The word “conservative” has been warped and twisted into so many new meanings contrary to what it once meant that one can only pity it. Some attach it to the belief that any “market outcome” is for the best in this best of all possible (i.e. capitalist) worlds. That is the belief of Dr. Pangloss and his heirs, the libertarians (sorry, Herr Leibnitz), not conservatives. Others attach it to the endless quest for efficiency and efficiency’s close cousin, cheapness, that now disfigures the “Globalist” economy. Such “conservatism” elevates as its First Commandment the iron law of wages, with the ironic result that it becomes an argument for Marxism.
But efficiency has never been a conservative virtue. Conservatives’ respect for traditions, customs, and habits and their understanding of society as an organic creation of many generations mean they value and protect lots of things that are inefficient, from the tripartite division of the American government through small family farms and local businesses to Flanders & Swan’s slow trains. We recognize that a modicum of efficiency is desirable lest institutions cease to produce anything. But to us, it is markedly less important than age, beauty, and having and helping others to have an enjoyable life. Our utopia is The Shire, not the World of Our Ford.
As usual the best corrective to any notion that conservatives are Taylorists pursuing an eternal quest for the cheapest price comes from Russell Kirk. In The Politics of Prudence, the best one-volume introduction to a truly conservative politics, Dr. Kirk wrote:
An economy obsessed by an alleged Gross National Product–no matter what is produced, or how–becomes inhumane. A society that thinks only of alleged Efficiency, regardless the consequences to human beings, works its own ruin. . . In his book The Economic Role of the State, (W.A.) Orton ironically describes the cult of Efficiency:
“Let us therefore praise the great god Efficiency,” Orton writes. “All he demands is that we make straight his path through the desert and purge the opposition . . . How much more mastery is evident in the controls of a supersonic plane than in the clumsy splendor of some medieval shrine! How much higher a peak of human achievement! Human? Let us not be too particular about that . . .
Later in the same volume, Dr. Kirk personifies the quest for cheapness as Cyrus P. Whittle, a Yankee schoolmaster in George Santayana’s novel The Last Puritan. He writes,
So America’s contribution to the universal “democratic capitalism” of the future . . . will be just this: cheapness, the cheapest music and the cheapest comic books and the cheapest morality that can be provided. This indeed would be the revolution of revolutions, the Gehenna of universal monotony and mediocrity. This is Cyrus P. Whittle, telling himself that not only is America the biggest thing on earth, but America is soon going to wipe out everything else;…
Substitute “Globalism” for America (though with America’s elite Globalism’s greatest proponent) and you have something pretty near our situation. What brings Dr. Kirk’s denunciations of cheapness and efficiency to mind is the current quest of the conservative movement for a new agenda, one that speaks to the problems of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. My modest proposal is that opposition to efficiency, the quest for ever-greater cheapness and the resulting destruction of the American middle class, should be part of that new agenda.
All of us who live in the nation’s heartland know the real story. There has been no economic recovery. Why? Because the number of good jobs, jobs that pay a man enough to give his family a middle-class standard of living, continues to shrink. Young people entering the labor market find nothing but minimum-wage jobs that offer only 28 hours a week (more and the employer is into Obamacare). They cannot make enough to leave home and begin an adult life, much less start a family.
The quest for efficiency not only lowers wages and hours, it increasingly turns the lucky person who gets a job into a wage-slave. All his time, 24/7, belongs to his employer, who demands it through the incessant ringing or beeping of some hellish electronic device, a human leash. Any failure to respond risks a return to joblessness. The iron law of wages, indeed.
Conservatives should be in the lead in demanding government regulation of employers’ demands on employee’s time, the bleats of the libertarians be damned. Such a movement is underway. The July 16 New York Times reported it in a front-page story:
As more workers find their lives upended and their paychecks reduced by ever-changing, on-call schedules, government officials are trying to put limits on the harshest of those scheduling practices.
The actions reflect a growing national movement–fueled by women’s and labor groups–to curb practices that affect millions of families, like assigning just one or two days of work a week or requiring employees to work unpredictable hours that wreak havoc with everyday routines…
Women’s and labor groups, very well, but where are conservatives? In Washington, no doubt licking the boots of their Wall Street donors, who endlessly chant “efficiency, efficiency.” But efficiency is not a conservative virtue.
Ironically, treating workers so badly they hate their jobs and their employers is not even very efficient. Another New York Times piece, from the July 5 “Business Day” section of the newspaper, “Paying Employees to Stay, Not to Go,” relates how some fast-food chains have improved their bottom line by paying their workers decent wages. One of those chains, the quality of whose burgers I can personally attest to, is In-N-Out Burger, based in California. Their hamburgers are competitively priced, but they pay all their employees a minimum of $10.50 an hour. A nascent chain in Michigan, Moo Cluck Moo Burger, starts everyone at $15. The Times reports that, the iron law of wages to the contrary, these restaurants find paying decent wages benefits them because their employees remain with them, saving on training costs, and they provide much better customer service. Any businessman will tell you it is far more efficient to keep a customer than to try to attract a new one.
Not only should conservatives be in the lead of movements to pay living wages and respect employees’ right to private time, we have something unique to contribute. What? When Big Business (conservatives are suspicious of anything big) replies, “We won’t be competitive internationally unless we continually cut wages and (to avoid benefits) hours,” conservatives have an answer: bring back tariffs
The destruction of the American middle class can be explained in two words: free trade. Free trade averaged our wages with those of countries such as China and Korea. They went up, but we came down. Wall Street didn’t, of course; it profited vastly from free trade, by moving jobs overseas. That too can be subject to tariff, in the form of an export duty of, say, 300% of the wage paid to the worker in India who replaced an American. The Establishment has made the word “tariff” unacceptable in polite society, but conservatives are in a position to change that. If we pronounce tariffs acceptable again, to whom will Wall Street turn
America built its industry and its comfortable middle class under tariff protection. Now, we need tariff protection to rebuild both. As a 19th century Republican might have said, “Here’s to the tariff, the gold standard, and prosperity! Huzzah!”