There are some so-called "conservatives" who are really liberals.
The Bain controversy is the perfect case study to illustrate the distinction at the center of the economic school of thought called "Distributism." And it is a case study in the Fallacy of the Appeal to the Aggregate that seems to infect the rhetoric of a lot of people who call themselves "conservative."
The Bain controversy, let us remember, involves Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's involvement in Bain Capital, a private equity firm. As a private equity company, Bain has invested in numerous companies and, in the course of its regular business, employees were laid off and jobs were outsourced.
In our last installment of Distributism 101, I discussed the Distributist distinction between theoretical and applied economics. "On the one hand," said Hillaire Belloc, "theoretical economics focuses on the way economics laws work. On the other hand, applied economics tell us what the economic state of affairs ought to be."
What people like Romney do to justify their own individual actions in pursuing profits is to clothe themselves in the mantle of "conservatism." But in doing so, they confound the two modes of economic thought: Whatever "works" economically, they seem to suggest, is ipso facto the way it ought to be.
Furthermore, among such people the definition of what "works" is always cast in aggregate terms: if an economic action produces greater aggregate income or greater aggregate employment, etc., then it is automatically considered to be the result the individual ought to pursue.
To propound this doctrine on a policy level is one thing. There, it has a certain air of plausibility--although it is still not unproblematic. But to propound it on the personal level, as Romney has done, is to completely confound both economic and ethical categories.
To say that your personal action is right because it contributes to the greatest good of the greatest number may or may not be the doctrine of Adam Smith, but it is certainly the doctrine of John Stuart Mill. More specifically, it is the doctrine of utilitarianism, the doctrine of which Mill was the most prominent historical exponent. And to acquiesce to such arguments in the name of conservatism is to imply that conservatism itself is a utilitarian doctrine, which it most certainly is not.
The problem, of course, is that there are people running around calling themselves conservatives who are spouting economic utilitarianism and don't seem to realize it, and Romney is one them.
Predatory capitalism is not a conservative doctrine. It is economic utilitarianism, and economic utilitarianism is the soul of liberalism properly so-called. American political rhetoric has developed in a rather strange way and has seen the term "liberal" turned into a reference to someone who believes in socialism. "Liberalism" used to mean--and still does mean in Europe--someone who believes in economic freedom.
In fact, I think partly because of the changed application of the word in American politics, we seem to have come up with a new word to mean what "liberal" used to mean: libertarian. I suppose it gets us out of the problem of calling people we think of as conservatives "liberals."
When Romney was called out for this, out came all the libertarians who have convinced people that they are conservatives to defend him: David Boaz at the Cato Institute, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, and Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity.
But, as I have pointed out on this blog before, libertarianism is not conservatism. In fact, pure libertarianism is almost the exact opposite. This is why social conservatives (the ones who really understand their social conservatism, anyway) should have a troubled conscience in making common cause with libertarians. I'm not saying they should never do it. Sometimes the predations of socialism require it. But we shouldn't forget that conservatism is ultimately inimical to libertarianism. And I'm afraid we forgot that some time ago.
People who think it is right to lay people off and outsource their jobs purely for the purpose of padding their own profits are not conservatives. Conservatives are about conserving things--things like families and communities. This requires an acknowledgement of the efficiencies of the free market in subordination to common good, to which the efficiencies of the free market are sometimes blind.
The extreme individualist utilitarianism that is espoused by some people who want to call themselves "conservative" is corrosive of these things.
They are utilitarian capitalists, which is another word for "liberal."