‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

27 November 2009

An Organic Tory Appraisal of ResPublica’s Launch

Yesterday morning witnessed the launch of another conservative think-tank, yet with a welcomed twist: instead of an addition to the number of laisser-faire organisations, Phillip Blond’s ResPublica has an ambitious aim: ‘the project of radical transformative conservatism is nothing less than the restoration and creation of human association, and the elevation of society and the people who form it to their proper central and sovereign station.’

Blond is a British theologian and academic who has garnered much attention in the realm of politics and the media for his promotion of ‘Red Toryism’, which he describes as a movement that sidesteps the atomising effects of the neo-liberal market and the enervating effects of the State.

Red Toryism, therefore, is in one manner a repudiation of ‘Third Way’ thinking, if the Third Way is seen as a middle route of accommodation between business and government. While not absolutely inimical to the interests of either sector, Blond argues that when they are combined, a collusion is formed that is detrimental to the welfare of the common citizen, resulting in monopoly capitalism and the ‘servile State’ (the topic of Hilaire Belloc’s eponymous volume on the rise of a permanent proletariat).

Instead, in his opening speech for ResPublica, ‘The Future of Conservatism’, Blond calls for a new age of the ‘civil state’ and the ‘moralised market’.

As one who is anxious to defend the idea of the State against its ubiquitous naysayers on the right, I applaud Blond’s assertion that ‘the state embodies in structured form a common concern—it represents the coalesced will of the people that there is a level below which you cannot fall and an undertaking that we as a body politic have a stake, a care and indeed a provision for you and every other citizen.’

In my own formulation, borrowing upon the personalist philosophy of the individual embedded in communal relationships—echoed in Blond’s ‘shout-out’ to Edmund Burke’s society of past, present, and future generations—the State is at the very least a provider of last resort, confirming that all citizens have access to the necessities of life without which society itself suffers: basics such as food, clothing, and shelter, elementary education and healthcare provisions. The assumption is that if any of these bare requirements are lacking, not only the individual suffers, but society as a whole is denied the corollary benefits of its citizen’s success.

Statism, however, is the constant conservative bugbear; it is the apotheosis of the State that, in the words of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, ‘would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself.’ In Blond’s critical assessment,

The welfare state nationalised society because it replaced mutual communities with passive fragmented individuals whose most sustaining relationship was not with his or her neighbor or his or her community but with a distant and determining centre.

Blond next addresses monopoly capitalism by sketching out his vision of a moralised market: when corporations are allowed, through State connivance, to drive out competitors and, through mergers and State-sanctified obstructions, thwart new entrants, then it is only the State that can police what stalls remain on the high street (the British equivalent of the American ‘Main Street’).

If a true free market economy were allowed to thrive, then the competitive urge to win customers would serve as its own system of regulation—freeing the State from micro-management to those minimum functions of upholding the formal laws of the marketplace—and be a boon for sometime proletarians to become owners of productive property in their own right. (In Blond’s general prescriptions for the free economy, it is amazing how close this radical Red Tory comes to espousing the anti-monopoly, libertarian economic policy of theorists such as Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.)

Blond concludes his remarks with a summary of the ‘associative society’. In the past—most notably his speech for the launch of the Progressive Conservatism Project (now posted on ResPublica), a Demos think-tank division of which he was briefly director—his triad of goals had been to ‘re-moralise the market, re-localise the economy, re-capitalise the poor’; and while he has spoken previously about dissociative society, this, to my mind, is his fullest explication of the associate society.

I note this well, for when Blond speaks about association expressing ‘both individuality and community’, that ‘it is good men and women taking responsibility and trying to ascertain the common good’, he broaches what is often termed Thomistic personalism.

The best introduction to personalism is Jacques Maritain’s The Person and the Common Good, which, ‘In reaction to excessive claims in the name of individualism and equal excesses in the service of collectivism,’ explained J.W. Koterski, ‘attempts to make the necessary distinctions between the inalienable rights inherent in every human being as person and the duties intrinsic to membership in civil society.’

Maritain wrote that an individual in community is to be considered ‘a part in a whole’, whereas an individual qua person is to be considered ‘a whole in a whole’. More specifically,

it is in the nature of things that man, as part of society, should be ordained to the common good and the common work for which the members of the city are assembled. It is in the nature of things that he should, as the need arises, renounce activities which are nobler in themselves than those of the body politic for the salvation of the community. It is also in the nature of things that social life should impose numerous restraints and sacrifices upon his life as a person, considered as a part of the whole.

As for being a ‘whole’ in his own right, ‘Man is constituted a person made for God and life eternal, before he is constituted a part of the city’.

This dynamic is captured beautifully by Pius XI in Divini Redemptoris: ‘It is society which affords the opportunities for the development of all the individual and social gifts bestowed on human nature [...] for in society they reflect the divine perfection, which would not be true were man to live alone.’ ‘But on final analysis,’ the Pope reminds us in this encyclical,

Society is made for man, that he may recognize this reflection of God’s perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will.

In Blond’s casting, then, society is neither ‘a mass act of collectivisation’, nor ‘a collection of self willing individuals’: ‘Such a construal reveals that individualism and collectivism are two sides of the same debased coinage producing a society that endlessly oscillates between state authoritarianism and anarchic libertarianism.’

In his own formulation of a personalist conception of society, Blond believes that

This society is civil—it is formed by the free association of citizens—and these groups balance and express both individual freedom and collective formation [...] In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity. They are the means by which we achieve our end; they are not the end itself. That end will be decided by free citizens in association sharing the practice and discernment of the common good.

All in all, there is much in Phillip Blond’s inaugural address for an organic Tory to admire. Having followed the development of his Red Tory thesis over the course of a year, I have noticed a clarification and deepening of ideas: a communitarian bent has become more amenable to individual impulses; a scepticism of the internal operations of the free economy has become more accepting of the legitimate needs of the market; and a sometime ambivalence toward State action has become more generously aware of its benefits for the common weal.

An important question concerns the reception of Blond within the fold of the British Conservative party, with a national election no more than six months away and its formation of Government likely in hand. From the perspective of a domestic policy framework, Blond’s articulation of a conservative vision should be acceptable to both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ Tories (he has been silent on other affairs that the Ministry will face, such as parliamentary reform, overseas wars, and the fate of UK within the European Union). As such, he already has the confidence of leader David Cameron and key members of the Shadow Front Bench.

Moreover, Red Toryism has the potential to appeal to voters who would otherwise cast ballots for Labour or the Liberal Democrats—a boon for any political party which aims to enlarge its power base and core support.

For Phillip Blond and ResPublica, then, their future in British politics has enjoyed a promising start. This organic Tory awaits further announcements with anticipation.

13 November 2009

Resurrecting Mediaeval Political Economy

‘Whither conservatism in the 21st century?’ asks Neil Reynolds in an intriguing column for The Globe and Mail, ‘It takes a conservative to revive a community’. He focuses on one recent development from the right which takes as its exemplar mediaeval society, which Phillip Blond, director of the British think-tank ResPublica, calls ‘Red Toryism’ (which shares few characteristics with its Canadian cousin).

In his Globe review, Reynolds draws upon ‘Does Red Toryism Have an American Future?’, my own perspective on Blond and his political programme. In making his valid and thoughtful appraisal, however, Reynolds presents just one view of mediaeval economics which was to evolve during the late Middle Ages; thus, a wider overview may be in order, especially as much of organic Toryism is dependent upon this mediaeval framework.

Organic Toryism is itself not unmindful of the limitations of a strict adherence to mediaeval practices, but for all that is committed to those elements that remain vibrant. Some of the positive aspects arising from a communal sensibility are examined in my essay ‘Society, Our Natural Route to the Common Good’ and on ‘The Free Economy Plus’ site—where, I might add, can be found assurances that such organic society does not ‘supplant socialism’ (make your own inferences). For now, I shall focus on features of the free economy that have their origins in the late Middle Ages.

Reynolds opines, for example, that a mediaeval revival in political economy means ‘to restrict capitalist competition and to advance an entrenched sense of community’.

Yet it is arguable, prima facie, that restrictions are already in place (as proponents of the free market scoff at naysayers who point to unfettered markets), since capitalist competition is already restricted by the rule of law. Such reasoning is the Red Tory detractor’s ‘red herring’ if you will, as the alternative to existing conditions—a true unfettered market—is the sort of anarcho-capitalism advocated by libertarian theorists like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. No doubt an intriguing view of economic society, but one which is by no means mainstream among academics and laymen.

There are, of course, varying degrees of restriction from which to choose, and defining what consists of fair and unfair, supportive and hindering, levels of interference is the stuff of political debate: culminating in defining one as either a classical liberal or a democratic socialist—with an organic or ‘progressive’ conservative somewhere in-between, aligning himself with one group or the other as circumstances warrant (for instance, if the times demand a defence of liberty or an expression of communal adhesion), and more often with the former than with the latter.

For many such conservatives, it is appropriate to paraphrase Churchill: that capitalism as an economic system exhibits social inadequacies, but it is better than all the other systems that have been tried and found wanting.

So, while the mediaeval guild model is tempting for its advocacy of private property and communal responsibility, it isn’t perfect. ‘The guilds,’ Reynolds writes, ‘entrusted the price of bread (for example) to bakers alone.’ Morris Bishop detailed this impediment to capitalism in The Middle Ages:

The purpose of the craft guild, like any trade union, was to promote the economic welfare of its members and guarantee full employment at high wages by restricting membership. It held a local monopoly of its product, discouraged competition among guildsmen, and suppressed scab labor. It regulated work procedures and hours of labor. It set wages, but maximum, not minimum wages. It standardized the quality and price of the product and opposed innovation. It forbade price cutting, overtime work, public advertising, overenergetic salesmanship, the introduction of new tools, the employment of one’s wife or underage children. The guild’s aim was regularization, the preservation of the status quo. Hence it failed to adjust to technological progress, which took place outside the guilds.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of capitalist theory can readily identify the conflicting zeitgeists: monopoly enterprise, aversion to innovation, static prices and wages. The modern era is epitomised by their very opposites: by a plethora of entrepreneurs competing amongst themselves to offer consumers better and newer products, at prices that challenge the business acumen of their rivals.

But one must not assume that this guild model is the only one to be drawn from an epoch that stretches across a millennium. English historian George Holmes observed that the homogenous economic environment of the mediaeval towns and villages was a major contribution to the rise of cities (and capitalism) in the nascent Renaissance. His obituary in The Telegraph paid tribute to the fact that

...Holmes suggested that the late medieval universities, far from being creative centres of new ideas, were outclassed by the dynamism and originality of cities without universities, such as Venice, Florence and London. The case may have been overstated, but the work was memorable for its demonstration of his intellectual courage and range.

His vision of the later middle ages differed profoundly from the oppressive opulence evoked by the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga.

Holmes emphasised instead the new cultural energies released by the combination of economic crisis and political accident that allowed the emergence of a distinctive urban culture in this period, largely free of princely or ecclesiastical control.

It is in these later decades of the ‘dark ages’, throwing off feudal authoritarianism, that the bonds of accepted communal mores began to loosen, encouraging a burgeoning interest in the science of economics. Many of these discoveries would be forgotten until several centuries later, but the record indicates that much of the novelty of Adam Smith and classical liberalism had an overlooked mediaeval provenance.

The Spanish university of Salamanca was one intellectual centre in ferment, and in ‘The World of Salamanca’, Llewellyn Rockwell sketches a brief overview:

The real founders of economic science actually wrote hundreds of years before Smith. They were not economists as such, but moral theologians, trained in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, and they came to be known as the Late Scholastics. These men, most of whom taught in Spain, were at least as pro-free market as the much-later Scottish tradition. Plus, their theoretical foundation was even more solid: they anticipated the theories of value and price of the ‘marginalists’ of late 19th-century Austria.

One breakthrough that had been lost to the sands of time concerned the theory of value, replaced by a Smithian-Ricardian-Marxian notion comprising factors of production and expended labour.

Recalling Cardinal Juan de Lugo’s assertion that ‘the “just price” depends on so many factors that it can be known only to God’—‘Pretium justum mathematicum licet soli Deo notum’—Jerzy Strzelecki, former Polish undersecretary of state, explains in ‘The School of Salamanca Saw This Coming’ that

In the theology of the scholastics at Salamanca, ‘just price’ was thus tantamount to the market price, resulting naturally from interactions between buyers and sellers. Attempts at setting a ‘just price’ to replace a natural market price, whether by civil or ecclesiastical authorities, were viewed with deep skepticism: weren’t such attempts usurpations of God’s knowledge?

These usurpations, of various kinds, were the mainstay of conventional economics until Carl Menger cleared a path through the confusion and formulated his theory of marginal utility. ‘For this reason, the justness of a price is not dictated by how much the item costs or how much labor went into acquiring it,’ notes Rockwell.

All that matters is what the common market value is in the place and at the time it is sold. [...] It seems like such a simple point, but it was missed by economists for centuries until the Austrian School rediscovered this ‘subjective theory of value’ and incorporated it into microeconomics.

Salamanca was on the forefront of this economic revolution: principles outlining liberty in international trade, the removal of barriers to interest charges (and prohibitions against usury), currency exchange, and laisser-faire policies regarding the State—all owe their origins to this Spanish School.

What, then, are some mediaeval economic teachings to which even Reynolds could subscribe? Again, three that leap immediately to mind are a respect for private property, an aversion toward monopoly, and a celebration of spontaneous order.

To be fair, the scrutiny to which Reynolds subjects the neo-mediaevalists is not entirely unwarranted: an organic Tory, unlike libertarians, does not view these economic concepts as necessarily absolute, but rather as minor ends in service to a greater end, the common good. ‘If liberty of purchase and of sale, of mortgage and of inheritance was restricted,’ wrote Hilaire Belloc in The Servile State, ‘it was restricted with the social object of preventing the growth of an economic oligarchy which could exploit the rest of the community.

The restraints upon liberty were restraints designed for the preservation of liberty; and every action of Mediæval Society, from the flower of the Middle Ages to the approach of their catastrophe, was directed towards the establishment of a State in which men should be economically free through the possession of capital and of land.

In contemporary terms, owners of private property have charitable responsibilities to the poor, single-source utilities may be in the control of private or public owners, with regulatory oversight to safeguard consumer welfare—with these regulations, as a component of the legal system, acting as a brake and moderating influence on pure spontaneity.

Belloc’s catastrophe for the modern organic Tory is the lack of equilibrium, with society seemingly enthralled to the individual or the State, one or the other, but infrequently and haphazardly balancing the two.

The organic alternative may be a reasonable connotation of what progressive conservatism is all about: a willingness to use legitimate means to effect social change, whether through the communal instincts of civil society or the powers exercised by the State; the alternative is the unalloyed, self-interested solipsism of individualism. If this sounds like a caricature, it gives credence to and underlines Aristotle’s axiom that man is a social animal.

Yet even libertarians should welcome a reinvigorated faith in community for, motivated by a true spirit of voluntary co-operation (and not coercion), it would supplant the State as the pre-eminent socialist ideal of collective action.

Were these few principles of organic Toryism to enjoy a sympathetic hearing, in which the symbiotic mediaeval relationship between the individual and his wider community are allowed to flourish, then perhaps it could really become, as Reynolds suggests, ‘the dominant political philosophy of the next generation.’

05 November 2009

DMI Website Back On-line

Happy news! The website for Disraeli-Macdonald Institute is back on-line; you can now find DMI here.

At present, only the front page and a few ancillary pages are up-and running; the two original divisions, the Young England Research Unit and the Centre for Confederation Politics, will require more time as I relearn some website basics and experiment with a possible redesign—Yahoo! GeoCities rather spoiled me with its simplicity.

However, a number of improvements should already be apparent: the screen positioning is centred (or should be!) and the type font is larger for reading pleasure. Plus each page has a ‘DMI title’ on the top, with easy-to-use navigation links on the bottom. A scrolling marquee offers the possibility for brief, topical commentary, too.

But fair warning: There will be many bugs to be worked out before DMI is fully operational.

As always, your feedback is appreciated.

So, don’t forget to revise your bookmarks and check back often for new material.

S.M. MacLean
Disraeli-Macdonald Institute