As a natural and nurtured debater, I spend a lot of time in hearty deliberation with friends and colleagues from across a wide spectrum of cultural, religious and economic perspectives.
I hope they won’t mind me saying so, but I find there’s a consistent experience which I find with those on the Left: a persistent tension between their moral (or heartfelt) inclinations and their economic convictions.
That is, as a conservative, I am privileged to own a worldview in which (broadly speaking) what is moral tends to coincide with what is effective. In other words, my conservatism holds both that
- Government has the moral duty to ensure individuals have the freedoms to live, work and spend as they chose; and that
- Society as a whole tends to flourish the most when individuals within that society possess those freedoms.
There are many moral institutions which in the Anglosphere we take for granted today – attributes of our inheritance which we have been privileged to partake in, and have the duty to hand down intact to future generations. These moral institutions the rule of law, free exchange, property rights and democracy and each derive both intuitively from the human conscience and implicitly from the basic assumption of the intrinsic value and dignity of human life. These rights define what it is to be human and to live in civil society.
If there is one lesson that history has taught us about human flourishing, it’s that these institutions are the greatest contributors to global prosperity and progress that we have ever witnessed.
The history of the human race has been one of man living in the dirt. It is a story of poverty. And question to ask in the face of history, is not what has lead to so much poverty, but rather how did it become possible for the many to become rich?
The great untold story of the last 30 years, is the dramatic fall in global poverty from 44% in 1980 to just 9.6% in 2015, as recorded by the World Bank. And that fall was not the bursting of a bubble, but a fall from millions of years of extreme global poverty. As those moral institutions of the rule of law, free exchange, property rights and democracy have been exported across the world; they are sustainably lifting people’s living standards and life expectancy to a level never before witnessed.
Man is fallen. It is an inescapable truth that we are hardwired to seek our own self-interest, in whatever form that may take. The inadequacies in the human heart are not the product of an economic system, but are part of our deep-seated human condition.
Yet as the ancient historian and gospel writer Luke pointed out:
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?”
It is written into human DNA that we should tend to make sensible decisions for ourselves and those for whom we are responsible. When our power to abuse it is limited (namely, limiting the power of government), individuals can make responsible decisions which result in human progress.
So why is it, that Millennials, and so many others too, are bent on the notion that the problems our society faces are the fault of free markets and of democracy.
How, for example, did we ever reach a position in which an entire generation set their hopes on a foreign, unelected, unaccountable and protectionist bureaucracy – an unrivalled centralisation of control – at the expense of individual freedom, economic competitiveness and control through the ballot-box? It’s not a questions of intelligence or expertise – it’s a question of values.
And why is it that the Left insist that there is a conflict between my moral rights and our economic progress?
As a conservative, I can believe that:
- We have a moral right to low taxation, and also that there is a significant economic advantage to low taxation.
- We have a right to do with our property as we choose, and also that property rights are necessary for a free and prosperous society.
- We should be free to live as we choose under the law, and also that free nations very quickly become wealthy nations.
- Voluntary generosity is morally superior to coercive redistribution, and also that perpetual welfare payments deprive the recipients from the dignifying opportunity to become economically productive.
- Desiring financial self-reliance if possible is morally good, and also that dependency makes our society poorer.
- We have a moral duty not to hand down a burden of national debt to yet unborn generations, and also that “borrowing to invest” rarely has the economic benefits which are intended.
- Crony corporatism degrades capitalism, by imposing distorting incentives and anti-competitive regulations, not by allowing free trade.
I find time and again that with conservatives, this perspective on the relationship between morality and pragmatics is central to figuring out the right course of action.
There is one question which I always ask before desiring that the government should intervene:
Can this problem be addressed by giving individuals more freedom?
I find the more I think about how it would unfold in the long term, the answer to that question above is so often “Yes”.