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Bourgeois Equality for Conservatives

Two or three centuries ago a new and equal economic liberty, with a new and equal social dignity, emboldened ordinary people to have a go. The dual change in ethics, first in Holland and then in the Anglosphere — equal liberty and equal dignity — yielded gigantic innovation. You might call the change “bourgeois equality,” because the woolen weavers and telegraph operators called to innovation would move into the middle class, now honored. Whatever you call it, the ethical change produced the Great Enrichment, the astounding, unpredictable leap from the $3 a day typical in 1800 of our ancestors up to the $130 a day we now enjoy. The Enrichment had little to do with the usual suspects, the ancient routines of trade and investment and exploitation and rule of law. It had to do with a startling change in how people viewed each other.

My fellow libertarians believe that economic liberty sufficed to do the amazing trick. Liberate Tom, Dick, and Harriet from the state’s regulations, backed by its dangerous monopoly of violence, and all is well. But the libertarians can learn from the conservative saint, Edmund Burke: “What is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue?… Without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long.”

The virtue that made economic liberty beneficial and lasting, I claim, is the according of social dignity to others. It was in 1776 a novel virtue of love and justice and temperance, expressed by the libertarian saint, Burke’s friend the Blessed Adam Smith. Burke believed on the contrary that defending an old dignity for the long-evolved upper classes and hierarchical institutions was wise. The trouble with such a conservative argument, or its quasi-progressive deployment in the World Bank orthodoxy of “add institutions and stir,” is that it would apply equally to Tsarist, or Communist, or Putinesque, Russia. They too had long-evolved institutions, such as Tsar Nicholas I’s Third Section, evolved into the Cheka, the KGB, and now the rule of former KGB officers. Historically honored institutions, such as English common law established before the time of Edward I, or security of property evident in ancient China, can’t explain a sudden Great Enrichment after 1800.

Dignity means according honor. Burke withheld honor from ordinary people, on the grounds that honor, like the classical notion of a virtue confined to the freemen of Athens, “implies some distinction in its favor.” “The occupation of a hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honor.… Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they… are permitted to rule.” And yet the Great Enrichment came from an economic liberation and a sociological dignifying of, say, a hair-dresser and wig-maker of Bolton, son of a tailor, messing about with spinning machines, who died in 1792 as Sir Richard Arkwright, possessed of one of the largest bourgeois fortunes in England. And our own dear Ben Franklin was first apprenticed to his father as… a working tallow chandler.

The Industrial Revolution and especially the Great Enrichment, I claim, arose from liberating such commoners from compelled service to an hereditary elite, such as the noble lord, or compelled obedience to a state functionary, such as the economic planner. It came from according honor to the formerly despised of Bolton — or of Boston or Osaka or Lake Wobegon — commoners exercising their liberty to relocate a factory or invent a flexible catheter. To confine honor to an elite, whether social superiors or social engineers, is to suppose that we already know who are hoi aristoi, the best suited to rule, and that the best already know how exactly we mere occupants are to be flogged or planned or nudged into submission. For our own good. It is the traditionalist’s error, yet also the progressive’s error, to suppose there is nothing to be discovered. As Harry Truman said, an expert is someone who doesn’t want to learn anything new, because then he wouldn’t be an expert.

In their enthusiasm during the nineteenth century for materialist and deeply erroneous pseudo-discoveries in the social sphere — nationalism, socialism, Benthamite utilitarianism, hopeless Malthusianism, social Darwinism, scientific racism, theorized imperialism, geographic determinism, social engineering, Progressive regulation — much of the clerisy, left and right, mislaid its earlier commitment to a free and dignified common people. It forgot the main, and the one scientifically proven, social discovery of the nineteenth century, that ordinary men and women do not need to be directed from above, and when honored and left alone become immensely creative. “I contain multitudes,” sang the democratic, American poet. Yes.

For beneficial liberty, then, universal dignity — the social honoring of all people — was necessary, to encourage the mass of people to enter new trades and to protect their economic liberty to do so. And dignity was good in itself, as no adherent of an Abrahamic religion needs to be persuaded. What needs to be rejected is another and contrary and traditional belief of Martin Luther’s, appalled by the Peasants’ Revolt in southern Germany of 1624–1625: “A worldly kingdom cannot stand unless there is in it an inequality of persons, so that some are lords, some subjects.”

Liberty and dignity for all commoners, to be sure, was a double-sided political and social ideal. Burke was eloquent on that point, too. The liberty of the bourgeoisie to venture was matched by the liberty of the workers, when they got the vote, to adopt growth-killing regulations, with a socialist clerisy cheering them on. And the dignity of workers was overmatched by an arrogance among successful entrepreneurs and inheriting rentiers, with a fascist clerisy cheering them on. Such are the usual tensions of liberal democracy. And such are the often mischievous dogmas of the clerisy.

“Not likely to continue long.” Indeed: without universal dignity, both tradition and progressivism fail in liberty. European Jewry down to 1945 was gradually liberated to have a go in Holland in the seventeenth century and Britain in the eighteenth century and Germany and the rest later. Legally speaking, from Ireland to the Austrian Empire by 1900 any Jew could enter any profession, take up any innovative idea. They had economic liberty. Yet, Hannah Arendt noted, “Society, confronted with political, economic, and legal equality for Jews, made it quite clear that none of its classes was prepared to grant them social equality.” In much of Christendom — with partial exceptions in the United States and the United Kingdom, and in Denmark and Bulgaria — Jews were political and social outcasts, with known results.

Burkean conservatism has many merits, such as a generous loyalty to rank and sex. But after the Great Enrichment it needs levelling. The Levellers of the English Civil War advocated free trade, and equal dignity. Richard Rumbold, facing the hangman in 1685, declared, “I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.” Few in the crowd gathered to mock him would have agreed. A century later, many would have. By now most. A good thing, too, for conservatives.

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