Written by Friedrich Hayek during World War II, The Road to Serfdom sought to shape thinking about the post-war reconstruction of society. Hayek believed the West faced a decisive choice. Are we to affirm the central importance of individual freedom? Or will we embrace central planning and socialism, which is the road to serfdom?
Today, the relevance of this passionate, once important book is much diminished. We’re not on a path toward socialism. Our problem is the opposite. The greatest threat we face is an untethered individualism and an atomized society. We’re living in a dissolving age, not a collectivist one.
The most widely read book by a progressive economist in recent years is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He argues that capitalism generates significant inequalities that, if unchecked, will continue to grow. Instead of following up this analysis with a call for socialism or some other progressive utopia, however, he ends his book by making policy recommendations designed to save capitalism from its own excesses.
One can disagree with every sentence in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. But there can be no dispute that it’s representative of our times. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn may pronounce themselves socialists, but they’re outliers. They evoke an older political culture that used to think we could choose between capitalism and socialism. That historical moment has passed. Very few of those who are in positions of influence think we have a choice now. A soi-disant socialist like François Hollande doesn’t. Barack Obama doesn’t. Nor do Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Today, progressives are capitalists.
We too often fixate on the exceptions. But that distorts our vision. Cuba no longer has geopolitical relevance. Its only contemporary international significance is as a candidate for designation as a World Heritage Site, to be preserved so that future generations can have a real-life experience of “actually existing socialism.” Like it or not, some version of the capitalist approach Hayek thought so necessary for individual freedom now dominates the global consensus.
For this reason, a great deal of American conservatism in 2015 rings false. It continues to insist that in some way or another, we face a socialist, collectivist threat. The Wall Street Journal editorial page warns us of the perils of higher tax rates. There’s no doubt that tax policy affects behavior by creating incentives and disincentives, and bad policies can have bad consequences for the economy. But a pro-capitalist consensus in America encompasses both parties. Debate about taxes operates within a narrow range. Are we going to ding top earners at 35 percent or 39 percent? This is hardly a culture-defining question of the sort that concerned Hayek.
The same is true in other areas of economic life. Labor unions exercise less and less influence in our economy. They are now largely confined to public employee unions, which are really PACs angling to capture tax revenue rather than a large-scale movement contesting with owners of capital for economic power.
Meanwhile, far from being hobbled by excessive regulation, unionized workers, and ruinous taxation, over the last few decades global capitalism has gone from strength to strength. It has transformed societies throughout the world, especially in Asia, but also elsewhere, including our own. This is to be expected. A free market allows scope for initiative, innovation, and growth.
In America, new corporate behemoths like Google and Apple have emerged, seemingly overnight. Fracking has made us into an even greater global energy power. But these are details. The most important change has been the shrinking economic basis for a once expansive middle class. From 1950 to 1970, the average earnings of male workers increased by 25 percent each decade. Since then, men paid at the median of the wage distribution have seen no growth in earnings, and this in spite of the fact that GDP more than doubled during the past four decades.
Over the same period of time, the cultural foundations of middle-class life have eroded. As Charles Murray documents, a growing underclass is increasingly atomized and isolated. Its members lack functional institutions to bring order to their communities, the most fundamental of which is the two-parent family. These dysfunctions are creeping up the income ladder. These days, the children of postal workers tend to go in one of two directions. Some head to college and enter into the class of winners who can compete in a global economy. More of them get tripped up by out-of-wedlock children, serial partners, drugs, and alcohol.
The economic and cultural dissolution of the American middle class defines our moment in history, not squabbles over tax policy, regulation, and green energy subsidies. It has led to a growing feeling that the social contract in America has been revised. This drives populist anxieties about immigration, as well as the anti-establishment successes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Identity politics spring from the dissolution of the middle class as well. It’s the Democratic party’s effort to find a new basis for a governing majority, the rainbow coalition of interests and grievances that will replace the old middle-class consensus.
When American conservatives speak of economic freedom today, it sounds perverse. Bret Stephens recently invoked what he takes to be a core conservative principle: the free flow of capital, goods, services, and labor. This kind of freedom is great for the winners in the global economy. Yet what’s in it for the high-school-educated guy in Toledo who has to compete with low-wage workers in Thailand?
The same goes for the lifestyle freedoms advanced by progressives. Today’s Democratic party may express less outward enthusiasm for free markets, but it is also committed to economic freedom, as the Obama administration’s push for the Pacific Rim free trade agreement indicates. Many Democrats in Congress voted against it. But that’s because they had the luxury of knowing it would pass with Republican support. If passage had been in doubt, the Democratic party establishment would have swung into action and twisted arms.
If the Democratic party’s enthusiasm for global capitalism is muted, its enthusiasm for lifestyle freedom is at full volume. The New York Times has made transgender rights a cause célèbre. The Obama administration treats gay rights as a foreign policy priority. These commitments reflect a moral deregulation that, like economic deregulation, also contributes to the dissolution of the middle class.
In view of all this, Hayek has little to say about our circumstances that is helpful. Individual freedom is his great emphasis. At one point in The Road to Serfdom, he sounds a libertarian note, arguing that “individuals should be allowed, within defined limits, to follow their own values and preferences rather than someone else’s; that within these spheres the individual’s system of ends should be supreme and not subject to any dictation by others.”
In the context of 1940s European totalitarianism, the sentiment was admirable. But now, an approach that emphasizes individualism may be worse than irrelevant.
I don’t have answers to the challenges posed by the dissolution of middle-class America, an epoch-defining change in our society. My instincts incline me toward free markets and make me suspicious of large-scale government interventions. But the dissolving middle class poses the most profound challenge to American democracy today. Freedom can be threatened by centralized planning, true, but it can be diminished when we have no solid ground on which to stand. Many Americans are standing on increasingly unstable economic and cultural ground.
We’re facing a crisis of solidarity, not freedom. We need to get our minds around that fact. We need an updated, reality-based political vision.
Synod on the Family
A group of bishops from around the world gathers in Rome for three weeks in October. The synod’s topic is the family. But the underlying issue is Catholicism’s relation to the sexual revolution. Catholics in the rich world have largely accommodated themselves to—even affirmed—it. Catholicism’s official stance, however, is one of opposition. Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical reiterating the Church’s condemnation of artificial means of contraception, epitomizes the rejection. The widespread dissent from this teaching, in both word and deed, epitomizes the acceptance. I don’t know the European situation well enough to say, but in America the only aspect of the sexual revolution that most Catholics have not accepted, at least in practice and at least in part, is abortion.
It’s not a secret that Northern European bishops, under German leadership, want the Church to reconsider her official resistance to the sexual revolution. The status of divorced Catholics who have remarried without receiving an annulment has become the symbolic issue. Revisionists want them to be able to receive Communion. This is part of a larger ambition. They want Catholicism to soften its adversarial stance and accommodate the sexual revolution. In one way or another, this includes a relaxation of the prohibition of artificial means of contraception, premarital sex, and cohabitation, and a modus vivendi with gay rights, and perhaps even a way to affirm gay unions.
Some German bishops have gone so far as to announce their independence. What the wider Church decides at the synod won’t be binding, they’ve suggested. As Cardinal Reinhard Marx has opined, it’s within the authority of the German bishops to “go down new paths.”
All this has added quite a bit of tension to the synod. Perhaps Pope Francis is sympathetic to the “new paths.” He hasn’t issued any statements that change the Church’s teaching, but his tone suggests a lack of interest in sustaining the resolute resistance of the last two pontificates. Francis seems dissatisfied with the ill-fitting combination of rigorous teaching and widespread nonconformity. What he envisions as an alternative is hard to discern. Perhaps he does not know. But he has encouraged “open discussion.”
In a certain sense I’m sympathetic with this dissatisfaction, if that’s the right word to describe the reason why Francis has allowed an atmosphere of uncertainty about church teaching to develop. When it comes to what people do and believe, the sexual revolution has triumphed, at least in the rich world. Many Catholics who are otherwise involved in church life use artificial means of contraception. They cohabit. They get divorced. They are increasingly sympathetic to social norms that affirm homosexual relations.
This lack of obedience to church teaching tempts many pastors to sideline controversial issues. American Catholicism has adopted an unofficial agreement between the leaders and the flock: We’ll ignore reality and not talk about what’s going on. This corrupts the pastors, creating a dishonest atmosphere of winks and nods. I can see why Francis would be unhappy with the status quo. It encourages hypocrisy.
Viewed from a different angle, however, Catholicism’s official refusal to kowtow to the sexual mores of our time has succeeded. The Church is the only major institution in the West that has not accepted the sexual revolution. The official resistance provides an important witness, even when combined with widespread accommodation in practice. The sexual revolution has a ruthless quality. It allows no dissent. The mere suggestion of teaching chastity to fifteen-year-olds in school is enough to unleash furious denunciations. That the Church has not allowed herself to be dictated to and intimidated by the sexual revolution inspires.
Humanae Vitae’s intransigence sustains us in our overall struggle against the dictatorship of relativism. Even among people who transgress, the resistance reassures. We’ve deregulated a great deal of personal life. Who, today, needs permission? Catholicism stands for something, a moral standard that’s inconvenient and countercultural.
We should not underestimate the appeal of this “no!” to the spirit of the age, even among those of us captive to it. Our society encourages us to hold small truths with great vigor. The taboo against smoking cigarettes is an obvious example. So are exaggerated forms of environmentalism. The intensity of this thin moralism testifies to the human desire for truths worthy of our devotion. All the more reason, therefore, to sustain substantive, reasoned moral teachings, even when society as a whole, and even Catholics, don’t accept them. It is more humanizing and less oppressive for a society to hold strong truths weakly, than for us to insist upon weak truths strongly. The former encourages moral ambitions that humble us, while the latter tends toward a smug, censorious, postmodern Puritanism.
The Church’s “no” to the sexual revolution also gives Catholicism credibility among those who suffer its triumphs. Say what you want about the failure of Catholic moral teaching, but it can’t be accused of encouraging the sexual free-for-all that can too easily lead to sexual assault and date rape. The same goes for the culture of divorce that’s so hard on kids, or the increase in out-of-wedlock births. As gay culture is fully normalized in our society, I predict frank reports of the psychological harms brought about by its unhappy, sometimes dark and perverse dimensions. The oppositional spirit of Humanae Vitae protects Catholicism from being discredited by a comfortable complicity with the sexual revolution.
Postmodern secular culture fixates on sex, making it the focal point of our cultural politics today. The Church needs to find its way in a world where public school administrations are more preoccupied with transgender rights than restoring a rigorous academic curriculum. The Church also needs to find a way to teach what she affirms in her official doctrines, something that hasn’t been happening very effectively for two generations. The way forward is not obvious.
In this time of discussion, I hope the bishops at the Synod on the Family remember the remarkable accomplishment of the last half century. To have resisted the imperial demands of the sexual revolution! To have dared dissent! That’s no mean achievement. Looking back, historians may identify this spirit of resistance as the most important contribution Catholicism makes to the twenty-first-century West’s post-Christian struggle to find its moral footing.
Last fall, in preparation for this fall’s Synod on the Family, an extraordinary synod met in Rome. Between that meeting and this year’s, a Vatican-appointed committee produced a document. It’s called the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document to guide deliberation. Reading it is a depressing experience. It reminds me of how weak Catholicism’s intellectual culture has become, at least in some official circles.
The most striking feature of the working document is the minimal use of Scripture. This is ironic. The drafters lament “that Catholic families still lack a more direct contact with the Bible.” The content of the working document tells us something about the mental equipment of church leaders, who apparently don’t turn to Scripture as the foundation for their own reflection. Is it any wonder, therefore, that ordinary Catholics aren’t engaged with the Bible?
There is also very little from the Church’s rich tradition. The document does not define the intrinsic goods of marriage. It does not speak of the proper ends of our sexual impulses. There are no disciplined applications of Catholic social doctrine to the difficult question of what government and civil society can and must do to promote sexual morality, defend marriage, and support family life. Apparently, those drafting the working document think the contemporary challenges are unprecedented. Social science takes the place of theology.
Insofar as the document employs moral terms at all, they’re ersatz, postmodern ones. “People need to be accepted in the concrete circumstances of life.” “Everyone is entitled to be treated with understanding.” Elsewhere we read about the need to embrace diversity. We’re to be “open to dialogue and free from prejudice,” and we should avoid “exclusion.” Acceptance, entitlement, diversity, dialogue, exclusion—these are buzzwords used at corporate retreats and in human resource departments. It’s embarrassing to see them being used so uncritically in a church document, and the fact that Pope Francis himself uses them at times is not an excuse.
There’s also a strong therapeutic dimension, another sign of how captive this working document is to the spirit of our age. In a number of places, we’re warned against “judging,” the cardinal sin in a therapeutic culture. To avoid a moral tone, neutral terms are used, such as “loving relationship.” Sexual desire is referred to by the antiseptic word “affectivity,” as if sexual morality is a matter of feelings, not of actions by embodied creatures. What’s needed is a “constructive response” to help us “regain trust.” This is especially true in situations such as divorce, which “is always a defeat for everyone.” Again, it’s embarrassing to read something so naively reliant on contemporary turns of phrase and habits of mind.
At its worst, the working document combines pastoral pessimism with arrogant clericalism. One has the distinct impression that the drafters do not believe it is possible for people to live in accord with the moral truth about sex, marriage, and family. God’s healing grace? It’s a nice idea, but not strong enough to overcome the sexual revolution. Times have changed. There’s no going back. Etc., etc., etc. We all know the words to this song.
But ordinary Catholics like you and me need not despair! Our leaders recognize “the necessity for courageous pastoral choices.” They will set us on “a new pastoral course based on the present reality.” Divorce, cohabitation, contraception, homosexuality? No need to worry. Our loving pastors feel our pain. Like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s famous tale, they’ll protect us from a God who doesn’t understand and affirm us in our weakness. They’ll make sure we feel accepted.
By the time this is published, the Synod on the Family will be underway. In all likelihood the bishops will have decided to put up with this poorly drafted document, amending it as best they can. But I dearly wish they’d chuck the whole thing, and with it the lazy, uncritical gestures and clichés that serve as substitutes for thinking.
Francis in America
The pope’s visit was a blessing. His words and presence sparked and deepened faith. He evoked unforced smiles from politicians—even, at times, tears. The crowds welcomed him warmly. He kissed babies and visited school children, giving them homework; “Please don’t forget to pray for me, so that I can share with many people the joy of Jesus.” In his parting homily in Philadelphia, he called for us to be witnesses to love and prophets of the joy of the Gospel. Simple words. Beautiful truths. It was a great week to be Catholic.
In his speech to Congress, Francis used the word “dialogue” too many times. It’s a softening word commonly used to signal that the speaker doesn’t want to be heard as dictating terms or imposing judgments. He also avoided specific statements about controversial issues. He spoke about immigration, but in a general way. His enunciation of the Golden Rule earned a standing ovation. It’s hardly a point of controversy in today’s debates. More pointed was an affirmation of the right to life in all stages. But he immediately shifted to a call to abolish the death penalty, a low–blood pressure issue for most, rather than our abortion regime, which is very high-pressure.
So it went. Francis mentioned religious liberty, but did not dwell on threats. He called for economic justice and protection of the environment, but in very general terms. The most concrete thing he said about climate change was that our American universities have the capacity to make important contributions to finding solutions, a generous gesture that shows he’s as adept a politician as many in that chamber. The body of the speech ended with an evocation of the importance of the family (to universal applause). He did not mention “man and woman” or “father and mother,” turning instead to the vulnerability of children. The final line of the speech was right out of the American political tradition: “God bless America!” It was a nice touch from a man who is himself an Argentine patriot and who knows that a true love of one’s country enjoys seeing the same in other lands.
I would have liked Francis to strike hard blows against abortion, the intolerant spirit of political correctness, and threats to religious liberty. But I thought of his allies in Latin America. I imagine they, too, would have liked him to utter some harsh words, not, perhaps, on behalf of my concerns, but against the functional imperialism of IMF-imposed austerity on indebted countries. That, too, would have been wrong-footed. Catholic leaders should speak clearly and boldly about the issues of our time. When they are invited into legislative chambers or presidential palaces, however, they need to be careful to keep their distance. If we wish to speak the Word of God to the world, we need to be careful not to be co-opted by the powers of the world.
The speech Pope Francis gave to the General Assembly of the United Nations was more ambitious and forceful. It featured the leitmotifs of his papacy: concerns about global warming and criticism of “social and economic exclusion.” The speech featured some of his characteristically salty, critical jabs. My favorite was “declarational nominalism,” a wonderful turn of phrase that won applause from an audience of international diplomats who know only too well what he was referring to.
I found his advocacy of environmentalism more cogent than the often scattershot Laudato Si. Francis articulated the basic principle that human power must be limited if it is to be just. The rule of law, for example, limits our political power. The same goes for our technological mastery over nature. We must recognize the proper limits that nature puts on us, not only because a healthy environment is integral to human flourishing, but also “because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value.”
When it comes to economic and social relations, we must also recognize “natural ethical limits.” Francis called for us to “recognize a moral law written into human nature itself,” including “the natural difference between men and women, and absolute respect for life in all its states and dimensions.” He emphasized the need for “integral human development.” This requires a “spiritual freedom.” Parents must have a right to educate their children. Religious freedom needs to be protected. All of us need to be “agents of our own destiny” rather than raw material for a global system that serves the interests of the powerful.
It was an excellent speech, worthy of the setting. I’m not convinced that global warming is the central issue of our time. But Francis is surely right about the great spiritual question we face. Will we worship power? Or will we serve truths we do not invent but rather must acknowledge?
The UN speech reminded me how silly it is to cast Francis as Che Guevara in vestments. His immediate concerns are not the same as those emphasized by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. That’s not surprising. He’s from Argentina, not Poland or Germany. This is 2015, not 1979. He has ministered to people damaged far more by a dictatorship of callous indifference than a dictatorship of relativism. But his distinct emphases should not blind us to the essential continuity. Throughout the modern era, Catholicism has warned us: Our will is not absolute; expanding our power is not the highest good. We must acknowledge God above and nature below.
It was a cautious visit. For the most part, he kept to prepared texts. Given the intense media focus (and his limited English), perhaps that was for the best. In one area, however, I wish Pope Francis had gone rogue. I dislike the way the security apparatus cocoons the Great and the Good. I wish Pope Francis had stepped out of his car, shouldered his way past the brigades of men in black suits, evaded the columns of black SUVs, and walked among the people who came to greet him. That would have been a wonderful witness to the Gospel’s gift of spiritual freedom: “Be not afraid.” Next time.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.