I bought Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher (Crown Forum, 2006) with one question in mind. After all the publicity this book has received, I wanted to know how much his cultural agenda requires of the state. How much liberty must we give up in order to achieve this author's vision of what is right and true?
This is, after all, the critical question to ask about any book on politics. If someone believes that some cultural outlook is better than some other, wants to live this way instead of that, prefers the country over the city, or likes rye bread more than white, it doesn't affect you or me in the slightest. What matters is the extent to which a person believes that the state ought to be used to impose their particular vision of what ought to be.
So I picked up this book — a political book by a political writer — expecting to find a full-scale blueprint for crunchy conservatism that would crunch right through our freedom to live a different lifestyle than the author does. After all, the pitch made for this book is that the author believes that conservatives are far too celebratory of the market economy.
What I found was not that, however, but something you might say is even worse: Dreher seems untroubled by serious issues of economics and politics. He has not put much thought into the political or the economic implications of what he writes. He is not the slightest bit curious about what his vision for his life and yours means for society at large. Though he imagines himself as a rebel against mass consumption, he seems completely unaware that he is purchasing his lifestyle choice just like everyone else, and that the market he loathes is precisely what makes his choice possible.
For those who haven't read about this new approach to conservative living, here is a quick primer. Dreher follows in a long line of writers dating back to the Industrial Revolution — and a certain strain of post WW2 conservative writers — who loath consumer culture, believe that mass production for the masses is sheer corruption, that free trade is deracinating us all from praiseworthy national attachments, that machines destroy souls, and that capitalism is the enemy of faith because it fuels change and progress. Dreher reports with disgust that America has become one big shopping mall populated by people driven by spiritually barren materialist motives who buy buy buy goods and services of shoddy quality to feed their frenzied desire to live decadently while eschewing friends, community, family, and faith.
And make no mistake: it is the free market that is his target. He even says that "the place of the free market in society" is precisely where he departs with regular conservatives (who he wrongly assumes love the market).
We should go another way, says he. We should cook at home, turn off the television, have kids, educate them at home, buy organic veggies, eat free-range chickens, bike not drive, buy from small shops and never Wal-Mart, live in cottages rather then gated communities, buy old homes and fix them up, and you know the rest of the story.
What's really strange about this book is that it does not really go much beyond this, at least on the surface. It is mostly a guide to how above-it-all the author and his family are, how they got to be so fabulous, and how they and their friends are to be congratulated and admired for having escaped the trappings of the materialism of our age. No Wonder Bread and Cheez Whiz circuses for them! They live a fully "sacramental" life, from their choice of crusty multigrains to their love of fancy French cheeses.
It never occurs to the author that his crunchy way of living is a consumable good — nay, a luxury good — made possible by the enormous prosperity that permit intellectuals like him to purport to live a high-minded and old-fashioned lifestyle without the problems that once came with pre-capitalist living.
He has fallen for some romantic notion of the past — happy, faithful communities raising their own food and working their own land — without considering the downside: infant mortality, plagues, lack of sanitation, short lives, surgery without anesthesia, and all the rest. The market — that global matrix of exchange that forms its own order out of billions of individual decisions — is his benefactor, and he seems completely unaware of it. A writer like this can make an economist wish that the invisible hand were slightly more visible so that at least its merits could be appreciated.
There are times when his romanticism is overt: as when he favorably cites John Ruskin's claim that the Industrial Revolution "came at the cost of [England's] soul" and ended up "debasing the soul of man by treating people as mere consumers." This line of thinking makes good poetry but has nothing to do with reality. How does a switch from wood fuel to fossil fuel debase the soul?
The author doesn't speak of demographics at all: the population of England soared from 8.5 million in 1770 to 16 million by 1831. This is the result of a vast increase in living standards. The result of the Industrial Revolution was not "a loss of the human in everyday life" but exactly the opposite: the vast increase in the number of humans who could participate in everyday life.
The world today has 6.5 billion people, and many of them are growing richer all the time thanks to the advance of capitalism. How does Dreher propose to feed and clothe and care for all these people? If they were all required to live a "crunchy con" lifestyle they would die, first by the thousands, then by the millions, then by the billions. The world today absolutely requires a vast productive machinery called the market. I'm sorry that he doesn't like it but this is reality. To be truly pro-life means to embrace free markets.
It is these demographic realities that lead most "crunchy" ideologists of the Left to come to support population control. They come to understand that a world without a market would have to have far fewer human beings, and those still alive would be far less healthy. At least they are consistent. As a good Catholic, Dreher won't explicitly go there. But that is where his ideology leads, and you can already see steps in that direction with his demand for a crackdown on immigration.
Yet there are places where the author does stumble on some truth. He points out that government regulations hurt small business and favor big business. But rather than conclude that laissez-faire is the way to go, he wants policies that "adopt an attitude toward business laws that favor small businesses over large corporations." How he alone expects to convert the whole permanent bureaucracy to his value system is left unclear.
Still, he persists. He blasts government for its centralizing education policies, but then turns around to attack any Republican who favors welfare cuts, because he has some crunchy friends who need the money. He doesn't want government involved in family life but he does want government to "encourage an expansion of the role of civil-society institutions." He does not want government to dictate to churches but he does want government to "strengthen legal prohibitions against pornography." And of course he is all about environmental laws, and is scandalized that anyone would want to loosen restrictions.
So what we have here is a grab bag of weakly argued policies to support his particular lifestyle, which he is not content to live on his own but rather wants to see legislated as a national program. Never mind whether any of this stuff is consistent or what the consequences would be.
Of course we get lectured on the evil of large retail shops driving smaller ones out of business. Even Dreher admits that larger stores often offer lower prices and better quality. He further admits that he would not pay premium prices for second-rate products when offered the choice. But then he goes on to say that the real problem is that we are all victims of a "cultural revolution" that teaches us to never deny ourselves consumer choice.
What is he saying? That it is a pure artificial construct of our culture that we don't want to fork over for bad stuff when we can spend less on good stuff? That in his ideal world there would be a new Crunchy Con Man who spends profligately in order to support inefficient producers? This is dangerously close to the "false consciousness" argument of the Marxists.
Price and quality aren't matters of some mystical consciousness. Prices are tools of economization. They make sure that resources are not being wasted. It always mystifies me how people who claim to loathe the wastefulness of capitalism don't see that it is precisely prices, property rights, and free exchange that lead to waste-minimization.
I admit to being completely confused by what this "crunchy" ideology of the Left and Right really wants concerning prices. They think it's awful how people pay $50,000 for an SUV when they could pay $7,000 on a subcompact. But they also think it's dreadful how people scarf up cheap pickles and soft drinks at Wal-Mart instead of paying higher prices for oatmeal and honey at Ye Ol' Corner Grocery Store. As far as I can tell, they object to both low prices and high prices. The more you try to make sense of this, the more it seems like it's just commerce they hate!
But isn't our author right that America has become a consumer-driven cultural wasteland? I asked several non-political friends of mine whether this is true, and they all readily agreed. But when pressed as to what part of their own lifestyle they believed reflected an excess that they should give up, not one could think of a thing.
It seems that consumerism is one of those things people condemn in the aggregate but not in its particulars — and even less so when it comes to ourselves. Here, for example, is a scenario I just observed over the weekend. A young couple pulled up to a parking lot in their oversized SUV. They were dressed in top-of-the-line sports gear from their glare-resistant sunglasses to their shock-proof running shoes. They lifted two children out of the backseat and into three-wheel canvas running strollers that they had stored in the back. They set their thermal tumblers down and took off on a run with the children.
On the face of it, it looked like a picture of excess that Dreher would readily condemn. But then I began to think about what this couple should give up in order that their souls and our country would be saved. Their shoes? But those expensive running shoes, made to provide support over hundreds of miles, are essential for their physical health. Would Dreher wish middle-age knee surgery on them? Maybe they should give up their pricey strollers. But then the kids would be bumped around and might fly out if they hit a rock. Their huge car? Well, where are they going to put their kids with their oversized safely seats that take up so much room, and where would they store their large strollers? Their sunglasses, which might have cost $100 each? Lesser glasses do not cut the glare as well, and make it more likely that they will overlook a hazard. Their top-dollar shorts? How does it help them or anyone else to force them to where cut-offs instead? Their thermal tumblers? I fail to see anything soul-saving about a tumbler that doesn't keep coffee warm.
We could do the same examination of every aspect of this couple's lives and see that everything they own or do — at least from their perspective — is making their lives better. Maybe they live in a subdivision, maybe because it is safer, maybe because it has a pool for the kids, maybe because they saw it as a good investment. How is it that Dreher purports to know better what is good for them? Why can't he see how magnificent it is that the market provides such choice for people? What is it that so bugs him about people who are bettering their lot in life?
His answer is certainly not that this couple ought to pay less for their possessions, since that would entail going to Wal-Mart for cheaper sneakers, poly-blend shorts, and look-alike sunglasses at a fraction of the price. After all, Dreher condemns Wal-Mart too as a sign and symbol of our decadence. Maybe he thinks that this couple should not be out running at all, but instead they should be at home canning their own vegetables and washing their laundry down by the river. I fail to see how this can be considered the true path to social salvation.
As we approach the end of the book, we finally get to the inevitable Chicken Little scenario about what will happen to our nation should we continue to eschew his demands. He warns of nuclear holocaust, peak-oil scenarios, and bird flu epidemics — never mind that the last one is a hoax, the middle one is just bad economics, and the first one would result from reckless US foreign policy, about which he has nothing to say. We should be thankful that he finished the book around the time that New Orleans was under water from a flood and government was botching the clean-up operation. Watching this news seems to have tempered his enthusiasm for government solutions.
It is easy to lose patience with writers like this. He writes about economics but has no time at all for economic studies. ("What kind of economy should we have, then? I don't know; I'm a writer, not an economist.")
He is under the impression that the world we live is somehow hammered out by our wishes and desires concerning how we want society to be shaped, and therefore that reshaping it requires nothing more than wishing in a different sort of way.
So toward the end, we find that he is sympathetic to "distributivism," a theory of property organization that does not need to be explained here but which makes zero economic sense.
Why do people like Dreher avoid the study of economics? Why do they refuse to engage the topic? Maybe it seems too technical. Maybe he thinks it is something one should study in school and it's too late after.
But there might be a more subliminal reason: he might vaguely know that economic theory imposes limits on the human imagination. It claims that there are hard realities in this world and explains that there are tradeoffs. You can't always get what you want. Social structure is not just a product of the dreams we dream.
For example, you can't take steps toward reducing the division of labor in the world and expect people not to be impoverished as a result. Economics imposes a grueling intellectual responsibility that makes writers accountable for what they say. If you want to make a living as a provocateur, economics is best avoided.
And yet, as Rothbard famously wrote:
"It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a 'dismal science.' But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance."
By the way, the book is available on Amazon, that big business that uses the most modern technology, and is responsible for the uses of vast amounts of gas and energy to deliver his book all over the world — all so people can read about the dangers of big business, technology, and overuse of energy, and so he can convert the masses to consume less of what he doesn't like and more of what he does like.