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Tea Party Metaphysics: Where Do We Go From Here?

Social conservatives must understand and embrace America’s traditional economic culture before they can contribute to its renewal. Economic conservatives must expel the infection of shallow anthropology, vulgar utilitarianism, and metaphysical blindness that they picked up from progressivism in the 20th century.

(This article is the second in a two-part series. See part one here.)

Is the Tea Party only protesting Keynesianism and economic planning, or is it also protesting the secularization of America’s political system? That is a false choice. If “secularization” means the rise of radical autonomy—people thinking they can decide the meaning of their lives for themselves rather than being held to an objective and transcendent standard of right behavior—then Keynesianism and economic planning are precisely the secularization of America’s political system, seen in its economic aspect.

The fundamental premise of Keynesianism is that the purpose of economic activity is to facilitate consumption. This basic commitment to consumption as the highest economic good is clearly connected to an anti-metaphysical, essentially materialistic anthropology. What is the good for man? To serve a higher purpose, or to gorge his appetites? Keynesianism assumes it’s the latter. Both its normative theory and its positive theory—its goals and its sociological expectations—make no sense except on this premise.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Keynesians are atheistic materialists. Given that American culture is simultaneously pervasively religious and pervasively Keynesian, probably most Keynesians are religious people. But it does mean Keynesian economic theory is (consciously or unconsciously) based on a radically reductive anthropology that is atheistic and materialistic in its underlying assumptions and implications.

And not only is this true of Keynesianism, it was true of much—though far from all—of the criticism of Keynesianism that came from 20th-century economic conservatism. Some conservatives criticized Keynesianism for its reductive materialism, but others criticized it solely for failing to accomplish its goal of facilitating consumption: government stimulus, planning, and nationalization don’t actually gorge our appetites as efficiently as other policies.

But it was always the economic progressives, not the economic conservatives, who were the main source of the problem. Humanity has never invented any other fully developed economic system besides free enterprise and socialism. More primitive systems always develop in one of these two directions over time. The various supposed “third ways” always turn out upon inspection to be either socialism by another name, or else an incoherent mishmash of elements borrowed from the two real systems, with no independent vision or integration underlying it. And of the two real systems, only free enterprise can be squared with the proposition that human beings are spiritual creatures who exist to serve a higher purpose.

Thus Keynes is the great high priest of everything social conservatives are fighting against: radical autonomy, reductive anthropology, consumerism, you name it. I doubt there’s anything that reinforces our culture’s commitment to these things more than the total and unqualified dominance of Keynesian thought categories among our elites—including many of the economic conservatives who think they’ve rejected Keynes, but remain in thrall to his materialistic assumptions.

So social conservatives should be glad to see a popular revolt against Keynesian materialism and all its works. That revolt is economically conservative in form, but its success (which is, of course, not yet assured) could have long-term consequences equally beneficial for the culture. It would be, at minimum, a big new resource for social conservatives to draw upon in pointing American culture toward a renewed grounding in the invisible world.

Suppose this theory is true. What follows?

Obviously a real integration of economic and social conservatism, even if the extent of the integration were far less than total, would be a tremendously powerful force in American politics. Simply getting these two factions to “own” each other’s concerns on a few major points would change the political landscape in ways that would make the Tea Party earthquake look like a ripple.

But before that could happen, both economic conservatives and social conservatives would need to adjust their approaches. Some deeply embedded assumptions in both subcultures would have to be dug up and carefully scrutinized. That’s not the kind of thing that happens easily or without significant friction. There’s much that could be said on this topic, but here are a few places we might start.

The Economic Conservative Soul

Economic conservatives would need to confront the continuing influence of shallow anthropology, vulgar utilitarianism, and metaphysical blindness in their intellectual circles. They would need to go back and reopen the question of whether their model of human incentives and motivation is deep enough to capture the real complexity of human economic behavior. I know this is a debate we’ve had before, but we can stand to have it again.

Having done statistics-driven empirical policy research for the past eight years, I can testify to the great value economic models of behavior provide when they’re used well. But we do not, in fact, use them well unless we regularly remind ourselves of the assumptions upon which they rest – and challenge those assumptions as necessary.

Here’s an example. Almost the entire economic profession agrees in treating “hours worked” as an economic cost in all circumstances. The predominant economic model of behavior assumes that if you could draw the same paycheck without ever having to go to work at any job, you would always choose not to go.

But that’s not only inconsistent with the available data, it’s ludicrously false to common human experience. People want to work. It’s a presupposition of basic human dignity that we make a productive contribution to the common good. Just think how people feel about being unemployed; the loss of the paycheck, far from being the most distressing aspect of unemployment, usually pales in comparison with the lost sense of dignity and worth.

Perhaps most controversially, if my theory is right, it suggests economic conservatives will need to develop a credible plan for ameliorating what we may loosely call “The Mess on Wall Street.” Fairly or unfairly, it’s an albatross around the neck of free enterprise. It’s not enough for economic conservatives simply to refrain from defending Wall Street. We have to offer some kind of constructive approach to dealing with The Mess.

People can clearly see that a lot of what happens on Wall Street is not just evil, but evil in a way that harms the country. They have not therefore turned against free enterprise across the board, as the Tea Party and much other evidence indicates. But the time is coming when the Tea Party will demand some kind of cleanup operation aimed at The Mess. If economic conservative leaders don’t have a sensible, prudent plan ready to offer them, some Savonarola figure will emerge calling for a new bonfire of the vanities.

And a harmful rift over this issue is already open in another direction. Because of The Mess, key social-conservative opinion leaders and other influencers who ought to see economic conservatives as their allies actually view them with suspicion and keep them at arm’s length. At worst, they think “capitalism” primarily means Ayn Rand’s theory of ethical egoism, which in fact has had little or no real influence on the history and practice of capitalism; people have never needed fancy theories to make them greedy. At best, they think the large amounts of wealth generated by capitalism create a path to decadence and national decline—the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” thesis. Either way, many social conservatives see standing against The Mess as imperative to save America, and they think economic conservatives aren’t worried about The Mess and aren’t going to do anything about it.

In truth, as economic conservatives know well, The Mess is all of a piece with Keynesianism, economic planning, and nationalization. So economic conservatives are precisely the people who have the intellectual resources to craft an effective response to economic egoism. They need to demonstrate that by actually doing it. The amelioration of The Mess doesn’t have to be driven by government action. It can be a plan for cultural reform. But it has to be credible and we have to really mean it.

The Social Conservative Soul

My theory also implies a need for some soul-searching by social conservatives. They, too, have a mental model that needs to be reexamined. But in their case, the problem is not anthropology; it’s sociology.

Underlying much socially conservative discourse is the assumption that human life can be divided into separate categories, areas or spheres of activity, each of which has its own structure of purpose, meaning, and obligation. That kind of model can be illuminating if it’s well used, just as the model of behavior employed by economists can be illuminating if it’s well used. But, as with the economic model, it is not well used unless we constantly remind ourselves of the presuppositions we’re adopting, and challenge them as necessary.

The danger is that we will underestimate the extent to which the different “spheres” are interpenetrative, and even more importantly, constitutive of one another. There is a tendency to think of “economics” over here and “the family” or “the culture” over there. But the family is (among other things) an economic institution. More broadly, economics is cultural, and culture is economic.

Social conservatives often draw attention to the cultural preconditions of economics—for example, that the nation’s economic life depends on strong families. This is very true, but the knife cuts both ways. The survival of the family is in many ways dependent on economic policy and (even more so) economic culture. For example, unlimited welfare undermines the family by rendering husbands irrelevant and unimportant, depriving them of the natural dignity and importance of their role. The family is more than just an economic institution, but it must always be an economic institution. When you remove the economic structure of the family, as we have in our inner cities, the family simply ceases to exist.

Here’s a more challenging example. Educational entrepreneurship is our only hope for replacing the failed 19th-century model that now reigns in both public and private schools. But social conservatives, a key political constituency of America’s school voucher programs, always oppose designing those programs in a way that would empower entrepreneurship. They want to put more kids in religious schools, but not expose those schools to the competition entrepreneurs would create. But while competition makes people uncomfortable, it is the only vital, life-giving force that can keep institutions mission-focused and drive them to be their best.

More broadly, because economics and culture are interpenetrative and constitutive of one another, the social conservative model of using “culture” to fix “economics” must fail. The presupposition is that “culture” is non-economic and “economics” is non-cultural. This is false. We can’t use family culture or church culture or school culture to fix the economic system; we need economic culture. But too many social conservative leaders don’t really embrace, or even know much about, America’s traditional economic culture of free enterprise and entrepreneurship. Until that changes, they will have little to contribute to its renewal.

First Steps toward Working Together

All these issues are far more complicated than I can do justice to here, but we have to start somewhere. Perhaps a good place to begin might be to hash out what we mean by words like “capitalism.”

Economic conservatives almost always use “capitalism” to mean America’s traditional economic system of free enterprise. But many social conservatives seem to draw a very sharp distinction between that system on the one hand, and “capitalism” on the other. By “capitalism” they seem to mean (but I’m not sure) either The Mess on Wall Street or else more generally the totality of all present economic phenomena, which of course includes not only the tradition of the free enterprise system but also the advanced state of moral and cultural decay in which our economic life currently wallows.

We need language that allows us to distinguish between America’s traditional economic system, which is rooted in the sacredness of the human person and can trace its historical origins to Christian theological debates over the nature of work, money, and exchange from the Middle Ages through the 17th century, and the decayed and decrepit state of that system in the present. The language I’m hearing among economic conservatives makes it difficult to draw that distinction at all. The language I’m hearing from social conservatives draws the distinction in a way that I think is badly confused.

Aristotle, when he distinguished political systems, did so along two dimensions. First he distinguished three different structures of government: monarchic, aristocratic, and republican. But then he drew a completely separate and independent distinction based on whether the system in a given society was “pure” or “corrupt”—by which he meant whether the political culture retained its moral and metaphysical commitment to its underlying principles, or had decayed into a mere form or shell, under the cover of which the ruling powers were really just oppressing and exploiting their victims, and grabbing as much swag as they could get their hands on.

A similar distinction might help us now. Perhaps we need to stop talking about “capitalism” itself as the locus of these issues, and speak instead of the conflict between capitalism driven by a “producer ethic” and capitalism driven by a “consumer ethic.” But that is problematic; capitalism driven by a consumer ethic quickly ceases to be capitalism at all (as events are now showing). Aristotle’s system is difficult to appropriate because in economics there are, as far as I can see, no neutral structural distinctions analogous to the difference between monarchy, aristocracy and republicanism. Socialism is not a neutral alternative to capitalism; it is what you get when the political and business leaders of a capitalist country become pervasively immoral and materialistic (as, again, events are now showing).

The language we need, if we had it, would allow us to talk about moral and cultural reform of our economic system as a restoration, rather than implying that the economic system itself is bad and needs to be replaced, or that it is deficient until it is corrected or supplemented by something outside itself. Economic conservatives need to expel the infection of shallow materialism that they picked up from progressivism during the 20th century. Social conservatives need to learn their way back into America’s traditional economic culture of free enterprise and entrepreneurship. Seems like we might be able to help one another—provided we all have enough humility to admit that we need each other’s help.

And that, too, is a subject about which both sides will have something important to say.

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