Whereas the neoconservative, a species of liberal, embraces market capitalism in its liberal formulation and on a global scale, the Tory, the classical conservative who upholds royal and ecclesiastical authority as established by prescription with a calling to work together for the common good, accepts business and commerce in their market setting as human goods, but insists that these, like human freedom in general, are made possible by the context of the social and civil order, especially in a cultural atmosphere informed by the classical and Christian tradition. The Tory recognizes what Dr. Thomas Fleming calls “the one essential insight of free-market economics” which is “that human beings are more efficient at providing for their own needs than any set of other people could possibly be, no matter how enlightened.” (1) He also recognizes that liberalism has a tendency to make an idol out of the market, thus making for man a master out of what is properly his servant, and that when men begin to serve the market rather than the other way around – when they make decisions, for example, based upon what is “good for the market” – that the market then begins to undermine and erode, the social, civil, moral, and cultural, context that it requires in order to be a force for human good.
In the nineteenth century a rival to liberal capitalism arose in the form of socialism and the rivalry between the two systems soon came to so dominate the field of economics that one could hardly express an economic thought except in terms of either capitalism or socialism. If the Tory’s attitude towards market capitalism is one of a heavily qualified acceptance, his attitude towards socialism is that of a lightly qualified rejection.
Socialism was born in response to the changes wrought and economic conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution. While some might see this as suggesting an affinity between the socialist and the Tory, who sees industrialism as being at best a mixed-blessing, there is far greater affinity between the socialist and the liberal. The Tory wistfully weighs what we have gained through industrialism against what we have lost, whereas the socialist, a progressive like the liberal, looks only forward to an industrialism organized according to his ideals rather than those of the liberal.
The ideal that historically defined socialism, was that of the communal or societal, collective ownership of productive property – farms, mines, factories, etc. Early forms of socialism envisioned this on a small scale, in the communes proposed by Robert Owen, and the workers-association ownership of factories advocated by the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels envisioned it on a much larger scale, that of the national society and eventually the world.
This was not the first time this ideal had been raised. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors engage in the thought experiment of devising an ideal city and collective ownership is proposed for the governors and guardians of the city. Closer in time to the actual rise of socialism, Thomas More depicted a fictional island society that practiced communal ownership and other absurdities, to which he gave the name Utopia, meaning "no place".
It is an ideal upon which history has passed severe judgement. Communal ownership has been tried on numerous occasions. The only times it has worked have been when practiced by a small community, such as a Hutterite colony, within a larger society in which private ownership is the norm. Otherwise it has generally been practiced for a short time then abandoned when the experiment proved a failure, as was the case with the Puritan colony at Plymouth Rock in the 1620s. When attempted on the scale of a large national society, the results have been universally disastrous, as the record of Communism in the twentieth century bears out.
The Tory accepts history’s judgement on the results of the socialist ideal but looks deeper and weighs its assumptions as well. The obvious assumption underlying the ideal of communal ownership, is that private ownership by individuals or families is unjust. This was explicitly stated by the early socialists, most notably by Proudhon who famously declared “Property is theft!” The condemnation of private ownership is, of course, the very basis of Marxism, which quickly beat out its rivals to become the most influential of socialist theories. Marx taught that private ownership generates misery, by dividing men into unequal classes of “haves” and “have nots”, the former of which oppress the latter who must sell their labour to live.
The Tory has no sympathy with this perspective. Injustice and misery, he says, are not due to private ownership of property, nor can they be eliminated through communal ownership, for the same reason – they are part of the human condition - and while we obviously have a duty to ameliorate that condition to the best of our limited ability, such amelioration is to be sought through the traditional institutions of the social and civil order. The Tory is inclined to explain this in terms of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin (2) – that man presently lives in exile from Paradise which he cannot regain through his own efforts, an exile in which sin and its consequences are always present – whether he accepts the doctrine literally or only figuratively.
This was the basis of Canadian Tory Stephen Leacock’s arguments against socialism. Leacock, while mostly remembered as a humourist, was a trained economist who taught political economy at McGill University for almost four decades. A stern critic of the liberal doctrine of laissez-faire, in his “The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice”, (3) he rejected socialism as an acceptable alternative, declaring that “the attempt to establish it would hurl us over the abyss” and that “the frying pan is at least better than the fire.” He explains this judgement by the fact that socialism would require managers and workers alike to be angels rather than humans as they are, for placing complete control over the distribution of consumption goods in the hands of government managers can only lead to corruption on a much larger scale than already exists, and divorcing the workers’ share of that distribution from the concept of an exchange for labour can lead only to idleness, a problem which in turn can only be solved by force, leading to the conclusion that “socialism, in other words, is slavery.”
The Tory, in affirming that private ownership is not an injustice but a good that is essential to the social and civil order, accepts the wisdom of the ages represented in the classical and Christian traditions. At the same time Plato was speculating about collective ownership in The Republic, Aristophanes was demonstrating the absurdity of the idea in his play The Assemblywomen. In the Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament contain two that protect property (4), and the Book of Acts, even in its description of the voluntary communal ownership of the early days of the Church in Jerusalem, places an affirmation of the rights of private ownership in the mouth of St. Peter as he condemns Ananias and Sapphira. (5)
Socialists and their sympathizers like to accuse businessmen of greed and to say that capitalism is driven by greed. Greed, in Christian moral theology, is Avarice, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. There is nothing inherently avaricious about business, or the market economy that facilitates it, however. The appetite for material acquisition is not itself Avarice, any more than the appetite for sex is Lust, or the appetite for food is Gluttony. These appetites are natural to mankind and humanity could not get along without them. They become their respective vices when taken to excess. The most that can be said against the market economy is that it contains no internal brakes on the appetite for acquisition to prevent it from becoming Avarice. These must be supplied by the cultural and moral traditions that the Tory sees as providing the necessary context for the market.
Lust, Gluttony, and Avarice are the three least of the Seven Deadly Sins, in the traditional ranking that we find in Dante’s Inferno and Purgatario. Far higher in that ranking is Invidia, or Envy, which is second only to Superbia, or Pride, with which it is associated. This is the sin of looking at those who have what you have not, and hating them for it, wishing to take it from them and ruin them, whether it benefits you or not. Envy is the very heart and soul and life-blood of socialism.
Even this, however, does not fully capture the Tory’s indictment of socialism, for it is not just that it embodies the second worst of the cardinal vices while accusing its rival of a lesser vice, and not entirely justly at that. In socialism, Envy hides its face behind the mask of Charity, the greatest of the Christian virtues, albeit in the debased contemporary sense of the word. Fortunately the mask frequently slips, and Envy can be recognized for what it is in the hate-filled rhetoric the socialist directs against business and businessmen.
This, then, is why the Tory must reject and condemn socialism, qualifying his rejection only by making it clear that we must not make the mistake of throwing out true charity and compassion, merely because socialism hides its envious face behind masks made in their image.
(1) Thomas Fleming, The Morality of Everyday Life (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), pp. 18-19. Fleming observes that this insight is not new with Adam Smith, but was noticed by Aristotle in ancient times.
(2) Anthony Burgess, in the second volume of his memoirs, explains that his being a “kind of Jacobite Tory, like John Dryden and Samuel Johnson” was due to the fact that “socialism was positivist and denied original sin.” You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1990), p. 140.
(3) Stephen Leacock, “The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice”, which can be found, among other places, in Alan Bowker, ed., The Social Criticism of Stephen Leacock, (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1973), pp. 71-145.
(4) Three if we go by the Roman Catholic way of numbering the commandments.
(5) Acts 5:4.