David Brat won because he wasn’t Cantor. His victory wasn’t that surprising. I read an article by Jeremy Lott a couple of days before the primary which more or less predicted it, based on the strong trend in the available poll data. Cantor knew he was in big trouble. His counterattack (to really what wasn’t much of an attack) was to go negative by running a moronic commercial branding Brat a liberal professor on the advisory council of a Democratic governor. Now only those experts who make Republican commercials could believe that anyone would buy that. Cantor fecklessly participated in the digging of his own grave. It’s true Cantor still thought he was going to win election night. So did Romney.
Brat is a fascinating guy. From some quick googling, I learned: He now thinks of himself as a Calvinist Catholic. He’s about reconciling economics with ethics. The claims for the positive science of economics don’t hold up. Economics, at its most truthful, admits to being no more than a kind of casual empiricism. Its real mission is to advocate a meaningful view of life rooted in human freedom. That view is the secular equivalent to the Protestant view of the equal freedom of us all under God. So he’s been called a theocratic libertarian.
Brat believes Locke’s privileging of the industrious and rational over the quarrelsome and contentious is basically Calvinism (Google this in his draft of an economics textbook that instructively samples great texts). I, of course, don’t think that’s mostly right, but neither is it completely wrong. Brat says that the science of economics, all by itself, doesn’t point in the direction of equal liberty. That’s the normative teaching that science, at its best, serves. So Brat admires Deirdre McCloskey’s work on the rhetoric of economics, which pushes the superiority of bourgeois virtue in its preferential option for ordinary capabilities and desires. Brat adds a Christian dimension to McCloskey’s rhetoric.
Brat follows Nietzsche in criticizing secularized Christian humanitarianism as wimpy and ineffectual, and he calls to mind the greatness of Jesus as an individual. An apathetic and dependent people really are no match for tyrants such as Hitler. But he’s not a Randian, because his defense of capitalism is the great good it does for the greatest number in terms of both material prosperity and personal freedom. The one thing he thought Calvin, the great synthesizer, didn’t get done was incorporating the virtues of capitalism into the Christian vision. Brat’s view of capitalism is the opposite of those who think of it as fundamentally rapacious, such as Marx and Alasdair MacIntyre. (The truth might be someone in between, obviously.)
Capitalism, for Brat (unlike Rand), doesn’t replace Christian charity. And he’s actually very big on the church aggressively pursuing its evangelical mission. One thing is for sure: He’ll be fierce on protecting religious liberty as liberty for the church as an organized body of thought and action.
Brat says that he’s against minimum-wage laws because they distort the market. But he’s for restricting immigration. He’s really against flooding our labor market with immigrant guest workers because the result would be lower wages and fewer jobs for Americans. Unlike many libertarians and oligarchs, he’s for that distortion of the market to protect American citizens and to treat people as more than means for others’ ends. In both cases, he’s for doing what he believes is best for his fellow citizens and his fellow creatures. He was taking a stand here against all our forms of huge and irresponsible business or corporatism or crony capitalism . . . Brat’s most telling ad featured a picture of Cantor standing next to Mark Zuckerberg — the asshole wannabe featured in The Social Network.
Brat says he’s pro-life, but in his instantly famous article he criticizes those who would restrict either economic or personal liberty with intrusive legislation. So it might turn out he’s against abortion as a Christian but unwilling to deprive others of the choice. He says, after all, he’s against usury but not for laws that prohibit it. I’m guessing his Calvinist view of equal liberty limits his libertarianism when it comes to life. In general, of course, Brat’s brand of Calvinism is pretty much the opposite of that of our intrusively egalitarian original Puritans and contemporary neo-Puritans such as the liberals Carey McWilliams and Marilynne Robinson.
As a teacher and scholar: Brat has been admirably transdisciplinary and driven passionately by his thoughts about liberty, God, and the good. As an economist, he hasn’t made a mark. He hasn’t published in the relevant refereed journals and all that. He probably wouldn’t have gotten tenure at my Berry College. But now that he has a stage, he might well become quite the noteworthy public intellectual.
It goes without saying that I don’t agree with much or most of Brat’s vision. I do think it’s possible to be a good Catholic and believe what he does about politics and economics, just as I believe it’s possible to be a good Catholic and believe what Pat Deneen does about politics and economics. Still, we have to wonder whether Calvinist Catholic is a very stable position.