Capitalism Versus Conservatism


by Glenn Tinder

DOING WELL AND DOING GOOD The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist by R ichard John Neuhaus. Doubleday, $22.00.

AMERICANS have seemingly decided that present national circumL stances call for serious change. Both major-party presidential nominees at the outset of their campaigns made a vigorous effort to persuade voters of their commitment to change, and Ross Perot’s fitful popularity was apparently due above all to the public conviction that he could be relied on, as President, not to leave things as they are. But social change is hardly a simple matter. How quickly can it occur? What direction should it take? Who answers these questions? The voters? Government experts? And finally, w冠hat should be done about people who don’t want to change? How much force can legitimately be used? All these questions raise issues of power. “Social change” probably has agreeable connotations for most people, and “power disagreeable connotations. Yet social change, as ordinarily imagined by its protagonists, depends on power, and the more swift and sweeping the changes a society seeks, the more drastic and extensive is likely to be the power that has to be used. The project of transforming society completely implies totalitarian power.

Doing Well and Doing Good is interesting above all because of what it says, or implies, concerning change. This is odd in a way, because the author, a leading Christian controversialist, editor, and writer, is widely known as a neoconservative, which might be taken to mean that he wants to conserve what is established and is more or less opposed to change. In some ways Neuhaus (or, more formally, Father Neuhaus: having for many years been a politically active and highly articulate Lutheran pastor, he was recently received into the Catholic Church and shortly thereafter ordained as a priest) may fit the conservative mold. He is opposed to the redistribution of income and, although much concerned with the poor, is far less attached to the ideal of equality than to that of liberty; he refuses, for example, to characterize Michael Milken’s earnings—reportedly a million dollars a day for a period of more than a year—as inequitable. He is conservative above all, perhaps, in what is seemingly his major mission as a Christian writer: resisting the present-day movement in the churches to replace the traditional Christian proclamation with programs of social transformation.
Nonetheless, classifying Neuhaus as a conservative of any sort is at least misleading. He favors job training, unemployment insurance, active labor unions, and environmental legislation. In one short sentence he seems to accept unreservedly the New Deal understanding of the proper scope of public concerns. If I accurately interpret his views, he feels that everyone has a moral right to a job, though he doubts that this can be made a legal right. Neuhaus was for some years the pastor of an impoverished black church in Brooklyn, and he worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil-rights movement. The breadth of sympathy and sensitivity to human need that one might expect in someone with that record are evident in his writings. As for social change, Doing Well and Doing Good can be read as an effort to show not how change can be halted or hindered but rather how, to the advantage of everyone, and without destructive applications of power, it can be furthered. It is expressive both of his social sympathies and of his dissatisfaction with the status quo when he writes in another book he published this year, America Against Itself: Moral Vision and the Public Order, that
to resign ourselves to a permanent underclass that lives in abject dependency on the dole and is kept behind ever higher barricades in order to protect the rest of the population is, quite simply, morally unacceptable.

THE KEY CONCEPT in the book under review, I think it is fair to say, is freedom. The idea of seeking change through freedom can be contrasted with the mind-set that Neuhaus believes was instilled by reform movements of the nineteenth century: that progress is properly defined “in terms of the centralizing, rationalizing, professionalizing, and governmentalizing of social services. Although Neuhaus is not a doctrinaire opponent of all governmental activity, his basic principle is borrowed from the recent papal encyclical Centesimus Annus (on which his book is cast as a commentary): “the subjectivity of society.” This means that society is composed of persons who, because they are persons, are subjects of action and not objects. By way of contrast it might be said that the objectivity of society was the basic principle assumed by Lenin and other communist leaders. The Pope’s principle implies that social change cannot be beneficent unless it engages not only the consent but also the imagination, initiative, and vital cooperation of citizens. Hence the absolute necessity of freedom.

Neuhaus divides society into three main areas—political, cultural, and economic—and these, it might be said, are the principal spheres of freedom. The economic sphere is the main subject of Doing Well and Doing Good, which is thus a book concerned particularly with capitalism. The title, of course, simply expresses the familiar idea that those who do well, through achieving economic success, benefit everyone and thus do good.
How? Through Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”? Neuhaus does not very explicitly invoke the natural harmonies of the market, although he can hardly avoid relying on them in considerable measure. His case for capitalism starts, apparently, with the assumption that its main alternative, socialism, has been so thoroughly discredited by modern history as no longer to merit serious discussion. More specifically, his case for capitalism is seemingly in part the one made by Walter Lippmann in The Good Society—that a working economy is entirely beyond human comprehension and therefore beyond effective human governance. In the daily life of a free economy “billions of capitalist acts between consenting adults take place every day,” Neuhaus writes. “Nobody understands it. Nobody can understand it.” Equally important in his mind, however, is the belief that the only feasible answer to poverty, in the United States and in the world at large, lies in greatly increased productivity, and that this can come about only through capitalism. Resources for the production of wealth are primarily human, not natural; hence they are “only as limited as are human imagination, initiative, and creativity,” which is to say that “we live in a world of unlimited resources.” Finally, an important tenet in the case for capitalism is that work is a major expression of human creativity. It follows that human dignity is adequately maintained only where there is the utmost possible freedom to work in response to one’s own inclinations and talents.

The obvious question is whether capitalism operates, or can operate, so beneficently. The author might answer this question by referring to his statement, on the first page, that his book is about “the moral challenge of living in a free society.” He doesn’t assume that capitalism necessarily works beneficently; he assumes only that it can—far more beneficently than any alternative system. How it works in fact will depend on how people respond to the challenge inherent in economic freedom, and that means not only how capitalists and workers respond but also how political and cultural leaders—lawmakers, writers, teachers, and pastors— respond. Beneficent capitalism depends on an appropriate juridical framework (one providing protection, for example, against severe economic hardship) and on moral teachers and exemplars. It might be said that Neuhaus appeals not so much to Adam Smith’s principle that a wise and benevolent hand works invisibly in a market economy as to a less sweeping principle—that no benighted and malicious hand guides such an economy. This has a signal implication: capitalism does not rob us of our moral freedom. Neuhaus particularly stresses the importance of action by private groups. This is often termed “the principle of subsidiarity,” and it means, in Pope John Paul’s words, that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” In sum, capitalism will be beneficent, furthering social harmony and progress, in its proper legal, moral, and cultural setting. To say this is clearly not to celebrate limitless laissez-faire.

Is IT STILL to place unwarranted faith in capitalism? Strong arguments that it is, arguments both empirical and theoretical, can readily be formulated. The empirical arguments might begin by saying simply, “Look around you!” To heed this injunction today in America is to see cities ravaged by drugs, violence, and destitution; communications media characterized conspicuously by their indifference to moral and cultural standards; advertising that from morning to night filters into every nook and cranny of daily existence, working ceaselessly (and surely not in vain) to persuade Americans that the goodness of life consists largely in things possessed; a pornography industry that makes its products available not just in out-of-the-way “adult” bookstores but in every video rental shop, at every large magazine stand, and often at your corner drugstore; an abortion industry that eliminates well over 1.5 million unborn children each year; a populace beguiled, if not wholly absorbed, by something Tocqueville saw everywhere in America and called “the passion for physical gratification”; families afflicted by a 50 percent divorce rate; a government so hamstrung by special interests as to be incapable of intelligent debate, let alone constructive action; and, finally, gross economic inequities, visible, for example, in the millions of dollars in annual salaries with which corporate executive officers reward themselves—often not for “doing well” as business leaders but in spite of doing very badly—while millions of their fellow countrymen live in conditions of squalor, economic insecurity, and physical danger so extreme as almost to match the worst conditions that poverty has ever visited on human beings.

Can anyone claim that capitalism has little or nothing to do with such circumstances? On the contrary, a thousand lines of responsibility can easily be traced from capitalism to the present degradation of America. No doubt a more demanding legal, cultural, and moral framework would make an important difference. One is bound to wonder, nevertheless, whether the moral freedom offered by capitalism is as ample as is assumed in Doing Well and Doing Good. This very briefly summarizes the empirical argument against Neuhaus’s appraisal of capitalism.
The theoretical argument, at its strongest, is basically theological. Neuhaus does not seem to take fully into account, even though he knows very well in principle, what religious writers sometimes refer to as the fallenness of the world. Even the best political and economic systems are far from matching the perfect harmony that in orthodox Christian thought is symbolized as the kingdom of God and comes only with the end of history. History itself is inconclusive if not tragic. Such a view is starkly represented in the image, contained in each of the synoptic Gospels, of the end of history as a time of catastrophe and unprecedented suffering. Can it be expected that capitalism, even though wisely restrained by law and morality, will greatly alleviate the pain and disorder inherent—at least according to orthodox Christian perceptions—in the human state? And, to ask a question that goes to the heart of Neuhaus’s book, is it reasonable to anticipate that human beings can ever achieve a social order in which human interests are so perfectly reconciled that doing well and doing good are normally the same? The New Testament seems to say that doing good is not as easy as serving your own interest and sometimes involves the very opposite of doing well—that is, self-sacrifice.

IT WOULD BE wide of the mark to suggest that Neuhaus, an uncommonly discerning and well-informed writer, might be unaware of such arguments. But a reader may wish that he had faced them more squarely than he does. The phenomena of social and moral degeneration in present-day America are so numerous and glaring as to seem like signs of a declining civilization. Saint Augustine, living and writing amid the tumult of the final decades of the Roman Empire, set forth a vision of history that is readily understandable in our own times. Earthly societies come and go, according to Augustine, and all are more or less opposed to God, which is to say, to love, truth, and justice. It is hard to imagine Augustine coming as close as Neuhaus does to idealizing a particular earthly system such as capitalism. In a recent work, The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World, Neuhaus argues eloquently for what is often called the “eschatological proviso,” which means, very simply, the principle that no ideal societies will ever be found in history. It is a thoroughly Augustinian principle. What it requires, in the unassuming vocabulary Neuhaus uses to explain it, is merely that whenever we say yes to a social order, we must also say no. A reader is apt to feel that when Neuhaus discusses capitalism, his “no” is very muted.

A specific example may clarify this criticism. It is difficult to avoid the impression that many jobs in America are inherently stultifying, and that whereas a person of genius might perform them in a way that would render them interesting, a normal person cannot, and, moreover, that whereas a person of unusual ambition and talent would probably find a way of advancing beyond such jobs, many people are helplessly imprisoned by them. Neuhaus denies the validity of this impression when he argues (quoting a seventeenth-century Puritan preacher), picturesquely but not entirely convincingly, that “God loveth adverbs”—a way of claiming that it is usually a question not of what our jobs are but of how we do them. “The fault in most cases,” he writes, “is not in our work but in ourselves.” Perhaps that is so. If it is, however, the fault is merely that of lacking the exceptional gifts needed for escaping from vocational traps, set by capitalists, which snare millions of average men and women.
Doing Well and Doing Good is also vulnerable to criticism for the way the author handles, or rather neglects, the standard of equality. Capitalism surely entails great inequalities; it would not work unless there were glittering prizes for a minority but not for everyone. Perhaps capitalism provides public benefits so great that it is worth bearing with the inequalities it creates—an Augustinian point! Aren’t such inequalities nevertheless evil in themselves? Most of us have an intuitive sense that a system is inequitable when it allows some people to make in a year more money than many others can make in a lifetime. Is that a false intuition? I think Neuhaus might say that it is. But the idea of equality is very weighty, in both the Christian and Enlightenment traditions. It expresses a tenacious feeling that in spite of all manifest and measurable inequalities, somehow every human being is of absolute worth and in this crucial respect is equal to every other human being. What this means for social policy is hard to say. It must mean something, however, if it is true. And if capitalism flagrantly violates it, surely that marks a grave defect in capitalism, even if it is a defect inherent in the tragedy of history and humanly irremediable.
If Neuhaus had taken more seriously the standard of equality, he would have had also to take more seriously the idea of redistributing income—an idea he rather summarily dismisses. As already noted, he argues that poverty can be countered only by increased productivity. Aside from the ecological question of whether the earth can support the requisite expansion of productivity, there is a moral question, and it is connected with the standard of equality. If industrial production is vastly expanded in a country like the United States, with no redistribution of income, how will that affect the considerable numbers of people who already have ample wealth? Are we condemned, because it is impractical to pursue directly the goal of greater justice, to pursue instead the futile and demoralizing goal of ever-increasing material abundance? Many decks are already awash in pleasures and possessions. Doesn’t the thought of a nation far wealthier than the United States today, but with comparable inequalities, suggest an image of fleets of ships foundering morally in oceans of superfluous wealth? To a greater degree than Neuhaus allows for, the redistribution of income (and, indeed, the whole idea of equality) is a moral, not merely an economic, issue.

THESE ARE perhaps the major criticisms that can be made of Doing Well and Doing Good. In spite of them it is a valuable book, above all because it provides an able and felicitous exposition of a fundamental truth—a truth concerning change.

Social change that is comprehensively designed and enforced by human beings is not feasible. Ignoring the “subjectivity of society, it destroys freedom and thus undercuts human dignity. Moreover, as shown in the history of socialism, it fails normally even to achieve its explicit goals. Those who insist that socialism (as opposed to social democracy) in some form will yet prove itself are like sleepers who have been pleasantly dreaming and now, suddenly startled into wakefulness by recent events in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, have turned over and are trying to pick up the old dream and get back to sleep. There are far more intellectuals among these would-be dreamers than one might expect. Neuhaus is not among them. He is trying to see what the world looks like to those who are fully awake, and he begins with the rather sensible proposition that we have no alternative to some form of capitalism. Equally basic in his mind, I believe, is the proposition that whatever we do, we must be respectful of freedom; if freedom is lost, then nothing of much substance can be gained. These two propositions hang together, of course, for capitalism is simply freedom in the economic sphere. However, freedom is not an end in itself—indeed, it does not in itself have any value at all. It is simply an indispensable prerequisite to living constructively in the world, which means improving society and rendering life more decent and just for everyone. To do that is the “challenge to the Christian capitalist” and to every capitalist. It is the challenge of using freedom to bring about historical progress.
This may be a simple idea, but it is not very commonly understood. Neither the Democrats, in their Kennedyesque fervor for “getting the country moving again under governmental auspices, nor the Republicans, with their propensity for pouring scorn on government and uncritically celebrating free markets, show a clear understanding of it. To a remarkable extent it has come to be assumed that those who believe deeply in freedom and are wary of government are probably more or less indifferent to social change and social justice. But that doesn’t follow. People who are free normally want to do things that bring about change. And where those who are free include not only capitalists but also moralists and social critics and workers able to organize for selfprotection, and where government can influence the uses of freedom, social change may be in the direction of social justice. Many have become unconsciously committed to what might be called a politics of command: change must be centrally planned and governmentally mandated. Neuhaus stands for something unfortunately far more rare—a politics of hope.
Finally, it must be said that Doing Well and Doing Good is worthy of attention because the author, if sometimes mistaken, is invariably interesting. The book ranges widely. It contains, for example, as an introduction to the commentary on the Pope’s encyclical, an extended discussion of the authority of encyclicals and other papal pronouncements—a discussion that Catholics and non-Catholics alike will find illuminating. Also, the book is filled with perceptive and nicely phrased remarks on a variety of political issues. An example may serve as a fitting conclusion to this review: “One of the truly monumental human misfortunes of the last century,” Neuhaus writes, in a statement reflective of his whole outlook, “is that Marxism succeeded in presenting itself as the only intellectually respectable perspective by which modern societies could be subjected to critical judgment.