Andrew Sullivan: The Destruction Of Capitalism Demands A Welfare State

Andrew-SullivanAndrew Sullivan in a new piece explains how the brutal and destructive efficiency of capitalism can create social unrest and lead directly to the modern welfare state:

The turbulence of a growing wealth-creating free market disrupts traditional ways of life like no other. Even in a culture like ours used to relying from its very origins on entrepreneurial spirit, the dislocations are manifold. People have to move; their choices of partners for love and sex multiply; families disaggregate on their own virtual devices; grandparents are assigned to assisted living; second marriages are as familiar as first ones; and whole industries – and all the learned skills that went with them – can just disappear overnight (I think of my own profession as a journalist, but it is one of countless).

Capitalism is in this sense anti-conservative. It is a disruptive, culturally revolutionary force through human society. It has changed the world in three centuries more than at any time in the two hundred millennia that humans have lived on the earth. This must leave – and has surely left – victims behind. Which is why the welfare state emerged. The sheer cruelty of the market, the way it dispenses brutally with inefficiency (i.e. human beings and their jobs), the manner in which it encourages constant travel and communication: these, as Bell noted, are not ways to strengthen existing social norms, buttress the family, allow the civil society to do what it once did: take care of people within smaller familial units according to generational justice and respect. That kind of social order – the ultimate conservative utopia – is inimical to the capitalist enterprise.

To Sullivan, the welfare state protects capitalism as an institution, protecting it from the radical movements that result from social unrest.

 Which is why many leaders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, conservatives as well as liberals, attached a safety net to such an unsafe, bewildering, constantly shifting web of human demand and supply. They did so in part for humane reasons – but also because they realized that unless capitalism red in tooth and claw were complemented by some collective cushioning, it would soon fall prey to more revolutionary movements. The safety net was created to save capitalism from itself, not to attack capitalism.

Sullivan is a Burkean conservative. He likes social order, stability, and power of lasting institutions. He dislikes the unrest that comes from social disorder, and capitalism’s destructive potential can certainly bring disruption to traditional society. To him, a conservative ought to desire social harmony first and foremost.

Many conservatives argue that President like Franklin Roosevelt moved us away from capitalism and towards socialism. What they miss is that FDR’s new deal saved capitalism from itself and cemented it as an American institution. Without the safety net of the welfare state, ordinary people are left with two stark options: the cruelty of the free market, or the oppression of state control. The welfare state gives us a third choice.

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5 Responses to Andrew Sullivan: The Destruction Of Capitalism Demands A Welfare State

  1. The wisdom here is spot-on accurate. As a student of history, I know that social stratification always leads to social upheaval if left unchecked. Capitalism must be saved for everyone’s sake.

    • Yeah I really liked this column. Its funny how much closer the American left is closer to Burkean conservatism than the right is.

      You’re progressive, but you’re trying to preserve these institutions while the right want to tear them down. I need to start calling them ‘regressives.’ I think it fits better than ‘conservative’.

  2. john zande says:

    I found Obama’s words telling the other night: “In the richest nation on earth you shouldn’t work 40hrs a week and still be poor” (paraphrased, of course).

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