Democracy and capitalism are both about freedom, right? In a democracy, the majority controls its government by electing or casting out the politicians with its votes, while in a capitalistic economy, people are free to buy and sell almost whatever they like. So you’d expect a modern, free-thinking society to be both democratic and capitalistic. And yet it turns out that these two systems foster very different kinds of freedom, and liberals and conservatives are divided in their defenses of them.
The conflict between democracy and capitalism is well-known. In a democracy, everyone has only one vote per election. This way of establishing a government is inspired by the Enlightenment ideal that people who control themselves by thinking rationally thereby earn for themselves equal rights. The Scientific Revolution gave rise to the classic liberal idea of freedom, which is the idea of autonomy: in so far as people are self-aware and rational, we liberate ourselves from certain natural forces, controlling our emotions and instincts and thus choosing how we want to act. That freedom gives all people equal dignity and the same human rights. That’s why in a democracy every rational person deserves a vote, but only one vote per election. Instead of needing a monarch or an upper class of elites to dictate how lower classes should live, rational people are all sovereign over themselves and so they can and should govern themselves through their elected representatives.
Although the modern philosophical roots of democracy are secular and largely science-inspired, the assumption being that democracy and science are both progressive, democratic egalitarianism hearkens back to the ancient religious dream of a supernatural kingdom of God. For example, Jesus is said to have used shocking hyperbole to reverse expectations, proclaiming that the first would be last and the last would be first, that the poor will inherit the earth. The point was that despite manifest natural inequalities between social classes, races, and genders, supernatural forces would reshape everything on Judgment Day and everyone with religious faith would be welcome in the new order that would reflect spiritual truths rather than natural illusions. Although some would go to heaven and others to hell, this premodern worldview assumes that everyone is equal in their freedom to choose either path or else in their inability to save themselves. Modernists naturalized those religious ideals, replacing faith with reason, supernatural spirit with rational self-control, and God’s sovereignty with democracy. God apparently wasn’t returning to Earth so fast, so we’d have to build utopia by ourselves. Thus, science-centered rationalism, democratic self-governance, and equal rights were the modern reboots of ideologies deriving from the spiritual revolutionaries of the Axial Age.
Capitalism, however, is a very different animal. In so far as buyers and sellers are free to conduct business in a so-called free market, they’re free to participate in a race, as it were, in which natural inequalities are allowed to play themselves out and to dictate the winners and losers. Instead of everyone being given the same constant stream of funds, to suit their spiritual equality, money is unequally distributed and allowed to accumulate or to be squandered as people see fit, because money is private property. Thus, a rich person and a poor person have very different economic powers in an unregulated market even though politically and legally the two may be equal.
Whereas democracy is a modern religious institution, complete with forgotten, stale Enlightenment myths about the dignity we deserve because of our rationality and freewill, capitalism is a modern variation on the natural theme of wild animals’ struggle to survive. In the wild you find variation, which is to say inequality. To be sure, there are many similarities between species because of their common evolutionary origin, but living things have endured for millions of years because they’ve adapted to different environments, a process fuelled by genetic mutation which creates the variety of body types, from insects to reptiles to mammals. Whereas reason and democracy replace the supernatural guarantors of a perfectly fair society, money takes on the role of the genes in the wild free-for-all of the unregulated market. Just as the genes are mostly preserved from one generation to the next, bestowing unequal powers on each lineage and on weaker or stronger members of groups or species, so too wealth is inherited and concentrated, empowering some a lot more than others. Just as genes are instrumental in producing claws, fangs, wings, fins, fur, and most other biological traits, money allows you to buy clothes, weapons, vehicles, houses, artworks, and anything else that can be produced and sold. So an elephant can crush an ant and a plutocrat can dispose of a pauper.
The freedom that’s crucial to a free market isn’t an attribute of the buyers or the sellers; what’s free, rather, is the environment in its filtering of the fit and the unfit inhabitants. The marketplace as a whole is free from government interference, so that the race can be allowed to play out and everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are revealed and rewarded or punished, depending on whether the person wins or loses money. Far from being initially free, the runners inherit their skills and weaknesses as well as their vastly different amounts of private property. As the race develops, weaker or less lucky runners who become impoverished are further disempowered, because they’re met with fewer economic opportunities. By contrast, the winners of the race in a free market become free in something like the classic liberal sense: the rich are economically independent, godlike sovereigns, although whether they also have rational self-control is irrelevant, by the limited economic measure, since the liberators here are just success in the natural competition and the resulting empowerment by accumulated wealth.
Current, postmodern liberalism is a democratic ideology, while conservatism is a capitalistic one. With perfect irony, then, the so-called godless liberal espouses modern versions of ancient spiritual ideals, whereas the allegedly God-intoxicated conservative is a social Darwinian. The liberal believes in social progress, that is, in a transformation of the natural order, in a subduing of natural forces and in the creation of societies that better reflect our equal inner worth as elevated beings. For centuries, explicitly religious institutions ran on theistic myths to keep people’s spirits up after the fall of Rome, the Dark Age in Europe, the Black Death, the religious wars, and the corruption of the Catholic Church. Afterward, modern societies emerged which were scientistic in that they upheld progress in science and technology as the model for personal and social improvement. Just as Reason could discover how nature works and how to exploit natural processes, so too Reason could learn the secrets of human nature, thus setting us on the most realistic, efficient path to achieving our goals. But this transition from the premodern period to the modern one exhibited mainly a change of method, not of ideals. Modern thinkers reworked the ancient religious ideals even as they discredited the naïve myths that encouraged people to pursue them.
Many economic conservatives are also socially conservative, or at least they must pretend to be so, because they have religious commitments. The result is a hodgepodge of faith-based rhetoric about our supernatural destiny that’s belied by the conservative’s war against the liberal’s efforts to mitigate natural inequalities. A conservative can read what the Bible says about miracles and the equal dignity of souls, and yet cry out against any attempt to curb the economic processes by which a society with a free market rigidifies into a dominance hierarchy, reflecting the triumph of impersonal natural law. Some conservatives try to reconcile their otherworldly ideals with their Darwinian practices, by imagining that natural laws are God’s commandments. In light of the Scientific Revolution, though, which taught us the difference between natural and social laws, this planting of God’s flag in the amoral wilderness is as grotesque as the ancient astronaut theory of religion, according to which the mythical gods were alien beings and their miracles were just displays of advanced technology. In either case, the point is well and truly missed.
Another attempt to escape the irony, or at least to muddy the waters, goes by the name of “neoliberalism.” The neoliberal defends capitalism at the cost of democracy, thus joining the conservative in her fatalistic submission to the evolutionary norm. But the neoliberal also resorts to hyperrational mathematics to sell her archaic faith in social progress. Friedrich Hayek, for example, says that because we’re necessarily ignorant of how an economy works in all its complexity, we shouldn’t try to impose a centralized form of government but should trust in a natural process of trial and error, namely in the competition of ideas in a free market. The assumption here is that natural evolution progresses, because it’s a learning process.
Not so, though, since there’s no mind around long enough to learn from the whole evolution of life, which is to say that evolution happens for no one’s benefit. Thus, as you might expect, a free market naturally degenerates into a dominance hierarchy ruled by monopolists who gobble up competitors and so stifle the market’s creativity. But the unpleasant facts of wild competition, including the fact of the average person’s irrationality, as shown by cognitive scientists, are obscured by the neoliberal’s highly abstract mathematical models that are precisely as otherworldly as ancient religious myths about God’s supernatural kingdom. Instead of an immaterial spirit, you have Homo economicus, the idealized economic agent whose thinking is perfectly consistent and amoral, and instead of heaven you have a self-regulating market, none of which can exist in the real world.
The ironies here are abundant, but irony seldom benefits us. Liberals have been punished for their uninspired appropriation of premodern ideals; after all, modern myths have proven unable to enchant for long, and so liberals have sunk into a postmodern swamp of nihilism, relativism, and hedonism. And religious conservatives, who betray their ideals by advocating for a society that reduces people to beasts, can only watch as the science that explains evolution also renders the premodern faiths obsolete.