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Conservative Intellectuals and the Invisible Hand

The invisible hand just gave you the finger, son.

— Clyde “the possum” Ridenour

The expression “conservative intellectual” was, at least until the nineteen-fifties, an oxymoron. Conservatives, with their founder, Edmund Burke, insisted that not reason but custom was the true foundation of freedom. The rights of Englishmen, founded in long tradition and customary practice, were real. “The rights of man,” the brainchild of Enlightenment thinking, was but a chimera, a brainstorm without substance. The “reason” of the Enlightenment produced only a wind-egg and worse, the Terror. Conservatism attacked reason itself, so how could it then turn around and spawn conservative “think tanks” such as the Heritage Foundation, peopled with conservative intellectuals?


The change seems to have come with books like The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. Totalitarianism was what linked the regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia together. Before that everyone thought one was extreme left and the other extreme right. No two regimes could have been more different. But no, they shared a new kind of political structure never imagined by the ancients who otherwise identified all known political structures.


Totalitarianism, it seemed, needed an ideology, a set of ideas that cling together to inspire citizens to embrace the totalitarian movement, set out for its illusory Shangri-la, and perish in confusion. The ideas within the ideology were unimportant because the ideology served the same purpose in any totalitarian structure regardless of the ideology’s content. That the Soviet Union was to the far left and Nazi Germany to the far right didn’t matter. The actual ideas in the ideology factored out, so to speak, leaving just the path, the unreachable Shangri-la, and the pit. For all intents and purposes they were identical.

The totalitarian structure was not really a structure at all, but, perhaps an anti-structure, a whirlwind where everything changed from day to day. Its kaleidoscopic chaos hypnotized the population then led them into the maw. In its grip people turned away from lifelong friends. In politics they fervently embraced policies and motives only to abandon them a day later. Such is the instability of ideas. Under totalitarianism, in the spell of ideology, people abandoned all morality. They shoved others into gas chambers in Poland, or, bizarrely, confessed to crimes they did not commit, trundling off proudly to their own executions in Moscow. Nothing held fast; everything was in flux. Oh ideas, evil ideas. Spiraling into hell, those in their grip hallucinated that they marched all together towards paradise.

The conservative intellectual’s task was to raise the alarm against ideas–to persuade people that state planning, reason, ideas used to achieve some state purpose, led to disaster. Their objection was to practical reason, planning and carrying out that plan, not rhetoric. Unlike Burke, they did not object to the use of the art of persuasion. Talk away. Just don’t do any non-market thing if you are in the government. State programs launched for the common good were the enemy. All plans were the germs of ideologies that pointed to some hare-brained utopia whose vision hypnotized governments and turned leaders into zombies. Indeed anything a government might do to achieve any goal was the germ of horrible ruin. The government should be nothing but an umpire. It should stay out of the game. The conservative intellectual wanted to warn that our own liberal democracy was itself a mortal danger to the extent that the government had ideas that led them to do things. To make policy in the hope of achieving some social program was to invite totalitarianism. Thinking to help, you create disaster. “The tyranny of good intentions” discredited all good intentions. Since ideology, ideas used to plan action, always leads to totalitarianism, government regulation was only a step away from the gas chamber.

Burke’s attack on reason was incoherent. He argued against the firebrands of the French Revolution in a rhetorical war to see who could persuade the English either to repudiate the ideas of the French Revolution or embrace  them. Burke argued rhetorically that the rhetorical appeal of his enemies should be repudiated because all rhetorical appeals are bad. Ideas, no matter how good, tear up custom and make the ship of state rudderless. Custom is the steady guide. But custom does not need Burke to exhort you to follow it, for then you would be following Burke and not custom. He reasoned that one should not trust reason.

His modern disciples have solved that problem. Because their quarry is not a gaggle of soap box firebrands, but the government itself, they have withdrawn their objection to rhetoric and have thrust their lance at practical reason. That is where the totalitarian danger comes from. What they object to is “government regulation” to achieve a social program. Regulations deprive us of “free choice.” The government sets up rules and enforces them — with violence if necessary. This is coercion. The conservative intellectual includes all government regulation and all commands in the category of “coercion.” The government is identified with the highwayman. Both coerce. Thus all government regulation is bad, and will lead to catastrophe– depressions, gulags, holocausts, totalitarianism. Government should act only as a referee to prevent force and fraud and so be a shelter for the free market, but otherwise do nothing. Individual free choice, allowing the “invisible hand” to shape the world, replaced custom as the guide through the wilderness.

The conservative intellectual does not object to the use of commands within a commercial enterprise, that is, within the free market. The workers have chosen to work in the factory. They have chosen to obey the commands of the boss. Even though their entire lives are spent obeying commands, they are free. For they freely chose to go to work. If they don’t like it they can leave. Such a situation remains within the realm of “choice.”

In the Introduction to Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman, make up a little bit of American history. It goes something like this. Our founding fathers created the United States of America to protect men from the encroachment of government. For quite some time Americans were largely free, and the country blossomed. But in spite of this there were still many evils. Intellectuals forgot that it was free choice that produced all the good and thought they could use government to correct all the evils. When these intellectuals were able to influence the government, the Great Depression resulted. Here, in the Friedmans’ own words, is how the story ends:

“However, government’s responsibility for the depression was not recognized —either then or now. Instead, the depression was widely interpreted as a failure of free market capitalism. That myth led the public to join the intellectuals in a changed view of the relative responsibilities of individuals and government. Emphasis on the responsibility of the individual for his own fate was replaced by emphasis on the individual as a pawn buffeted by forces beyond his control. The view that government’s role is to serve as an umpire to prevent individuals from coercing one another was replaced by a view that government’s role is to serve as a parent charged with the duty of coercing some to aid others. (Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose:(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980)

The Friedmans offer us no example of an intellectual who embraced their bizarre idea of the duties of a parent. But what the Friedmans object to here are coercive social programs such as social security, minimum wage laws, and regulations for workplace safety. Such governmental interference coerces the rich to aid the poor. The Friedmans, as usual,  assimilate such “coercion” to that of the highwayman. But given these two very dissimilar cases, just where does the boundary lie? The Friedmans do not want to say that natural limitations coerce us. “I would prefer to fly but my lack of wings coerces me into walking.” No. What is, is. Coercion is something people do and has nothing to do with our natural limitations, which are neither good nor bad but simply something an adult must live with. The starvation of a worker’s children, for example, does not coerce him into taking a job that he otherwise would have spat upon. He still makes a free choice. To complain about this is to complain about not having wings. What is, is; one makes choices within the context of reality. If your children are starving that is what is. You try to fix it, but within the market place. “What is,” your children’s starvation, is not coercion, according to Friedman. What distinguishes “what is” from minimum wage laws? Why is it not coercion when they are? No doubt it is that only people, or social institutions can coerce. No one made the children starve.

Now the worker with starving children might say that the rich man who owns all the food is coercing him when he comes to get some food. Instead of letting him take it he had guards, the police, who use coercion, even violence, to keep him from the food. The worker did not use force; He would have been happy to take the food peacefully. Force was used against him. And this coercion arose with people, namely, the police. So it is not like “just the way things are.” This is a simple case of government coercion.  “But a man has a right to protect his own property,” the conservative intellectual will say indignantly. “Protection of property is what the United States is all about. It is essential for the free market. ” Very well, but then the Conservative intellectual must admit that coercion is good in the protection of property. Since “protection of property” is an idea and the police an agency for carrying out government regulation to realize that idea, when the conservative intellectual accepts police coercion he violates his own principles.

Coercion to protect property rights is governmental regulation to realize a social good. Why is this regulation good but not one guaranteeing enough food for your children? The answer, whatever it may be, comes from ideas, verboten ideas, and an attempt to realize them. So there is no possible justification for choosing one right, “ protection of property,” over the other,  “the right to not be hungry,” without contradiction of the principle forbidding social programs to realize ideas of the good. The conservative intellectual is left with a conceptual train wreck.

Friedman wants to say that good things happen when the umpire favors property and not starving children. But this good thing is a social good the Government uses regulation to realize. The free market is a cornucopia! Maybe so, but the poor man with no share in it might not call it a good thing. What is it to him? He would not allow that any good thing can happen while his children starve. Since we are all individuals we cannot appeal to the greater good and any opinion is as good as any other. For we must not try to realize any social good through means outside the market place. What is good and what bad coercion depends upon one’s point of view. The intellectual argument objecting to coercion has vanished and the conservative intellectual is revealed as simply having taken sides. Once there can be good and bad coercion “coercion” loses its place as a criterion for what is good or bad. And the conservative intellectual can offer no other criterion without violating his own principles.

The distinction between “free” and “coerced” also disappears, since freedom, the Friedmans agree, requires a coercive umpire to keep people from coercing one another. In other words freedom requires coercion to remain free. So how can “freedom” and “coercion” inhabit mutually exclusive realms? What is freedom now that coercion must be inevitably mixed in with it?  For governmental use of coercion to achieve social ends is, in his setup, identical to highway robbery. If one tries to argue that the police do not really influence anyone’s actual choices and thus to distinguish between good coercion that does not influence market choice and bad coercion that does, the highwayman will object. For, he will argue, his coercion does not influence market choices either. His pistol is like a deed of trust that proves that he already holds his victim’s life in his hand. He does not threaten his victim’s life; he already possesses it and can do with in what he will. The victim can choose to buy back his life with his money, or not. Whichever he chooses, he is not coerced. The highwayman offers him a deal: his money for his life. He is free to choose. The highwayman does not influence him either way. That his life is at stake is irrelevant. For lives are often at stake in the market.

In the quote above the Friedmans want us to think of the citizen as [responsible] “for his own fate” rather than as a “pawn buffeted by forces.” Very well, then why shouldn’t he be responsible for the protection of his own life and goods? The market is a translation of a Darwinian jungle into a paper city. It is a duel to the death fought with documents rather than with tooth and claw. But why exclude tooth and claw? Why have a paper jungle when you can have the real thing. Let the citizen be really “responsible for his own fate.” The exclusion of tooth and claw is unjustified. Why deprive the con man or thug of his skills? No argument without an appeal to the general good is possible. Any rules restricting a jungle where the fittest survive will keep the fittest from surviving unless one assimilates the rules to “what is.”

The discourse of the conservative intellectual is really an ideology, a set of ideas that don’t hold together, but set us off towards a utopia and to our doom. This utopia is perhaps different in that the conservative intellectual refuses to offer any picture of it. The “invisible hand of the market” will take our hands and lead us there, but we will not know where we are going. Just the human penchant for boredom will guarantee that if we ever think we know where we are going the enormous urge to not continue in the same direction for yet another day will set us off in a different direction. Knowing where you are going is a sure sign of not knowing where you are going. This utopia has no fixed shape. Its citizen is a man who constantly tries to peer into the future and then get there first. He tries to glimpse the next “what comes next” and point his own market activity towards it. Superior human beings, capable of guessing the desires of tomorrow, will emerge.

The Conservative Utopia, the best of all possible worlds, sometimes called “whatever comes next” is just whatever emerges from the rough and tumble of the marketplace (but it will be good!). In our blind march towards the utopia of market success some find the way, but most fall by the wayside. If you do it is your own fault; you lack character or energy, stability or imagination, in short either one thing or its opposite. That is the Darwinian way of the world, and it is good. This Utopia’s indistinctness, far beyond the formidable indistinctness of previous utopias, gives it plausibility in our present habitual mistrust of planning and clear goals (except within a market context). But since all such utopias are unreachable, the unrecognizablity of this one hardly matters. If an hallucination without any qualities can be called an hallucination, this utopia is as hallucinatory as any other, or even more so, since whatever happens is a step in the right direction. Recent events have revealed that this utopia is a fatal snare , but its web of ideas continues to entangle us.

What you would normally think
Has more to it than that.
Behind the surface truth
Something else appears.
When you focus there
You find a silver path
Whose forks, seeming choices,
Are outposts, points of view,
From which the beauty of the whole plan
Shows up.

But someone else is there.
A spider in that web
Eyes you as you flail
In the toils he set.

MICHAEL DOLINER  can be reached at

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Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College.

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