We begin with the observations of a social critic of cultural conservative leanings—let his name, for the moment, remain a mystery—as he casts his gaze upon the cultural influence of the market.
New forms of capitalist economic organization, he notes, have led to the disappearance of the link between ownership of property and civic responsibility. People are so involved in acquisition, he laments, that they no longer have time for political concerns and public life. He sees an eclipse of civic virtue, a diminishing willingness to sacrifice private concerns for the public good.
Changes in social structure brought about by capitalist development are no less worrisome. The process of the market is leading to the replacement of once-independent producers by men who are mere specialized cogs in a productive machine.
The cultural consequences of capitalism are cause for despair. The ever-shifting, international fashions on which the market thrives are destroying authentic, indigenous culture. New forms of capitalist merchandising prosper by arousing novel desires, creating tastes for consumer goods that people do not really need, and leading to excessive expenditure that is bankrupting the economy.
Most pernicious of all in their influence are unprecedented marketing techniques which undermine the steadying influence of the family by invading the household itself.
These criticisms may have a familiar, contemporary ring. But they were penned more than two hundred years ago by Justus Möser (1720-1794), a conservative German social critic in Westphalia, then an economic backwater on the margins of the burgeoning Atlantic capitalist economy. International fashion meant scarves from Flanders; the “luxuries” which the peasants thought they needed but which the conservative social critic knew they really didn’t (or to change the idiom, the objects of their “false consciousness”) included wool stockings, metal buttons, mirrors, knives, and needles. The novel vehicles of capitalist merchandising were weekly markets and peddlers. The weekly market Möser regarded as a spoiler of morals because it took women out of the protected confines of the household and the supervision of their husbands. He argued against such markets on the grounds that they would draw women and children away from the “bourgeois tranquility” of the home and into the marketplace where they would chat and waste money on snacks and pleasantries, while ignoring their household duties. The peddler was worse still, bringing the temptations of market into the home itself: the peddler appeared at the peasant woman’s door and appealed directly to her, in the absence of the steadying presence of her spouse. Once again, the market was portrayed as the destroyer of custom and tradition.
By the time Möser got around to lamenting that new forms of capitalism were destroying traditional political institutions and cultural mores, such complaints were already old hat in the more developed nations of Great Britain and France, and these themes have been echoed with variations during the ten generations that separate his time from ours.
Since the eighteenth century there have been two broad arguments against capitalism: that it made people poor and that it made people rich. For most of the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century the first argument was dominant among the critics of the market economy. This argument has now declined, but we have seen a rebirth of the older theme, which condemns capitalism for making people richer—richer, that is, than the cultural critic knows they really ought to be.
Those whom we might call the “gloomers and doomers” have been telling us for over two hundred years that traditional values and institutions are under fatal assault, that all that gives life higher meaning is about to be drowned in a sea of consumption, of getting and spending, of hedonism, or of desire unleashed, and that society is disordered as a result. Society is always in a state of degeneracy according to one intellectual or another. “Society is today in a state of extreme moral disorder; egotism is making terrible progress, everything tends toward isolation,” wrote Saint-Simon early in the nineteenth century. According to Balzac, “The family no longer exists today; there are only individuals.” In 1858, Tocqueville wrote to Gobineau that “for the moment, people believe strongly in nothing, they hate nothing, and they hope for nothing except to profit at the stock exchange.” A century later, John Lukacs was echoing the old complaints, writing of “our interregnal condition of moral and cultural chaos.” More than a decade after that, the new regnum had still not arrived, and Lukacs was lamenting “the surfeit of affluence . . .the spoiled and corrupt state of our societies.” Like the poor, the prophets warning of cultural gloom and civic doom are always with us: sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, sometimes in indeterminate positions in between.
I don’t mean to mock or dismiss their claims, but only to bring to bear some historical perspective on the recurrence of jeremiad. Is it really plausible that society is always in a state of moral degeneracy, always in moral decline; that the valuable institutions of the past are always being destroyed, replaced by self-interest and hedonism; that the market is constantly destroying the bonds of religion, public life, and community; that the vulgarity of the newly rich, the squalor of the poor, the mindless, cloying quest for material improvement by the middle classes who want what they don’t need, have all reached unprecedented proportions?
To dismiss the warnings of the gloomers and doomers as old whine in new bottles, however, would be ill-advised. They are sometimes right, or at least half-right: but right in the same way as the stock market analyst who regularly warns that the stock market will collapse. Every so often he’s right, and then he can look back in satisfaction and claim that he was only premature in his timing. But just as following the advice of the stock-market Jeremiah means ignoring the strengths of the economy and losing the opportunity to profit from the market when he is wrong, so the cultural Jeremiah may cause us to overlook the continuing vitality of pre-capitalist and non-capitalist institutions in capitalist societies, leading us to forego opportunities for prudent cultural investment. Even those of us inclined by historical experience to be less gloomy than the pessimists about the prospects of cultural conservatism in a market economy may learn from them, if we take their complaints seriously but without accepting them at face value. Moral critics of the cultural failings of a liberal, capitalist society may have a beneficent effect, if by reminding us of the weaknesses of such societies they aid in repairing those weaknesses or in obviating the dangers inherent in them.
But before we pursue this line of thought, it is worth recalling the lamentable historical role of those moral diagnosticians whose radical critiques have helped to delegitimate past liberal-capitalist societies. Typically, these diagnosticians stress the cost of such societies without an awareness of their benefits; or they judge such societies wanting by measuring them against romanticized models from the past, while remaining so vague about future alternatives that it becomes impossible to weigh the costs and benefits of the existent against their proposed replacements. The danger to and from such critics is that their unbalanced assessment may attract them to a political cure worse than the disease itself. Here, again, we may profit from historical example.
Take the radical conservative critique of liberal, capitalist society. Radical conservatism shares many of the concerns of traditionalist conservatism, such as the need for institutional authority and continuity with the past, but maintains that the processes characteristic of modernity have destroyed the valuable legacy of the past for the present, and that a restoration of conservative values can only be achieved through radical state action. Radical conservatism is thus a revolt against existing liberal and capitalist institutions in the name of authority. It seeks to use state power to ensure that institutions will exert a far stronger hold on the individual than do existing ones, which are perceived by radical conservatives as “decayed.”
Political liberalism, according to radical conservatives, is fatally flawed because it fails to deal with man as a totality, as the product of a particular social group with a distinct cultural past. The inability of political liberalism to provide a sense of common, shared purpose, they claim, leaves the individual without a sense of higher purpose and threatens social integration, while the egoism of individuals or of economic interest groups displaces the preservation of shared culture as the goal of politics. Economic liberalism—the capitalist, market economy—in turn contributes to the destruction of a shared sense of common cultural purpose. For the logic of the capitalist quest for profit does not stop at the nation’s borders, but leads to the internationalization of technology and consumption and thus the destruction of the traditional culture of historical communities. The net result is to cut men off from their historical roots, to destroy any sense of common culture and collective purpose, leaving an “atomized” society populated by lonely and purposeless addicts of consumption. Such, in a nutshell, was the critique of liberal-democratic capitalist society purveyed by the most articulate intellectuals of the radical right in inter-war Europe. Redefine the purported source of community—by dropping or fudging the definition of national community as based upon a shared biological and cultural past—and you have the standard critique of liberal-democratic capitalism of contemporary communitarians of the left.
Dismayed by what they too regarded as the “interregnal” present (a.k.a. “critical epochs”), radical conservatives (like some of their counterparts on the anti-liberal and anti-capitalist left) were on the lookout for political movements and leaders who might inaugurate a new “organic” age of shared purpose, in which each individual would derive a sense of meaning and purpose through commitment to some shared political project. They hoped to use politics to make men more virtuous, through a leader and a movement willing to use state power to subordinate the economic and cultural realms to the collective purposes of the nation, conceived as the product of a purportedly shared past and common historical culture. It was this logic that led German radical conservatives to support Hitler and National Socialism, and led their counterparts elsewhere to the support of other fascist movements.
Many of the most perspicacious radical conservative intellectuals, incidentally, became disillusioned with the regimes to which they had looked for radical political solutions to the perceived ills of liberal capitalist democracy. Even before national self-assertion led to war and unparalleled terror, they discovered that the expansion of state power in the name of collective purpose led not to greater virtue or self-sacrifice, but to hypocrisy, new forms of individual and organizational egoism, and the violation of real, existing cultural allegiances in the name of purportedly shared values and national interests.
It is useful to recall the historical experience of the inter-war radical conservative critics of liberal capitalism. Errors of theory which have had disastrous effects on practice in the past may do so again in the future. Indeed, with the widely noted decline in the major ideological challenge to liberal capitalism from the left—the universalist and egalitarian ideology of Communism— the major international threat to liberal-democratic capitalist movements and regimes is likely to come from various species of radical conservatism. It is true that radical conservatism is likely to remain a marginal phenomenon in American intellectual and political life. But the conceptual errors of radical conservatism are relevant to some contemporary criticisms of liberal capitalism in America and abroad which maintain that such regimes necessarily destroy communities of blood, belief, or shared, non-material purpose and thereby undermine cultural conservatism.
One can hardly dispute the notion that capitalism erodes long-established and once-revered institutions and traditions: indeed, this has been one of the claims of analysts of capitalism who were well disposed toward it. Adam Smith, for example, described with irony and relish the way in which the spread of market relations undermined the political and juridical power of aristocracies lay and clerical, and he celebrated the decline in traditional social relations of direct dependence as one of the moral advantages of commercial society. More conservative critics of the spread of the market economy bemoaned the loss of a firm, fixed sense of “knowing one’s place” brought on by the spread of market relations. Above all, the expansion of wealth and technology brought about by capitalism leads to the diminution of those elements of tradition based upon absolute material scarcity.
All of this is hardly disputed. I do, however, want to cast doubt upon the claim of communitarian critics of capitalism old and new, according to whom the dissolution by the forces of liberal capitalism of a society based on traditional hierarchy, hereditary status, and common nominal faith enforced by the state leads to rootless, atomized individuals motivated by hedonism and manipulated by advertising. Such has been the recurrent idiom of political communitarians left and right, who conclude that the only solution is a political philosophy or civic religion based upon restoration of a sense of community.
Both this description of liberal-democratic capitalist societies and the normative prescriptions that flow from it rest upon recurrent conceptual confusions.
Such societies are not communities in almost any sense of the word. Their citizens rarely share a particular religious faith or other common ultimate commitments, and they are often unrelated by blood or by a shared past. (Though sometimes religious faith, history, and even language are redefined to make what was once perceived as disparate appear common and shared.) Models of political life drawn from idealized versions of the ancient Greek polis, covenants between the ancient Hebrews and their God, medieval Christian political theology, pre-modern Germanic villages, New England theocratic towns, or Jeffersonian-tinged echoes of a republic of small property-owners are of rather limited utility in describing American society or prescribing its goals. One might think that by now this would be taken for granted, yet a remarkable amount of contemporary academic political philosophy and political rhetoric is based upon repressing this most basic fact of social life.
But if contemporary capitalist societies are not communities of purpose in any of these historical senses, neither are they mere conglomerations of atomized self-interested individuals, as some libertarian champions and communitarian critics of contemporary capitalism seem to imagine. Rather, they are made up of multiple communities, few of them all-encompassing in the manner of communities past, and on the whole more voluntary than older forms of community. These include associations created by common market interests as well as communities of shared descent, shared belief, or shared commitment based upon pre-market, non-market, and anti-market values. It is the latter sorts of communities which cultural conservatives are likely to champion. The theme that the existence of such communities is a necessary prerequisite for the stability of liberal societies—or more radically, that it is mainly in such communities that individuals in a market society acquire a sense of ongoing identity—has been offered with variations by thinkers as diverse as Adam Smith, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Hayek.
A frequent error among cultural conservatives, however, stems from a certain absence of historical imagination. It is the failure to recognize that some of the institutions they seek to preserve have themselves been altered and adapted over time, that the shape and functions of the family, for example, have changed with conditions and are amenable to considerable alteration without losing their purpose. While the notion that gender roles are entirely social constructions from which we may depart with impunity is rightly objected to by conservatives who call attention to what they regard as anthropological constants, some conservatives underestimate the flexibility with which enduring social needs can be met. The image of parental roles, for example, in which nurturing is limited to the mother and the world of work confined to the father is itself a historical rarity, and modifications of this model are not necessarily a mark of decline, as some cultural conservatives imagine. Similarly, the church and synagogue have survived by changing, by adapting their visions and roles to historical circumstances. The propensity to freeze the image of the institutions it seeks to conserve may be counter-productive to cultural conservatism.
Yet if they are not intrinsically antipathetic to the traditional forms of community so valued by cultural conservatives, liberal polities and capitalist economies do influence which aspects of a cultural tradition will survive. The so-called “Calvinist ethic,” for example— which was not part of early Calvinism, and which we know is hardly confined to Calvinists—may have come to the fore within Calvinism precisely because of its compatibility with the emerging market economy. And it is worth recalling how much of what is now regarded as “traditional” and in need of conservation is a product of capitalism and the bourgeois traditions upon which it has depended and which it has helped reinforce, such as the emphasis on the virtue of deferred gratification or the orientation toward control of one’s environment.
Capitalism may also contribute to the recasting of older traditions by allowing for the co-existence of diverse cultural communities. The loosening of plausibility structures which this brings about creates greater pressure within each community to subject its assumptions to critical examination. While this process is abhorred by some cultural conservatives, it may result not in the dissolution but in the reconceptualization and even purification of cultural traditions.
Thus it is quite wrong to suppose that what existing communities are trying to conserve is unitary or uniform. Rather, multiple communities seek to conserve different visions of the good or virtuous life. This is often ignored by communitarians, and forgotten by some cultural conservatives. In so doing, they overlook the link between political liberalism, economic liberalism, and cultural conservatism.
It was the premise and promise of modern political liberalism that communities of men and women with radically divergent ultimate commitments could co-exist and even prosper in the same polity. The price of this was a narrowing, indeed a limitation, of the political realm. A good definition of classical political liberalism is the one used by the contemporary German political philosopher, Hermann Lubbe. Political liberalism, he writes, is “the institutionally established non-identity of individual interest with collective interest. The logic of its institutions limits the claims of the collectivity to necessities; it therefore preserves the separation of the private and public spheres. The experience of unrestricted solidarity remains particular, primarily familial, and the experience of universal fraternity on the basis of collective interests remains narrow.”
That those of differing ultimate commitments can cooperate and co-exist without a broad shared consensus about the meaning of life is also the promise of economic liberalism.
By economic liberalism I mean the principled disposition to favor market mechanisms of allocation and exchange, based on the pursuit of self-interest in the economic realm; together with a propensity toward skepticism regarding the role of government in economic life, not out of the libertarian belief that government is intrinsically evil, but rather from the perception that government is frequently inefficient in performing large-scale tasks of economic coordination and from the observation that government measures ostensibly taken for the public interest often disguise the pursuit of particular interests by public means. I do not mean a principled antipathy to the role of government or to the tax revenues that allow it to fulfill its proper roles. On the contrary, at least since Adam Smith it has been recognized that the more a society advances economically (in terms of the expansion and intensification of market relations and of the division of labor) the greater the absolute need for government expenditure: for defense, infrastructure, law, education, and for projects required by the collectivity but not profitable to individuals.
The arguments for political liberalism (in the European sense, or what is now sometimes called “classical liberalism”) and for economic liberalism were frequently linked. Though there have been frequent attempts to unlink them conceptually, the lesson of modern history would seem to be that one cannot have a liberal polity and a thriving civil society without a large measure of economic liberalism.
It is too often forgotten today that political liberalism developed out of motives that were essentially conservative. Liberal theorists of early modern Europe sought to formulate a theory of the state that would allow for the conservation of multiple, existing traditions. In so doing, they were forced to discard much of classical republican and Christian political theory, both of which conceived of the state as the preserver of a single, shared vision of the good life (though of course these earlier traditions differed in their conceptions of the good life). The hot and cold wars of religion that marked the early modern period were the turning point on the road to political liberalism, for as men judged that the cost of imposing a unified vision of the common good was too high, they sought to define a more restricted core of politically imposed obligations upon which men of differing ultimate commitments might agree, and hence live together without murdering or otherwise oppressing one another in the name of salvation.
If political liberalism considered people primarily as bearers of rights, it was because its focus was on the limits of what government could legitimately demand, not because political liberals believed that people were only or primarily bearers of rights. Liberalism began as a philosophy of politics, not of humanity in its entirety. Yet those who today define themselves as “liberals” too often confuse liberalism as a theory of politics with liberalism as a theory of life; they confuse political liberalism with an ideology of cultural liberalism which regards liberty primarily as freedom from the past and from institutions and the conventions that maintain them. Cultural liberals of this sort make non-conformity into a virtue. They are loathe to articulate any judgment on the moral worth of cultural practices for fear of appearing intolerant, unprogressive, or illiberal. When understood in this sense, liberalism becomes a kind of moral laissez-fairism in which each individual is encouraged to do as he or she likes so long as it does not directly injure another (or even to injure another, if the other likes being injured.)
A wiser strand of liberalism, one that goes back at least as far as Smith and Madison and forward to thinkers such as Hayek, regards political liberty as possible only when there is a considerable degree of voluntary acceptance of existing norms and institutions. As Gertrude Himmelfarb writes in the conclusion of On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, her profound inquiry into the transformation of political liberalism into cultural liberalism, “Liberals have learned, at fearful cost, the lesson that absolute power corrupts absolutely. They have yet to learn that absolute liberty may also corrupt absolutely. . .A people that cannot respect the principles of prudence and moderation is bound to behave so imprudently and immoderately as to violate every other principle, including the principle of liberty.”
This conservative brand of political liberalism (to which I am clearly partial) welcomes the pluralism provided by political liberty precisely because it allows those with a diversity of identities informed by historical traditions to live together in relative peace. It holds that cultural conservatism, political liberalism, and economic liberalism are, on the whole, compatible—full of possible tensions, to be sure, but not necessary contradictions.
The many thinkers who have asserted that there is a necessary link between political liberty, a market economy, and cultural conservatism have typically focused on the role of what the Scottish Enlightenment called “manners,” or what Tocqueville called “mores” or “habits of the heart:” on moral norms of autonomy, responsibility, and self-restraint transmitted primarily in the private sphere, above all in the family and other intimate associations. They have insisted that these virtues upon which a market economy and liberal polity depend are inculcated within institutions based upon affection and commitment and hence fundamentally different from contractual, market relations.
Some contemporary conservatives suffer from a confusion of realms when they forget that manners and mores may be matters of the greatest moral and political concern without necessarily being matters of government coercion. This quick resort to the law may be comforting to cultural conservatives justifiably concerned with our mores. But in a liberal polity, most questions of morality will (and should) necessarily remain beyond the sphere of the state, not because they are unimportant, but precisely because they are of great importance. That leaves two not insignificant spheres for the propagation of cultural conservatism: the market of ideas which we call the cultural realm, and the market for consumer goods.
Yet it is here that some critics of contemporary capitalism believe they have found its Achilles heel. They argue that liberal-capitalist democracy is in decline precisely because the capitalist market must constantly arouse new needs and desires in order to create new demand. The culture of consumption, they argue, destroys the norms of restraint traditionally championed by conservatives, and the spread of the consumerist mentality beyond the realm of consumer goods leads to a declining sense of commitment and stability in those intimate spheres where the mores of autonomy and self-restraint were once cultivated. Christopher Lasch is perhaps the most articulate contemporary American expositor of this line of analysis, which is a variation on what Albert Hirschman calls the “self-destruction thesis,” the notion that capitalism undermines the moral foundations on which any society, including its own, must rest.
Are these critics right?
Given that such claims have been made for so long, one ought to take them with a grain of salt. Of the argument “that capitalism has the knack of doing away with all in its ‘legacy’ that is good and functional,” Hirschman asks, “Is it conceivable that any historical formation would have such an unerring, schlemiel-like instinct for going wrong?” “Highly unlikely,” one is prompted to answer, especially given the increasing evidence that in the battle of historical forms, capitalism is heating the competition.
Cultural critics from Vance Packard and Herbert Marcuse through Christopher Lasch and Barbara Ehrenreich have tended to focus on advertising with its increasingly hedonistic appeals, accepting at face value the claims of those who create such advertising that its message is internalized by most consumers. Yet social scientists who have tried to submit such claims to empirical tests (such as the sociologist Michael Schudson, in his Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion) have found that most consumers are highly skeptical of advertising messages because “advertising is propaganda and everybody knows it” and that advertising is generally ineffective in persuading consumers to buy new or unwanted goods. The recently published Wall Street Journal Centennial Study similarly indicated that the correlation between advertising and consumer choice is weak for most consumers.
While impressionistic cultural critics of “consumer capitalism” overrate the role of advertising and of the market for consumption goods as active forces in the transformation of cultural values, they under-state the extent to which the market for consumer goods follows cultural values, not least values connected to institutions that foster conservative manners, mores, or habits of the heart. One would hardly know from these critics the extent to which consumption remains centered on the family and its well-being, or the degree to which new consumer goods can contribute to family life (a theme recently explored in the iconoclastic book by Ferdinand Mount, The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage). That the largest chunk of consumer spending is on housing, motivated primarily by the desire to provide space and decent schools for sons and daughters; that microwave ovens (among the most successful consumer goods of the last decade) are purchased because they allow couples to spend less time cooking and more time with each other and with their offspring; that video cameras are valued primarily in order to document and preserve the progress of growing children—these are facts that one would hardly imagine from the lamentations of those who regard consumerism as the antithesis of cultural conservatism.
Similarly, critics who focus on the cultural costs of economic development tend to overlook its cultural benefits. The criticism of the modern large-scale bureaucratic corporation as fostering a culture of work antipathetic to family life may be exaggerated, but it is not without foundation. Yet in this regard, too, the development of new technology by the market economy may actually enhance family life. For new forms of technology (home computers and facsimile machines linked by telephone wires, for example) may allow for a decentralization of work, hence reversing the century-long trend toward a separation of residence and place of work. The recrudescence of high-tech cottage industry ought to be welcomed by cultural conservatives.
The major fault in the argument of those who insist that there is a contradiction between capitalism and cultural conservatism, however, is the failure to engage in serious comparisons between capitalism and non-capitalist alternatives, a necessity if one is to distinguish the effects of capitalism from concurrent trends such as urbanization, the division of labor, and technological changes—all of which occur in modern non-capitalist economies as well. The notion that the market economy is more antipathetic to cultural conservatism than are alternative modern forms of economic organization is often assumed, but never argued systematically or demonstrated empirically.
Yet even if they reject Lasch’s claim that cultural conservatism and capitalism are necessarily incompatible, culturally conservative liberals ought to be alarmed by the delegitimation of non-egoistic activities in the private, familial realm to which Lasch calls our attention. Often this has its source outside the market: in the culture of therapy, in some strands of contemporary feminism, in the unbridled self-assertion of those who have been taught that all cultural standards are arbitrary products of past structures of power, as well as in the individualistic hedonism of “the Playboy philosophy” to which Ehrenreich and Lasch have pointed.
One need not believe that the market is the prime mover in this process to agree that some of what is purveyed by our mass media and paid for by profit-seeking corporations through advertising revenue is profoundly antipathetic to cultural conservatism, and that its effects are exacerbated by the extent of its diffusion. Yet even here I suspect that the market is a two-edged cultural sword, and that the same quest for profit which leads some corporations to subvert culturally conservative values can be used to reinforce them. I have in mind the ultimate weapon of the consumer—the power of the purse, in the form of the consumer boycott of stores which market pornography and of advertisers who sponsor violence and sexual degradation on television. Cultural conservatives ought to consider the greater use of such market mechanisms to correct the potentially deleterious cultural effects of the profit-oriented mass media. To be sure, they will be denounced as violators of the First Amendment rights of producers and directors by those cultural liberals who forget that the First Amendment applies only to government. But this strategy in no way conflicts with “political liberalism properly understood” (to adapt a formulation from Tocqueville), and it is surely not beyond the means of cultural conservatives to develop a thick skin against the verbal slings and arrows of those whose understanding of liberalism is less informed than theirs.
In short, then, political liberalism, the market economy, and cultural conservatism, while in potential and even necessary tension with one another, are capable of being mutually reinforcing. If, as I have argued, the consumer market reflects cultural values more than it shapes them, then the cultural defense of institutions based upon relations of intense affection and lasting commitment that differ fundamentally from the liberty offered by the polity and the market takes on added significance. For it is in such sub-political and sub-economic institutions that “character” is formed: an important truth, and hardly a new one (but then few new truths are important).
Institutions in which characteristics of restraint, altruism, and moral autonomy are cultivated are in need of public defense, not (as some conservatives imagine) primarily in the political realm, where the stakes are the use of governmental force, but in the public sphere of cultural and educational institutions. The proper role of cultural conservatism so conceived is to proclaim—or better yet, to explain—that some institutions really are better than others. Some will proclaim on the basis of faith, maintaining that conservative morals conform to divine will; others may argue on the philosophical grounds of natural law. Or, like many of the masters of social science, they may attempt to weigh the costs and benefits of historical institutions, to discover not only why some institutions may be in need of reform or replacement, but also why certain traditional institutions are irreplaceable. What we should learn from the Jeremiahs of anti-capitalist doom and gloom is not to repent of economic liberalism, but to mind our manners and morals.
Jerry Z. Muller, Associate Professor of History at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C, is the author of The Other God that Failed: Hans Freyer and the Deradicalization of German Conservatism. He is at work on a book on capitalism in modern European thought.
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