor paid neither the unknowable intrinsic value of its time nor the impossible-to-ascertain “true” worth of its energy for the creation of capital surpluses. But what is done with those surpluses, beyond sufficient reinvestment in the process, is a question not of fictive metaphysical laws of production, or appeals to inexorable Economic Nature, but to ethics. And distribution of surpluses is one matter “capitalist ethics” is loath to reflect upon. For reflection might reveal, if done in public, the capitalist’s historical and conventional but not necessary relevance to the capitalist function. The function does not require the traditional capitalist: it requires somebody or some Body to form a sufficient accumulation of that human convenience. And any economy, beyond primitive bartering, requires the function. Nor are markets uniquely characteristic of capitalism. They are characteristic of a sophisticated economy; and it is only the Put-Con’s prejudice that “markets” and “capitalism” mean the same thing. As the shrewd Scottish economist Alec Nove once observed, even in a centrally planned command economy you can’t do without markets, for while a planning board can predict with fair accuracy how many pairs of shoes will be needed, only a market can tell you which sizes.
But, as one seldom asks in public a question he thinks he has no answer to (that’s the trial lawyer in all of us), I would like to suggest an answer to my own question: What is this capitalism? The word itself is inherently ambiguous, referring both to a direction of socio-economic arrangements and to a public philosophy in defense of that direction. I’m going to argue that what most deeply characterizes the direction (as the capital function and markets do not) and most deeply characterizes the priorities in the public philosophy is the rejection of what I will call “the concept of the uniquely appropriate.”
And, as one sometimes does ask in public a question he’d like an answer to but suspects he doesn’t have it yet (that’s the law student in all of us), I would like to wonder aloud why conservatives, who traditionally are supposed to be enamored of words like “the appropriate,” “propriety,” and so on, would by and large embrace so enthusiastically a system (as Put-Cons certainly do) and would contribute so energetically to an ideology which, both, reject such notions.
When I began this line of thought I was not aware how Platonic my reasoning was. I surely should have because I have been talking to students about Plato for no short time, especially The Republic. And while I tell my students that I think utopian political thinking has borne ill fruit in actual political history and I would not wish to live in Plato’s kallipolis, his ideal city, any more than I would wish to live in any of the totalitarian experiments that have seen the actual light of historical day, I nonetheless find something worthy in his idea of what makes his tripartite state just. Quick lesson or reminder, as the case may be:
Socrates makes a basic analogy between individual soul and collective polis (although his process of moving from state to soul is the reverse of my following process). Just as the just soul has three parts—the Appetitive, the Thumos (often translated as “spiritedness” or “courage”), and the Rational—with the three parts doing what they should do and not something else, as Reason rather than the Appetites governs the person and as Thumos protects and aggresses when necessary, the state is equally tripartite: Artisans or Producers (farmers, carpenters, weavers, etc.) seeing to the fulfillment of basic appetitive needs for food, shelter, clothing, and such; Guards seeing to the soldierly protection of the population; and Rulers seeing to the rational governance of all. And the polis is just in so far as Producers produce and do not try to play soldier-boy, and Rulers rule and do not try to farm or weave or build houses, and so on, and Guards stick to their military tasks. This, thus, the ideal Republic.
Now, given the Platonic fact that if you are born to a farmer there’s a 99 percent chance that will be your lot in life—no yuppies encouraged—it is hard for us to imagine Plato and Socrates have discovered the key to happiness, but Socrates insists that all citizens no matter which class will indeed be happy because each will be doing what he or she is uniquely suited to do, as, for instance, soldiers will be happy to realize their native selves in selfless risk and would be bored stiff doing farm chores instead, etcetera, and so forth, und so weiter. Still I confess, as I confess to my students (no point in them thinking their professor a damned fool), that I would feel terribly uncomfortable in a state where the rulers commanded “You will do what you are best suited to do. . . so go do it!”—and it is not only the being told what is best for me to do that I would find offensive, but more than that the over-confidence and extreme rationality behind the commands: extreme rationalists who want a perfectly ordered world seem to me to have insufficient appreciation (or none) for tradition, which tends to be a mixture of the orderly and the muddled. But be that as it will be, after my confession I have to admit that—the fate of any individual aside—it seems a very good idea Producers, Soldiers, Governors know what their job is and do not confuse the nature of one part of the tripartite with another. Producers are, let us say, private citizens—while Soldiers and Governors are, let us call them, public servants. You don’t want in Plato’s polis the military and the political leaders saying they think they will privatize their duties and see what their talents are worth in cash on the market; you don’t want Farmers and Carpenters and Clothiers trying to nationalize their naturally private industries as it were.
Just as justice reigns in the individual soul when the three parts/aspects are doing what they should be doing, and injustice reigns when, for dramatic instance, the individual is misgoverned by a rampant appetite for satisfaction of the give-me urge—so in the state justice reigns when the tripartite structure is not fragmented by ignorance of or intentional defiance of “the concept of the uniquely appropriate.”
Due reverence to Plato—but now back to “the Now.”
Some ideas have more traction than others, and those that do seem to me to have two characteristics. (1) They have a grip on us by virtue of being related, however indirectly, to our livelihoods; there’s nothing reticent about their action. (2) While strong, “gripping,” they are not advertised as ideas; they become muted assumptions you simply do not have to think much about, as if to say “What other assumptions could a sane person have?”
For example, in a fully capitalist society the responsibility for capital formation is assumed primarily by the capitalist in such a way that although the capital invested may not be all his creation, it is treated as if it were indeed all his creation—so much so that the surplus that arises through the process of production is thought (to give a nice name to a mere mental reflex) to be primarily his to reinvest if, where, and how he pleases, and is thought to be his to distribute no more than he pleases. Or, since facts of life such as labor unions impinge, when he is forced to distribute more than he pleases he is thought to be distributing nonetheless that which is really his. In other words, neither he nor the society at large will consider the part of the surplus that is his to be really part of the surplus. An idea as muted assumption is reigning.
But this is to speak of the quality of an idea, and the instance I give need not be unique to a capitalist society. For with a change of cast, the state replacing the private capitalist, that part of the surplus which becomes the state’s would not be thought to be part of the surplus. So I probe further for the specific idea which characterizes capitalism.
A traditional view of the “public sector” is that it performs tasks that are appropriate to it, but not appropriate to the “private sector”: whether nationalization in a mixed economy, or whether exercises we simply do not normally think of as nationalization, such as post (or most of it), military, infrastructure, penal institutions (?). Or in a loose formation: the state handles what the state should handle because it should. But Robert Heilbroner made a brilliant observation (chapter 4 of The Nature and Logic of Capitalism) which I would like to consider in a way for which I’ll not hold him responsible: Actually, under capitalism the state relieves the private sector of functions which are necessary to the private sector but which would not be judged profitable to the private sector.
The state, that is, takes the heat off institutions of the private sector by disburdening them of responsibility for tasks they couldn’t make money from, although the fulfillment of the tasks may be necessary even for the functioning of the private institution. This is not innocent. It is not an instance of the state performing certain tasks which insure the quality of life for us all—as when, for mundane example, the township fills in the potholes on that road near the mineral spring which is closed for being polluted. Rather, the state performs X function because for perfectly graspable reasons no private corporation wants to. So, not a matter of propriety at all. As a corollary, it seems to me, if the private sector sees a potential profit in a task heretofore deemed appropriate to the public sector, it will, with state acquiescence or encouragement, move in. (Which is why the parenthetical question mark after “penal institutions” above.) And the part of the private sector that moves in is most likely not going to be some small, minimally capitalized proprietorship (Al and Eileen’s Ltd.), but more likely some heavy which is sufficient to the task of replacing the government. So no Put-Con or any other capitalist apologist need talk here about the distribution of opportunity, need sing no small-is-beautiful songs in celebration of the brave entrepreneur.
Some would protest that the state does not yield the profitable to the private sector, but rather relieves itself of the burdensome (perhaps responding to enthusiasts for “privatization” who like to pretend they’re doing us all a great favor at the cost of energy to themselves). I beg to differ about what might seem to be a quibble. But the protest reveals in any case the same conclusion. That is, the state in a fully capitalist society does not assume that any function, beyond strictly legislative and judicial ones, is uniquely appropriate to it if the function is at all burdensome; not even the punishment and rehabilitation of those who have broken laws passed by legislature and have been judged by judiciary.
What all this means is that corporate economic power will be the largest political power because the state will be in a real sense subservient to it. Not just dependent on it (taxes). Not an equal partner with it (corporativism nominal or effective). No. Subservient—insidiously gripped by a muted assumption no-sane-person-questions. Specifically: the assumption that there are no functions (legislative and judicial apparently aside) which are uniquely appropriate to the public sector, that, finally, there is no such thing as the uniquely appropriate.
If you have a society in which there are no functions (the two exceptions still holding for the moment) which are thought to be beyond question appropriate to the public sector but not to the private, you also have a society in which traditions have no safety or respected legitimacy. Take one dramatic instance for speculative example: the precious idea that the profession of arms is a public function and that private armies are a danger to the res publica. I daresay it is not a judgment of “appropriateness” that forestalls the organization and capitalization of a National Protection Inc. to relieve the state of a burden, so much as it is the fact that organizing and running the Inc. does not promise the sort of sure profits that private corrections corporations and such do. (But as I think “Blackwater” I wonder at that sentence.)
The history of this particular tradition, the public profession of arms, raises a pertinent point. When one talks about “the appropriate” one isn’t necessarily talking about what has always been: were that the case the discipline of history would be the study of utopia. The tradition of a public military is a relatively new and hard-won tradition, for sovereign states relied upon condottieri before the modern era as often or more than they relied upon conscript or standing armies. Yet we think of it nonetheless as a public custom, and we’re right to do so. The appropriate is not something to look for in “what’s always been”; it’s something to be discovered by intelligent moral consideration. Among those traditions long in place, that of public sector responsibility for judicial functions is safe enough. Although the encroachment upon its twin function—corrections—might give one pause, as well as might the hairy thought that some clever entrepreneurial J.D. is sitting up tonight thinking about backlogged dockets. It’s safe enough because it’s prescribed by the Constitution. As is, thank God, the legislature. But in the latter case. . . you don’t have to privatize the legislative functions appropriate by necessity to the public assembly so long as the assembly itself is gripped by your idea become a muted assumption.
The point is that even the honored tradition of republican government itself ceases to be a respected tradition with the degeneration of the idea that there are functions uniquely appropriate to it, never to be disowned or compromised by it, whether burdensome or light. Government in such an environment is capable of becoming a sort of residue of historical inertia. It would exist because it has existed. Representatives would legislate because they always have. There would be something to legislate about because, after all, there has to be something or other: the privatization of more of the state’s responsibilities, for instance. Such leaden, passive isness is the last thing a tradition is. Tradition is what arises and survives because it is deeply felt to be necessary, appropriate. Otherwise, what is called tradition is only inertial convention.
The communist prejudice against “bourgeois parliamentary hypocrisy” could be dismissed. But government in a fully capitalist society is fully capable of giving that worn phrase some meaning through the active or passive compromise of the concept of the uniquely appropriate. The Jeffersonian dream that “that government governs best which governs least” can come to mean “which governs hardly at all.” Of course there is a name for the bias that there are no functions legitimately and uniquely appropriate for the state. It’s anarchism. Who could have predicted a century ago that anarchism would die or suffer senility as a communal doctrine, only to be reborn or rejuvenated as an extreme laissez-faire doctrine, “anarcho-capitalism”? That the Libertarian Party is now the third largest in the States may not be so relevant, electorally, given the intractability of two-party politics. But often groups safely unburdened by official power can articulate the deep logic of some in power, and so are not without significance in the broader scheme of ideas. The only thing that keeps Libertarian ideology from preaching what Thomas Carlyle called “anarchy plus a constable” is that Libertarians aren’t sure about a public constabulary. Utopia is not only a no-place, it’s a no-time. As the curmudgeonly Rebecca West (amazing how relevant she remains) once observed, “anarchy is the most hopeless of faiths, being an aching discontent with time, which inexorably engenders order.” The question is always “whose order?” That of those who believe in the uniquely appropriate or that of those who do not?
Let me repeat, and sum up provisionally, the point. What uniquely characterizes capitalism as a public philosophy is that muted assumption that there is no task uniquely appropriate to the public sector if it’s potentially profitable to the private sector—and that, ultimately, there is no such thing as the uniquely appropriate. Furthermore and consequently, in a society governed by that assumption there will be no ingrained, certainly no sustained, respect for tradition, since without the notion of the uniquely appropriate there is no such thing as tradition, only inertial convention. Even representative assembly lives only as convention, existing through habit, lucky in effect that there are some tasks the private sector has yet to find potentially profitable.
How can conservatives spend so much mental passion in defense of a system and a public philosophy which hardly appear very conservative? American conservatives specifically, since it is American capitalism I’m talking about. Well, they can do it both or either because capitalism obviously works or in fear of socialism. Or because capitalism is the social institution that most matters because one is a Put-Con. And the motive need not be self-interest: a materialist explanation will not do, I don’t think. For most of capitalism’s conservative loyalists, even the Put-Cons, are not capitalists themselves. And for every hotshot policy intellectual rewarded with a comfortable think-tank birth there are thousands of obscure editorial writers and college professors with patched herringbones and sensible 2000 Volvos with lumpy seats. Those I know well, and some of my best friends they are (no Put-Cons included), are rigorously intellectually honest—which is not the same thing as consistent. And I will assume the think-tankers are too. When I think of conservative friends and acquaintances, and if I think them representative, I cannot make do with an answer I know would be just in reference to Put-Cons and in many cases among conservatives who are capitalists: that not all American “conservatives” are conservative.
My friends are at least conservative enough to wish to support their apologetics with what strikes them as authentically conservative ammunition. But often thereby they put themselves in an unexpected conundrum. Some of them, Catholic and otherwise, find a rich tradition in Catholic social doctrine, which they read with extraordinary selectivity and creativity. Any appeal to Catholic social teaching will begin with an appeal to St. Thomas Aquinas, to Aquinas’s teaching for instance that private property is a right protected by natural law—this in spite of the fact that the teaching does not exist. Rather, although private property is not against natural law, neither is it dictated by natural law: “the distribution of property is a matter not for natural law but, rather, human agreement, which is what positive law is all about” (Summa Theologica, 2a 2ae, 66). Or, there is the “principle of subsidiarity” for instance to which the apologist might turn, which holds that what is no danger to the commonweal should be left to the exercise of private responsibility. But the apologist tends to ignore the fact that the other side of the principle of subsidiarity is that what is dangerous when left to private responsibility must not be left so: enterprises which “carry with them power too great to be left in private hands, without injury to the community at large,” as Pius XI put it in Quadragesimo Anno, which fact obviates the necessity of turning to Mater et Magistra of John XXIII where he’d find the same thing. The principle of subsidiarity, it should be observed, tacitly recognizes the notion of the uniquely appropriate.
I have yet to meet and know for some time a literate conservative who does not at some point mention or respond enthusiastically (along with me!) to any mention of Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948), which has achieved the status of a kind of conservative holy writ—or a kind of apocrypha at least, the next best thing. The specific consequential idea from which began our “fearful descent” (Weaver’s preferred title) into malaise, superficiality, violation of tradition, was the medieval controversy over “Realism” vs. “Nominalism” and the triumph of the latter. A brave proposition, argued with passionate brilliance. Realism: the notion that universals (like the Platonic Idea or Form as a matter of fact!) have reality independent of our minds. Nominalism: the notion that universals are mere words, names, abstractions with no independence from mind. From William of Occam through Francis Bacon and other circuits to modern positivism, the Nominalist “heresy” (so to say) has freed us of transcendent universal truths and left us to our own anarchic devises. I don’t present this as an adequate summary of a subtle thesis. I only wish to hang upon Weaver’s Realism a moment in order to make some connections.
I doubt that many of us spend much time in closeted speculation on medieval controversies, but I’m sure if you push a conservative to decision he will line up passionately with Weaver on the Realist side. His habitual talk about liberal relativism, decline of standards, disrespect for fundamentals, loss of home truths, infatuations with the permissive, and so on, tell one as much. Such reflexes are the casual approximation of a metaphysical faith, a faith the conservative knows, just knows, must somehow be his. I know no other way to explain the status Weaver’s book enjoys in conservative circles—“the fons et origo of the contemporary American conservative movement” the late Frank Meyer judged—than the conservative’s assumption that Weaver’s Realism is theirs against liberal Nominalism. But when Weaver gets to specific applications of his Realism, the story should get too uncomfortable for intelligent conservative celebration.
To speak of Realism in the medieval sense, to endorse faith in universal truths which are more than convenient names assigned to this or that by the practical mind, is to assume that there is a certain proprietas native to an idea which cannot be shifted around, moved, reassigned at will. Or a certain Eigentum or hisness as Weaver says, hammering home his point in another context. Now, I am not pursuing a strictly metaphysical or epistemological line here; rather, I am pursuing a set of associations which I think ought to resonate for a Realist. Which is what, in fact, Weaver is doing in Ideas Have Consequences, for all the metaphysical armory. One association is probably already apparent: proprietas, property, propriety, the appropriate, belongingness. There are properties of things, certain proprieties appropriate to certain things, certain things properly belong with certain things. And these “genitives,” so to speak, are not mere names to be altered at will. Oh of course they can be altered—but that’s a “nominalist” act, without truth, with only interested convenience.
I can imagine a capitalist apologist fairly well salivating as he reads (selectively) Weaver. For Weaver is so taken with the Eigentum or proprietas of things that in its socio-economic, physical translation, the act of owning, Weaver finds “the last metaphysical right.” There is a moral dimension to property, that is, the owned and the owner belonging to one another, the owning and the being owned a profounder matter than the mere names of possessor and estate. But it should be noted, as the apologist does not note it, that Weaver was talking about a property that has nothing to do with United Conglomerates Inc. For Weaver was one the last of the Agrarians. “The moral solution is the distributive ownership of small properties” in the “form of independent farms, of local businesses, of homes owned by the occupants, where individual responsibility gives significance to prerogative over property.”
At this point the apologist may raise his eyes from the page, smile with satisfaction, and reflect: so much greater then must be the significance of prerogative over really big property! But, “Such ownership,” Weaver continues (referring to “small properties” and not reading his reader’s mind) “provides a range of volition through which one can be a complete person, and it is the abridgement of this volition for which monopoly capitalism must be condemned along with communism.” The apologist blanches for a moment, fixes for a minute on “monopoly” instead of “capitalism,” is briefly disturbed by the suggestion that communism and capitalism are “morally equivalent” as one would say today, and then forgets.
I am not trying to suggest what Weaver’s idea of the specific unique properties of the public sector were; I’m only suggesting that Weaver’s perspective must have it that there have to be certain functions uniquely appropriate to government, as there are functions uniquely appropriate to any human realm, not to be shifted about, moved, reassigned at “nominalist” will. Weaver’s is not a perspective the Put-Con ought to be comfortable with: since the notion of “unique property” is not one of the Put-Con’s muted assumptions, all the phrase could mean to him is a singular piece of real estate.
What the apologist ever saw in Weaver would be beyond me were it not clear that he could read selectively, could after a brief genuflection ignore the reflections on proprietas as an irrelevant Latinate professorial flight, and pretend that Weaver’s animadversions in the passage quoted above were directed at those few bad capitalists (any barrel has its rotten fruit), while Weaver clearly meant the ideological barrel itself was the problem. But nonetheless and nevertheless, Weaver helped them along:
Considering the abridgement of volition for which capitalism as well as communism must be held responsible, a result would seem to be suggested by Weaver’s image of “the besotted middle class, grown enormous under the new orientation of Western man.” This class, “having comfort, risking little, terrified at the thought of change,” aims only to “banish threats to its complacency. It has conventions, not ideals; it is washed rather than clean.” A description of bourgeoisie under capitalism? No. Or somehow no more than incidentally if at all. Rather: a characterization of middle class under socialist ideals, which somehow or other Weaver imagines reigning. “It clarifies much to see that socialism is in origin a middle-class and not a proletarian concept.” Historically of course that’s true, as of practically any –ism, which is totally irrelevant to the point. “Socialism” here is a euphemism for communism? No. It is “social democracy” that Weaver imagines Americans to be living under in 1948—which was true only to the degree that some New Deal programs still survived. Surely Weaver was exaggerating, but this was not merely Weaver’s singular fancy, for it’s something like a reflex he shares with many conservatives who are more sympathetic to capitalism than he was.
It seems to be a unique property of pro-capitalist polemic to talk half the time as if capitalism doesn’t exist. Perhaps it does during periods of Reaganite ascendancy, but during periods of liberal ascendancy, even before the time of the rock-star presidency and the Obamanoids, capitalism was fighting a gallant battle for its own rebirth against an essentially socialist D.C.; then it’s socialism that exists (creeping at the least). I don’t know why Weaver was subject to this public derangement, since he had no fondness for capitalism in the first place, only an animosity toward the socialism he cast off at the feet of the Agrarian John Crowe Ransom. But I think I know why so many capitalist apologists, and certainly the Put-Cons, are subject to the derangement.
Capitalism is no respecter of the transcendent truths, the universals, which a “Realist” faith implies. And occasionally an apologist will admit as much, as when Michael Novak (I have quoted him before) noted several years ago that “Democratic capitalism undermines all traditions and institutions (even itself).” The parenthetical “even itself” I take to be a kind of spirited humor, as if to say that capitalism is in a state of permanent revolution through which it looks a little different every decade or so but survives intact in all essentials. Anyone who admires such macho upheavals in the Zeitgeist is going to turn to Weaver’s high-minded Latinity of thought only when he needs a bit of elegant mental entertainment, wishes a little classiness to rub off; but it won’t mean much more than that, it can’t. What does have meaning is the incompleteness of the upheaval. That is, capitalism may “undermine,” but the problem is that the undermining has not been completed. So voracious is the appetite for completion that without it capitalism is often perceived to be not really here yet. But—one might ask as one reads the papers, peruses Business Week, follows administrations, and in general merely observes the world one lives in—how is capitalism not completed. I think the answer is the following.
There remains the essentially Platonic notion, no matter how differently stated and no matter how imperfectly embraced, that there are some things which are uniquely appropriate to the public sector. I don’t think the notion is all that consciously held by many people, except as a kind of inertial residue. At least I cannot imagine many people intoning, “functions uniquely appropriate, never to be disowned or compromised, whether burdensome or light,” etc. But however weak the notion, its merest existence is an affront to the capitalist spirit, which cannot be at ease with the thought that anything could resist its embraces. So long as all human institutional functions have not been privatized, then capitalism’s enthusiasts will periodically behave as if capitalism is only a brave hope for the future instead of the central present fact of our socio-economic existence.
Will periodically behave so. To sustain the illusion—or pretense—at all times would be too demanding. At other moments the apologists may face with some equanimity the fact that some functions are at present withheld from the private sector. But what is always offensive is the merest thought that somebody thinks that those functions should be withheld because of their nature, because they would be inappropriate (not just at present unprofitable) to the private sector. That thought is so offensive because it is a resistance to the idea become muted assumption that—unlike markets and capital formation, necessary to any sophisticated economy—makes capitalism capitalism.
Back when I was a socialist I was not right that socialism is the better conserver of “the permanent things”—but I was not wrong, I am not wrong I do not think, that a reverent attitude toward capitalism is not just a natural component of conservatism. Capitalism is, in spite of its often revolutionary volatility, finally consistent with a conservative disposition, but is not a necessary part of its definition. In the words of one of Irving Kristol’s early titles: Two Cheers for Capitalism.
Samuel Hux is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.
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