"There are no effective replacements for capitalism. The question is, what is the Christian responsibility for the proper functioning of it, and to what extent can we steer the whole of capitalist production to serve genuinely human ends as they are articulated by the Christian faith?" (Miroslav Volf, from the episode)
"In the absence of cultural virtue … a virtue in citizenry, a dog-eat-dog capitalism can be a miserable place.” (David French, from the episode)
Miroslav Volf and David French discuss economy, morality, and human flourishing—looking in particular at the questions of whether capitalism and conservative moral values can coexist, and how the demands of Jesus’s ethics implicate free market economy.
David French is a conservative political commentator for The Dispatch, known for his opposition to Donald Trump, his commitment to religious liberty, his advocacy for civility in public discourse, and his willingness to take a clear stand on political and cultural issues informed by his Christian faith commitments.
The nature of the tug-o-war about reopening the American economy in the wake of COVID-19’s onset, and of course now in the wake of its second surge, was primarily a debate about the incommensurable values of economic wealth and personal health—or maybe better, economy and person. But more than that, it pit the concept of what it means for human beings to flourish against the political and economic aspirations of both political parties.
It sure is easy to lose sight of the human in all of this.
But Christian values and commitments require that our economic theorizing and policy making mean that the economy serves the person, honoring the dignity of human life, creating opportunity for justice and health, peace and flourishing, for the good of God’s kingdom.
To set up the conversation, we asked David about a 2019 back and forth he had with Sohrab Amari on the future of conservative thought, asking specifically about the way conservative moral values (things like family, integrity, honesty, generosity, forgiveness, purity) have been fused with free market capitalism. As he says, "in the absence of cultural virtue … a virtue in citizenry, a dog-eat-dog capitalism can be a miserable place.”
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Miroslav Volf: My question is how can we create, or how can we strengthen the values that will both institutionally curb capitalism, but also bring values that are substantively Christian values to the operation of the system.
There are no effective replacements for capitalism. The question is: what is the Christian responsibility for the proper functioning of it, and to what extent can we steer the whole of capitalist production to serve genuinely human ends as they are articulated by the Christian faith? Now that will be my question.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa, with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For today's episode, we're releasing an extended conversation between Miroslav Volf and David French on economy, morality and human flourishing. We're looking in particular at questions of whether capitalism and conservative moral values can coexist, and how the demands of Jesus' ethics implicate free market economy.
David French is a conservative political commentator for The Dispatch, known for his opposition to Donald Trump, his commitment to religious Liberty, his advocacy for civility in public discourse and his willingness to take a clear stand on political and cultural issues informed by his Christian faith commitments.
The nature of the tug-o-war about reopening the American economy in the wake of COVID-19 onset, and of course now in the wake of its second surge, was primarily a debate about the incommensurable values of economic wealth and personal health—or maybe better, economy and person. But more than that, the reopening debate pit the concept of what it means for human beings to flourish against the political and economic aspirations of both political parties.
It sure is easy to lose sight of the human in all of this. But Christian values and commitments require that our economic theorizing and policymaking mean that the economy serves the person, honoring the dignity of human life, creating opportunity for justice and health, peace and flourishing, for the good of God's kingdom.
So to set up the conversation you're about to jump in on, you don't have to have listened to the previous conversation between David and Miroslav, although it was amazing. But for this segment, I asked David about a back and forth he had with Sohrab Amari about the future of conservative thought, asking specifically about the way that conservative moral values, things like family integrity, honesty, generosity, forgiveness, and purity have been fused with free market capitalism. As David says, "In the absence of cultural virtue, a virtue in citizenry, a dog-eat-dog capitalism can be a miserable place." This was a wonderful and challenging conversation to listening on. Hope you enjoy.
David French: The fight between Sohrab and I was less economic and more over small "L" liberalism and less over capitalism. But I think of small "L" liberalism and I think of capitalism in some similar ways. So for example, in our constitutional structure, it depends on reciprocating obligations. So you have on the one hand that the statement of the obligations of the state is outlined in the preamble to, or the opening of the declaration of independence: we have these unalienable rights among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the purpose of preserving those rights, governments are instituted among men, which is a big sweeping sort of mission statement. And that mission statement is operationalized by the constitution and the bill of rights.
But as John Adams said in his letter to a Massachusetts militia, this constitution would make an America an unfit habitation, I believe was the phrase that he would use, unless there was a corresponding set of obligations from the citizens, which he said that our constitution was made for a moral and religious people; it's wholly inadequate to the governance of any other. And so, that in a nutshell is the concept of ordered liberty. It's you're free; you have liberty, but my obligation in my exercise of that Liberty is to exercise liberty towards virtuous ends.
I think a lot about that in the context of economic freedom and the economic liberty that underlies capitalism, that in the absence of cultural virtue, in the absence of a virtue in citizenry, a dog-eat-dog capitalism can be a miserable place. Hey, dog-eat-dog capitalist culture can be a miserable place in the absence of the leaven and the influence of a population that exhibits the Cardinal virtues.
And so I think that one of the problems that we have both in our classical liberal structure as there are strains that emerge, and in our economy as there are strains that emerge, is that when that kind of social compact is broken, there will be fallout. There will be consequences. And I think that one of the things we end up doing is saying there's something fundamentally wrong with classical liberalism, or there's something fundamentally wrong with economic freedom, and forgetting these sorts of reciprocal obligations. In one of our debates, the question was asked: is there a difference between sort of Sohrab's Catholicism and my evangelical Protestantism and how we look at this?
The evangelical Protestant in me is often very focused on the concept of religious revival, very focused on the concept of a great awakening and the restoration of faith as a central part and the central place in the human experience, as the thing that is going to do far more than this tweak or that tweak of the economic system to knit back together again our social fabric.
Miroslav Volf: Oh, that's really interesting. But given these reciprocal obligations and I know that the system has been established with this assumption operative, but it seems to me that if it ever applied, it really no longer applies. And then my question is: why doesn't it apply? And there are many answers that can be given to this but I was struck—I was reading the little report in New Yorker on yours Sohrab's debate. And what caught my attention there is the phrase, "fusionist and post-fusionist." And fusionists are those who agree with Reagan's attempted marriage between free market economy and conservative values.
Now to me coming from Europe, it always seems a strange marriage. A marriage that is bound to get divorced sooner or later. European conservatives, as I'm sure you know, always looked with disbelief to what they described a very naive idea that one can combine unbridled market with kind of conservative values without conservative values being lost in the process. And because the conviction there is that the free market is a kind of culture-creating institution, which is to say also culture-dissolving institution.
You can have a Marxist version of it; you can have other versions of this idea that it eats away all kinds of values that are incompatible with its functioning and that the main value that it seeks to achieve is profit maximization. So you might have values, but they're always subordinated precisely to that profit maximization. And it seems then that given this comment and our previous conversation, I would guess that your hopes for conservativism would be dashed given what's happening. Do you agree with this culture-dissolving feature of capitalism? And certain traditional culture, traditional moral is dissolving so that, sure, if you can have them very robustly there, which is a condition of its possibility of the merger, conditional possibility of the country as a whole, as a political and economic system. But that seems to be counter...
David French: Every economic system has culture-creating and culture-dissolving elements, every one of them. And as near as I can tell, I don't see a sort of a clear biblical roadmap for a particular economic system. All of these economic systems have trade-offs, all of them. But what I kind of dispute with some of my nationalist conservative friends is this sort of feeling that they have that creating a much more European-style—even though I think they often exaggerate the extent to which Europe is less capitalist than the United States. But there's this sort of sense that creating a European-style economy—one that is more dedicated to central planning, for example, one that is more dedicated to a larger and more expansive social safety net, one that is much more generous with all kinds of measures of family leave, etc.—that there's this assumption that somehow that replicating those systems are going to bolster—because remember much of this nationalist conservatism is coming from very conservative Christians, mostly Catholic, some Protestant—that this is going to bolster the life and health of the Christian Church in the United States of America.
But if we're looking at Europe, is that an argument for how you bolster the life and health of a Christian Church? We're talking about a Western European culture that is fairly described in many ways as post-Christian. The United States has a far larger and far more vibrant Christian community than these much more centrally planned economies, far more social-safety-net-dedicated economies of Western Europe. And so as I look at this, I say, "What is incompatible with what here?" And if you're going to be arguing to me that this sort of greater degree of central planning is going to preserve the life and health of the church, which seems to be a lot of the argument that these guys are making, I have to say I'm not convinced by that.
The other thing that I would say is I also think that a lot of what is happening here is there is a concrete nostalgia for a past that cannot be recreated—this America as this mighty industrial powerhouse with these Midwestern towns where you could go and work in the steel mill and your son could go work in the steel mill and your grandson could go work in the steel mill. And people forget that this economy that created and existed for about a generation and a half—I'm old enough to remember 35 years ago when Bruce Springsteen was singing songs about that mill is closing and it ain't coming back. And part of that was built up because the United States was the only industrial power after World War II. This wasn't in some degree of ruin. And so we were the economy that brought the world back up off its feet in many ways.
And look, if Japan is fully functioning and on its feet and Germany is on its feet and China is on its feet and in France and Britain, this sort of industrial powerhouse is something that is just a Mirage if you think you can rebuild that. And yet that sort of dangled out there as if we just turn away from free market capitalism, that mill that is empty is going to be full again, that car plant that is shuttered is going to come back to life. All of this is going to be back the way it was. And I think that people are selling Americans on mirage. They're selling them something that they just cannot deliver.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah! You're opening obviously a huge question for discussion. I think that there are many more reasons for secularization in Europe right than planned or slightly more directed than in the United States economy.
David French: Sure, absolutely.
Miroslav Volf: One of the major ones I think is the proximity of church to power in Europe, whereas separation of church and power traditionally in the US contributed to vitality of Christian congregations. But I want to stay with this question of actually values. I understand that churches are not going to be filled if we have a little bit more direction and planning in our economy. But incredible discrepancies of wealth that we see almost nowhere as we do in United States. Some other countries as well, but in the Western orbit or whether we see United States—it doesn't matter too much to me. Comparative advantages just do not matter. But I think that seems to me kind of deeply problematic and it seems to me also one of the causes of strong migratory processes that have brought into existence the new European.
But I'm actually thinking, and we can debate all these things much more, but I'm much more thinking about, say, what Max Weber has written about capitalism. And there's a kind of pride in some Christian circles that Calvinism made capitalism possible. And that's probably, to a certain degree, right. And by the way, I'm not a whole-scale critic of capitalism. I'm trying to ask how does one tame something that has gone out of our hands.
And, I think Max Weber was right when he said that capitalism is an economic system with deliberate and systematic adjustment of economic means to the end of profit. Now that means that capitalism, that is economic activity, has been decoupled from the vision of who human is. It has its own internal system according to which it operates. And that system is seeping out into the larger culture so that we, as human beings, do not figure as ends of the system; profit does. And after we have profit, then we try to discern how do we deploy profits to human ends, but the activity as such does not.
And that seemed to me—actually from Christian standpoint, from standpoint of values, from the standpoint where I spent so many of my hours working and that shapes my culture—that seems to me as a deeply problematic thing, a kind of unforgiving culture. Certainly, partly it stems from the system of way of producing competitiveness, self-presentation in the best possible light. All of these seemed to me features of the economic system in which we are deeply embedded. And so my question is: how can we create, or how can we strengthen the values that will both institutionally curb capitalism, but also bring values that are substantively Christian values to the operation of the system?
David French: One quick thing on the nationalist conservative argument here. One of the other things I would note is that they are also often quite explicitly trying to tie the church to the power of the state.
Miroslav Volf: I agree. That's what I was going to say and fail to. I'm with you on political liberalism. I don't know if you're familiar with Nick Wolterstorff's work, and his worked on consocial vision of liberalism, which I think is exactly right. Extraordinary political philosophy that he's developed.
David French: Yeah. So you raised some really outstanding questions. But I would say, I feel like some of the critics of capitalism are unfair in this to the extent that they neglect the ways in which capitalism also connects with deep virtues. So for example, one of the things, we have seen the power of fundamentally capitalist structures to really bring much of the world out of the extreme poverty, an absolute poverty that it has struggled with for so many millennia. And so we have seen the fruit of capitalism that it connects with human beings in a particular, in a multifaceted way. And I feel like a lot of the critics of capitalism focus on flaws because it's an imperfect system. Every human system is going to be imperfect, but they minimize the extent to which it connects with some elements of humanity that I think are virtuous and quite powerful. And here's one of them: hope.
One of the things about capitalism, one of the things about economic opportunity is it provides a person a really fundamental, almost elemental—it provides them with a fundamental element of hope in their lives so I can improve my lot in life; I can do better; I can provide for a family; I can be elevated and lifted out of this grinding poverty that I've been. It connects very deeply. This is the kind of thing that causes somebody, say, who's struggling to just start operating a beauty salon in their house. Hey, if I'm really good at doing hair, more people will come. This is hope. And it connects with this industry, in this hard work.
All of these things that's good, and that's virtuous. It's the thing that causes for all these much-maligned tech billionaires there walk into their garage and they clean out a bunch of boxes and it becomes their office for this thing, this idea that they have. And yeah, they own the idea. They own most of the idea. And so when it succeeds, they're going to get wealthy because they own it. It's their idea. And so this hope that it connects, this industry that it connects with, and then I think fundamentally a properly functioning capitalist system also connects with a sense of equity and justice in the sense that you are entitled to the sweat of your brow. You're entitled to the fruits of your labor.
And that's where we've seen injustices creep in. That's one of the reasons, for example—unless you're a libertarian minarchist, nobody is for the unfettered market. That's a straw man that's often erected. A Reagan conservative would support the web of consumer protection laws that exist, that would support the web of workplace safety and the guardrails placed on the production of our food. All of these things are fettering the market, but are also designed to try to maintain a fundamental sense of equity in the process and to limit exploitation.
And I think a lot of our arguments about capitalism aren't so much about capitalism as a concept itself. But what they become is an argument about to what extent should we put those safeguards on capitalism to maintain a degree of equity in the system. And that's where we have our argument. But because our political debate is so degraded and silly, we end up calling it capitalism versus socialism when it's two capitalists—because no one's arguing for the total state control of the means of production. It's two capitalists arguing over the extent of the guardrails. What we often end up is just a matter of economic fact.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, I fully agree with you. And, maybe put it this way, conservativism can paradoxically thrive to the extent that institutional guardrails are placed upon capitalism. Because otherwise the reason why we need them in part is because left on its own, it will not serve the humanity and it will not strengthen the social fabric.
I agree with you. There are no effective replacements for capitalism. The question is: what is the Christian responsibility for the proper functioning of it, and to what extent can we steer the whole of capitalist production to serve genuinely human ends as they are articulated by the Christian faith? Now, that will be my question. How does one do that effectively? What does it take to achieve that?
David French: Wow. That's a big question.
Miroslav Volf: But don't you think—it's a big question, but it's a question of the future of the West.
David French: Yes, I absolutely agree. It's absolutely goes to the heart of the future, the economic and cultural future of the West in manifold ways. And I think that my answer to that, to the very big question, is to turn back again to the reciprocal responsibilities. That number one, we cannot look to a reform, a top-down governmental reform of the system to repair all that ails us. We also have to look at a bottom-up cultural response to the system. The two have to exist together.
And so that's why I talk so much about the absolute crying need for a healthy church in our culture and in our community. And that one of the fundamental enterprises of any American Christian right now isn't just to look at the government and say "do better." It's to look at ourselves as a Christian Church and say, "We have to do better; we have to be salt and light in this system, and it won't work without the salt and the light." And so that's one thing that I think this quest for and the call for a spiritual renewal is an indispensable element of this.
When it comes to the top-down elements, I think that we have to be guided by some particular basic principles. And one is, as I said, to preserve economic opportunity as much as we possibly can up and down the entire economic ladder of the United States, paying particular attention to those who have the least resources. What is it we can do that can provide them with a greater sense of hope, an expectation of opportunity? What are those concrete things that we can do to focus on those people who have the least hope and have the least means? What is it that we can do to allow them to progress up that economic ladder? And I think that's an absolutely critical element of it. What can we do to be as equitable as possible in the sense that a person is entitled to the fair fruits of their labor? To the extent to which out-and-out exploitation drains confidence in the system, and it drains hope from the human person. We need to focus on those things.
But then the other thing that we have to do is we also have to learn from the past; we have to have an economic memory. And I think one of the things that bothers me about our current debate about American capitalism and industrial policy, etc., is we often act as if we haven't had these discussions for 40 and 50 years and haven't tried various things and that they haven't had certain records of success or failure. And that's one of the things that bothers me on the nationalist right often is they'll talk about things like tariff, they'll talk about trade restrictions, or they'll talk about an industrial policy or worker reeducation or worker retraining as if, "Oh hey, I have an idea nobody's tried." But we have a lot of experience with trying a lot of different things and what can we learn from that? And the national conversation around that seems to be very fundamentally degraded.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, I think if you put the human beings and human wellbeing, both as person of needs and also person of creative agency at the center of our thinking and design system around them or reform systems so that especially the vulnerable ones will not fall between the cracks, I think we'll do well.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian, Miroslav Volf with David French. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday, and you can subscribe through any podcast app. Thanks for listening and supporting the show.
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