I’m really happy with this way this article turned out. It is published at Crisis. The editor John Zmirak had initially sent me a piece by the legendary historian Christopher Dawson and asked me to respond. I generally avoid this sort of debate so I didn’t bother to look at the piece for probably ten days or so. In fact, I didn’t really accept the challenge.
Then I read the piece. It was quite incredible. Dawson sweeps his scholarly hand over vast continents and epochs and makes wild claims entirely abstracted from the real experience of humanity. Nowhere does he show the slightest interest in the plight of the common man and his quality of life. He is happy to declare the middle ages to be this wonderful time of faith and order and then proceeds to blast away all of the last several hundred years as hopelessly corrupted by materialism. His target is what he calls the bourgeoisie, and here he admits that his thinking is in line with Karl Marx. But there is a difference. Whereas the Marxists posited a hopeless conflict between capital and labor, his model posits a conflict between real faith and material provision. The two are irreconcilable.
The real danger of the Dawson piece is its erudition in big things and its deep disengagement with the small things that make life good, like clean clothes, medical care, running water, job opportunities, access to food to feed the children, and the like. He cares nothing for these things. He is content to simply praise the past for its Michelangos and Berninis and condemn the present for its Lady Gagas and Justin Beibers. It’s really a cheap trick and an obvious one: pick the best of the past and the worst of the present and you can paint a picture of relentless decline.
My response points to the dramatic change that took hold of the world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a change that created what we call the middle class today. It gave life to hundreds of millions of people. Without the bourgeoisie and the capitalist marketplace they sustain, the world could not support seven billion. Surely a high-minded cultural historian like Dawson should care about things like this? Surely!
I am not a smoker. Never have been. Frankly, I admit to thinking it’s a vile habit. Those caveats aside, the treatment of smokers in the U.S. is something of a quandary to me. Here is a group composed of a cross-section of Americana that might be unrivaled in its breadth. Rich people smoke. Poor people smoke. People of color smoke. White people smoke. Men smoke. Women smoke. Young folks smoke. Old fogies smoke. Lawmakers smoke. Hell, even the POTUS has been known to light up a time or two. Truly, everybody is represented on the smoking band wagon. With all that representation, again I ask: Why isn’t there an all-smoking airline? The answer is obvious: because the government says so. The obligatory airline safety briefing contains words to this effect: “Federal regulations prohibit smoking on airplanes.” Why in the hell…?
A decade ago Terence Ball wrote a critique of some Frankenstein-like creature meant to represent free market ideology. He robbed the graves of men and women as diverse as Murray Rothbard, Margaret Thatcher, Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand to put it together and came up with something that no libertarian would endorse, I suspect, but which nevertheless is recognizable as libertarian(ish). It may not be the same species, but it is in the same genus. Or at least the same family.
He imagined a country called Marketopia and described how life would be there, with the purpose of showing us that while markets are good for some things, there are areas where they are inappropriate. As he wrote, “why do some (or perhaps all) Marketopian practices make many – perhaps most – of us uneasy or queasy, or worse?” The great problem with his essay is that he never demonstrates to the reader’s satisfaction that he understands what his own argument is. He claims to be interested in three questions: Why do people get queasy at the practices of Marketopia, what distortions of the language would Marketopia produce and are we already headed towards Marketopia.
About the second question I care nothing at all, and about the third… well, watching a statist fretting over how close we are to a Free Market is a bit like listening to a neocon quaking that Iran presents a military threat to the United States. It would be less embarrassing to watch a grown man sleep with a night light to protect him from the Bogey Man in his closet. The first question bears some scrutiny, however, but I wish I could do it knowing what exactly Dr. Ball had in mind.
Is this Marketopia supposed to be what would always happen if libertarianism ever won the day, or is he just demonstrating how market activity is inappropriate for some relationships? If the latter is his point, I would say he came up with a handful of examples where I agree with him, but what does he propose to do about it? If the former, it should be pointed out that many of these activities are legal now but do not occur.