I just don’t see how you can say that economically people should be as free as they can to do the things they want unhindered by the State, but socially the State should be telling them what’s best and how they should structure their lives. It would actually be refreshing for a conservative to just say, “yeah, there is an ideological contradiction, but so what”.
– commenter Christian last week.
It has often been claimed that social conservatism and economic liberalism are contradictory. Christian seems here to be saying there is a logical contradiction on display, but I think conservatives can fairly easily side-step this criticism. It would only be valid if conservatives defend markets as institutions of freedom. But there is also a utilitarian defence of markets, which is that economic freedom is good because it produces more wealth than any other system. Social democrats could defend markets for the same reason.
At least on the surface, another version of this criticism is harder for conservatives to escape. This is a sociological argument; that the energy of the market is at odds with the conservative desire for order and stability. In her recent Quarterly Essay, Judy Brett puts it this way:
Social conservatism and economic liberalism are inherently in tension with each other. Since the industrial revolution, markets and technology have been disrupting people’s lives, rendering their skills and values obsolete, forcing them out of business and out of work, and across the seas in search of better lives.
At one level, most of this is obviously true. The ‘creative destruction’ of capitalism has consigned many industries and occupations to memory, and many others operate with a fraction of the workforce they once had. But where in history is the counter-factual of long-term happy stability? Today some people worry about the sack (though not nearly as many as social democrats would have us believe), but before the industrial revolution they worried about famine, diseases now easily prevented or cured, and violence that was usually far worse than found in even high-crime modern capitalist societies.
The one not so obviously true part of Brett’s analysis is the bit about capitalism forcing people across the seas in search of better lives. In reality, most people have fled not capitalist turmoil but war, oppression and the poverty that exists when countries don’t have proper capitalist institutions. Liberal capitalist democracies do have a lot of change, but over the last 200 years, and especially the last 60 years, positive changes have vastly exceeded negative changes for most people.
In her Quarterly Essay, Brett goes on to defend unions and industrial relations regulation as a way of ‘giving ordinary people some security and control in their working lives’. Conservatives could argue that the institutions they have most emphasised – family, church, voluntary associations, nation, monarchy – do much the same thing, providing some material and emotional continuity amidst inevitable change.
Modern social democrats and conservatives have, I think, much the same relationship to economic liberalism. The both want the material benefits it brings and the opportunities it creates, while still offering some sanctuary from the market. Given the nature of modern Western societies, which are invariably a mix of liberal, conservative and social democratic institutions, the three look more complementary than contradictory.