Politics & Policy

The Founders Built Worse Than They Knew? Conservatives Rethink Free Markets

Statue of George Washington overlooking Wall Street in Manhattan, January 20, 2016 (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Capitalism has its flaws, but none of the remedies proposed by its critics on the right would address them.

It is a season of rethinking. Old assumptions are being reexamined. Years of economic stagnation punctuated by crisis; rising nationalist sentiment; shocking political developments throughout the world’s richest countries: All of it has left intellectuals of various stripes disoriented and unsettled.

You can see it on the left, where socialism is getting a new hearing. Progressives are losing faith that the neoliberal policies of the Clinton era are enough to counter rising inequality, restore economic growth, or beat back a populist Right. They also have a new sense that the limits of the possible have shifted. If Donald Trump can be elected president . . . if the major parties of France and Germany can go into free fall . . . if Britain can vote to exit the European Union — maybe other previously unimaginable causes can win. Maybe it isn’t necessary, maybe it is even folly, to dismiss some ideas as politically unrealistic.

The Right, too, is reconsidering. Free trade is coming under renewed criticism. New journals of opinion are being launched to try to make sense of the moment. But perhaps nowhere is the change more dramatic than at First Things, a monthly publication that has been the intellectual hub of religious conservatism, and especially Catholic conservatism, for three decades.

Under its founding editor, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, First Things was a measured advocate of free markets. Its principal writers did not believe that capitalism was flawless. They argued that it could lead to human flourishing only given the right cultural and political preconditions. It required, could not dispense with, and should be restrained from undermining a virtuous citizenry and the rule of law. But these religious-conservative intellectuals recognized that markets under those conditions could be a powerful force for good: that they had lifted billions from misery. The Catholic theologian Michael Novak was especially influential in explaining that capitalism could be a creative form of community and not just an incubator of anomic individualism.

Now First Things is having second thoughts. A shift has been evident for a while, but the current editor, R. R. Reno, made it explicit with a recent article highlighting what he takes to be flaws in Novak’s work — flaws that he considers to have grown in importance over time. Novak, Reno says, underestimated the extent to which a free economy undermines democratic institutions and a Judeo-Christian moral ecology.

It undermines self-government because it tends to reduce the scope of deliberation about the common good. “In some contexts,” Reno complains, “economists and policymakers present free market principles as ironclad laws about which we have no choice. Dwindling manufacturing jobs, technological displacement, global flows of labor and capital — we are told we have no alternative.” We are told we must support a “rules-based international order” that is “technocratic” rather than democratic. And rich people, with preferences different from those of ordinary folk, have become ever more politically powerful. Reno mentions a source of anger and alarm for many social conservatives: the social liberalism of many prominent businessmen, which recasts intolerance of traditional views as tolerance.

“We are drowning in freedom,” Reno continues.

We can even choose to become male or female. In this context, voting for a “socialist” does not mean signaling a return of Marxism. It reflects the fact that, thirty years after the end of communism, some voters haltingly recognize that our freedom must be directed toward enduring ends if it is to serve something higher than itself. And in our age, which has taken economics to be the key to almost everything, that intuition naturally comes into focus with calls for limits on economic freedom. . . . It is time, therefore, to set aside the notion that the problems we face in the West can be solved by stiffer doses of economic freedom.

Reno’s essay was not greeted with universal acclaim. The Online Journal of Law and Liberty published a symposium of critics. They defended Novak from what they regarded as a “caricature.” Reno had claimed that “the sensibilities of the 1960s” imbued Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism; one of the critics noted that what really imbued it was something less provincial and faddish: a horror of Communism.

It is fair to say that, in much of the world, liberating capitalist energies stifled by collectivism is a less urgent task now than in 1982, when Novak’s book appeared. Yet the developed world has not run out of problems, from the persistence of poverty to the affordability of health care, that markets may be able to help us to address. The value of free markets, after all, is not only to liberate entrepreneurs, financiers, and even workers. It is also to discipline them, coordinate their plans, help them meet one another’s needs, and put them in a relation of mutual and uncoerced service.

There is nothing sinister in noting that reality seems to foreclose certain beguiling options.

There is nothing sinister in noting that reality seems to foreclose certain beguiling options. The economists and policymakers Reno has in mind may wrongly be saying that we cannot do anything about dwindling manufacturing jobs — but they would be right if they were to say that most of the things we could conceivably do are not things we should want to do. We could outlaw technology that lets companies produce more with fewer workers, for instance. It is not because we have been seduced by capitalist ideology that we refrain from doing that. For a man to become a woman is not truly possible, Reno writes. It is hardly more possible for socialism to be humane and productive.

Socialism is not, he clarifies, the name of his desire. He does not propose junking capitalism for any alternative. He merely wants us “to think about how to direct economic freedom toward service of the common good.” Perhaps too few supporters of free markets have been thinking along those lines. Still, enough have done so to make the peroration less than ringing. And thinking along those lines requires no flight into abstractions about how markets allegedly “liquefy our social relations, and even our sense of self.” If we are concerned about people whose occupations have disappeared, deciding that in principle economic freedom may be restricted does almost nothing to help us. Nor does it help us even slightly with the problem of businessmen who oppose religious liberty.

A serious turn away from free-market capitalism would also, necessarily, be a turn away from the liberalism of the American Founders. Neuhaus and Novak were defenders of that form of liberalism, as well. That liberalism, too, is receiving more criticism on the right than it has for many years. Some of that criticism is appearing in First Things, too; some of it is appearing in venues as unlikely as the Wall Street Journal.

Neuhaus noted during one of his defenses of liberalism that it is a “wondrously pliable term.” All liberals believe that governments must obey limits in what they can do to individuals, that people should be free to speak their minds, that the law must be impartial, and so on. But liberalisms differentiate themselves in why they champion these beliefs.

There is a liberalism that takes the French Enlightenment to be the beginning of all political wisdom and takes our political task essentially to be working out its implications and applying them to all of human life. This progressive liberalism frequently sets itself at odds with traditional religious believers and even, as in the French Revolution, persecutes them.

The liberalism of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and the Federalist Papers is very different. It sees free institutions as a cultural achievement won from experience: a set of practices that centuries of trial and error — many trials, much error — have taught us are more conducive than any others we have found to human flourishing.

The distinction between these forms of liberalism, which we might call progressive and conservative respectively, is lost on many people. Progressives often take the rejection of their creed as illiberal. Right-wingers who reject progressivism sometimes believe they must reject liberalism, too, in toto, because they do not see the difference between its forms, do not consider that difference important, or think it has a built-in tendency to devolve into its worst form. Radical individualism invariably enlists the state as its ally against those people and groups whose judgments impinge on the individual’s absolute “freedom” — even against the isolated baker who does not wish to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

Thus Adrian Vermeule, a professor at Harvard Law School, writes at First Things:

The stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins — communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought — is glib. Illiberal citizens, trapped without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family. Liberal society celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.

Some such critics of liberalism do not shrink from including the Founding in their sights. Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, argues that the Founding partook of a disordered (and Protestant) individualism that was bound by some iron law of its own internal logic to grow ever more corrupt over time. In the course of a debate with Deneen about the Founding at the conservative website Public Discourse, Robert Reilly points out that if Deneen is right then Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has read the Constitution better than Justice Antonin Scalia did. The Supreme Court decisions most loathed by social conservatives — Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges — really did, on this view, work out the implicit logic of the Constitution. If those results are deplorable, it is because their source is, too. The Founders built worse than they knew.

The defense of human dignity and civil society: These ideas are not alien imports from a radically individualist liberalism that social conservatives should regard with suspicion.

The debate on the right about liberalism and the Founding never ends. It only waxes and wanes. It seems likely to keep waxing in this moment of uncertainty. Yet it may be possible to identify an important area of common ground, particularly given how many of the participants in the debate are Catholics.

The conventional story about the Church’s relationship to liberalism is that she went from being its bitter enemy to appreciating its virtues, with Pope John Paul II, now recognized as a saint, embracing it most fully. It is, as far as it goes, an accurate story, so long as it is understood that anti-clerical liberals had given the Church reason for apprehension. What is sometimes forgotten is how much of what is most valuable in the liberal tradition has long been present in Catholic Christianity.

Pope Leo XIII has never been considered a liberal, and his 1891 encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarum, is no brief for laissez-faire capitalism. But it includes a strong endorsement of property rights: “The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” It speaks of the “rights” and the “dignity” of “individuals,” including their right to associate together. It insists on strict limits to government interference with the “family and the household.”

On the 40th anniversary of the encyclical, in Quadrigesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI drew out the implication that “it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” The state has a duty to protect this “graduated order.”

The defense of human dignity and civil society: These ideas are not alien imports from a radically individualist liberalism that social conservatives should regard with suspicion. They are part and parcel of the long and honorable Western tradition that includes the best of liberalism and restrains the worst of it. They are an internal resource — both preceding and helping to shape liberalism — that can help us make the most of what liberalism offers while keeping liberalism from corrupting itself, and therefore our society. And they are non-negotiable priorities.


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