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Why capitalism is worth conserving

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Capitalism is worth conserving not because free markets are a “necessary tool” for economic growth, but because economic freedom honors the dignity and creative capacity of the human person.

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Amid the waves of populism and protectionism sweeping across the American Right, capitalism has become a favorite target of many prominent conservatives, blamed for the decline of religion, the demise of the family, and the erosion of civil society.

Whether the critiques come from politicians like Josh Hawley or pundits like Tucker Carlson, free-market conservatives are increasingly scolded for being overly committed to economic freedom. To no surprise, the Left continues its own critiques as it always has, spurring a strange, unspoken alliance among otherwise ideological foes.

But if we hope to restore the social order, success will not come by succumbing to the illiberalism of populists and progressives, adopting zero-sum mythologies and Pollyanna-ish protectionism in hopes that government can somehow piece us back together again.

Instead, the modern right needs a renewed understanding of what economic freedom actually is and what it’s ultimately for – how it affirms our dignity, unleashes our creativity, and empowers our communities to respond to the various moral crises we face.

In a recent column, Ross Douthat addresses some of the key tensions at play, noting that while certain economic idols have surely played a role in the rise of Western decadence and decay, the cultural factors are far more complex than the popular narrative suggests.

For example, while many of today’s anti-capitalism “traditionalists” are (rightly) fond of romanticizing our communitarian past, few seem to realize that America’s “Tocquevillian utopia” of associational life was a byproduct, not a precondition, of economic dynamism:

If the anti-traditional churn of capitalism inevitably doomed religious practice, communal associations or the institution of marriage, you would expect those things to simply decline with rapid growth and swift technological change. Imagine, basically, a Tocquevillian early America of sturdy families, thriving civic life and full-to-bursting pews giving way, through industrialization and suburbanization, to an ever-more-individualistic society.

But that’s not exactly what you see. Instead, as Lyman Stone points out in a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a visiting fellow), the Tocquevillian utopia didn’t really yet exist when Alexis de Tocqueville was visiting America in the 1830s. Instead the growth of American associational life largely happened during the Industrial Revolution. The rise of fraternal societies is a late-19th- and early-20th-century phenomenon. Membership in religious bodies rises across the hypercapitalist Gilded Age. The share of Americans who married before age 35 stayed remarkably stable from the 1890s till the 1960s, through booms and depressions and drastic economic change.

After the 1960s, however, something changed, “with churches dividing, families failing, associational life dissolving.” It’s a trend that’s continued to this day, explored at length by folks like Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, and Yuval Levin. And it is here where conservatives now begin their complaints about capitalism.

Here, too, the historical reality is a bit more complex. Douthat duly recognizes the role of the “economic and sexual individualism of the neoliberal age,” but he also reminds us that economic dynamism has been on the decline, as well. “It can’t just be capitalist churn undoing conservatism, exactly, if economic stagnation and social decay go hand in hand,” he writes.

Further, such decline has been largely mirrored (and preceded) by similar trends across Western Europe, which has seen its share of decline in family formation and institutional life. These countries are not exactly bastions of “unfettered capitalism,” boasting massive, state-based welfare programs and cultures that are far less individualistic in their ethos.

In light of such evidence, we’d do well to make a distinction between economic freedom and humanity’s ongoing propensity to abuse its many fruits.

“It’s not that capitalist dynamism inevitably dissolves conservative habits,” Douthat writes. “It’s more that the wealth this dynamism piles up, the liberty it enables and the technological distractions it invents, let people live more individualistically – at first happily, with time perhaps less so – in ways that eventually undermine conservatism and dynamism together.”

These are predictable problems of plenty, temptations toward materialism, individualism, and complacency that tend to increase with widespread prosperity, however it comes. We ought to treat them accordingly, addressing Western decadence at the level of the human soul and spirit, not by turning to the federal government as a new and improved fatted calf.

“If the decay of faith or family were really a simple matter of ‘too much capitalism,’ you could imagine a right that eventually got over its rugged individualism and chose redistribution and sustainability instead,” Douthat says. Instead, “conservatives actually need to somehow jump-start a lot of forms of dynamism all together.”

For Douthat, the task of “jump-starting” dynamism involves a particularized approach to “traditionalist-friendly” government policy. Yet even he is willing to acknowledge that the best and brightest policy proposals will not be sufficient to overcome the struggles we face.

The more difficult work is cultural work, requiring a deeper, wider revival of American communities and institutions. If we routinely castigate the causes of liberty – outsourcing “protection” and “planning” to the administrative state – will we really have what it takes to confront moral challenges in the places and spaces where it matters the most?

For conservatism to truly thrive, and more importantly, for American communities to be revived, we need an embrace of freedom on all fronts, economic, religious, political, and otherwise, as well as the wisdom and cultural wherewithal to rise to the moral challenges that true freedom actually requires. “Social conservatism can be undermined by economic dynamism, but also respond dynamically in its turn,” Douthat concludes, “through a constant ‘reinvention of tradition,’ you might say, manifested in religious revival, new forms of association, new models of courtship, even as older forms pass away.”

The critics of capitalism are right about one thing: Free markets, by themselves, are not enough. We also need virtue. We need spiritual formation and transformation. We need healthy institutions and moral communities. But these pieces can’t possibly come together if we pretend that economic freedom isn’t a crucial part of the picture.

As Rev. Robert Sirico once wrote:

It is a telling commentary on our times that the political and ethical cognoscenti associate freedom with licentiousness, antinomianism, atomistic individualism, and an array of similar vices antithetical to virtue. Despite this attitude on the part of many professional intellectuals, common sense tells any sane person that a society that is both free and virtuous is the place in which he would most want to live. But what exactly would it mean to advocate and work toward the construction of such a society? 

… The Reverend Edmund Opitz, a Congregationalist minister who has been writing on these themes for many years, puts it this way: “Political theory in our tradition is based on the assumption that men must be free in society because each person has a destiny beyond society which he can work out only under conditions of liberty.” 

If it is true that each individual has such a destiny, then he cannot be treated merely as a means to an end, but as an end in himself. And if each individual is an end in himself, then it would be a gross violation of the essential nature and basic dignity that each person possesses to treat him as a means to someone else’s ends. In addition to the violation of human dignity that would result, such a treatment of people (as means rather than ends in themselves) would undermine the very foundation of civil organization. 

Contrary to the common caricatures, capitalism is worth conserving not because free markets are a “necessary tool” for economic growth, but because economic freedom honors the dignity and creative capacity of the human person.

If we hope to battle the social corrosion of our day and build an economy that is both dynamic and humane, we ought to set our sights where virtue actually begins: in each and every human heart. Economic freedom is but one step on the path to human flourishing, but it’s one we can’t do without.

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.