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Trees and Three-Legged Stools: Reno and Gregg on Novak’s legacy

First Things‘ editor R. R. Reno appears to have dropped something of a bombshell in the October issue by cautiously raising questions about The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, the reference, of course, being to the late Michael Novak’s eponymous 1982 book. According to Novak’s argument, our society can be compared to a stool with three legs consisting of economic freedom, democratic political institutions, and a moral-cultural base rooted in Judeo-Christian religion. If one of these legs collapses, the stool will come down with it. Economic freedom, shorn of moral constraints, will turn into mere self-seeking. We ought not to subvert any one of the three lest we lose the whole. Nevertheless, as anyone reading Novak is aware, he took great pains to affirm the legitimacy of the free market against socialists and a certain type of conservative reluctant to soil his hands with the tainted ink of banknotes.

While Reno admits to having been favorably impressed by Novak’s book when it first appeared, more than thirty years later he now believes that its focus on the dynamism of the free society underestimates the importance of stability and loyalty to the permanent things of life. At this moment in history, with so much of our cultural patrimony under siege from so many fronts, Reno is persuaded that the “new birth of freedom” Novak championed “has tended to weaken the two other legs holding up society: democratic institutions and a vital religious and moral culture.” In retrospect, Reno holds, “we underestimated the flesh-eating character of our free market economy, which now markets ‘community’ and uses ‘social justice’ as a way to sell products.”

Not so, writes the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg, in First Things and the Market Economy: A Response to R. R. Reno. Gregg believes that “parts of Reno’s argument about free markets are seriously flawed,” and he has three elements in mind.

First, practically and empirically, it is not at all apparent to him that the free market has triumphed over its alternatives, as seen in various international trade agreements which are typically “replete with page after page of conditions agreed upon by governments,” including “exemptions, preferential treatment of particular products, etc.” “Call it what you will,” Gregg observes, “but it’s far removed from the free trade envisaged by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.” Moreover, Gregg cites evidence to suggest that the American economy has seen a recent increase in government regulation and intervention.

Second, Gregg believes that Reno has not been fair to Novak, who, in his subsequent writings, “did think long and hard about those permanent non-market conditions that promote the flourishing of individuals and communities,” including “the importance of stable traditional families.” Remember the three-legged stool once again. The market cannot function well in a nation lacking strong social mores and vital religious faith.

Third, Gregg follows Novak in arguing that, despite our society’s “shocking crimes, its loss of virtue, its loss of courtesy [and] the decline of common decency,” we cannot hold our “liberal institutions” responsible. In fact, the only antidote to “vulgar relativism” and “nihilism with a happy face” is the general recognition that there is such a thing as truth and that we are capable of grasping it.

While I can sympathize to some degree with both Novak and Gregg, I think Reno is on to something that we ignore to our detriment.

First, I cannot help concluding that, in addressing the market as they do, Reno and Gregg are in large measure discussing different, albeit related, phenomena. Unless one is an ideological libertarian, one will likely recognize that the degree of government intervention in the economy is a matter of prudential judgement. Should we raise the minimum wage? Many will argue that it is a matter of justice that workers at the bottom of the ladder be fairly compensated and that this calls for a higher minimum wage. Others counter that raising the minimum wage will aggravate unemployment. Who is right? Well, that’s up for negotiation, and economists rightly seek empirical evidence before deciding. If Gregg is correct that economic life is increasingly strangled by unnecessary government interference, then obviously the balance between the two needs to be revisited and perhaps altered accordingly. I doubt that Reno would disagree.

But I think Reno is getting at something much more deep-seated than prudential considerations about concrete economic policies. The reality is that, at least since Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau sought to anchor political community in a voluntary contract among sovereign individuals, the larger liberal tradition has sought to recast all sorts of communities and relationships as voluntary associations. This larger trend has seen individuals decreasingly willing to defer to the authoritative character of especially marriage, family, church institution, and state, all of which are not easily reducible to mere private contracts and whose intrinsic internal structures are set, as Christians believe, by a loving and providential God. Chastity and fidelity in marriage are not arbitrary traditions changeable at the whims of the partners but are norms basic to the very institution of marriage.

If I am understanding Reno correctly, what he is critiquing is the larger trend within liberalism to extend this voluntary principle too far: to take an undoubted good, namely, individual freedom, and to make of it nearly a god before which every other consideration must bow. If we can choose items in a shopping mall, why not choose our own identities and compel everyone else to pretend that we are what we plainly are not? This is by no means to denigrate the shopping mall, but only to recognize that the consumer society, in which the many social and cultural goods are reduced to marketable commodities, is a dangerously distorted one.

This suggests to me that, though all metaphors admittedly fail when pressed too far, that of the three-legged stool tempts us to misconstrue the place of culture and oversimplifies the true complexity of our society. Even using the term democratic capitalism to cover this complexity privileges the political and the economic, while capitalism, though possibly useful in some contexts, unduly calls to mind the reductive framework of Marx and his heirs. Russell Kirk better comprehends the drawbacks associated with Novak’s term: “Now in truth our society is not a ‘capitalist system’ at all, but a complex cultural and social arrangement that comprehends religion, morals, prescriptive political institutions, literary culture, a comprehensive economy, private property, and much more besides.”

Of course, our societies are more than just polities, economies and culture, with the last element reduced to a phenomenon somehow parallel to the other two. They are at least economies and polities, but they include a variety of communal formations reflecting the multifaceted character of human life. It seems better to recognize that religious, moral and cultural factors are not one leg among others, but are much more basic.

Allow me, then, to shift the metaphor from stool to tree. The roots of the tree are the religious underpinnings of a society, and the trunk is the cultural context fed by the roots. The various activities and communities are the branches, pushing out in multiple directions with their leaves and flowers contributing in their own way to the life and beauty of the entire organism. These branches include artistic endeavors, sporting clubs, public and private libraries, museums, schools, universities, trade unions, professional associations, and a host of other communities which, taken together, are often called civil society. If one of the branches breaks in the wind, the tree will still survive, and new branches will grow in its place. If, however, the trunk is damaged, this will negatively affect and perhaps kill the entire tree. As First Things‘s writers have always affirmed—to shift the metaphor yet again—politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from religion.

Neither politics nor economics is foundational in the same way culture is. Witness the fact that those countries adopting an American-style constitution have not been notably successful in avoiding authoritarianism because they lack the same cultural soil that nurtured that constitution in the eighteenth-century English-speaking Atlantic colonies.

Human beings are created to make culture, as affirmed in Genesis 1:26-30. But we make it in different ways in different times and places, and according to the foundational religious worldviews that condition our lives, both as individuals and as communities. If we come collectively to believe, contrary to the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, that we belong to ourselves and that God’s world is ours to do with as we please, then this possibly tacit conviction will of course shape and misshape our shared spaces accordingly. Liberty, an undoubted good, will then become mere license, constantly pushing against the sensible and proper limits established to constrain it. Given the seriousness of this danger, I believe Reno is correct to warn us of where we are and where we are likely heading if we persist on the current path.

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