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ECONOMISM

Richard Spady’s article “Economics as Ideology” (April) has some excellent insights. Spady argues that economics functions as an ideology when it imposes its rigid anthropology—dominated by a simplistic, utility-maximizing mythology of the individual—on the material it studies. In this respect, Spady is in agreement with economist Philip Pilkington, who argues in his book The Reformation in Economics (2016) that “the roots of the ideological turn that economics has taken today can be traced back to the late nineteenth century and to the emergence of the image of the utility-maximising agent.

Spady also seems to agree with Pilkington that economistic ideology is currently deployed in order to justify the so-called “neoliberal” paradigm of political governance—although Spady has not used the N-word. This paradigm is broadly concerned with the “flexibilization” of everything from wage contracts to finance, trade, and beyond. Many, including the present editor of First Things, have noted that neoliberalism is misbehaving lately. This makes it all the more important to understand the architecture of the ideology that is used to justify it. To approach the study of the Brezhnev era without a basic understanding of Marxist doctrine is like trying to find a submerged body by carefully surveying the surface of a lake.

But there is every possibility that our problems run deeper than Spady supposes. Pilkington, for instance, argues that utility-maximizing or “marginalist” economics is an extremist, radical-utopian social doctrine that seeks to restructure our societies in perverse, anti-human ways. He points out that marginalism was not, as many suppose, the invention of avid free-market types. “If an honest history of the roots of contemporary economics is ever written, it will quickly be seen that the main components of what has come to be mainstream economics today were built by men who were consciously trying to promote large-scale and highly intrusive economic planning and social-engineering.”

It is not hard to see that the atomized doctrine of infinite choice that marginalist economics promotes is a key pillar of the ideology of our times. Indeed, many of the pathologies of hyper-individualism diagnosed in the pages of First Things fold neatly into doctrines propagated by university economics departments, free-market think tanks, and our supposedly “conservative” publications. The social planners and technocrats, whose modus operandi is to reign over chaos and flux, are hiding under the bed—should we really be sleeping soundly tonight?

Profectus Optimus
cork, ireland

As a card-carrying economist, I can vouch for Richard Spady’s analysis of how economics sometimes functions as an ideology. Economics is most successful and most modest when it explores processes of exchange and the institutions (or “rules of the game”) that facilitate or impede mutual gains from exchange. Economics becomes problematic when it reduces analysts’ conception of the good to a utilitarian calculus that treats people not as creative, responsible moral agents, but simply as autonomous consumers whose arbitrary tastes and preferences, presumably formed ex nihilo, are the sovereign standard of their well-being.

In my experience, most economists give most of their attention to benign and insightful applications of economic reasoning. Yet they still hold to the abstract theory, with all its problems. As Spady writes, it takes a model to beat a model. In The Economist’s View of the World (1985), Steven E. Rhoads found that many economists were prepared to acknowledge some of the weaker aspects of their theory. Perhaps the recent growth of behavioral economics reflects a readiness to replace the ideology-prone aspects of economic theory with a more modest empirical approach.

Douglas J. Puffert
gordon college
wenham, massachusetts

I read Richard Spady’s article “Economics as Ideology” with interest. It’s easy to conflate normative and positive statements in economics, and any welfare analysis should be interpreted narrowly. But a more apt title would have been “Econ 101 as Ideology.”

To turn a discipline as broad as economics into an ideology demands a dumbing down of the discipline. For instance, it is true, as Spady asserts, that economists often assume the principle “Being able to do something you couldn’t do before is always good, or at least not bad.” But violations of this principle are common, and understanding them has become central to fields such as financial contracting and behavioral economics. One lesson to be drawn from this research is that if an agent cannot commit to a course of action, then giving him extra freedom can make him worse off. The antidote to “Econ 101 as Ideology” is simply better economics.

It’s worth considering why economics is sometimes viewed as “the queen of the sciences.” When Mary Eberstadt writes about contraception, or Brad Wilcox writes on family structure, or Spady himself writes about deaths of despair, they all cite prominent economists. Part of the reason is that economists have the data or econometrics, for which Spady is distinguished—but I think there’s a deeper explanation. Whether they realize it or not, economists treat original sin very seriously, and original sin is empirically pretty reliable. Obviously, economists do not use this language, but Augustine’s notion of original sin as homo incurvatus in se—man turned inward on himself—bears a striking resemblance to the canonical homo economicus. Consequently, economic analysis (like Spady’s predictions at the end of the article) can be powerful but not normative. 

Kevin Roshak
university of houston
houston, texas

Richard Spady replies:

P. Optimus, Douglas Puffert, and Kevin Roshak respond to unresolved tensions in my article between the usefulness of economics, which I acknowledge, and the criticisms that I level against it, including its unrepentant and self-interested arrogance in failing to recognize its responsibility for our current social and political predicaments.

Optimus cites Philip Pilkington and argues that the doctrines of “marginalism” (which, I think we would agree, are inextricably tied to the formalisms of utility theory, since you can’t maximize a utility without taking some derivatives) have at their origins a project of “economic planning and social-engineering.” In this, Optimus and Pilkington are undoubtedly correct. But the usefulness of economics is not impeached by the motives of its historical founders, whatever our assessment of those motives might be today.

The practice of economics is, of course, a different matter. One problem with Pilkington’s analysis, at least as I have understood it, is that he rejects microeconomics as irredeemably tainted by its utilitarian origins, so that economics becomes largely, if not entirely, macroeconomics. (Economists’ record in that field, despite marketing efforts to suggest the superiority of their thinking to that of the business and financial executives with whom they compete for policy oversight, is decidedly mixed.) We will need a calculus for all things microeconomic, despite our unease with the way the subject has been developed, taught, and applied up to now.

Puffert points the way forward when he notes that “utilitarian calculus . . . treats people not as creative, responsible moral agents but simply as autonomous consumers whose arbitrary tastes and preferences, presumably formed ex nihilo, are the sovereign standard of their well-being.” People’s preferences are not formed ex nihilo, and it is well within the competence of even the desiccated social science we now have to explain how and why they are formed, largely by a process that itself serves the economic and social interests of the regnant elite. Such an explanation requires no commitment to a view of the nature and agency of human beings. Nonetheless, the social scientists of our think tanks and universities seem singularly uninterested in the topic. A Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature and agency of human beings would deepen our comprehension of these processes and bring us closer to the truth about God and humankind.

Roshak anticipates this last view in his “deeper explanation” after suggesting that I have overlooked the “dumbing down” of economics, which enables its transformation into ideology. He is correct that my attribution of the principle “Being able to do something you couldn’t do before is always good, or at least not bad” to economics brings forth from economists the objection (accompanied not infrequently by anger and annoyance) that they widely recognize that doing the newly possible things sometimes has bad consequences. Leaving aside whether that contradicts my characterization, the question is why this “better economics” does not inhibit the presumptions of economists more often: On policy after policy, economists condescend to give facile advice based on no consideration deeper than Econ 101. It’s hard not to accept Roshak’s suggestion that Augustine already knew better.

MANUALIST MERITS 

Overall, Patrick Carey’s review of Fr. Joseph Fenton’s books (“Fenton Returns,” April) is informative and well-balanced. However, I think it suffers somewhat from a hermeneutic of discontinuity.

First, there is the matter of Fenton’s defense of Leonine teaching on the relationship between church and state. If it is really the case that Vatican II, in the words of Dignitatis Humanae, left “untouched traditional Catholic doctrine” on the rights and duties of human society about which Fenton previously wrote, then his thought ought to be taken just as seriously as John Courtney Murray’s by faithful Catholic theologians. Even if Murray’s thought offers developments, it does not thereby override or supersede Fenton’s thought. In today’s climate, in which religious freedom is now threatened by the “neutral,” “pluralistic” state, we would do well to attend to the latter.

Second, Fenton’s proposal that church doctrines retain the exact same sense and meaning as they had during apostolic times is merely a paraphrase of the second half of St. Vincent of Lerins’s famous formulation cited in Vatican I’s Dei Filius. To reiterate that doctrine remains fundamentally the same is not necessarily to deny its historical development (the first half of St. Vincent’s formulation), nor does it necessarily yield to “theological amnesia.” Indeed, it is precisely this second half of the quotation that we so desperately need to be reminded of just now, amid the “theological forgetfulness” to which Carey alludes.

Finally, I fail to see how Lumen Gentium’s qualification of the principle of extra ecclesiam nulla salus is any “broader” than Fenton’s solution to the question of the relationship between church membership and salvation. All salvation comes through the Church, even for those in invincible ignorance, whose in voto membership (Fenton’s formula) could still be realized in the way that Lumen Gentium describes. Fenton’s formulation of the state of invincible ignorance is simply more precise.

Michael J. Sauter
hamburg, michigan

Patrick Carey replies:

I thank Michael J. Sauter for his three critiques of my review of Fenton’s republished works, but I maintain my “hermeneutic of discontinuity” without denying certain elements to the contrary.

Leo XIII, Fenton, and Murray were in agreement that the American separation of church and state is not an ideal situation, and they agreed that society has obligations to an objective moral order. We would do well, as Sauter mentions, to pay close attention to this teaching. But for Murray, unlike Leo XIII and Fenton, no ideal relationship between church and state existed historically. Murray, too, unlike Leo XIII and Fenton, distinguished between society and state. Society, Murray argued, had the objective obligation to worship God, but the state had no such obligation. The problem for religious communities in a pluralistic society was and is to convince people of the need for what Avery Dulles once called in this journal “The Deist Minimum” (January 2005) of consensus on the moral order.

I agree in the abstract with Sauter that the sense and meaning of church doctrine can remain the same over time, and that this understanding does not necessarily deny historical development. But my point in the essay was that Fenton’s writings were not in fact attentive to the historical forces behind church teachings, particularly those from Pius IX to Pius XII, and that his theology was not as sensitive to the diversity and development of the Catholic tradition as was that of, for example, Avery Dulles.

Fenton’s interpretation of extra ecclesiam was indeed in continuity with Lumen Gentium, but in my view, Lumen Gentium expanded on and ventured beyond the “more precise” notion of invincible ignorance. We will have to disagree here.

EAST AND WEST

In his welcome account of Czech, Hungarian, and Polish conservatism (“Battle for Europe,” April), Ryszard Legutko fails to mention the elephant—or should I say “the bear”?—in the room. For it is their gravitation toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a dramatic geopolitical shift contrary to the interests of their peoples, that makes the current regimes of these countries most disturbing.

The government of Poland, for instance, which has suffered so much from Russia in the past, has played into Putin’s hands by raising tensions with Ukraine over historical memory of events during World War II, thus destroying decades of patient reconciliation between two natural allies while benefiting their common enemy. This, indeed, is a perfect example of the “postcolonial mentality” to which Legutko refers: Thinking themselves free, Eastern European leaders “unwittingly try to imitate and please the former colonial power” by mimicking Russia’s authoritarianism at home and withdrawing support from her latest victim abroad.

The logical answer to the predicament of Eastern European states caught between an economically hegemonic, culturally decadent neoliberal West and an aggressive, autocratic Russia is an updated Intermarium. Such an alliance of the predominantly Christian nations between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas could preserve them from both. It might even give Christian Europe a new lease on life.

Andrew Sorokowski
north bethesda, maryland

Ryszard Legutko replies:

Andrew Sorokowski’s plea for “an updated Intermarium” is sound, as the current Polish government and president, who often make use of the concept explicitly, have also recognized. This represents a reversal of the policy of the previous government to rely chiefly on Germany’s protective umbrella. And relations among the countries of Eastern Europe have improved remarkably ever since, which is one reason why political elites of the E.U. have started talking—some with hope, others with apprehension—about this region having its own particular interests.

True, relations between Poland and Ukraine have recently deteriorated due to disputes over “historical memory.” After many decades of silence, Poland started commemorating the victims of the Wołyń massacres of 1943–1945, when up to 100,000 Poles were killed—some of them in ways that still boggle the mind—by Ukrainian nationalists. The Ukrainians have downplayed this incident but not disowned it; they see Wołyń as a chapter in their country’s road to independence. It is a difficult problem that can only be solved over the course of decades.

Historical controversies aside, the Polish government and a vast majority of the Polish people have been overwhelmingly supportive of Ukraine in its conflict with Russia and its rapprochement with the E.U. I myself was author of the European Parliament’s official opinion calling for the endorsement of the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement. And Poland remains one of the most eloquent critics of Putin’s imperialism. One cannot find a single statement by any Polish politician under the current government even remotely resembling an apology for Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. The security apparatus that Poland has been building in recent years is intended primarily to strengthen the eastern flank of NATO against Russian belligerence.

Conflicts over the region’s vexed and often bloody history exist in Eastern Europe and will continue to exist—between Poles and Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Poles, Hungarians and Slovaks, Romanians and Hungarians, etc. These enmities have their own dynamics and cannot be eradicated by a single political act. They should not prevent us, however, from establishing viable alliances to face the challenges of the present moment. Today, most Eastern European societies are more aware of this than ever before.

I will not comment on Sorokowski’s opinion that the Polish government is “mimicking Russia’s authoritarianism at home.” He does not provide a single corroborative fact, because there aren’t any.

WHICH LIBERALISM?

Patrick J. Deneen (“The Ignoble Lie,” April) neatly exposes the myth that legitimizes the position of those who presently dominate America’s institutions of cultural formation. Like all nascent totalitarianisms, authoritarian liberalism possesses and promotes a ruling caste for whom ideological fervor substitutes for actual excellence of character and learning. One element driving these developments, Deneen holds, is Christianity’s decline throughout America. Christianity, he says, always existed uneasily alongside liberalism in shaping the American experiment, yet managed to restrain liberalism’s full implications from being realized. Absent that constraint, liberalism now runs amok. But there is another way of telling this story, one which takes into consideration the role of natural law in both Christianity and the liberal tradition.

By natural law, I don’t mean Hobbesian-like assertions of natural rights. I mean the tradition which holds that, through reason (the “natural” part of natural law), we can know the truth about how to choose and act rightly as individuals and communities. And what is right (the “law” part of natural law) is what is always good and just for both individuals and communities. Until the mid-nineteenth century, considerable segments of Anglo-American liberalism (which I’ll define as the generic commitment to liberty, rule of law, and constitutionalism over and against arbitrary government that acquired mature form in the eighteenth century) embodied relatively strong commitments to robust accounts of natural law. You see this in the writings of many American founders but also the thought of figures such as William Blackstone and Edmund Burke.

Throughout the twentieth century, this commitment dramatically weakened. Most self-described American liberals embraced philosophical skepticism (a polite way of saying nihilism). But this was matched by Christians, many of whom abandoned natural law as they sought to dispense with Christ’s hard sayings in the name of “lived experience,” sentimentalist conceptions of love, and subjectivist conceptions of conscience. Natural law’s subsequent eclipse in both Anglo-American liberalism and much of Christianity has surely played a major role in freedom’s diminishment to license, constitutionalism’s reduction to proceduralism, and the shrinkage of reasoned public discourse. Attention to this history, however, is invariably missing from most contemporary Christian critiques of liberal order.

In my opinion, that’s because such considerations raise major questions about the coherence of integralist interpretations of the history of ideas, many of which skip over these and other important details when explaining liberal ideology’s contemporary hegemony. Authoritarian liberalism is undoubtedly a grave threat to freedom and the common good. Understanding and addressing it, however, isn’t served by downplaying or ignoring factors which don’t fit the emerging integralist narrative.

Samuel Gregg
acton institute
grand rapids, michigan

Among its other virtues, Patrick Deneen’s brilliant essay is an example of the creative use of the past to illuminate the present, to use old books to see our world afresh. His contention that liberalism untethered from Christianity will lead to something very like the Hobbesian state of nature is, to say the least, suggestive of a grand irony, and of the degree to which liberalism’s own premises compel it to certain preordained conclusions. I rise, however, less to criticize Deneen’s essay than to express the hope that, just as there are core elements of liberalism that we all want to see preserved somehow, so there is a core element in the meritocratic ideal that is worth preserving, even if “meritocracy” itself has proven a meretricious god—as the word’s inventor, Michael Young, once predicted.

The most damaging lie of the current meritocracy is something closer to a half-truth: that we are all sorted “objectively” into the place where we deserve to be. It is true that almost every student admitted to Yale has worked very hard to get there. Those who dwell inside the magic circle of validation can continue to entertain the view that it was not their advantages but their own meritorious effort that placed them there. And they are not entirely wrong. But the conditions of their birth and rearing are so determinative of their ability to succeed (and others to fail) in the work and gamesmanship involved in securing admission to such an institution that this belief cannot help but appear as a self-delusion, particularly to those who must dwell outside the magic circle. And, in addition, these outsiders must somehow contend with the fact that not only are they not part of an elite institution, but “objective testing” has “proven” that they don’t belong there.

The sorting itself offends against our ideals, but all the more so if the sorting is not particularly rational or effective, and is done on the basis of tests and measures that don’t really test or measure anything meaningful. Then all you have done is produce an elite class that can lie to itself, and half-believe the lie, that it “objectively” deserves to be on top. (That it only half-believes the lie explains a great deal of the strange behavior we now see emanating from elite campuses, where the privileged routinely denounce “privilege” without a trace of irony or self-recognition in their voices.)

But there is still a valid understanding of merit. There is no more quintessentially American ideal than the belief that no one’s prospects in life should be determined by the conditions of his or her birth, and that individuals should advance strictly on their merit and not because of any other external advantage. From its beginning, America banished titles of nobility and other hereditary distinctions that had long been characteristic of European aristocratic society. Instead, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams sought what they called a “natural aristocracy”: Those with demonstrable talents and experience, those seen to possess the skills, knowledge, and character requisite for “the best,” would be those most deserving of high standing and high responsibilities.

This is the spirit captured in a 1778 Fourth of July oration by South Carolina politician David Ramsay, an ode to the new nation as a land of opportunity: “All offices lie open to men of merit, of whatever rank or condition; and the reins of state may be held by the son of the poorest men, if possessed of abilities equal to the important station.” If this ideal is still worth pursuing, as I think it is, we need to find ways to make its pursuit possible again.

Wilfred M. McClay
university of oklahoma
norman, oklahoma

Patrick Deneen gets at least three things wrong in “The Ignoble Lie”: (1) In Plato’s Republic, the lower class consists not of “workers,” in the modern sense, but of all those who have private wealth. The rich are all lower-class. (2) Pace Deneen, today’s meritocratic elite do have a sense of noblesse oblige. That is why they want government programs to care for the disadvantaged. (3) As others have pointed out, Deneen is wrong about the liberalism of the American founding. It did not affirm “political unity as a means to securing our private differences.” American liberalism, from the outset, was Lockean liberalism, which is a liberalism of toleration. What was tolerated were intransigent religious differences, or in Locke’s own language, error.

For what early modern liberalism in general sought to counteract were regimes that supported one religion (say, the Church of England) and suppressed others (say, the Roman Catholic Church). Religious differences were not private, and they were not innocuous: For example, the pope instructed English Catholics of Locke’s day that their monarch was not legitimate, which is one reason why Locke’s own toleration did not extend to the Catholic Church. A toleration that could extend so far was a real achievement—though easier to achieve in the U.S., where religious differences were less likely to lead to civil war (as actually happened in the Jacobite uprisings in Britain).

Early modern liberalism did not celebrate diversity but tried to tame it by giving it freedom within limits. It did not use political unity to secure private differences, but tried to accommodate public religious differences in the interest of political unity and civil peace. Today’s liberalism is a different animal.

Phillip Cary
eastern university
st. davids, pennsylvania

There is an important truth in Patrick Deneen’s assertion that “Liberalism has achieved its goal of emptying the public square of the old gods, leaving it a harsh space of contestation among unequals who no longer see any commonality.” But his assertion only applies to one kind of liberalism. There is a more fruitful way to frame the problem. 

Richard John Neuhaus, also writing in this journal (“Why We Can Get Along,” February 1996), was more precise:

But first we must know what liberalism we are talking about. According to one liberal doctrine, the liberal regime is based on belief in the autonomy of the individual, historical progress, the essential goodness of man, and public skepticism about moral truth. The liberal regime of, for instance, the American constitutional order is very different from that, and the difference is a difference of kind. . . . This kind of liberal regime is based on a belief in the responsible person in communities of legitimate interest, and in man’s capacity for good ambiguously joined to his inclination to evil. It is agnostic about historical progress, and understands itself to be premised upon public truths, as in “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” Such truths, in turn, are derived from and point to authority that transcends the regime itself, as in “Nature and Nature’s God.”

Rather than identify a conflict between two very different kinds of liberalism, however, Deneen asserts that, in the American past, “liberalism was not fully itself.” The perspective that there is only one kind of liberalism, and that the American constitutional order somehow shared that kind of liberalism, is pernicious. It would blind us to the ideas that Neuhaus believed allow us to “get along”; it would hinder our ability to see that the alternative to the “noble lie” is “self-evident truth.”

Dennis R. McGrath
george washington university
washington, d.c.

Patrick Deneen forecasts that liberalism, absent Christianity, will generate Hobbes’s “war of all against all.” A reading of René Girard prompts me to wonder if this war isn’t more likely to be a war of “all against one,” as Girard puts it in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning and elsewhere. Some person or group of persons will have to be periodically sacrificed to perpetuate the fiction that a society can be sustained on the sole foundation of desires endlessly conceived and fulfilled.

While one sincerely hopes for a figurative sacrifice, Augustine’s characterization of libertine pagan attitudes toward Christianity in the City of God is not reassuring: “If anyone disapproves of this happiness, let him be a public enemy. If anyone attempts to change or abolish it, let the abandoned multitude deny him a hearing, expel him from the assemblies, and remove him from among the living.”

Deneen is no doubt correct that “bigoted rednecks” are the first kulaks of our revolution. Given Philip Rieff’s observation that the answer to what desire is for is “more,” however, I offer my own forecast of repeated wars of “all against one.” Having disposed of the rednecks, I doubt that future elites will have much trouble identifying new and sacrificeable victims.

Aaron Weinacht
university of montana western
dillon, montana

Patrick Deneen’s characterization of Plato’s noble lie, in an otherwise excellent essay, nonetheless overlooks one crucial feature of the story: the autochthony myth. Socrates says his citizens should be told that “the earth, which is their mother, sent them up. And now, as though the land they are in were a mother and nurse, they must plan for and defend it, if anyone attacks.” The opposite of this autochthony myth, perhaps, is the Exodus story, in which the inhabitants of the promised land, though they are a chosen people, nevertheless receive the land as a gift. This story also demands an ethical response—but not mobilization against foreigners. Instead, Moses informs the people that they are to “love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).

The Exodus story explicitly cautions us against the dangers of inherited privilege, of which the contemporary egalitarian invitation to “check your privilege” is merely an imitation. Moses warns:

And it shall be, when the Lord thy God shall have brought thee into the land which he sware unto thy fathers, . . . to give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildedst not, And houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not, vineyards and olive trees, which thou plantedst not; when thou shalt have eaten and be full, Then beware lest thou forget the Lord, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. (Deut. 6:10–12)

Deuteronomy’s response to the recognition of unearned privilege is not the well-intentioned yet ultimately futile attempt to empty oneself of those privileges (admittedly a practice with roots in Christian kenosis), but rather, the practice of the virtue of gratitude.

If the danger of unbridled meritocracy is that the elite will come to think of the misfortune of the poor as deserved, and likewise their own prosperity, then the danger of Plato’s noble lie—and John Winthrop’s variation on it—is that God has appointed the poor to their station, and they are therefore obliged to stay there. Plato’s story of the admixture of metal with souls is functionally a caste system, and Christianity has a storied history of opposing such systems wherever they may appear.

Christianity teaches both that God appoints us to our stations, and also that there is no prohibition against improving them as we are able. To bondservants, Paul recommends, “If you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor. 7:21). This is the logic of the Exodus narrative applied to social stratification and inequality. Perhaps it affords a point of common ground with those egalitarians so eager to warn against the dangers of unearned privilege today.

Justin Hawkins
new haven, connecticut

Patrick J. Deneen replies:

I am gratified by these many and varied responses to my essay. Their objections fall into three main categories: (1) differences over interpretation of Plato; (2) disagreements about the nature of liberalism; (3) divergent assessments of the merits of meritocracy. A treatise could be written on each, but let me briefly address the first two and respond with several more sentences to the last.

Without engaging in customary academic practices of textual exegesis, my main interest in examining contemporary meritocracy in light of some passages from Plato’s Republic was to point to the deep and fundamental problem presented in that work of how to prevent rulers from governing solely on their own behalf. Throughout the dialogue, it is shown how the ruling class often shrouds its self-interested actions in self-flattering terms, and Plato was well aware of how difficult it can be to pierce such forms of self-deception. What Phillip Cary identifies as contemporary “noblesse oblige,” by this understanding, is much more likely to be some form of delusional handwashing.

Cary, Samuel Gregg, and Dennis McGrath also object in similar ways to my critique of liberalism (doubtless also thinking of my recent book on the subject). But they actually agree with my historical claim that in liberalism’s early years there existed, at least in practice, an admixture of Christianity and liberal political theory. We disagree on the ultimate compatibility of the elements of that amalgam, and contemporary evidence would seem to support my view that the combination was contingent, not essential. They are at liberty to attempt to wed anew that which has been put asunder, but I think efforts are better spent recognizing our changed condition and considering possible points of departure for a time after liberalism.

Both Justin Hawkins and Wilfred McClay rightly gesture toward the praiseworthy aspects of contemporary meritocracy, allowing people like me, from modest backgrounds, to discover and find success in vocations that would have been disallowed to my Irish peasant forebears. Like Tocqueville, I fully recognize that while democracy “is less elevated” than aristocracy, “it is more just.” But the question remains: What is the relationship between those who achieve great success through their efforts and those who fall behind?

Tocqueville recognized that the conditions of liberal democracy were likely to give rise to a new aristocracy, which he feared would be even worse than the aristocracy it displaced. In a society marked by “individualism,” the new aristocrats would attribute their success solely to their own hard work, and regard others’ lack of success as their “just deserts.” For this reason, Tocqueville concluded, there would be “no real bond between them and the poor,” and he believed they might come to constitute the “harshest” ruling class “which ever existed in the world.” The new aristocracy, he predicted, would settle at a geographic distance from these others and would “abandon them to be supported by the charity of the public.” Without the cultivation of true charity leavening the satisfactions of meritocratic “justice”—particularly, the interpersonal relations between people regardless of class, status, and position—this new aristocracy would create the conditions for the complete disregard, and, indeed, disdain for those who had been justly left behind.

Tocqueville’s prescience, as ever, was remarkable. But his counsel was to retain the Christian inheritance otherwise likely to be emptied by liberal democracy. Tocqueville today offers little guidance for what is to be done once that inheritance has been wholly drawn down. What is to be done now in the naked public and private square is the great pressing question of our age.

Photo by Scott Schiller via Creative Commons. Image cropped.