Family, Community,
and the Free Market

A difficult tension for the conservative mind

By Ajay Ravichandran

One of the most basic assumptions that most observers of mainstream American political discourse share, on both the left and right, is the idea that support for the free market is a defining feature of conservatism. When right-wing pundits who seek to question the conservative credentials of a politician or commentator are asked what, specifically, makes them true conservatives and their targets impostors, they almost always point to their support for capitalism. Libertarians are typically described as “economically conservative and socially liberal,” and our own economics department’s vigorous advocacy for the superiority of relatively unregulated markets is held up as a paradigmatic example of conservative thought.

            Important tenets of conservative thought centered around the conservative account of family and community call this automatic identification of support for capitalism as conservative into question. These strands within the conservative tradition provide a basis for distinctively right-of-center objections to capitalism that differ profoundly from the standard market-failure and social-justice arguments made by its critics on the left. However, conservatism is a complex and multi-faceted political philosophy, and capitalism’s defenders can certainly find important figures and principles to draw from within it; to argue that conservatives must necessarily oppose capitalism would be beyond the scope of this piece. My purpose is merely to suggest that the range of considerations that can be labeled “conservative” is somewhat broader than is typically assumed and to highlight tensions within conservatism that are too often overlooked. The role of families and small, face-to-face communities in conservative thought comes from their capacity to perform three vital functions necessitated by the conservative account of human flourishing and social order, a capacity that capitalism undermines. Capitalist competition makes it difficult for these institutions to survive, and both the competitive ethos and promiscuous toleration of individuals’ desires that the system fosters undermines the legitimacy of their mission.


            The first function that conservatism assigns to families and small communities follows logically from conservative premises about human motivation and flourishing. Conservatives have long insisted that the capacity of rational persuasion to alter human conduct is quite limited, and that prejudices and appetites will always drive much of our behavior. This position can be traced back to the defense of prejudice and custom that Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British statesman and philosopher widely regarded as the founder of Anglo-American conservatism, offers in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, and perhaps even further, to Aristotle’s discussion of how strong appetites can make reasoning ineffective in his Nicomachean Ethics. It is derived from conservatism’s deep pessimism about human nature and the concomitant doubt that creatures as limited and flawed as ourselves could be prevented from acting incorrectly by reason alone. The same pessimism also suggests that we are not born with the right appetites and prejudices but must have them inculcated in us.

Another conservative position that points to the same conclusion is the idea that certain modes of life are uniquely suited to human beings because of our nature. This view flows from the basic premise that gives conservatism its name: the idea that many of the most important truths and social goods are givens provided by the nature of reality that should be conserved and adapted to rather than transcended. It is manifested in conservative defenses of particular ways of living, such as marriage, over others. Since passions and appetites are as much a part of our nature as are beliefs, conservatives who seek to treat human nature as a reality to be adjusted to and not a problem to be solved should view the well-ordered human life as comprised of dispositions as well as thoughts. When coupled with the pessimistic insights discussed above, this belief implies that only a certain subset of human beings’ natural inclinations are actually directed toward true happiness, and thus that we must be socialized to value the truly good life and pursue it.

            This view of human motivation and flourishing provides a natural role for families and small communities. Because the cultivation of habits and appetites requires a much more intimate knowledge of and connection to the targets of cultivation than does instruction in systematic doctrines, it can only be done on a very small scale. Furthermore, the intrusive nature of the process requires that it be performed by an entity that is unconstrained by the strict limitations that must be placed on large-scale institutions to prevent abuses of power, but is still prevented from doing harm to those whom it is supposed to shape. It is also necessary that individuals in whom the right dispositions are being cultivated should have no choice but to participate in the process and that the same network of forces should continue to shape them for an extended period. The former requirement is a product of conservative pessimism; it is a recognition of the fact that, by definition, most people will not want their present impulses to be transformed and therefore should be placed in social settings where such transformation is mandatory. The latter one flows from the simple fact that habits and desires are deeply rooted in the human psyche and thus can only be modified through a continuous effort. Families and small communities satisfy these requirements well. The deep love that parents naturally feel for their children and the social constraints generated by the necessity of living with the same people for an extended period provide effective checks on the power that must be wielded for the process of cultivation to be effective. The small scale of both institutions allows for the intimate contact that the process requires, and their closed nature prevents members from avoiding the process and ensures that the same forces will continue to shape each member for an extended period.

            The second function concerns the cultivation of a specific disposition; the distinctively conservative conception of this disposition flows from important beliefs about human nature and political life, and accords families and small communities a uniquely important role in its cultivation.  Conservatives depart from liberals of various kinds in insisting that the maintenance of a healthy political order requires the inculcation of certain civic virtues in the citizenry. This position is rooted in conservatism’s keen sense of the unpredictable vicissitudes of history. Conservatives’ understanding that any polity is vulnerable to unforeseeable risks leads to doubt that the enlightened self-interest which contractarian liberals see as sufficient for the preservation of the social order is really enough. Citizens are likely to need both stronger reasons to defend their society and capacities that have to be deliberately cultivated.

One of the most important civic virtues is the ability to think of oneself as a member of a group to which one has obligations. Conservatives have a distinctive account of how people acquire this quality. Burke provided one of the definitive statements of this view when he remarked that “to love the little platoon we belong to in society ... is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” He contended that humans first develop the capacity for loyalty and self-sacrifice by directing these attitudes toward a clearly defined, particular group of people; the concreteness and particularity of such groups enables them to call forth feelings of identification and love that most people are less likely to experience in connection with abstractions like the “community of nations” or the “universal brotherhood of mankind.” Once people have developed the ability to be loyal in this manner, they can extend their sympathies outward to embrace larger and larger groups. In advancing this argument, Burke was relying on the deeper conservative insight that the tendency to identify with the particular rather than the universal and the concrete rather than the abstract is one of several fixed, immutable features of human nature that cannot be wished away, but must instead be channeled in constructive ways. This account of how we acquire the capacity for public-mindedness plays an important role in conservative defenses of the nation-state against advocates of greater regional and international consolidation and objections to mass immigration; in both cases, conservatives contend that individuals with no discrete, particular political entity or cultural tradition to be loyal to will be unable to develop the cooperative virtues needed to maintain any kind of society, let alone large-scale regional or international collaborative efforts.

However, the same premises that lead conservatives to defend political and cultural particularity also entail the conclusion that loyalties to entities like states and cultures must be founded on more direct and immediate ties to pre-political institutions, the most fundamental of which are the family and the community. Even a sentiment like American patriotism, while certainly richer and more concrete than the vague cosmopolitanism that some liberal internationalists advocate, is a feeling directed toward large masses of people whom one will never meet; it is typically conceived of in terms of symbols like the flag or ideals like democracy rather than specific individuals or places. Burke’s quotation clearly indicates that loyalty to one’s country can only develop from a more basic loyalty to one’s “little platoon.”

Therefore, the process of acquiring the capacity for loyalty must begin in relatively small-scale social settings, where individuals can interact directly and intimately without interference from impersonal institutional structures. Contact with flesh-and-blood human beings situated in concrete, specific places summons up the most visceral and intense feelings of identification in the typical person and thereby creates a sound basis for loyalty to larger groups. The requirements of extended contact with the same people and compulsoriness discussed above are of course vital, but the former one has added importance with respect to this particular virtue.  If a given individual is required to interact with the same small group for a long period of time, he or she will be able to observe each member of the group closely and develop a thorough understanding of their personalities that incorporates their flaws and foibles; the identification with his community that this individual develops, will therefore be richer and more meaningful because it will be rooted in a love of people as they are, not as we would like them to be. The idealized conceptions that we frequently form of distant acquaintances or people encountered only briefly, provide too weak a basis for meaningful loyalty. All of these considerations provide an additional reason for conservatives to view thriving families and small communities as necessary foundations for a healthy political order. Both of these institutions force their members to interact with the same people intimately and regularly and thus develop capacities for loyalty and self-sacrifice within the citizenry.

The third and final function that families and small communities must perform, assuming that conservative conceptions of human nature and the social order are correct, derives from one of the most fundamental conservative principles: veneration for tradition. The term “conservatism” derives in part from the principle that it is wise to presume in favor of the established ways of doing things and to conserve them against efforts to impose innovations. It is important to note that this idea has always been construed as a presumption in favor of tradition, not an absolute prescription; conservatives from Burke onward have favored a variety of reforms, gradual as well as extensive. The conservative belief in tradition is best understood not as an unyielding doctrine but rather as an insistence that the burden of proof should always be on advocates of change, not defenders of the status quo. This respect for custom derives from conservative pessimism about the course of history and about human nature. The former suggests that social stability is itself so rare and precious that it is worth taking substantial effort to preserve, even if doing so conflicts with the pursuit of loftier goals like justice; since a society typically contemplates changing its traditions only when it is in a state of relative social equilibrium, this line of reasoning militates in favor of according significant weight to those traditions since their presence seems to be compatible with stability. The latter makes conservatives skeptical about the possibility that flawed individuals using their unaided powers of observation and reason will be able to arrive at sound conclusions about how their society should be organized. The conservative preference for the spontaneous order that results from concrete efforts to solve problems over systematic prescriptions arrived at through abstract reflection is also a source of reverence for traditions, which are the product of generations of lived experience.

This view of tradition implies that societies need a mechanism to transmit both individual traditions and a general respect for custom from generation to generation. Strong families and communities are well-suited to perform this function, since they bring members of different generations into intimate and extended contact with one another and thus allow the young to directly experience the varied and complex set of practices that constitute a tradition. The family is a particularly effective means of inculcating traditions because it gives members of the older generation fairly direct control over the younger one and therefore enables them to act as an effective check on the tendency of the young to challenge their society’s established practices and institutions. Furthermore, because both individual customs and reverence for tradition more generally are, at least partly, habits of thought and feeling similar to the ones discussed above, families and communities enjoy the same advantages in transmitting them that they do in habituation of other kinds.

The discussion above suggests that families and communities are able to perform the roles that they do for four principal reasons. The small scale of both types of institutions facilitates the direct and intimate interactions between people that are necessary for the transformation of deeply rooted habits and dispositions that the conservative view of the social order requires. The fact that these institutions require individuals to stay in contact with the same small group for an extended period ensures that the sort of sustained effort needed for the cultivation of character can be undertaken and that people will develop the capacity for meaningful loyalty. The compulsoriness of participation in both institutions is necessary because having one’s basic impulses changed is an unpleasant process. Finally, families and communities are unlikely to perform these functions if the larger society of which they are a part does not view them as legitimate. Capitalism, therefore, is likely to undermine these institutions’ capacity to perform their roles to the extent that it can reduce the intimacy and duration of the interactions they facilitate, weaken their ability to demand participation from members, and delegitimize the projects that they pursue.  


In order to understand how capitalism is able to produce these effects, it is necessary to first establish what is meant by “capitalism.” For the purposes of this piece, the most important feature of capitalism is its use, at least in theory, of the competitive marketplace to organize the bulk of economic activity. Almost all goods and services are produced by several rival suppliers who receive information about the demand for their products through the price mechanism. Each supplier retains the bulk of his or her earnings and thus has an incentive to maximize them, which can only be done by persuading consumers not to buy from his or her rivals. Since the supply of production inputs like labor is also organized competitively, virtually every person in a capitalist society must compete with other suppliers in some way.

One of the main ways of gaining an advantage over one’s competitors in any kind of competition is to increase the priority one gives to that competition relative to other considerations; those competitors who attach the highest relative importance to the competition will devote the greatest amount of time and effort to excelling in it and thus will be the most likely to emerge victorious. Furthermore, once all of the competitors have become aware of this strategy, each one will have an incentive to increase the priority that he or she attaches to the competition until all of them view it as the only important pursuit. Since capitalist competition is not limited in duration, these factors will gradually push capitalist societies toward a state in which each person is motivated almost solely by considerations involving his or her material welfare. However, such a society cannot contain communities or families of the sort that are necessary for the functions discussed above to be performed. People who believe that they have to devote virtually all of their time and effort to out-competing their rivals will have no interest in working together on complex common projects like the shaping of appetites or the handing down of traditions, since doing so would leave them vulnerable to competitors who were not pursuing such projects. The inculcation of the capacity for loyalty and self-sacrifice will be especially difficult under such circumstances because it is inimical to the competitive spirit. Thus, the role of competition within capitalism gives rise to a tendency that, as it develops, undermines social institutions and practices that conservatives should attach great importance to.

 In addition to its direct role in undermining the sense of common purpose that is needed for families and communities to perform the functions that conservatism assigns to them, competition is also the root of most of the other features of capitalism that conflict with conservative principles. Foremost among these is the need for labor mobility, which flows out of the competition among laborers to make themselves more attractive to employers; those employers, in turn, want to have mobile workforces so that they can out-compete their rivals. Once a given employer decides to demand greater mobility from its workers, competitors in the industry will have no choice but to follow suit; workers in the relevant occupations will have to adapt if they wish to remain employed.

Over time, this process forces laborers to become more and more mobile in order to find jobs; its inner logic dictates that workers will eventually have to be able to move virtually anywhere in pursuit of economic opportunity, though such perfect mobility is rarely required in practice. People who are regularly moving from place to place as they change jobs will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to work together to inculcate the appropriate appetites and prejudices in their children through habituation, a process which requires the same small group of people to collaborate for an extended period. Because these rootless individuals will be accustomed to joining and leaving groups at will, they will not find the prospect of expulsion from a given community threatening and the requirement of compulsory participation in the cultivation of character will therefore be much harder to enforce. The fact that community members might leave at any time will also prevent them from developing the trust necessary for cooperation since they will not be able to observe one another closely enough to develop stable expectations of reciprocal behavior. Furthermore, they will lack the sort of visceral attachment to a particular place and community that is necessary for the development of the capacity for loyalty and self-sacrifice.

The competitive pressures created by capitalism are also an important cause of another feature of the system that should trouble conservatives: the emphasis that it places on innovation and change. Innovation in both products and production methods is an obvious way to try and gain an advantage over one’s rivals in the marketplace. In a society whose every mature member is always competing in a marketplace of some kind, a certain comfort with and enthusiasm for rapid change is likely to become part of the collective ethos. However, this mindset conflicts directly with one of conservatism’s core tenets, the presumption in favor of tradition. As competitive pressures cause this mindset to spread throughout a society, its members will gradually lose the commitment to tradition that conservatives should value. The loss of this commitment will remove an important barrier to the left’s crusades against customary practices and institutions that have sustained our society for centuries; it will also isolate individuals and deprive them of the aids to thought and living that our ancestors developed through painstaking effort. Additionally, since the bulk of daily life in capitalist societies involves some sort of interaction with products and production methods, the frequent changes in both that competition tends to will deprive most people of the opportunity to encounter a genuine tradition and thus weaken respect for custom further.

One specific type of innovation that is characteristic of capitalism, the tendency toward an increasingly complex division of labor, has uniquely pernicious effects on families’ capacity to inculcate the habits and dispositions necessary for human flourishing and social stability in their children. The competitive benefits of the division of labor are, of course, widely known; by giving each of the participants in a production process a relatively simple task, it allows all of them to acquire substantial expertise in their respective tasks and thereby increases output significantly. However, as the division of labor grows more complex, it comes to depend on highly sophisticated and expensive technologies that must themselves be administered by experts and therefore cannot be maintained in individual homes. Therefore, parents are compelled to spend the vast bulk of their time working outside the home and are deprived of the sort of extended, intimate contact with their children that is necessary for the cultivation of character. Children must spend their days in the care of day-care providers or teachers who work for pay and thus lack the incentive to undertake a complex project like the molding of appetites, which one can only do if one feels a deep compassion for the object of one’s efforts. The people who feel this compassion the most intensely, however, are increasingly relegated to the roles of provider and perhaps playmate; their efforts to shape their offspring in a more meaningful and permanent way are made far more difficult.

Finally, certain aspects of the worldview that capitalism tends to encourage undermine individuals’ belief in the basic conservative project of molding appetites, which weakens the ability of even intact families and communities to perform this task. A society whose every member is constantly searching for advantages over his or her competitors will tend to accord all appetites a certain basic legitimacy, regardless of their effects on human flourishing or the social order. This is because any appetite that no producer is currently satisfying represents an excellent business opportunity; therefore, the more appetites that producers can legitimately endeavor to satisfy, the more chances there are to secure a competitive advantage. Furthermore, many of the appetites that conservatives are likely to view as either destructive of social stability or inimical to a well-ordered human life, such as lust and the general desire for immediate gratification, are much easier to satisfy with competitively priced goods and services than are nobler dispositions like the preference for permanent rather than transient things; the latter often tend to discourage the acquisition of material goods and their possessors generally require less in the way of external stimuli to be satisfied than do possessors of the former. The worldview of a capitalist society, therefore, tends to actively work against the efforts of families and communities to mold their members’ habits and dispositions and gradually widens the range of appetites that are deemed socially acceptable; the coarsening of our own culture over the past several decades exemplifies the truth of the latter claim.


How can this conflict between social institutions that conservatives are inclined to view as valuable be resolved? It would be presumptuous to offer a fully worked out solution to a problem of this scope here, but I would like to close by pointing to two considerations that should frame any effort to deal with this tension. First, we should take seriously the possibility that the conflict between the goods of the market and those of the family and the community cannot admit of a final and lasting solution. As conservatives whose observation of the often-bleak realities of life and history has led us to a sober pessimism, we should be skeptical of the proposition that all tensions can be smoothly resolved, all Gordian knots slashed. It may be that the best we can do is to manage the inevitable conflicts between the two sets of institutions, or to choose the one we believe to be more fundamental to the conservative project while remaining sensitive to what we are giving up.

If we do seek a solution, however, the analysis of competition given above suggests one place that we might begin. In that analysis, I suggested that all competitors in the marketplace would come to be motivated solely by considerations of material welfare because they would assume that each of their opponents were doing the same. However, if all of the competitors could be persuaded to set fixed limits on the extent to which they would allow their behavior to be driven by such considerations, there would be some chance of forestalling the threat capitalism poses to family and community life. The coercive power of the state is clearly too blunt an instrument for the task of shaping human motivation; only a cultural approach has any chance of being effective. Social models such as that of contemporary Japan, in which a reasonably efficient market economy coexists with voluntary efforts by firms to give their employees space for family life and the development of strong communal ties within companies, might provide some guidance in constructing such an approach. Conservatives who wish to reconcile the family and the community with the market should therefore work to develop cultural institutions that keep the motives associated with the latter within reasonable bounds.