The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Tory and Socialism

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.


  1. I would say that a lot of old-fashioned socialists were motivated by Justice and not Envy.
    Given that man needs property to be fully a man and a just society has distributed property, then the actual situation of masses of property-less men and grave inequities in property may justly drive men to honest indignation. However, the socialists' cure was worse than the disease.

    "Socialists and their sympathizers like to accuse businessmen of greed and to say that capitalism is driven by greed"
    Are they wrong? Why else does a multimillionaire labor to get even richer?

    "There is nothing inherently avaricious about business, "
    Well it is precisely what the ancient traditions held --both pagan and Christian, that there is a certain baseness in commerce. For the pagans, a virtuous act is aimed at the good of the City. The businessman aims at his personal good and thus his acts are tainted even though the City is benefited as a side-effect.

    1. It is socialism the idea that I see as reducing to Envy. I was not intending to pass judgement on the motives of socialists themselves. Men can be better or worse than the creeds they profess.

      Regarding the socialist accusing the businessman of greed, I would say that he is often correct, perhaps even most of the time, but to say that he is always correct is something I cannot agree with. To equate Avarice or greed with the desire to acquire in itself is to mistake the fundamental nature of sin and vice. Nor can the difference be simplistically reduced to defining a level of acquisition as "enough" and anything beyond that as greed. The person in the breadline, who attempts to hoard all the best bread for himself and leave none for those behind him, is acting with Avarice even though he may have next to nothing. A multimillionaire, who does not just shut his factory down and close up shop when he has more than he can ever need or want, but continues to run his business, continuing to make a profit in doing so, because it would be irresponsible to put his workers out of work, is not acting with Avarice.

      My point is that the connection between Envy - the greater of the two vices - and socialism is much more intrinsic than that between Avarice and capitalism. Socialism being the worst of the two, one of the strongest accusations that can be made against liberal capitalism from a Tory perspective is that it opens the door to socialism. I've said on a number of occasions that it is an error to think of capitalism and socialism as polar opposites - they are more like two sides to a single coin.

    2. "A multimillionaire continues to run his business, because it would be irresponsible to put his workers out of work, is not acting with Avarice."

      I agree but he DOES act with Avarice when his intention is to accumulate more money.

  2. The idea that market exchanges presuppose a society along with its customs, laws etc -the ensemble that I call the State-is supported by a simple argument.

    By natural law and also by conventional economic theory, a man acquires "ownership" of an unowned thing by mixing his labor with it. But this does not tell us how much labor is required to be mixed with which things. The argument is general but ownership question requires more precision. This precision is provided by the State i.e. a society equipped with customs and laws. That is, the ownership question can not be settled outside some State. There is no owning things in a state of nature.

    Neglect of this point leads libertarian economists to engage in puzzles i.e homesteading of air around a person etc.

    It is very curious that the economists have rather neglected the fundamental questions of ownership. The precise nature of property relation escapes them. I believe even Mises held that the initial acquisition of property is often unjust.

    1. Unfortunately, the field of economics has largely been left to people whose basic philosophy would prevent them from recognizing that point. Liberalism, postulates that a) man's natural state is pre-societal and b) that property ownership has its beginnings in this pre-societal state. John Locke's arguments about a man owning at least his own person are one form this view takes. Liberals have predominated in economics and such assumptions largely blind them to the truth of what you have argued. Marxists have a different set of assumptions, but ones no less hostile to the idea of legitimate ownership being made possible by society and state.

  3. Socialism is an inorganic coup by heteronomy which extends its influence far outside of acceptable boundaries. Socialism begins from the premise of taking from the people variably to give back to the people invariably.

    Under autocracy, this is problematic because there is no recourse for the people included in the proposition to have any check on the invariable nature of distribution, nor the resource's efficient distribution.

    Under democracy, this is problematic for it destroys the statesman, enslaving him to an ever more entitled and hungry populace who, if unsatisfied with the gifts that their representative claws out for them, will destroy his backing and find someone with greater treasury pillaging abilities.

    The sovereign government has few responsibilities. One is the maintenance of a standing army, which defends people from obvious hostile outsiders as well as internal disorder. Another is maintenance of the nation, protecting and repairing its infrastructure. Among a few other responsibilities, this is the duty of the sovereign. In payment for his own work, he may tax for grandiosities which in turn improve the overall grandiosity of the nation, i.e monuments and palaces.

    When the sovereign begins to concern himself with making sure everyone has enough money to live comfortably, this is horribly problematic, and a sign of utter degeneration, especially as this help comes from the most impersonal and often faceless of authorities. Society does not survive such a fatal imbalance for long.

    The duty to care for the poor is not the sovereigns, at least not in his station as sovereign. It is the responsibility of individuals adhering to Christian concepts of virtue, and of course the charitable goodness of the priestly caste. A town pitches in to repair the damaged roof of a pauper. The church provides monastic education and shelter for abandoned children. And on and on.

    The improvement of the souls of men is so often left out whenever socialism is discussed. I'd say, with populations as depraved, cynical, greedy, and ruthless as the West, it is no wonder they need socialism. Socialism is an IV drip for a skeleton of society.

    1. Mr. Citadel,

      For the sake of this series of essays I have divided the subject of socialism proper – collective ownership – from social legislation, which I will be addressing in the next essay in the series. In the last century, of course, socialism, except in the Iron Curtain countries, largely abandoned its original ideal to concentrate on heavy social legislation in the form we usually call the welfare state, although it is better described in Hilaire Belloc’s terms as “the servile state” or Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s as “the provider state.” In terms of the ideology, this shift in socialist thinking could be described as a shift away from communism to social democracy, the latter being designed to work within the framework of an otherwise liberal, capitalist, democracy. It is arguably even more pernicious than the communist-socialism I described in the essay above, for it has retained socialism’s essence of Envy cloaked as Charity, while abandoning everything that made socialism impractical and inefficient in its communist form.

      From one perspective, this could be regarded as liberal capitalism’s triumph over socialism, for socialism has had to acknowledge the greater efficiency of capitalism and adjust itself to include a market economy.

      A more complete picture, however, must also take into account the fact that liberal capitalism has also adopted elements of socialism – almost all of the proposals made by Marx and Engels in the second chapter of the Communist Manifesto at that. The mutual colonization of capitalism and socialism is the true economic history of the 20th century, one that James Burnham foresaw in the early 1940s, and Belloc even earlier.

    2. Much social legislation was introduced by the Tories for the purpose of combatting socialism. Examples of this include the unemployment insurance and old age security programs introduced by Benjamin Disraeli in Victorian era England, Otto von Bismarck in Prussia and the unified Germany at about the same time, and R. B. Bennett in Canada in the middle of the Depression. The theory behind this move was that the industrial capitalism of Manchester-style liberalism had so divided the rich and the poor that they were essentially two nations (Disraeli’s novel Sybil was written to illustrate this point) and that the Tories needed to promote policies that would integrate them into “one nation” in which the poor and working class would find it to their interests, as much as those of the middle and upper classes, to support the traditional institutions of church and state.

      There was something to be said both for and against the idea. On the one hand, there was definitely precedent in the pre-modern order for public provision for the poor, and the concept of noblesse oblige is time-honoured. On the other hand, noblesse oblige applied to large landowners and governed their relationship with their tenants, which in pre-liberal times was thought of in organic rather than contractual terms. It is a worthy principle, but to work in the present situation requires translation, something that perhaps should have been taken more into consideration by the Tory pioneers of social legislation. The church, as you pointed out, was the institution most responsible for relief of the poor, and one of the greatest evils of the provider state, is that it prevents the church from resuming its medieval role at the heart of the community, by acting as a substitute – and for many other social institutions and relationships as well.

      Much of this I will be discussing in my next essay, so perhaps I shouldn’t anticipate myself further here. The difficulty is in knowing where to draw the line between social legislation that is rendered essential by the conditions of the times – what Anthony Burgess called “minimal socialization” – and that which becomes the society-eroding provider state. One point that seems clear is that if you are going to introduce social legislation, you should not extend the voting franchise to those who are to benefit the most from it, which was the biggest flaw in Disraeli’s vision of “one nation”, which was otherwise an attempt, sound in theory, to re-create the coalition of country squire, church, and peasant class that had supported King Charles I, while securing the country against socialism, so as not to alienate the capitalist classes.

    3. Indeed, the Modern left's cries of capitalism's dominance, and the Modern right's cries of communist infiltration are one-dimensional. The fact is there has been massive cross-polination between the two systems, unsurprising as both are bifurcations of the same strain, that sees capital at the heart of the nation. Socialism and Socialism have actually learned to become almost symbiotic. They make up for each other's shortfalls in the Modern context, but this cannot last forever.

      "is that it prevents the church from resuming its medieval role at the heart of the community, by acting as a substitute – and for many other social institutions and relationships as well."

      Important to note however is like I said, this is totally faceless. While the Church as a provider brought community's together, the government as provider does not and its attempts are almost laughable. This kind of 'help' only furthers alienation and atomization in society.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. >> capitalism and socialism as polar opposites - they are more like two sides to a single coin. <<

    I think they are two entirely different phenomena.

    Capitalism is a rational approach to creating and maintaining an economy premised on self interest (and mastery of many technical, legal, and management issues) whereas socialism started off with an absurd idea that need could be a rational principle by which to allocate resources and that the state could and would extract resources to distribute fairly, with restraint, and without any "improper" diversion of resources into the hands of the helpful, altruistic accountants and administrators. Reality v. fantasy.

    The former relied on self interest to be the engine of production and creation; the latter on envy to effect not production and creation but to empower a new aristocracy. Production v. control.

    Some commenters above focus on whether a businessman's attainment of some kind of acceptable level of acquisition is the signal for him to hold what he's got and expand no more. Or whether he is "greedy" by acquiring more and more.

    This ignores completely the well-known phenomenon of wealthy individuals having some noblesse oblige and endowing university chairs, contributing to the arts, supporting political goals deemed worthy to them, contributing to construction of hospitals, organizing relief projects, etc. George Soros, detestable though he is, nonetheless sprinkles a great deal of his wealth on matters he thinks are of social value though I may believe him to be interested in destruction of our civilization rather than its improvement. Lots of rich people do that though it's the rare one that strikes me as actually doing any good. Rare is the rich person who funds other than deranged open borders efforts.