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The Moral Case for Conservatism Part 3 – the Market


We have been publishing a speech given by Sam Burgess at the launch of his recently published book, The Moral Case for Conservatism, in which he makes the case for conservatism in juxtaposition to its destructive rivals, socialism and liberalism. Yesterday he explained the intrinsic nature of the nation state for conservatism. Today he moves on to the market – why it is the more moral option but also the caveats it requires.

IN the book I offer four reasons why the market is a more moral option than the socialist command economy. Firstly, because the wellbeing of the producer will be dependent upon the quality of the good or services he offers to the community. Secondly, because it creates a diverse spectrum of employment opportunities which allows individuals to maximise their talents and pursue work that is meaningful to them. Thirdly, because it makes charity an act of free election in which disposable income can be consciously invested, thereby cultivating virtue and a proactive civil society. Fourthly, because it creates a robust private sphere of free transactions, which helps to counter the power of the state.

I suspect most here would agree with that analysis on some level. But what is perhaps more controversial is the argument I make to caveat the free market gospel.

In the book I contend that in the 1980s there emerged an emphasis on markets at the expense of all other social goods. I would stress that I don’t believe either Reagan or Thatcher advocated this, but nevertheless the growth of neoliberalism as a cultural phenomenon began with the rapid deregulation of markets, and conservatives must share their portion of the blame for a culture which has made the market God.

The thing that the neoliberal economists such as Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, missed was precisely the same thing that socialism missed: human nature. Where socialists assumed that human nature was fundamentally benign, the neoliberals assumed that human nature was fundamentally rational.

Both systems have resulted in failure because they did not introduce the checks, balances and diffusion of power which are necessary to govern human nature as it actually is. The historically Christian account of humans, as beings capable of great good but also capable of great evil, has been usurped by a supreme self-confidence in human rationality. The results nearly led to a global financial collapse.

In Britain, the Financial Conduct Authority has endeavoured to ensure that the banks never act so irresponsibly with taxpayers’ money again. Measures such as capital requirements to prevent bank insolvency or mandatory disclosure of a bank’s finances to government agencies are, in my view, a necessary step to prevent a repetition of 2008.

Not only should the market be mindful of human nature, but it is also right that there should be other limits on the market. Economic prosperity is important, but it is not everything. It must be weighed against a number of other social goods operative in the life of a nation: human flourishing, cultural identity, national security, compassionate care for the sick and the protection of the natural environment.

Rather than taking the socialist line, which throws the baby out with the bathwater, the conservative tradition has historically taken the commonsense approach and acknowledged that markets are a genuine good in our society. They bring prosperity, create connections and instil community. But they have their flaws, which must be mitigated and not magnified. The great challenge of a pro-capitalist government is to welcome economic vitality without worshipping material wealth.

This acknowledgement has significant precedent among conservative leaders from Benjamin Disraeli to Harold Macmillan. In 1904 the Republican Theodore Roosevelt campaigned on the pledge of delivering a ‘Square Deal’ to the people of the United States. He offered a package of reforms, which included reform of industry and business practices, where monopolists were exploiting their power.

In 1905 he said: ‘Somehow or other, we should have to work out methods of controlling the big corporations without paralysing the energies of the business community’. Roosevelt was a Republican who angered some of the industrial magnates of his day in order to deliver vital reforms. Today I believe this middle road of socially conscious conservatism must be pursued again.

The truth that Roosevelt realised is that capitalism in its truest form requires regulation. This is not about the proliferation of red tape, but the provision of healthy market conditions. Low barriers to entry for small businesses help to create competition and break up the oligopolies of companies which dominate some sectors of the market. Regulating businesses and enforcing antitrust laws ensures that growth is sustainable and citizens are not collateral damage to the interests of the richest. Closing tax loopholes means that people pay their fair share into the common pot. Raising penalties (such as the Immigration Skills Charge) for unfair employment models ensures that businesses do not undercut local labour forces.

When we look in detail at the reality of a capitalist economy, the apparent opposition of capitalism to government intervention is not so stark. A limited level of government regulation is a crucial framework for a competitive marketplace. Without such oversight, the ecosystem of the market can become dominated by the biggest beasts and cease to serve the public interest.

This is credible, meaningful, one nation conservatism in action.

Tomorrow, in the final part of this series, Sam Burgess discusses the importance of community in conservatism

The Moral Case for Conservatism can be purchased here

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Sam Burgess
Sam Burgess
Sam Burgess, has a DPhil form the University of Oxford, is author Edmund’s Burke’s Battle with Liberalism and is married with a young daughter

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