Following on my last post, "Legislating Morality," I have two additional thoughts that were implied or left inchoate in that posting.
FIRST, the belief that the natural or default position of human beings is that of autonomous, free individual in fact requires a massive investment of political power and intervention to realize. This belief began as a philosophical argument proposing that we are naturally unrestrainted by law, according to the thought of Hobbes and Locke, but had to be politically realized by means of the formation of strong centralized state structures. It is not a coincidence that Locke builds on the thought of Hobbes, author of "The Leviathan." While seemingly offering a defense of smaller government, Locke in fact authorizes the Sovereign to exercise nearly as much power (or, "prerogative") as Hobbes's Leviathan to ensure peace and unleashed productivity in society. The "industrious and rational" are to be encouraged, and the "lazy and contentious" either re-educated or constrained. A strong central government was needed to build the social and material structures that fostered "free" markets - a fact with which we are well aware if we consider the great public works projects of America, from the canals to the railroads to the interstate highway system (what was once called "internal improvements"). An extensive court system, investments in education aimed at supporting "the useful arts and sciences" (a phrase from the U.S. Constitution), the frequent exercise of eminent domain - these and other forms of central power have proven to be the necessary pre-requisites for a well-functioning "free" market system. The latest massive government intervention in the financial system really falls well within the general scope of these activities, a more visible exercise of government power in support of the markets than an exception to the rule.
More importantly, these centralized structures needed to restrain the natural tendency of human beings to seek and achieve stability and moral grounding in their lives. Every society before the advent of the "free market" system has shown that human societies aim at a certain, often high, degree of stability and continuity in the face of nature and a world in which entropy makes things fall apart. Societies are small collectivities of entropy resistance, using ancestral knowledge and customs to create continuities between past, present and future. The strong central state of modern free market capitalism was based upon a philosophy - again, central in Hobbes and Locke - that was deeply hostile to claims of the "ancestral" (Locke's almost entirely unread First Treatise is an attack on "patriarchy") and sought to unleash human productivity, and with it, the instability that is associated with markets. Much of the record of the modern liberal State - in contrast to the view of doctrinaire libertarians - is the record of the State playing defense against the natural human inclination to rein in the instability fostered by free markets. While that will, at times, ironically mean acceding to some constraints on the market (e.g., the New Deal), these constraints are accepted in a deeper defense of the markets, forestalling the impulse to make stability a paramount feature of society, and thereby threatening modern free market systems. The extent to which we have accepted this instability as a sheer fact of doing business in the modern world is reflected in the popular willingness to permit the dismantling of the social safety net, the widespread hostility to trade unions, the agreeableness to all sorts of free trade agreements, the demise of the idea that one job would suffice for a lifetime, and our reliance upon uncertain markets to secure our retirements even as we know that Social Security will not survive into the future, and so on. More than "enforcing" such willingness to accept instability upon us, the modern State reinforces a set of cultural presuppositions that encourages our belief in individual self-reliance and autonomy. We should note, however, that this belief is not "natural," but the result of concerted and powerful forms of cultivation.
SECOND, occasionally some of my posts - such as this one - will provoke a comment or two accusing me of being a socialist. This is pretty risible, but I can see why some people would think this. When the operating cultural paradigm is the Lockean belief that we are by nature free, autonomous individuals, any suggestion that an unconstrained free market is not good for humans according to nature can only be processed in modern terms - mainly, that opponents to unconstrained free markets are necessarily socialists. My own understanding of a morally grounded community that fosters self-restraint in both the "personal" and "economic" spheres is Aristotelian and Thomist, not Marxist. It begins with the assumption that a certain kind of well-formed culture will cultivate salutary forms of self-restraint that will not be experienced as external impositions. Marx begins with Locke's assumptions that our stage of history has made us free market capitalists, but that with the massive intervention of the State it can make us into post-historical communists. Both we and Marx alike reflect our unconscious and intuitive Lockeanism in which any constraint upon our market freedom must necessarily be an unnatural imposition (hence, Marx reveals his own Lockeanism by proposing a "dictatorship of the proletariat"). The sad irony is that our false liberal view of human nature - that one advanced by Hobbes and Locke (Bertrand de Jouvenel waggishly commented that such a philosophy was obviously imagined by "childless men who had forgotten their childhoods") - in turn engendered further false views of human nature (in which we could altogether overcome our alienation from one another), such as that advanced by Marx. BOTH are species of an impoverished and false modern understanding of humankind. To move beyond the tired and (what has now stood to be revealed to be) false debate between the Lockeians and the Marxists, we need to re-discover Aristotelian and Thomistic understandings of humanity's true nature. It will not be easy, since Aristotle himself argues that habituation is a powerful shaper of men's mores, and we must acknowledge that most of our contemporary habituation - in the form of popular culture, deep philosophic presuppositions, national mythology, and ubiquitous advertising - instruct us that we are monadic bundles of appetite seeking satiation. We have a highly successful culture of anti-culture, and it is difficult to see how it can be assailed, short of the slow drip-dripping of arguments and practices against it.