Capitalism is best understood as the modern ambition to order and value all available resources solely on the basis of market principles. As an “ism,” it functions as an ideal. We never achieve the all or the solely. At various stages in many countries, however, great efforts have been made to realize the ideal, with dramatic consequences for the way we live. In his classic historical study, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi documents the paths by which capitalism invades and reorganizes traditional forms of life. The agricultural village becomes tenements surrounding cotton mills. Old ranks of honor give way to new hierarchies of wealth. The meaning and function of family relations change. Anyone reading Polanyi comes away with the conviction that the power of the market should never be underestimated.
There are two lines of argument favoring the imperial ambitions of capitalism. The most common is utilitarian. As Friedrich Hayek observed at a time when far too many were infatuated with socialism, markets allocate resources more efficiently than planners do. But more important to Hayek was what he regarded as the moral superiority of the price mechanism. Buyers and sellers are drawn together by mutual interests. Thus, Hayek argued, markets maximize freedom by organizing society in a non-coercive way. Milton Friedman puts this claim at the center of his influential book, Capitalism and Freedom.
Hayek’s and Friedman’s arguments for the moral superiority of capitalism have captured the imagination of intellectuals and politicians on the right. In The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak developed his own subtle, multi-faceted version. (I wrote about Novak’s book in a column a few years ago, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism,” October 2017.) The virtues of a free-market economy are many, but a one-sided enthusiasm for the promise of capitalism is ever falsified by experience. The notion of the “wage slave” bespeaks a truth about life for asset-poor workers in a modern capitalist society. And, of course, because it homes in on satisfying our desires, an ever-expanding market does the opposite of what the classical tradition counsels. Rather than encouraging the discipline of our wants, which is the only path to lasting freedom, capitalism stokes those wants, and we sell ourselves as slaves to the worldly regime of sin and death in exactly the way St. Paul bemoans.
We don’t need to argue its pros and cons to see that capitalism makes alluring promises, some amply fulfilled—and produces bondages and pathologies, too, some severe. As Polanyi recognized, the combination of capitalism’s indispensability and its downsides has shaped modern political economy.
One response to this situation concentrated on removing the limits on market transactions. In the early stages of capitalism in England, guilds and other monopolies were abolished. But economic freedom required more than deregulation. Market participants needed to be empowered with legal inventions, such as the limited liability corporation. When constraints on trade and innovation are removed, people mobilize resources, both natural and human, to everyone’s benefit—or so it was argued. The marginally employed were compelled to enter the labor market by the repeal of the poor laws that had functioned rather like a guaranteed universal basic income. Traditional village life was disrupted, but productivity increased and the industrial revolution produced tremendous material wealth.
The other project of modern political economy moves in the opposite direction. It limits capitalism’s imperial ambitions and counters the new forms of bondage it creates. America’s generous tax treatment of charitable donations is meant to nurture endeavors and institutions that are not governed by the profit-motive. Our labor laws protect workers from exploitation, which they cannot avoid simply by exercising their nominal free choice not to work. Tariffs and industrial policy aim to secure the non-market goods of solidarity and national security. Parks cordon off land, and environmental laws protect the public commons.
I share Polanyi’s anti-utopian view. The give-and-take between the two aspects of modern political economy is inevitable. Every generation must rethink and redraw the laws that encourage and restrain commercial life, as well as ensure that its costs and benefits are shared. After a long season of ideological slumber induced by the utopian belief that markets are self-correcting and self-limiting, conservatives need to do that rethinking and redrawing.
It’s intellectually dishonest for the right to speak of policies that limit or guide markets in the interest of the common good as unprecedented“government intervention,” or—and this mindless epithet is too often used by those who wish to sustain free-market utopianism—“conservative social engineering.” Polanyi shows that the triumph of capitalism required sustained political efforts, which continue to this day. The World Trade Organization and other pillars of today’s global economy were constructed by governments, not markets. Moreover, using the power of government to limit capitalism must be part of any conservatism that takes the lives of ordinary citizens into account. The Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli established the first elements of the welfare state, not in order to undermine the British economy, but to secure its popular support. Government action and capitalism have always been intertwined.
We need economic policies that encourage economic growth in the right ways—and policies that limit capitalism in the right ways. I’ll leave it to economists and policy wonks to debate what counts as “right.” More decisive is what might be called a “cultural politics” in relation to capitalism. Ever since Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, thinkers have speculated about the cultural conditions necessary for a well-functioning free-market system. Of late, Nicholas Eberstadt has documented the decline of male participation in the labor force, a negative trend driven less by economic factors than by unhealthy cultural changes in our society. My interest is in the opposite side of the issue: a cultural politics that restrains capitalism and ameliorates its pathologies. As the Founders recognized in the design of our federal government, dangerous powers and imperial ambitions can be limited by countervailing powers and ambitions. It is my conviction that this method of pinioning capitalism is of the utmost importance.
The family and the Church are forces capable of keeping modern capitalism within humane limits. To them I would add the nation, a more ambiguous force, but an important one. All three are what I call “love societies.” They ask for our loyalty. And they promise rewards that cannot (or at least should not) be bought and sold.
Family life is not organized by the price mechanism. The nation demands sacrifices and promises honor, both of which are perverted when they are assigned prices. The Church is more remote still from market logic. The Church’s central promise is that in Christ we can attain a pearl of great price, the treasure that is in heaven, not in this world. If we wish to sustain capitalism in the twenty-first century, then we need to use political power to renew and strengthen these non-market love societies.
Let’s consider the nation in more detail. Today, the tearing down of statues denudes the public square. Nothing is raised to replace the toppled monuments. The void is emblematic. The ideology of multiculturalism functions as did the Enclosure Acts in seventeenth-century England, which created private property rights over land that was once common-use. Woke activism strips away our cultural commons, making society more fully available for reorganization by the market mechanism. Starbucks and Netflix fill the void left when Robert E. Lee and other figures are removed. It’s no surprise, therefore, that economic neo-liberalism embraces progressive cultural fashions.
What to do? To be frank, I tire of playing anti-woke defense 24/7. So I’ll venture a proactive policy. Let’s require military service for those young people who, at present, are regarded as the most economically valuable. Let’s say two years of mandatory military service for all graduates of universities rated as among the top fifty in the country by U.S. News & World Report. Unworkable? Yes, but we need to think creatively about how to wrest our national life away from cold calculations of utility—and from the punitive moralism of today’s progressivism. One striking feature of contemporary Israeli society is that all the country’s youth serve in the military.
Family—here, the situation is dire. Fertility rates have plummeted. Out-of-wedlock births are the norm, or nearly so, in many parts of society. One consequence of family breakdown: The young are being reared by history’s most powerful marketing tool, the smartphone, which my colleague Mark Bauerlein regards as Satan’s favorite twenty-first-century weapon. I’ll venture that, of children who have any meaningful restrictions on screen usage, nearly all are living with both mother and father. Without the discipline of family life, we are abandoned to the marketplace, which now has the technological means to make us consumers all day, every day.
I’m no expert on family policy, so I can’t offer detailed proposals. But let me say that half-measures will not do. We need a dramatic change in course, something along the lines of significantly decreasing taxes for married couples of child-bearing age, or perhaps increasing Social Security benefits in accord with how many children one has raised. Again, I’ll concede that these ideas are radical and perhaps politically unworkable. But, again, we need to push ourselves to think big about big problems, and the decline of the family is a big problem.
Church—here, the situation is more promising. Cultural deregulation working in tandem with economic deregulation has severely damaged the family. American religious institutions are in better condition. Nominal Christianity has declined in recent decades, but church attendance has remained relatively steady, and young clergy are more inclined than their elders to take oppositional stances. The Christian committed core endures as a political and cultural force in American society, much to the dismay of many progressives who resent our influence.
In view of the continuing vitality of religious institutions, our goal should be to empower them politically and culturally. The Supreme Court has curtailed the excesses of post–World War II interpretations of the Establishment Clause, allowing for properly tailored state funding of religious schools. This approach needs to be developed wherever politically possible. We should lobby for the overturning of Supreme Court precedents from the early 1960s that deemed unconstitutional the longstanding tradition of ecumenical prayer in public schools. The Ten Commandments should be displayed in courthouses. We need to have our attention lifted toward something transcendent so that we are relieved of the false view that life is mainly about what we can buy and sell.
America once had an “integralist” tradition, until various Supreme Court decisions after 1945 dismantled its main supports. It was a Protestant-dominated, theologically vague, and politically soft religious establishment that some might deem ersatz and therefore not authentically “integralist.” I’m happy to concede that use of the term to those with purer views. But I believe that if we hope to restrain capitalism we must sift through the American tradition of state encouragement of religion to discern what can be fruitfully restored in our own time.
Nation, family, and Church are bulwarks against the tendency of capitalism to turn every relationship into a market transaction. We need to use the art of politics to renew and strengthen these love societies.
Notes on Illiberalism
I’ll venture a definition of liberalism: It’s the ambition to organize society around a shared love of freedom. “Illiberalism” is a muddier concept, which is not surprising since it functions as a negation. For my purposes, I will define it as a vision of society ordered toward shared loves of many substantive goods rather than of freedom alone. As Matthew Rose suggests in his meditation on Leo Strauss in this issue (“Leo Strauss and the Closed Society”), the deepest paradox of liberalism rests in the fact that it requires illiberalism in order to thrive.
The ends sought by loves other than a love of freedom are many and various. Here’s a short list, which simply describes a traditional society. We are tutored toward a love of matrimonial union and family loyalties. Local and regional pride flourishes. We are taught to relish the beauty of our native language and cherish the great books of our tradition. A patriotic sentiment takes hold. Those with a talent for speculation are romanced by philosophy and feel the lure of transcendence. A broad consensus encourages religious piety.
In each instance, we are encouraged to develop loyalties that empower us to say “no” to whatever undermines or contradicts our loves. In the power of “no,” we attain the freedom of doing what we truly want rather than what others command us to do. We live in accord with truths whose authority we affirm and endorse, rather than in accord with our fickle, ever-changing desires—or the demands of commerce, mass culture, and ideology. Perhaps the single most powerful force resisting political polarization is familial love, which refuses to allow opinions about Black Lives Matter or January 6 to dampen our domestic affections.
What I have adumbrated accords with traditional conservatism. This view, which is perhaps more cultural than political, insists that a just society proposes a substantive vision of human goods to its members, and especially to the young as they are educated. Moreover—and this additional conviction makes liberals nervous—a just society must vest appropriate power in the authorities entrusted to promote and protect those goods. Parents, not children, properly rule the household; teachers have authority over students; clergy defend the boundaries of orthodoxy.
Let me dwell on the religious aspect, for it bears upon controversies surrounding “integralism.” No matter what one’s view of Church and state, we ought to be able to agree that worship is a fundamental good, and political authorities ought to encourage it. This does not mean that politicians should lead church services or that clergy should govern. Christianity utterly rejects the former, and in many traditions and during certain eras it has had misgivings about the latter. Nevertheless, a consensus has obtained: Governmental power should be used to promote and protect the virtue of religiosity. This happens already in the United States. To the dismay of those who seek a more purely liberal regime, the American constitutional right of free exercise of religion accords special rights to people who are religious. (It’s a grave mistake to redefine free exercise as a general right of conscience.) There are also small ways in which our regime encourages religion. For example, immigration law makes it especially easy for non-native clergy to work in the United States. In my youth, a variety of Sabbath laws fenced off Sundays from the invasion of commerce and the dominion of Mammon.
It’s no longer 1965, but clergy tell me that the proliferation of Sunday morning games for youth sports leagues poses a new threat to church attendance. This suggests the need for local jurisdictions to impose limits on the American fixation on sports by prohibiting youth leagues from scheduling practices and games on Sunday mornings. Doing this would not be unconstitutional. On the contrary, it would follow a long American tradition of governmental encouragement of religious observance. This encouragement has a liberal character; it does not impose or require religious belief. But using the power of law to protect religious institutions from today’s sports mania is, strictly speaking, illiberal, for it reflects the conviction that something other than freedom plays a crucial role in sustaining a good society.
I like our American tradition, which as I note above can seem too loose and ad hoc to those who have worked out theories of one sort or another, and I count myself a liberal conservative who favors encouragement over compulsion. We should not rule out the latter. When it comes to the good of marriage, we need to repeal no-fault divorce and restore the legal principles that compel most people to remain married. But when possible, nudges are better than commands.
I also counsel tolerance of the inevitable plurality of the goods promoted in a society as vast and heterogeneous as our own. Someone well versed in theology will notice that I have commended the good of worship, not true worship. Aren’t some religions false, or at least defective in grave ways? Yes. But never let the perfect be an enemy of the good. Our society would be better off promoting religious observance in general, even of traditions I deem misguided, rather than not promoting it at all. And I certainly urge caution in the degree of power backed by state sanctions accorded to the cultural, moral, and religious authorities that are custodians of substantive goods. The great nineteenth-century liberal Lord Acton was right about the perils of power. But abusus non tollit usum: Abuse does not invalidate use.
So, count me skeptical of “principled” pronouncements, whether they are coming from liberal theorists or their adversaries. The task of governance requires prudence, and prudence means discerning what can and cannot be done, given human and historical realities. But of this I am certain: A genuinely liberal society, one capable of sustaining a culture of freedom, must prize substantive goods such as marital fidelity and religious observance—and empower the authorities (a fright phrase for liberals) that form us to love them. Put simply, without the leaven of something that participates in the illiberal spirit of honoring authority and devoting oneself to something other than freedom, liberalism fails.
In my estimation, our Christian heritage encourages us to love freedom. That’s certainly true of our country. But to sustain that love, we must share other loves. And we must order our society to honor, promote, and protect those loves. If we’re to taste the sweetness of freedom, we need the salt of what today’s liberals are far too quick to dismiss and deride as “illiberal.”
Religious Roots of Polarization
We too often take a false view of the increasing polarization in America. Black Lives Matter exploded onto the scene in summer 2020, giving the impression that the most significant and debilitating divide in American society is racial. I don’t wish to downplay the realities of race in America. But those realities have been longstanding, and it is implausible to think that today’s political polarization runs along the color line. By my reading of recent events, Black Lives Matter is important because of the way it divides white Americans. In January of this year, Joe Biden gave a crudely partisan speech in Atlanta. His accusations of racism had little to do with race and everything to do with his party’s struggle to win votes.
I’d also like to set aside demographic change. The United States reached peak homogeneity in the 1970s, when less than 5 percent of the population was non-native-born. The percentage has increased every year since, reaching 13 percent in 2010 and today closing in on 15 percent to equal the highest levels in our nation’s history. A dramatic increase in immigration strains a country’s capacity to maintain social cohesion. As Robert Putnam discovered in a study two decades ago, ethnic and cultural diversity reduce social trust. Contrary to what President Obama wished us to believe, diversity is not our strength. So, yes, demographic change is a challenge. But this challenge has little to do with the political and cultural polarization that threatens to shipwreck our society. When Hillary Clinton made her unguarded remark about the “basket of deplorables,” she was not referring to recently arrived immigrants or the black urban underclass. She was targeting white Americans.
Let me try to be more specific. A decade ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia produced “Culture of American Families.” (I wrote about the study in this column when it came out, “Responsible Conservatism,” February 2013.) Researchers identified four distinct family cultures: the Faithful, the Engaged Progressive, the Detached, and American Dreamers. Detached families are not very functional. They are broken, often burdened by poverty, drug abuse, violence, and other social problems. American Dreamers want their kids to move up the ladder. Often immigrant families, they take their cues from the dominant culture, working hard to meet expectations. But who sets the expectations? Who defines the dominant culture?
If you dive into the survey data, you immediately see that the political and cultural battles of recent decades are rooted in the conflict between the culture of the Faithful family and that of Engaged Progressives. I won’t go into detail here, but some data points are telling. Among the Faithful, Republicans outnumber Democrats four to one. Among Engaged Progressives, the reverse is true: Democrats outnumber Republicans four to one. Engaged Progressives champion “diversity” and “inclusion.” Parents want their children to have friends of different races and ethnic backgrounds. But there is one striking exception: Engaged Progressives do not want their children to be friends with Evangelical Christians.
Engaged Progressives versus the Faithful: Polarization in the United States is rooted in an ideological struggle between two strands of the American religious tradition, not in racial antagonisms or ethnic diversity.One strand is the conservative and populist Protestant tradition that goes back to Cane Ridge and the Second Great Awakening, supplemented today by conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews. The other finds its roots in liberal Protestantism and its offshoots, such as Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and the many movements of progressive reform that were sponsored by mainline Protestant churches in the early to mid-twentieth century.
By the 1960s, the liberal Protestant strand was becoming secularized, incorporating European traditions of secular progressivism. The conservative Protestant tradition likewise adopted secular elements, such as Cold War anti-communism and free-market economics. But in my estimation, there is a striking continuity in our cultural conflicts in the United States, running back at least a hundred years. That conflict is epitomized by the famous Scopes trial in 1925, when one of that era’s towering figures, William Jennings Bryan, endeavored to push back against the dehumanizing materialism of evolutionary science. The old and ailing Great Commoner did not go to Dayton, Tennessee, in order to debate school policy. He meant to put before the American public a spiritual choice and to argue for a view of man as created in the image of God.
The polarization we are experiencing today is not new. To the contrary, our country has often been polarized along similar lines. These conflicts concern fundamental values. The spiritual choice that divides the woke from the anti-woke is not the same one Bryan framed, but it similarly implicates core beliefs about what it means to be human, as debates about transgender ideology make clear. It is hard to sustain a society embroiled in tense debates at this level. One disturbing aspect of today’s polarization is that many on the left seem to know this, and yet they escalate their demands.
As Aristotle observed, “Friendship seems to hold states together.” True friendship requires unanimity with regard to the highest good, which means that our nation has for a long time been riven in ways that threaten to tear us apart. And yet we as a nation have not only endured but in many respects prospered. This should give us some confidence that our present polarization, though daunting, need not foretell our doom.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ Australian poet James McAuley on Catholic clergy after Vatican II who were rushing to catch up with Rudolf Bultmann and other liberal Protestant grandees:
We know all the moves,
The language-games, the ploys;
We jam the transmission
With a verbal kind of noise:
Called dialogue . . . insights . . .
Updated, Christ retires
Replaced by “the Christ-event”.
Pastors really are swine
They race us down the slope;
Turn blood into wine.
♦ Incoming medical students at the University of Minnesota received their white coats, a traditional sign of induction into the medical community. But instead of reciting the Hippocratic Oath, they were asked to repeat a woke litany, which included a pledge to “honor all Indigenous ways of healing” and to fight “white supremacy, colonialisms [and] the gender binary.” After viewing video of the ceremony, Chris Rufo, the scourge of progressive pieties, noted that the medical professor leading the recitation “almost certainly doesn’t believe in what he’s saying. But he submits anyway—because the institutional powers now require otherwise intelligent people to falsify their own beliefs and repeat left-wing copypasta.”
♦ I had to look up “copypasta.” It refers to a block of text that is repeatedly copied and pasted into contributions to internet chat groups and on social media, often because the verbiage is amusingly ridiculous.
♦ Samuel Johnson on the impulse to conserve: “Life is barren enough surely with all her trappings; let us be therefore cautious how we strip her.”
♦ In October, Pope Francis announced that the process of preparation for the Synod of Bishops on synodality will be extended by one year. As he explained, “The fruits of the synodal process underway are many, but so that they might come to full maturity, it is necessary not to be in a rush.” Writing in the Catholic Herald, Hugh Somerville Knapman speculates about why, boilerplate aside, the Holy Father is delaying a signature initiative of his pontificate. He notes that “lay involvement in the process has been underwhelming.” Another possible explanation for the delay: “The opinions and insights received from this low sample of Catholics have not met the expectations of the synod’s organisers.” They want more time to accumulate input that reflects their desired output. A third explanation, which Somerville Knapman develops at length, amounts to the prospect that “synodality” really means a never-ending process. As a New Age guru might put it, the journey is the destination. If so, I worry that the Church will fall victim to Oscar Wilde’s criticism of socialism: too many night meetings.
♦ On Monday evening, October 3, First Things inaugurated what I hope will be an annual event in Chicago. I sat down with Ross Douthat to talk about Christian faith and its relation to political power. He had taken up the topic in a recent essay (“A Gentler Christendom,” June/July 2022) as part of an exchange with Edmund Waldstein. The event was held at the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture, a historic facility in the Lakeview neighborhood that is being restored to serve as a beacon for truth and beauty. I’d like to thank Lawrence Daufenbach, executive director of the Athenaeum, for providing the ideal venue for First Things.
♦ We held our first regional reader summit at Belmont Abbey College on October 14–15. Our theme was friendship. I delivered a lecture on Friday evening (“Civic Friendship and Polarization”), and the seventy participants met in small seminars on Saturday morning to discuss assigned readings, which included the marvelous short story by Willa Cather, “Two Friends.” I’m grateful to Belmont Abbey College president Bill Thierfelder for opening the college for our use, and to Honors College dean Joe Wysocki for developing a superb syllabus of readings and leading his expert team of tutors.
♦ The Cather story is a gem. The narrative follows two small-town businessmen who, although different in all sorts of ways, enjoy a warm friendship. One of them, Mr. Dillon, goes to the 1896 Democratic Convention in Chicago, at which the nominee, William Jennings Bryan, famously insisted that mankind must not be crucified “upon a cross of gold.” Upon returning to his small town, Dillon takes up politics and the friendship dissolves in the acids of partisan passion. It’s a story sadly relevant for many of us with liberal friends who have become political Manichaeans.
♦ Jeffrey Lewis would like to form a ROFTERS group in Camden, Maine. To join, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ Bethany Gates of Kenosha, Wisconsin, would like to form a ROFTERS group. You can reach her at email@example.com.
♦ As you read this issue, we will be launching our year-end fundraising campaign. Our goal: 1,200 donations totaling $800,000. Ambitious, yes, but that’s to be expected. To speak forcefully about natural and revealed truths in the public square—First Things is nothing if not a bold enterprise. I thank you in advance for your generosity in supporting our mission.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.