Now, as individuals differ greatly from each other, in intelligence, sagacity, energy, perseverance, skill, habits of industry and economy, physical power, position and opportunity, – the necessary effect of leaving all free to exert themselves to better their condition, must be a corresponding inequality between those who may possess these qualities and advantages in a high degree, those who me be deficient in them.  The only means by which this result can be prevented are, either to impose such restrictions on the exertions of those who may possess them in a high degree, as well place them on a level with those who do not; or to deprive them of the fruits of their exertions.  But to impose such restriction some them would be destructive of liberty, – while, to deprive them of the fruits of their exertions, would be to destroy the desire of bettering their condition.  It is , indeed, this inequality of condition between the front and rear ranks, in the march of progress, which gives so strong an impulse to the former to maintain their position, and to the latter to press forward into their files.  This gives to progress its greatest impulse.  To force the front rank back to the rear, or attempt to push forward the rear into line with the front, by the interposition of the government, would put an end to the impulse, and effectually arrest the march of progress.

Calhoun opposed the leveling of society because nature has not made all men equal.   (Or to summarize Burke: ‘All me are equal before God but they are equal in no other way.’)  He feared that a simple majority would begin to vote against the interests of minorities (ie. southern farmers).  Although the South and its plantations were the first to suffer oppression from a voting bloc, they would not be the last. In a remarkably perceptive statement, Calhoun believed that industrial workers would eventually face the same fate as the southern farmer.

After we are exhausted, the contest will be between the capitalists and the operatives [workers]; for into these two classes it must, ultimately, divide society.  The issue of the struggle here must be the same as it has been in Europe.  Under the operation of the system, wages must sink more rapidly than the prices of the necessaries of life, till the portion of the products of their labor left to them, will be barely sufficient to preserve existence.  For the present, the pressure is on our section.”  (John Calhoun, 1828)

Calhoun wrote two decades before Marx and Engels but he perceived some of the same problems inherent in an industrialized, capitalist society.  But Calhoun did not believe that a classless society was possible or desirable.  Instead, he sought to protect each group’s interests from a ‘simple majority’ through the Constitution.  Western society never bought into Marx’s Utopian ideals but neither did it adopt Calhoun’s conservatism.  It chose instead to be ruled by ‘the Calculators’.  This is the legacy of the Benthamites, of whom Coleridge writes,

It is this accursed practice of forever considering only what seems expedient for the occasion, disjoined from all principle or enlarged systems of action, of never listening to the true and unerring impulses of our better nature, which has led the colder-hearted men to the study of political economy, which has turned our Parliament into a real committee of public safety.  In it is all power vested; and in a few years we shall either be governed by an aristocracy, or what is still more likely, by a contemptible democratical oligarcy of glib economists, compared to which the worst form of aristocracy would be a blessing.  -Coleridge’s Table Talk – (cited by Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind)

Surprisingly, for me at least, even J.M Keynes recognized how badly Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy has served the West:

I do now regard [Benthamism] as the worm which has been gnawing at the insides of modern civilization and is responsible for its present moral decay.  We used to regard the Christians as the enemy, because they appeared as the representatives of tradition, convention, and hocus-pocus.  In truth it was the Benthamite calculus, based on over-valuation of the economic criterion, which was destroying the quality of the popular ideal.

Coleridge worried about an “oligarchy of glib economists” and Keynes thought that there was an “over-valuation of the economic criterion”.    They were right.  Today, our monetary and fiscal policy is entirely dictated by the markets.  Who cares who the next president or prime minister is so long as central banks have the power to print money at will and lend it to investment ‘banks’ without cost.  This perverse situation would not have arisen if a powerful oligarchy had not been able to buy the votes of a ‘simple majority’, as Calhoun fore saw.

Source: The Conservative Mind, by Russel Kirk

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