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Liberal commentators, both religious and secular, have cheered what they take as the recent comeuppance Catholic and other religious conservatives received in the sections of Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation, that touch on market economics. While the cackling is partly unjustified, it is also partly justified.

James R. RogersFirst, how it’s unjustified: While there is a smattering of libertarians or, perhaps more accurately, near-libertarians among Catholic conservatives, my sense is that almost all Catholic writers and thinkers who are most self-conscious about their Catholicism—particularly those associated with this journal—all are in principle fully reconciled with the notion of the social market economy. All would feel at home in, say, Germany’s Christian Democratic Party. Indeed, I would suggest that most would feel more at home intellectually and politically in something akin to Germany’s Christian Democracy Party than they do in today’s Republican Party.

Part of the reason this gets papered over in so much reporting and commentary is because of the ambiguity of what the phrase “free market” actually means. The phrase is often deployed as part of a dualism, as in “socialist versus free market” economies. While both have ideal types at the extremes, the terms are often used in relation to each other to describe economies that rely more on state-controlled production and distribution relative to market production and distribution, and economies that rely more on market production and distribution relative to state-controlled production and distribution. We’re actually only describing central tendencies here, however, rather than ideal types.

I am unsure that a “truly free” market is well-defined even as a limiting concept. Given the fundamental need for a legal superstructure—a superstructure that forms the basis for exchange and thereby necessarily “intrudes” on putative exchanges in the most fundamental way possible—I stopped using the phrase “free markets” some time ago, and limit myself to speaking only of “markets.”

European-style Christian Democrats would have little difficulty with the Pope’s argument in the apostolic exhortation. He makes it clear that he rejects the autonomous market, not the social market. In the apostolic exhortation he rejects the assumption that markets and economic growth will “inevitably” increase justice and economic inclusiveness. He rejects ideologies that promote the “absolute autonomy the market place and financial speculation.” He rejects a “deified market.” Christian Democrats, who are conservative proponents of the social market, have no problem with the market phenomena that the Pope criticizes. Both share a fundamental commitment: Markets are made for man, not man for the market.

So in this respect, liberal commentators misjudge the intellectual distance between the Pope and many high-profile “pro-market” Catholic conservatives, reading disagreement where there is fundamentally none.

On the other hand, I do think that a part of the criticism is appropriate, and needs to be heeded by Catholic conservatives and other Christians who, intellectually, have Christian Democratic, social-market commitments, yet who in practice habitually come down opposed to policies that are nonetheless consistent with social-market sensibilities.

This is not to say that social-market conservatives should have supported Obamacare, or Hillarycare before that. But the bona fides of the opposition become suspect when there are few bona fide attempts to become the agenda setter, and then oppose every policy instantiation of social insurance (or at least remain grudgingly silent in the face of libertarian/conservative opposition). To be sure, in response to Hillarycare and Obamacare, thinkers at conservative think tanks in DC proposed various alternatives, and often very good ones. But their vetting was often motivated by the politics of reaction rather than as authentic counterproposals. And, in any event, all proposals died on the vine without serious advocacy from conservative politicians or commentators. For all of his faults as a presidential candidate, and there were plenty, Mitt Romney nonetheless exemplified initiative as governor of Massachusetts that social-market conservatives could emulate. If they really wanted to.

So why don’t they want to?

While there might be several causes, I think a leading cause stems from the modern division in American politics between left and right being drawn along an economic axis. It doesn’t have to be so. Consider, for example, the policy implications if the fundamental line of division was understood to be drawn along the axis of, say, anti-clericalism.

Where and how we draw ideological dividing lines matters. For most of us, much of our ideology is as much a socially derived as it is intellectually derived. This is true of political elites as much as non-elites (and perhaps even more so).

As Ohio State University professor emeritus Larry Baum explained recently:

People . . . have attitudes toward conservatives and liberals, attitudes strong enough to make these ideological groups part of many people’s social identities. Those attitudes are especially strong among political elites . . . As a result, even knowledgeable people may choose positions on an issue on the basis of their attitudes toward the ideological groups on the two sides.

This is basically a political version of “the friend of my friend is my friend,” and “the friend of my enemy is my enemy,” at least ideologically speaking. In the U.S. this basically means that one must hold to economic liberalism in order to be considered, or to consider oneself, a “conservative.”

The conservative wing of the Democratic Party, when it actually existed, had an essentially social-market orientation. And, indeed, the domestic policy of neo-conservatism, at least originally, was not unhinged economic liberalism, but social-market economics combined with a realist perspective on international relations.

The sublimation of social-market conservatism in the U.S. is a result of the “Buckley bargain.” This is the bargain that William F. Buckley effectively struck in and through the magazine National Review, and that served among other factors to set the stage for the modern renewal of conservatism as a political force in the U.S. The terms of that bargain joined together supporters of economic liberalism with supporters of moral conservatism. This has not always been a happy marriage, but it arguably set the political groundwork for the Reagan revolution and what followed for a generation afterwards.

But many religious conservatives—mostly Catholic conservatives but with a smattering of Protestants (including a small but influential Kuyperian wing among Reformed Protestants)—have largely been committed not merely to moral conservatism, but to social-market conservatism as well. As a result of the grand conservative bargain and the social nature of ideological identity, religious conservatives have been welcomed to articulate their moral conservatism, but to sublimate their social-market commitments in order to preserve the grand bargain.

There are of course rationalizations for this bargain. But Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation has focused attention on the relative inaction, if not silence, of U.S. religious conservatives on their social-market commitments, and forced the question of whether they’ve sacrificed that aspect of their religious commitment—their Christian commitment—on the altar of political expediency. It also forces the question of whether religious conservatives have really ever gotten what the Buckley bargain implicitly promised, or whether they and their supporters have mainly served as electoral support for economic interests that oftentimes promote their own interests under the guise of promoting economic liberty.

While some of the raps conservatives have received regarding Evangelii Gaudium have been bum ones, others might be well deserved. Evangelii Gaudium might be just the nudge U.S. religious conservatives have needed to reevaluate their role in the grand conservative bargain, and to reevaluate whether the cost of subordinating their social-market conservatism as part of that bargain has really been worth it for those whom Christ calls his people to care for most.

James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. His previous articles can be found here. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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