Free Market vs. Conservative Moralists


[ Photo: pennies saved by richiebits ]

A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.

(Albert Einstein)

For an average American the economic reality is increasingly dual – you’re either on the working “treadmill” running faster and faster or you’re a bum, and there are few choices in between. Some people work longer hours for less pay, while others can’t get a job at all.

The praise on the right of the current economic system of “treadmill” lifestyle does not fit well with their demands of the return of traditional values. Let’s assume that we magically return to the desired “nuclear family” era that the right so nostalgically reveres. If only we work harder we will become more moral, the thinking goes. Such a family would immediately drop out of the treadmill participation simply because middle class families have long been relying on two incomes, not one.

To rephrase Albert Einstein quotation above, if God intended us to be moral he would not have preoccupied us with satisfying our most basic needs, the daily quest for which inevitably makes us violate His demands. Being market-oriented makes us break certain religious standards; and conversely, adherence to traditional social norms makes us uncompetitive. Being moral actually requires some amount of free time and extra resources. There’s a certain dichotomy between being competitive and being moral from a religious standpoint, and it’s hard to be both. However, we are being asked to work hard, go to church, volunteer, get and stay married, get a mortgage, have unlimited amount of children and all of this while working as a janitor and without asking government for help. Should adherence to a conservative picturesque fantasy be more important for a mere mortal than just trying to get by?

In a much-discussed recent book, Charles Murray offers this kind of treadmill as a solution to the economic problems of the lower middle class. If only they worked more hours at lower paying jobs they would acquire a stronger social ethic, he argues. By that logic the faster we run on the treadmill the more moral we become!

But what happens when the utility of being employed at lower paying jobs becomes more and more marginal (working longer hours for a marginal increase in pay)? While conservatives are quick to blame that man on being immoral for refusing to participate in the race, I believe that he, in fact, unconsciously applies free-market rationalization to the usefulness of extending himself with limited benefits. They think he’s breaking social norms, while he’s actually making a sound managerial decision. Nonetheless, the majority, out of sheer necessity, stay on the racetrack to simply keep themselves barely above water. This is Murray’s ideal society.

Murray also wants liberal professors and upper class families, who he believes do lead moral lives, to preach what they practice rather than engage in this scornful habit of non-judgment. But what if the reason the upper class doesn’t want to engage in this holier-than-thou preaching is because they know how expensive it is to be moral. That is, in conservative lingo – to get and stay married, have kids, work hard, pay mortgage and find time to go to church, volunteer and donate to charity. (I intentionally left out the “eat right and exercise” part because these are not modern conservative values). Do you honestly expect a janitor on a $28,000 salary to do all of that? I do not deny that in the 1960s it was possible to have that kind of lifestyle, although, as David Frum rightly points out, Murray doesn’t explore why it was possible back then (G.I. Bill, stronger labor unions, government involvement, higher taxes, perhaps?). To fit Charles Murray’s fantasy for an ideal society today is to populate it with members of a cult. To be moral today by his standards is to be self-denying fanatic.

“Unwed mothers” are go-to conservative bogeymen (or should I say “bogeywomen”). Conservatives bemoan such women and yet are determined to deny them access to both birth control and abortion. And even more puzzling is that, whether it was an accident or a conscious decision for those women to be mothers, conservatives do not praise them for making the right, according to their ideology, choice. They scold them for not being married. How can they be so disingenuous? Even if she gets married what is the social utility of families with 5-7-10 children? Will this family become more moral in terms of its social participation, volunteerism, and charity? Will it not be a drag on social services and resources? The Duggars family is a poster “moral family” but most conservative intellectuals, including, I’m sure, Charles Murray, would be horrified to be part of that farce. Wouldn’t such approach make pro-choice position a conservative virtue?

Conservatives insist that social problems can be cured by strong work and religious ethic. If only a man works hard and goes to church, we would have a stable and prosperous society. Moralists, however, always see this issue as one-sided: they invoke religion to denounce laziness as a sin, but conveniently ignore other sins that go hand-in-hand with competition, like avarice, envy and pride. Why? Because they realize that at a certain point morality becomes an impediment to free market. At a certain point morality becomes bad for business. And it is un-American to be against free markets. But a competition in free markets will also push people to want to control the size of their families and be preoccupied with paying bills rather than acquiring an abstract badge of “being a moral person”. Conservative moralists should leave that working man (and woman) alone simply because he/she has important things to take care of. He/she’s busy running on the sacred, unregulated free-market treadmill. If you insist on the poor man’s participation in the rat race the least you can do is stop preaching.


  1. Alan says:


    Wonderful pointing out the inherent contradictions and overly-simplified thinking of conservatism, cloaked as moralistic and judgmental attitudes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the liberal/progressive voices in our community raised the level of discourse to this degree in the political dialogue that is taking place?

  2. KatyaG says:

    I’m doing my best!

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