What's the greatest challenge facing American conservatives today? Liberalism? Don't I wish. That would be relatively easy to defeat. No, it's capitalism.
You read that right. Conservatives have to come to terms with the fact that capitalism, in its current form, undermines not only the virtues necessary to the kind of society conservatives claim to want, but ultimately risks subverting itself.
Capitalism is an ingenious system for increasing material prosperity. It succeeded historically because the free market is the most rational device for meeting human wants and needs. It also thrived because it rewarded creativity and industriousness, and encouraged both qualities. And the most prosperous people under capitalism tended to be those who understood the value of self-denial and delayed gratification.
Today, however, capitalism is defined not by a producer mentality but by a consumer ethos. The prosperity we see is in some respects a mirage, purchased with a credit card. According to U.S. government statistics, the personal savings rate recently dipped into negative territory for the first time since 1933. Consumers are buying more and more stuff we can't afford. When bills come due, the whole pyramid scheme stands to collapse.
Our consumerist economy depends on people's inability to discipline their consumption. The best consumer sees no reason why he shouldn't have what he wants, right now. The best consumer, in other words, exists in a perpetual state of childishness.
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In his new book, "Consumed", political scientist Benjamin Barber writes that ours is the first society that acts as if its survival depends on keeping maturity which involves learning to master one's impulses at bay. There is little in American political, religious, social or economic life that prizes restraint and sacrifice for a higher purpose.
"This strategy makes good commercial sense," writes Mr. Barber, because of the market's need "to sell unnecessary goods to people whose adult judgment and tastes are obstacles."
Better yet for capitalists, cultivate a market among people who have no adult judgment and taste to overcome: children themselves. James McNeal, a Texas A&M marketing professor, has written: "Brand marketing must begin with children. Even if a child does not buy the product and will not for many years ... the marketing must begin in childhood."
Mr. McNeal's perverse ideas are the enemy of the family. If marketers train children to think of themselves chiefly in terms of consumer wants, they are teaching them to be faithful not to what their parents teach them but to their individual desires prisoners of their own cravings.
So what? Shopping isn't bad in principle, and besides, if people want to behave as shopaholics, it's a free country, right? Of course. But as Mr. Barber warns, private choices have public consequences. If the credit bubble bursts, it's going to take down the good with the bad, the prudent with the spendthrift. More profoundly, adopting the consumerist mentality which defines liberty only as individual choice, without respect to what is chosen makes it difficult to inculcate a sense of obligation to any traditions or ideals higher than serving the autonomous self and its desires.
Democracy requires virtue. So does a healthy capitalism. A nation that cannot govern its own appetites will, in time, be unable to govern itself. An economy that divorces economic activity from the restraining virtues that make for good stewardship will implode.
We conservatives wail over the late, unlamented Republican Congress' deficit spending. Yet the truth is that any politician who told voters to do more with less that is, to conserve for the sake of a higher good would be punished at the polls.
President Bush is often derided for having responded to the Sept. 11 attacks by urging the American people to go shopping. But he faithfully represents the ignoble spirit of the consumer capitalist age, in which the public demands, in Mr. Barber's telling, "war without conscription, idealism without taxation, morality without sacrifice."
Socialism is not the answer. But we can't pretend that our prosperity does not present us with serious civic problems. Consumer capitalism contains within its unfolding dynamic the seeds of its own destruction, to say nothing of the way it chews up traditional loyalties to faith, family, community and place.
We don't talk about this much in American politics, especially not on the right, where we've been supposedly waging a culture war for the traditional values cause for some time now. But we're starting to: The American Conservative, which excerpted Mr. Barber's book as a recent cover story, is fast becoming the most interesting political magazine on the right because it recognizes a simple but radical truth: When it comes to defending the things traditional conservatives cherish, big business is as much a threat as big government.