Civilization and the Conservative Error
There is one thing that Americans of all political persuasions, cultural backgrounds, socio-economic status, and religious affiliations can agree on: something is wrong. Of course, opinions differ wildly on what exactly that thing is. Even so, it isn’t difficult to see why there is near-unison on this point. Inflation is the highest it’s been in decades, wars rage both in the culture at home and in foreign nations abroad, the country is deeply divided along partisan lines, an economic crisis appears to be on the horizon, and there is a general sense of foreboding and despair that hangs over the country like an anxious Sword of Damocles. Whatever else you might think, it’s clear that something is wrong.
With problems this imposing and pervasive, it is natural that there would be a litany of proposed solutions. There is one diagnosis in particular that is of interest to us today. This is — what I dub as — the “Conservative” view of our modern problems. It generally goes something like the following: in past decades and generations, people upheld the values of Western Civilization, which resulted in great prosperity and flourishing for all. However, as individuals have become increasingly immoral in recent years, the foundations that supported Western Civilization have begun to crumble. The particulars of these moral infractions vary, but the idea is that the moral base that upheld the West has been tragically compromised, which has led to the challenges we face today. There are only two options before us: either we restore our previous moral stature, or our civilization will continue to crumble around us. While the conservative view is not often explicitly stated, I suspect that it is a commonly held sentiment by many today.
As far as this thesis goes, it has some elements of truth. The problems we face today do pertain to a crisis of civilization, specifically, of Western Civilization. It is also true that Western Civilization has led to unprecedented living standards for those countries that embraced it. The Industrial Revolution, brought on by the advent of classical liberalism, has propelled mankind to heights never thought imaginable. Because of the miracles of industrialization and wealth accumulation, billions have been lifted out of poverty and given the chance at a more fulfilling life. The importance of these developments in terms of improving mankind’s existence cannot be overstated.
However, this is where the mistakes begin. Western Civilization is in a state of crisis, but not because the people within it have become engulfed with moral depravity and debauchery. The conservative places the success of Western Civilization on the fact that the men who lived within it were good, honest, and morally upright individuals. Up to a point, this was certainly an important factor in the triumphs of the West. After all, civilization is impossible if the population consists of nothing more than thieves and murderers. But is the modern man living today truly made of a weaker moral fabric than the average man living two hundred years ago? Are we so much worse than they were? While we certainly have our moral failings, our ancestors did as well. Do we have any justification to suppose that modern man is less moral than his grandfather or great-grandfather?
Even if we do answer in the affirmative, what specific moral failures that plague us today could have conceivably weakened our very civilization? Sexual promiscuity? Increased acceptance of homosexual and alternative lifestyles? Declining religious affiliations? All of these have existed in spades in the past. Sexual promiscuity has existed for as long as sex has, the vaunted Ancient Greeks had their dabbles in homosexuality, and the vast majority of people throughout history have had predominantly casual relationships with religion. For any other moral failings, we could identify, those too have existed in the past, and were likely even more prevalent than they are today. Even if we do grant that this immorality as problems, how could these bring down a civilization? What possible causal chain could link the economic, political, and cultural turmoil of our time to the acceptance of LGBTQ+ lifestyles, atheism, or any other target of conservative vitriol?
Furthermore, if these moral scruples (as the conservatives would see them) are enough to bring down all of Western Civilization, it prompts us to ask: did it even deserve to exist in the first place? If all it takes to destroy the West are gender reassignment surgeries and neopronouns, then perhaps it was too frail and weak for its own good. If the West can be defeated by such foes, it probably had it coming sooner or later and deserves little grief on our parts. It is ironic that the most prominent defenders of the Western way of life have such a low view of its durability in the face of adversity.
The Conservative position is based on a premise that is often undefended, although implicitly accepted. This premise is that a civilization is upheld by the character of those who live within it. As stated above, this has some degree of truth, but as we have shown above, cannot be the entire picture. More precision is needed in order to correctly identify the foundations of Western Civilization. To identify these, we need only ask: what are the features that set apart Western Civilization from all social orders that came before it? Despite the plethora of civilizations and societies throughout human history, Western Civilization is still unique. These unique identifiers are two-fold and go hand-in-hand. They are the codification of private property and the advent of laissez-faire capitalism.
Throughout most of human history, the ownership of property was greatly restricted. The common man likely did not own much, if anything at all. This was not because he did not work or wished to forgo owning property, but because he was prevented from doing so. This was often done through the ownership of land belonging to the king or one of his nobleman, which prevented the peasants from being able to improve the land they worked and accumulate wealth. The advent of Classical Liberalism in the 17th and 18th centuries brought with it a new view of property, one that viewed it as an absolute right of man, not a privilege gifted him by his overlords. Having something they could call their own, individuals were able to better themselves and improve their lots in life. As the great Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises stated, “If historical experience could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization”.
An integral part of this raise in living standards is our second element: laissez-faire capitalism. In the past, trade was bound by two primary restrictions: tariffs and the guild system. Tariffs insured that competition from abroad would not put domestic producers out of business. If Country A was particularly good at producing wooden wheels and threatened the wheel producers of Country B with their efficiency, then Country B might raise a tariff to protect their less productive wheel industry. While this does protect the local manufacturers of a good, it has the end result of promoting inefficacy, punishing domestic consumers, and constraining economic freedom.
In addition, trade was also hampered by the guild system, which ensured that only those individuals who were initiated into the guild would be permitted to work in a certain field. To be a blacksmith, you must join the blacksmith guild. To be a carpenter, you must join the carpenter guild. And of course, they won’t let just anyone join! Depending on how they are feeling, and how many people they have initiated recently, you may not be able to join at all. This privileged status had the effect of limiting the number of skilled workers in any area and ensuring that the majority were relegated to a life of farming in poverty.
It was only when these restrictions on trade were removed and laissez-faire capitalism was embraced that living standards began to truly rise. The Industrial Revolution coincided with the rise of Classical Liberalism, which led to the greatest increase in wealth in all of human history. For the majority of his past, man had lived in relative poverty and squalor. There were moderate increases in living conditions, slowly accumulating over generations and centuries. However, these were minuscule compared to the new heights that were reached when the West embraced the freedom of capitalism and the stifling economic anachronisms of the past were discarded.
Western Civilization was built on these two pillars of property rights and laissez-faire capitalism. It is precisely these foundational pillars that are under assault today. The West has all but abandoned laissez-faire capitalism in our modern age. Each year, endless regulations and restrictions are imposed upon their respective economies, so much so that no one even keeps count. Bailout packages and subsidies are handed out anytime larger corporations are in the slightest danger. Regulatory agencies, such as the FDA in the United States, have been “captured” by the corporations they are supposed to regulate and are corrupted to serve their own interests. Rather than a level playing field where everyone is equally able to compete with everyone else, privileges and favors are constantly handed out to large special interests, ensuring their continued existence and success. The free and open Capitalism that built the wealth of the West has been largely discarded. Corporatism, a unification of state and big business, has now taken its place.
Property rights are in a state of equal peril. Taxation imposes a greater burden today on the citizenry than at any point in the past, even under the despotic monarchs of history. The detestable Income Tax, which instituted under the guise of only affecting the rich, today steals a sizable portion of each individual’s income. Inflation, which is nothing more than an undeclared tax, siphons away more purchasing power from the people than it even did in centuries past. The power of governments to seize property, control trade, and invade privacy has never been greater. Today there is little to nothing that the government could not conceivably do to confiscate, damage, or destroy you or your property. Any serious restrictions on their power are but a façade kept up for public relations.
If the foundation of a building is unsound, that building will eventually collapse. It may take years, or only days, but it will fall. The erosion of capitalism and property rights has caused cracks in our civilizational foundation, the consequences of which we can see all around us today. The struggles of our modern age are just the manifestation of these critical failures.
The conservative understanding of our present crisis is not completely incorrect, but it fails to look deeply enough at the problem to find any coherent solutions. Western Civilization is in crisis, and whether or not it will truly survive this crucible remains to be seen. We will either rebuke the assaults on private property and capitalism and bring about a restoration of the West, or these will continue to deteriorate until it becomes completely unrecognizable from its former glory. These are the two paths set before us, and there is no middle ground. Perhaps Western Civilization can be rescued and man’s standard of living will continue to rise once again. Perhaps not, and man’s freedom will be again subjected by state power and he will be reduced back to the impoverished conditions of his ancestors.