1 July 2014

Defence of the free market requires eternal vigilance


Whatever view one takes of faith, “Original sin” is the best two-word summary of the human condition. It is echoed in Kant’s slightly longer version, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight is ever made.” It follows that any political or economic venture which presupposes human perfectibility is doomed to failure. By contrast, democracy and the free market can both cut with the grain of crooked timber. To paraphrase Churchill, they are the worst systems, apart from all the others.

In view of all that, it might seem extraordinary that the free market is still under regular attack. Undeterred by their predecessors’ –  often bloodstained – failure, every new generation of Leftists attempts to launch a moral onslaught, usually finding support among political sentimentalists and others whom Lenin would have described as “useful idiots”. It also follows, therefore, that the defence of the free market requires eternal intellectual vigilance.

Fortunately, there are allies, including history. As millennium followed millennium, most human beings had a perilous struggle for survival at subsistence level. Human life was often a cry of pain. In the Americas, Europe and Asia, the pre-modern world produced civilisations which delight and awe. But many of the edifices were constructed by slave labour at whip-point. In arguing for the necessity of strong government and social order, Hobbes propounded the best-known dictum in political theory: life in a state of nature was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

No doubt true, but in many societies, the final four adjectives still applied. Was association such a boon, when it was association in misery? The serfs whose bones mingled with the foundations of St Petersburg might have gambled on a state of nature.

Then, in the Eighteenth Century, everything changed. The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions led to greatly enhanced productivity. In Britain and North America, political developments entrenched the rule of law. Left to themselves, men had always been able to make markets work. But in new, benign social, political and legal conditions, it seemed that the free market would become the norm. The advanced world grew richer. Suddenly, it was possible for tens of millions of people to make a decisive break with the scarcity and oppression of previous epochs. The Enlightenment appeared to presage limitless improvements in the human condition.

At which point, the timber hit back. Not content with improving human material circumstances, intellectuals set out to improve human nature. This started with the French Revolution. One might have thought that once Robespierre and his associates had been safely guillotined, mankind would have learned the folly of uber-Enlightenment political theories. Not so: by comparison with his Russian descendants, Robespierre was a pussy-cat.

In their attack on the “bourgeois order”, Marxists and other socialists always started with the free market. The critique was always the same. Free markets were exploitative, enabling the rich to plunder the poor. Wasteful and inefficient, they skewed production towards the fads and luxuries of the better-off, instead of meeting the genuine needs of the great majority. There was also the constant aesthetic charge-sheet, whether based the squandering of human potential – “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers/Little we see in nature that is ours” – or on the unloveliness of bourgeois individuals and bourgeois taste. There has never been a shortage of clergymen to reinforce this, by pointing out an obvious gap in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the free marketeers.”

Given the relentlessness of the attack, it is almost surprising that the free market has survived. There is only one explanation for that. It works. It may not meet mankind’s deeper spiritual and emotional needs. But that is not the market’s business. It merely offers the choices and opportunities which only economic emancipation can deliver.

Over large parts of the globe, that emancipation is still urgently required. After trial, error and bloodshed, we in the West now understand how to organise a country. There are three principles: the rule of law, democracy, and free markets. Some societies seem to manage without a full set, but they have yet to prove their long-term stability. Equally, it would greatly help if a benign history had endowed the nation with a monarchy. That adds grace and secular transcendence to the dreariness of government. But states which have been careless enough to lose their monarchies will just have to make do and mend. The other three basics should guarantee stability, albeit at a more banal level.

But what about the great areas of the globe which have none of these advantages? Many of them are in constant danger of becoming failed states, vulnerable to religious fanaticism, at a time when it will inevitably become easier to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Henry Kissinger once said that the Soviet Union was like Upper Volta with nuclear weapons. When Upper Volta itself might be able to get hold of terrible weapons, the joke is no longer funny.

Important though it may be, it is not enough to make the case for the free marker solely in the advanced West. We need missionary endeavours to spread the Gospel in countries which desperately need it: where the enlarged horizons of the Eighteenth Century have never been visible.

The long Nineteenth Century from 1815 to 1914 was one of the most successful eras in history. The next thirty years were far worse that the Dark Ages. 1945 found Europe cold, hungry, exhausted and frightened, apparently staring into the abyss of a new and final Dark Age. We crawled away from that terror. With the help of free markets, we rebuilt our economies, our societies and our confidence. We were even able to indulge in fantasies about a new world order. But the crooked timber was still creaking.

We are now beset by new enemies who hate our freedoms and resent our prosperity. As part of the process of self defence, we need to persuade them to try some freedom and prosperity for themselves. After all, it is much easier to permit a free market than to suppress it. This Century will be crucial to our hopes for the future of mankind, and the spread of free markets will be crucial to the outcome.

Bruce Anderson is former Political Editor at the Spectator and wrote for the Independent newspaper from 2003 to 2010.