Morality, Prosperity

Despite what some politicians say, a free-market economy requires a moral culture

By Gene Edward Veith

To hear one of liberalism's most gifted writers tell it, today's cultural conservatives are at war with Reaganism; they are not even real conservatives. They are more interested in morality than the free market, argues Andrew Sullivan in The New York Times Magazine. Ronald Reagan wanted to get government off people's backs; the Christian right would be glad to have the government interfere in a woman's right to have an abortion. Ronald Reagan believed in the free market; cultural conservatives want to restrict trade with China just because of their human-rights violations. Ronald Reagan trusted the good sense of the American people and projected a spirit of optimism; Christian conservatives are bemoaning how the masses still like Bill Clinton and are full of doom and gloom about American culture.

Cultural conservatives, says Mr. Sullivan, in their moral idealism and meddlesome ways, are more like old-fashioned liberals.

Never mind President Reagan's own cultural conservatism. But Mr. Sullivan is drawing on a split within American conservatism that has existed for much of the century: between traditionalists and libertarians. The former hold a reverence for the past and are skeptical about modernist changes. The latter stress total freedom for the individual; their commitment is to limited government and the free enterprise system, but they also tend to resent restrictions on individual liberty that traditionalists consider necessary in a moral society.

Both traditionalists and libertarians count Christians in their numbers, and both have agreed in opposing the modern welfare state. But they do operate from different political philosophies.

Today, many politicians in the Republican party and also among the "New Democrats" claim to be "economic conservatives"-gung ho for free trade, unfettered capitalism, and economic growth. At the same time, they are "social liberals," for abortion, feminism, gay rights, and other morally "progressive" ideas. Many Republicans wish Christian activists would just go away, preferably after voting a straight GOP ticket, but without making such a big deal about their moral agenda.

But the question remains: Can there be economic conservatism without cultural conservatism? Might libertarians and traditionalists need each other after all?

Consider the economic and political meltdown presently taking place in Russia. The collapse of communism was supposed to herald a golden age of personal, political, and economic freedom. What happened?

In a single month, the ruble lost half its value; the Russian stock market has declined 80 percent; and the nation is effectively bankrupt. The life expectancy of the average Russian man is only 56 years, lower than in Third World countries, and the population is plagued by alcoholism, suicide, and despair.

Why didn't the collapse of the directed socialist economy bring a flourishing of the free market? Why didn't the collapse of the iron-fisted government lead to the blossoming of freedom, happiness, and prosperity?

Many Russians are saying that they were better off under communism, and their political system is moving back in the direction of economic controls. Many left-wing commentators are saying that the Russian experience proves the inadequacies of the free market.

But as Stephen Moore, of the libertarian Cato Institute, and James Carter, a former economist for the Republican National Committee, point out in an article in Human Events, Russia's problems should not be blamed on capitalism. Russia has not had a free market economy at all.

Capitalism cannot flourish unless there is a rule of law. Contracts have to mean something. Private property has to be respected.

In Russia, organized crime extorts fees from businesses, confiscating profits even more thoroughly than government taxes do. Theft, bribery, and murder have a way of putting a damper on the business climate. Corruption in the government, the bureaucracy, and the workplace stymie productive economic activity. Add the problems of alcoholism, vice, and the lack of a work ethic among employees, and no wonder the Russian economy is a basket case.

In other words, Russia does not enjoy the benefits of capitalism because it lacks the moral infrastructure required by a free economy. The Communists destroyed the nation's moral foundation, and it will take generations to build it back. And that foundation can hardly be built without a Christian reawakening.

Today the vaunted stock market in the United States, whose dizzying heights have been making politicians of all parties giddy in praise of economic conservatism, is tottering. The blame is being placed on the problems of the Asian economies, which, it turns out, are also being brought down by political corruption and shady dealing.

As our economy is shaken, our government, bogged down in the president's moral morass, is unable to deal with it. And our economy has yet to pay the cost of our looming social problems-the education crisis, family breakdown, the loss of personal responsibility, and other social pathologies whose potential economic impact cannot be measured.

Personal freedom and economic prosperity are impossible without a cultural and moral infrastructure. Economic conservatism and cultural conservatism go hand in hand, as Ronald Reagan knew.

Copyright 1998 World Magazine. Used by permission.