Economic freedom

Economic freedom April 23, 2012

Nisbet ( The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (Background: Essential Texts for the Conservative Mind) ) admits that “no one can seriously question the abstract superiority of a society in which freedom of economic choice exists as compared to a society in which it does not. Moreover, only the willfully blind will fail to mark the danger to economic freedom created by increasing political controls at the present time” (p. 213).

Yet, Nisbet also argues that the freedom of economic life cannot rightly be conceived of as the freedom of “autonomous, separated individuals” who operate with “a minimum of social constraint of any kind, and a reliance upon the automatic workings of the free market” (p. 212). Economic systems have never been successful when they are founded “upon purely individualistic drives or upon the impersonal relationships so prized by the rationalists.” On the contrary, “associations and incentives nourished by the non-economic processes of kinship, religion and various other forms of social relationships” are always there, and “human institutions depend for their preservation on the strength of the allegiances which such institutions create in human beings.” Divorcing economic ends “from the contexts of social association within which allegiance to these ends can be nourished is fatal,” no matter how productive the economic system is (p. 212-213).

Individualistic underpinnings of economic theory are not, he thinks, the only problem. He quotes Joseph Schumpeter’s comment about the cultural contradictions of capitalism:

“The capitalist order not only rests on props made of extra-capitalist material but also derives its energy from extra-capitalist patterns of behavior which a t the same time it is bound to destroy ” (quoted p. 13; emphasis added).

Earlier in the book, Nisbet quotes Schumpeter at greater length: “We need . . . recall that the family and the family home used to be the mainspring of the typically bourgeois kind of profit motive. Economists have not always given due weight to this fact. When we look more closely at the idea of the self-interest of entrepreneurs and capitalists we cannot fail to discover that the results it was supposed to produce are really not at all what one would expect from the rational self-interest of the detached individual or the childless couple who no longer look at the world through the windows of a family home. Consciously or unconsciously, they analyzed the behavior of the man whose motives are shaped by such a home and who means to work and save primarily for wife and children. As soon as these fade out from the moral vision of the businessman, we have a different kind of homo economicus before us who cares for different things and acts in different ways” (quoted in Nisbet, p. 60).


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