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More on the Dangers of National Conservatism

Please pardon the length:

Mr. F__:

Thanks for your e-mail.

After reading my recent letter sent to National Review, you allege that I “don’t take seriously enough what [Roger] Scruton saw as the need for an economy that does not menace local communities.”

With respect, I believe that Scruton’s argument here crumbles under close scrutiny.

Let’s first note two relevant but easily missed facts. One is that a community is not a sentient creature and, as such, cannot be menaced; any sensations of being menaced by changes in a community are experienced only by that community’s flesh-and-blood inhabitants. The second is that any changes in the economics of a community – at least any changes not brought on by natural phenomena such as devastating earthquakes – are changes brought on by the choices and actions of fellow human beings, including fellow citizens.

Recognition of this second fact makes clear a third, inescapable fact: To protect some individuals from feeling ‘menaced’ by economic changes that might affect their communities requires restricting other individuals’ freedom of choice and action. That is, to protect Jones from feeling ‘menaced’ by economic change that alters his community life requires that the state menace Smith with restrictions on her commercial choices and actions.

Yet what ethical principle justifies the use of (threats of) coercion to directly menace Smith in order to prevent Jones from feeling menaced by changes in his community? What system of morals elevates Jones’s (very human) desire not to encounter changes in his community over Smith’s (very human) desire not to suffer restrictions on her peaceful commercial interactions with other adults, both near and far? I know of no such ethical principle or system of morals that are consistent with a non-totalitarian society.

I imagine that you’ll respond by insisting that we confront a choice of menacing Smith in order to prevent menace to Jones, or menacing Jones by refusing to menace Smith. Such a response would be a step in the right direction beyond Scruton’s argument, for this response implies what is implicitly denied by Scruton – namely, that the cost of protecting communities from being ‘menaced’ by economic change is perhaps too high to justify any such protection.

But your imagined response also is flawed substantively, at least for those of us – including Scruton – who generally support the principles of a free society. To prevent the sensation of ‘menace’ about which Scruton (and you) worry implies that we’re entitled to coercively prevent our fellow citizens from changing their choices and actions – to prevent our fellow citizens from choosing and acting differently from how they chose and acted in the past.

Scruton’s argument implies that Jones has a right to compel Smith to spend and invest her income in ways that satisfy the desires, not of Smith and her family, but of Jones. Scruton’s argument, in other words, is that each of us is free to choose to peaceably spend and invest our own incomes only insofar as such choices cause no emotional discomfort to others.

Put yet another way, Scruton’s argument – by implying that Jones, to avoid being ‘menaced’ by economic change, can veto Smith’s peaceful commercial choices – ultimately implies not merely that the state can and should restrict us and our fellow citizens from dealing commercially with foreigners, but also that we ultimately have no true commercial freedom at all.

The logical conclusion of Scruton’s argument (and of today’s “national conservatives”) is that any economic change – which is nearly all economic change – that threatens to alter how we engage on face-to-face bases with others can and should be suppressed by the state if such change discomforts a sufficient number of people (or discomforts or inconveniences people who are politically influential). The patterns of community engagement thereby ‘protected’ by being frozen into place would be, not the charming, lovely, and comforting personal relationships imagined by Scruton and you, but, instead, a poverty-ridden prison.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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