Last night I was dining with some friends, and, given the fact that we are all interested in politics in one way or another, the conversation tended to revolve around such issues. I had occasion to recall last night something which took place a while ago in a Starbucks close by (known to some as my office). I struck up a conversation with an intelligent, thoughtful gentleman—after all, we can’t let the rare opportunity to speak with an intelligent person pass us by—who wondered aloud if capitalism had run its course, if it was simply inevitable that it was passing away just like other things pass away.
The idea is, on its face, horrifying, and seemingly easy enough to refute. We are, certainly, dealing not with a collapsing capitalist economy, but rather a collapsing mercantilist or even Fascist economy. I am not being polemical: It is a fact that our system has absorbed aspects of Fascism. On this point many modern Liberals and libertarians are in agreement. Conservatives are not, but the reasons for this are by now rather obvious. The conventional wisdom, however, is that it is capitalism that has failed us. Capitalists can, and should, refute this until we run out of breath, but there is an important point in all this that must not be lost and that, however regrettable, is more essential to the issue, and that is the idea that could be called “societal myth.”
Richard Weaver, in his book Ideas Have Consequences, devoted the first chapter to The Unsentimental Sentiment. Here Weaver argues that sentiment precedes logic, that reason alone is not sufficient in dealing with the problems of human existence. Because logic has a wax nose, as Aquinas said, there must be something that holds it up, a set of assumptions that direct the entirety of our thinking. This is often called grand discourse. Religion, for instance, is a grand discourse. Besides the all-encompassing assumptions, however, there are also little myths about particular issues. These myths are very much related to sentiment. From the standpoint of studying human nature, the facts are not so nearly relevant as the prevailing thoughts and feelings about a given issue.
Because of this, I must offer the assessment that the future of capitalism is very bleak. All of the modern sentiment runs against the central ideas that must be embraced in order for a free market to work. In today’s climate—indeed, for most of the past century—mankind simply has not embraced the values which serve as the foundation of capitalism. The situation in which we today find ourselves is quite simply inevitable, and it should be no surprise to us that, after the disaster struck, modern thinking turned to a “worn out” idea such as capitalism as the scapegoat.
And so, we are faced with the question, “What do we do now?” Pragmatists usually embrace the prevailing contemporary sentiment in order to enact individual policies which they believe are good for the order of society. This is, of course, a mistake, since there is no consistent ethic present in this approach. Modern Liberals are quite at home in all this mess and probably suffer from very few crises of conscience right now, but classical liberal thinkers are faced with a conundrum. Do we throw up our hands and give up? Do we keep explaining the logical reasons why capitalism is always the better choice? The first choice invites a kind of despondency that usually leads to conservatism, and the second, as has already been said, will never work on its own.
It would seem that the best hope for capitalism will come from an appeal to the very thing that runs counter to it presently—sentiment. We must sort out the values that people embrace and illustrate how capitalism serves the interests of those values far better than any Leviathan ever could. I am not talking about political values; I am talking about human values. Too many conflate these, and we must separate them. It is irrelevant right now that capitalism works. We must show that capitalism is good, very good. This will require an appeal to sentiment and the right use of rhetoric.
It sounds like it’s time to dust off the Weaver volumes.
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