Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Re: [Stephen Hand] "Democracy and Neoconservative Economics"

A quick response to the latest musings from Mr. Hand's blog (appropriately entitled TCRMusings): "To A Friend Who Wrote Regarding Democracy and Neoconservative Economics" (- Via la nouvelle théologie)

[Hand:] While I would rather live under any monarch who implemented the social justice teachings of JPII, than any democracy based merely on the will of the 51% or judicial oligarchy, I do not fault democracy per se.

Q: How would a monarch "implement" the social justice teachings of JPII?

[Hand:] In our case, it seems to me we have so many ambiguous statements in the Constitution that the court oligarchs can twist it whichever which way. In the last 40 years they have twisted it in the direction of Hell itself.

No disagreement there.

[Hand:] "If we could definitively and forever repair the ambiguities, plug the holes in that constitutional dyke (e.g., a "right to privacy" need NOT imply a right to abortion) then our system of government would be so much more helpful.

No disagreement there.

[Hand:] "So I have hope for democracy, but recognize that the patient in this country is very sick. "A little error in the beginning becomes a great error in the end," said St. Thomas.

I see very little disagreement btw/ the WT's and AT's as to the current state of our nation, the weakness of our institutions and the tyranny of the judiciary (see Neuhaus' Naked Public Square and First Things' "The End of Democracy") -- but they part company at the solution for society's ills.

Neuhaus ("Liberalism of John Paul II" First Things 73 May 1997: 16-21): "There is no doubt that the American experiment is constituted in the liberal tradition. Since we cannot go back to the eighteenth century and reconstitute it on different foundations, we must hope that the foundations on which it is constituted are not those described by Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, Richard Rorty -—and David Schindler."

Question: If Schindler's diagnosis is correct, that liberalism is inherently perverted beyond all hope, that liberalism itself in all its myriad forms, whether that of the 18th century or the debased, secularized version of today, is at the root of society's ills -- what, then, is the "Augustinian-Thomist" solution?

Schindler (THREADS interview): "we need to reinstate a right relation to God on all levels -- not only at the level of intention, but at the level of the logic of our culture. Our relation to God has to inform not only our will, but how we think and how we construct our institutions." Given the poverty of recommendations as to how we can "[re]construct our institutions" in Heart of the World, one must wonder whether merely "plugging a hole in the [constitutional] dyke", propping up the liberal institutions of democracy, is an inevitably futile effort, inasmuch as it is a participation in the "con game" of liberalism.

[Hand]: "I truly think the seminal Catholic Neoconservatives (not any of their know-it-all nasty groupies) are very good men who really have the best interests of the world in mind

Couldn't resist getting a jab in there, could you, Stephen? -- Nevertheless, to the degree that we can eschew these kind of remarks, I daresay we might be on our way to a genuine, civil dialogue.

[Hand]: it's just that they mix Calvinist and Catholic notions and do not sufficiently recognize that the market cannot make moral decisions and distinctions. If the Playboy channel is popular, the market will reinforce it, the Gross National Product will reflect it, and Wall Street will bless it. We need moral men and women to regulate an amoral market economy with moral regulations / laws.

I'd like Hand to clarify the "mixture of Calvinist and Catholic notions". As far as the rest goes, there is possibility for agreement. For example, Novak would likely concur with Hand that "the market cannot make moral decisions and distinctions." He would likely add that we cannnot reify "the market" as some kind of disembodied entity. "The Market" as the sum of individual decisions is only as good as we make it, and individuals as such bear moral responsibility.

Stephen portrays Novak as an advocate of unbridled capitalist greed, unrestrained by law or morality. This picture simply doesn't cohere with my reading of Novak, who insists that business and the market economy cannot prosper without a moral foundation. Consider:

A capitalist system is only one of three systems composing the free society. The economic system is checked and regulated by both of the other two systems: by the institutions of the political system and by the institutions of the moral/cultural system. Capitalism does not operate in a moral vacuum. Those who fail to live up to the moral standards implicit in its own structure are corrected by forces from outside it. Thus, capitalism supplies only some of the moral energy present in the free society as a whole. There are moral energies in the democratic polity to call it to account. And there are moral energies in families, in the churches, in journalism, in the cinema, in the arts, and throughout civic society to unmask its failings and to call it to account.

This is as it should be. For the free society is not constructed for saints. There are not enough saints on earth to people a free society. A free society must make do with the only moral majority there is — all those citizens called to a noble destiny, indeed, but often weak, tempted, egocentric and quite imperfect. In imagining the free society of the future, it is important not to be utopian. This century has built too many graveyards in its so-called utopias. The citizens of the 2lst century will warn one another against the mistakes of the 20th.

In addition to systemic checks and balances, there must also be internal checks. James Madison wrote that it is chimerical to imagine that a free republic can survive without the daily practice of the virtues of liberty. A free society depends upon habits of responsibility, initiative, enterprise, foresight, and public spiritedness. It depends upon plain, ordinary, kitchen virtues. Citizens who are dependent, passive, irresponsible, and narrowly self-interested will badly govern their own conduct, and their project of self-government is bound to fail.

It is, therefore, a crucial act of statesmanship to identify and nourish the cultural habits indispensable to the practice and survival of liberty. The free society cannot be made to thrive on the basis of any set of moral habits at all. Where citizens are corrupt, dishonest, halfhearted in their work, inert, indifferent to high standards, willing to cheat and to steal and to defraud, eager to take from the public purse but unwilling to contribute to the commonweal, and entirely self-aggrandizing, self-government must fail. Many peoples of the world, in fact, have shown themselves incapable of making the institutions of liberty work. The road to liberty, Tocqueville warned, is a long one, precisely because it entails learning the habits of liberty. Not any habits at all will do. The road is narrow and the gate is strait.

From "Wealth & Virtue: The Moral Case for Capitalism", National Review Feb. 18, 2004.