Beware the Atari Conservatives


The Economy in Mind, by Warren T. Brookes, New York: Universe Books, 1982, 256 pp., $15.95.

Twenty years ago, the "conservative movement" consisted of two branches, the traditionalists and the libertarians, who cooperated agreeably against the common foe—the welfare-state liberal—without much friction. Some issues emerged during the decade of the 1960s to set off the libertarians, many of whom today condemn conservatives; but many other libertarians still find no important controversies with conservatives.

This amiability is being tested once again. The "neo-conservatives" seem to have discovered the dynamic power of the free market to solve social and human problems. Traditionalist conservatives in the 1960s were tolerant of the free market—in William F. Buckley's words, it was, after all, part of the American tradition. But it was the libertarian movement that found in the free market an expression of the ethical foundation for society: individual rights and freedom of choice.

The neo-conservatives, exemplified by Irving Kristol (Two Cheers for Capitalism), George Gilder (Wealth and Poverty) and now Warren T. Brookes with The Economy in Mind, have decided to claim the free market as their own. Yet this thrust is not something libertarians should be happy about; indeed, something very important is about to be lost. Close readers will even notice that Brookes identifies lawlessness and immorality with the label "libertarian."

Brookes's treatment of the market economy is essentially a collectivist approach. Yes, he celebrates the Laffer curve and the other well-known proofs that production-incentive ("supply-side") economics is superior to redistributive and regulatory policies by government. But his philosophy for doing so has nothing to do with individual rights and freedom of choice. To Brookes, as to Gilder, the success of production-incentive economics is due to the metaphysical universe—a mystical process that rewards people of good spirit and punishes people of mean spirit. This, to him, is why the "economy" is in the "mind" rather than in the real world.

As one who grew up in the Midwest and was schooled at the University of Chicago, I can't help but think that this nonsense is some kind of East Coast, apostate-socialist myopia. There are repeated references, both in Brookes's Economy in Mind and in Gilder's book, to the "materialist" view of "rational" socialists. As if in contrast to this, the neo-conservatives have now invented an irrationalist justification for capitalism. (The Economy in Mind reads like a tract published by Christian Economics.)

Their mistake has been to concede the label and implicitly the field of rational, or critical, thought to those genuinely irrational schools that have long advocated central economic planning and manipulation of the free market in the name of "rationalism." This is like conceding the realm of human rights to the Soviets just because they have included some "social rights" in their written constitution—and then trying to justify the Jeffersonian or Lockean system on the ground of some moral superiority of agrarianism.

In other ways, Brookes seems to resemble the "Atari Democrats" like Jerry Brown and Gary Hart—the ones who tell us that high technology is the solution to all of our problems, and therefore public policy should subsidize the winners. Brookes's version of this, which might be called "Atari Conservatism," is that positive-thinking, devout, family-oriented computer programmers are going to remake the world (just as they have remade Massachusetts, as implied in his eighth chapter).

The Economy in Mind by Warren T. Brookes might find its way onto the bestseller list, and if it does I won't object. It is filled with documentation about the superiority of production-incentive economics. Since most people would be receptive to his arguments that God wants mankind to prosper, the book might become a tool in the kit of the Moral Majority—and that would be better than the other trend, toward protectionism and nativism, that Howard Phillips and Richard Viguerie have recently espoused.

Yet, to one who has read the books of Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and dozens of other great free-market, individualist economists, the justification that Brookes gives for the success of capitalism—and his underlying collectivistic view that "society" and "public morality" can be invoked against individual sovereignty—is just a touch repelling to this reviewer.

Joe Cobb is a contributing editor of REASON and a founder of the US Choice in Currency Commission.