The last few years have not been flattering to American higher education, to say the least. Incident after incident has prompted the question of why our universities are producing students who will not abide, or even argue with, a speaker like Charles Murray, to take just one recent example. The evident unwillingness to debate opposing views, the histrionic behavior, the knee-jerk recourse to bureaucracies—the evidence has led many commentators to see today’s university students as emotive, fragile, and irrational.

They may be right. If so, it is tempting to use that picture of today’s students to explain a more enduring trend that has also puzzled conservatives: the graduates of our country’s institutions of higher education disproportionately identify as political democrats and economic socialists. Representative of the conservative response to this datum is a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, written by Warren A. Stephens and entitled “Why Do the Young Reject Capitalism?”

The narrative related in such arguments will strike many as familiar. Capitalism has been a tremendous force for good in the world, lifting more people out of poverty than at any other time in history, because a truly free market gives more people access to real capital. The upward mobility provided by modern capitalism has been the surest path to the kind of liberty that no socialist or democrat-led order has ever provided. Increased regulation of and government intrusion into the marketplace are characteristic of stifling and oppressive social and political orders. “Crisis in the pre-capitalist era,” Brian Domitrovic has rightly pointed out, “inevitably meant not merely destitution, but famine. Famine is unknown in capitalist history.” But destitution, famine, and the shortcomings of socialism generally remain visible even today in non-capitalist economies, like that of Venezuela. Anyone worried about poverty, the narrative concludes, really ought to support capitalism.

There is substantial merit to arguments like this one; the destruction endemic to socialist regimes, indeed, should never be forgotten. The argument for capitalism, though, shouldn’t just be an argument against socialism. Before explaining away the rejection of capitalism, it would be wise to ask whether there really is something else motivating it, something that the standard narrative misses. I believe that there is. Defenders of capitalism need a more humane anthropology, sensitive to man’s social and communal nature, lest they forget to ask the crucial question of what economics is for.

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Economics and the Modern Individual

It is easy to think of capitalism and socialism as inherently opposed, but perhaps paradoxically, they both tend to view their subject matter reductively. Historically, this is no accident. In the modern period, the natural sciences underwent considerable development by adopting a methodological reductionism, which was then exported to other disciplines and even to the understanding of the person.

Modern economics consequently came to conceive of itself as a theoretical science. In a 2002 American Spectator article—“Supply Side Thermodynamics”—John Rutledge, a chief economic advisor in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, defines economics as the study of “the interactions of systems of people in markets. Just as in physics, our concerns are work and heat—only we call them ‘output’ and ‘cost.’ The particles of economic analysis—individual people—think, scheme, love, and hate. Otherwise, they behave just the same as particles in physics.”

The analogy suggests that, for Rutledge, the success of economics depends on its conceiving its subject matter—the human person and his interactions with others—on the model of the particles of physics and the fundamental physical forces. Human behavior must be accurately described by the laws of mathematics and metrics of supply and demand. And if human behavior is predictable, then it is perhaps controllable. Thus, capitalism and socialism emerge as two competing ways of controlling the whole of human society by looking at the “forces” governing its parts.

The source of the convergence of capitalism and socialism on reductionism, then, is the fact that both systems are based on modern political and philosophical accounts of the person and of society. For modern economics, man is primarily an individual. As Milton Friedman succinctly puts it in the course of defending the market economy, “The central principle of a market economy is co-operation through voluntary exchange. Individuals co-operate with others because they can in this way satisfy their own wants more effectively” (Emphases added).

Friedman here is articulating a worldview. This philosophical lens doesn’t just affect how we see economics but also how we see anthropology. Society, on this view, is not natural to man; rather, when it occurs, it is legitimized into existence through voluntary contract. The end of economics is taken to be the satisfaction of individuals’ “wants,” and association and cooperation are undertaken for this end. Economics, in this conception, is not connected to happiness, need, or the naturalness of society.

Part and Whole

It’s true that human beings are agents capable of cooperating to achieve their goals, and by attending to this fact we may be able to predict some human behavior and plan wisely. But we should not forget that reduction has its limits. As Wendell Berry has pointed out, the attempt to see reality only in terms of parts often has a pernicious, distorting effect, which we must try to avoid:

We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption that we now can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself. But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back together. For the parts can be reconciled to each other only within the pattern of the whole to which they belong.

By taking man, before all else, to be an individual to whom society is not natural, does modern economics leave something out?

It seems that it does. First, consider an example of a society that is unequivocally natural to man and anything but voluntary: the family. Men and women often don’t have a say about when they have a child, and in most ways they don’t control who that child will become—but they must love and welcome him or her all the same. And children themselves are thrust into existence in a state of total dependence. Not only is the family the only effective way for the rearing of the largely helpless, but the flourishing of parents comes to consist, in part, in loving and making sacrifices for their children. In the most primeval of societies, then, each person’s good is tied up with that of several unchosen others.

It would be one thing if the family were a special case, but the point holds generally: a well-ordered community is both instrumental to and constitutive of human happiness. Aristotle argued that man is by nature a social and political animal:

The proof that the city is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a city.

What characterizes our nature, as communal, is an incompleteness: in order to reach happiness, the end of our nature, we need others. But our interdependence is not merely born of our inability to achieve happiness on our own. Participating in various forms of community is part of what it is for a human to flourish, to be happy. As Aristotle held, even the virtuous need friends, not because they tend to lack what they need, but rather because loving others and sharing with them is a natural expression of virtue. The same holds for family life, political activity, and other forms of civic engagement. The goal of economic activity should be recognized as the oikos, which Roger Scruton describes as “the place of settlement and security where people are at home with each other and at peace with their neighbors.”

Whereas modern economics is supposed to be a theoretical science, akin to physics, the classical tradition correctly recognizes that it is a practical science, subordinate to ethics and politics, from which it receives its ends. Before asking how to maximize certain economic metrics, we must ask whether the maximization of those metrics is all we need to pursue—whether they serve the oikos or not.

The neglect of the true ends of the market can also be destructive of the institutions of capitalism themselves. Robert Nisbet, a frequently neglected sociologist and conservative, was sensitive to this point. In his book The Quest for Community, he argues that “human institutions depend for their preservation on the strength of the allegiances which such institutions create in human beings. To divorce economic ends from the contexts of social association within which allegiances to these ends can be nourished is fatal.”

The problem with capitalism, in Nisbet’s view, is simply that its understanding of society is deficient. Unrooted in the truth about human beings, it could not but fail:

As a theory it failed because it mistook for ineradicable characteristics of individuals qualities that were in fact inseparable from social groups. As a policy it failed because its atomistic propositions were inevitably unavailing against the reality of enlarging masses of insecure individuals. Far from proving a check upon the growth of the omnicompetent State, the old laissez faire actually accelerated this growth. Its indifference to every form of community and association left the State as the sole area of reform and security.

Conservatives cannot solely focus on the economic increases that have come into existence due to the capitalist system, nor will it suffice to point out the defects of socialism. A positive account must connect economic issues to something fundamentally prior to economics itself. Such a defense is difficult to mount, which perhaps explains why it is so infrequently attempted. But for that reason, it is all the more urgent.

Defending Capitalism Correctly

It isn’t difficult to imagine much of what I have said as coming from the mouth of a critic of capitalism. But my goal is to defend the free market by acknowledging its rightful but limited place in a properly ordered society. Defenses of capitalism need to go beyond capitalism, to the value of the communities that capitalism is supposed to serve; otherwise, they cannot appeal to human beings on a quest for community.

Nisbet concludes The Quest for Community with a call for “a new philosophy of laissez faire.” It is worth quoting at length:

We need a laissez faire that will hold fast to the ends of autonomy and freedom of choice; one that will begin not with the imaginary, abstract individual but with the personalities of human beings as they are actually given to us in association. . . . To create the conditions within which autonomous individuals could prosper, could be emancipated from the binding ties of kinship, class, and community, was the objective of the older laissez faire. To create conditions within which autonomous groups may prosper must be, I believe, the prime objective of the new laissez faire. . . . What we need at the present time is the knowledge and administrative skill to create a laissez faire in which the basic unit will be the social group.

Stephens concludes his Journal essay with this admonition: “As a country, we need to reclaim our pride in capitalism and remember that the markets have the greatest power when they are free, and that free markets empower one and all, not just the few and the select.” This is certainly the case, but it is only a part of the story and, I might add, not the foundational one. If capitalism is going to be promulgated in the future, it will only be because it is shown to serve the good of various wholes upon which human happiness depends: family, household, local community, and church.