Many conservative pundits can only say the words “social justice” while sneering. Fortunately, Ryan Anderson isn’t one of them. Here he takes two prominent conservative public intellectuals—Peter Wehner and Arthur Brooks—to the woodshed for the unfortunate lacunae in their new book, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism.
Here’s a portion of the conclusion of Anderson’s perspicuous piece:
Wealth and Justice highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the conservative case for democratic capitalism. Yes, capitalism protects liberty and free enterprise, and it raises the standard of living as it creates and distributes wealth. But Wehner and Brooks say hardly a word about property duties or about what a just distribution of wealth on their view would look like (one fears that for them it is whatever the market produces). Also, in their rush to defend capitalism against critics, they fail to discuss any of its downsides. For a generation wrestling with economic questions (see: Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party), conservatives need to provide a more thoughtful consideration and response to what worries people about capitalism.
First, capitalism and culture. Much of Wehner and Brooks’s defense of capitalism relies on the strength of the civic and social order. But while they want this sphere to influence the economic sphere, they have little to say about how the economic sphere also influences culture. For them, capitalism didn’t corrupt Madoff, Madoff corrupted capitalism. One need not be a Marxist, however, to note that our economic arrangements influence our culture and morals. Every notable political thinker has thought this; start the list with Plato and Aristotle. So saying that the answer is “better capitalists” doesn’t take seriously the effect that capitalism can have on character, especially given its reward structure. And while Wehner and Brooks mention the neoconservative Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (only to dismiss his worries), they have little to say about the consumerist and materialistic culture that capitalism can promote. Ditto on the debasement of popular culture with mass-produced, market-driven “art.”
Second, social justice. Wehner and Brooks assert “that capitalism is best at doing what it is most often accused of doing worst: distributing wealth to people at every social stratum rather than simply to elites. The evidence of history is clear on this point—the poor gain the most from capitalism.” Is this really true? It depends on how one reads the passage. Yes, considered historically, the poor gain the most from capitalism as compared to alternative economic regimes, especially where communism is presented as the only alternative regime. But do thepoor benefit the most from capitalism, as compared to the rich? This is a concern that animates many, and not only those in the OWS movement. Wehner and Brooks are silent about it….
Perhaps most disconcerting, however, is that Wehner and Brooks offer no principles of justice on how individuals should deploy their wealth, and in a book titled Wealth and Justice this is disappointing. Supporting free markets and limited government doesn’t even begin to address the question of how citizens should behave in the market: Can a citizen be guilty of injustice in how he uses his wealth? Do citizens have duties—in justice—to distribute their wealth? Wehner and Brooks are silent….
The real question facing developed capitalist countries now is what type of capitalism to have, and what type of wealth distribution. Among the most thoughtful thinkers on these questions, few are strict egalitarians, and so even here Wehner and Brooks have engaged a strawman. One might think current disparities in wealth are unjust, not because material equality is the goal, but because human flourishing is, and too many people lack the requisite material goods for that flourishing. Income and wealth equality isn’t the concern, but having sufficient goods to meet one’s needs and fulfill one’s vocation is. Likewise, one might worry about the disparate political power that comes with gross material inequalities. Wehner and Brooks say nothing about these concerns.
Read the whole thing.