About the Author
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What This Book Is About, and Why
This is a book about doing well and doing good, about taking care of business and taking care of one another. It is far from obvious that those concerns go together. In fact, it is commonly assumed that they are in tension, if not in irreconcilable confl ict. It is often said, or at least implied, that we must make a choice between doing well and doing good, between concern for business and concern for people. There are indeed tensions, and there are indeed choices to be made, but this book explores the reasons why, all things considered, there is not a necessary opposition between doing well and doing good, between taking care of business and taking care of one another. Far from these interests being opposed, they may actually need one another.
This is also—in fact, it is most importantly—a book about the moral challenge of living in a free society. Freedom is not freedom from challenges. Most human beings over the course of history have not lived in free societies. Even today, most human beings do not live in free societies. Freedom is not the “natural” condition of humanity, nor is it self-evidently justified. Freedom is always under challenge and must give an account of itself. Which is to say that people who would live freely must give an account of themselves.
Our subject is economic freedom, but this book is about much more than economics. That is because economic behavior is inseparably intertwined with other social spheres, notably the political and the cultural. At the heart of the sphere we call culture is the moral and the spiritual. And so, precisely because our subject is economic freedom, this is also a book about democracy and the moral truths by which freedom is—or can be—ordered to justice.
In some ways, giving a moral account of freedom should be easier after the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe. With the collapse of Communism, the chief alternative to the free society has been devastatingly discredited. The theory and practice of “real socialism” has been consigned, as Marxists used to say, to the dustbin of history. Around the world, societies are awakening from the nightmare of socialism and turning with eager hope to democratic models of freedom, including economic freedom. After the long, shadowed years of the cold war it seems that the democracies have been vindicated with a suddenness and lucidity that almost nobody expected. In such a circumstance, we might think it very easy to give a moral account of the free society. We might even think that such an account is unnecessary, that freedom is a self-evident good that is now evident to everybody.
In fact, however, it may now be more diffi cult to give a moral account of freedom. During the cold war we had, so to speak, the great benefit of a clear and present danger, and of a clear and present contrast. Whatever the failures of our own society, it was manifest to all but the willfully blind that it was immeasurably preferable to the chief alternative. A free society was justified by contrast with a slave society, and the slave societies were there for all to see.
In this century, the democratic idea has been revivified by two unmistakable contrasts, National Socialism and Communism. Also in the democracies, the theory and practice of freedom was under vigorous intellectual attack during the 1930s, when it seemed apparent to many that the future was being pioneered by the likes of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. With the exposure and defeat of the horrors of Fascism and Nazism in World War II, the democratic idea seemed mightily vindicated, although not a few continued to pin their hopes for the future on Communism.
As of this writing, Communism is not yet finished. In countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba aged despots vow to keep the faith. But they are now viewed by almost the entire world not as the wave of the future but as lifeless relics becalmed in the stagnant backwaters of history. Communism is finished as a global force, as an aggressive idea harnessed to moral energies and military force. Unlike any time since at least 1917, then, the free society is not self- evidently justified by contrast with an ideologically aggressive alternative to the free society. This makes it more imperative, not less imperative, that we be able to give a moral account of freedom. It also makes it more difficult. For all the terrible human costs involved, the conflicts with Nazism and Communism provided moral and intellectual justification on the cheap. Now, and, let us hope, for the foreseeable future, we do not have global monsters to convince us that our way of ordering our life together is worthy of moral commitment.
The free society—otherwise known as constitutional or representative democracy— is not the obvious or taken- for- granted way of ordering public life. This democratic regime is a human contrivance, an achievement that is never entirely achieved. Th e American Founders understood that, inscribing on the Great Seal of the United States their hope that this would be a novus ordo seclorum—a new order for the ages. At Gettysburg, Lincoln reflected on the Civil War as a great testing of whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. Democracy is a continuing experiment. It may seem odd to speak of America as an experiment. After more than two centuries, it is, after all, the oldest, largest, most powerful, and in many ways most stable republic in human history. Yet the American proposition is as audacious today as it was when Jefferson penned liberty’s creed, beginning with the words, “We hold these truths . . .”
The experiment will continue so long as the truths are held. When Americans can no longer persuasively articulate the truths of freedom, they will discover to their dismay that there are many ways to order society other than the way of freedom. In the absence of Stalins and Hitlers, the chief enemy of freedom is our own indifference to the truths of freedom. G. K. Chesterton’s observation that America is a nation with the soul of a church will remain true so long as America understands itself as an experiment off ering the hope of a novus ordo seclorum. America is the first creedal nation in human history. America did not just happen. It was professed into being. In that sense, America is the first universal nation, for all who are convinced can join in professing its creed—as indeed its creed is professed in the remotest corners of the world.
We may be made nervous by talk about an American creed. We should be made nervous by it. We know about the darker side of a universal mission called “manifest destiny.” We know about the American Way of Life as a “civil religion” that can too easily turn into idolatry. That happens when we forget that the truths we hold are truths that keep the experiment under unremitting judgment. The Founders did not invent the truths they held. Th eir contribution was in daring to construct a constitutional order according to truths that had a long and conflicted history. Th eir ideas were a sometimes curious mix of the Scottish Enlightenment and Calvinist Christianity, shaped by the emergence of democratic insight among English dissenters, and colored by their idealization of republican Rome and Periclean Athens. The result has been aptly described as a Puritan-Lockean Synthesis. From that they produced a constitutional order of social contract encompassed by covenantal purpose and obligation.
It is not enough simply to repeat the formulations that they used to give an account of this experiment joining social contract and historical covenant. While the words of the Constitution have continuing legal force, they cannot by themselves secure the future of the experiment. The ideas of freedom need to be thought through and given fresh expression with each generation, and never more so than now. Otherwise, the Constitution’s guarantees of freedom become, as James Madison said, nothing more than parchment barriers against tyranny.
In this century, eminent Americans have proposed various ways of thinking through again the ideas that can sustain a free society. There was John Dewey’s proposal for “a common faith” that might replace the traditional religion that he supposed to be dead. Walter Lippmann called for a “public philosophy,” John Rawls expounded an elegant “theory of justice,” and Richard Rorty invites us to join him in espousing a “liberal irony” that, he believes, can nurture the moral solidarity necessary for a democratic society. The list of intellectual worthies who have produced conceptual schemes of similar purpose can be readily extended.
Among the problems with all those efforts is that they had little resonance with the democracy that they were intended to serve. They produced interesting ideas for debate among mainly academic elites. A few thousand people, for instance, have read Rawls’ very impressive A Theory of Justice, and there may be a thousand or more interpretations of what it means. It is in the nature of a theory of democratic justice that it should offer truths that can be held by the people who are the democracy. Otherwise it is not very democratic. Democracy cannot be morally legitimated by ideas that are not understood or accepted by the people.
At least in America, the ideas of democracy must be in conversation with the moral intuitions sustained and articulated by religion. Tocqueville said religion is the first political institution in American democracy. That is even more true today than it was in the 1830s. Give or take two or three percentage points, all the relevant survey research tells us that 90 percent of the American people claim to be Christian or Jewish, and 95 percent say they believe in God. Comparably overwhelming percentages say that morality is derived, directly or indirectly, from religion. In sum, in 1992 as in 1776, the Judeo-Christian tradition provides the “meaning system” or the “plausibility structure” of American moral discourse, personal and public. (I am aware that there are those who protest the term “Judeo-Christian tradition,” insisting that there are only Jewish and Christian traditions. I believe it is accurate to speak of a Judeo-Christian tradition, but that is an argument for another time.)
“We hold these truths,” the Founders declared, and the future of this constitutional order depends upon those truths being held and articulated in a way that can sustain the Puritan-Lockean Synthesis. In great moments of national crisis, effective leaders have understood the need to cast their arguments within the conceptual framework and vocabulary of a biblical tradition that resonates with the American people. Abraham Lincoln has rightly been called the greatest “public theologian” of the American experiment, and he expounded a doctrine of national judgment and redemption that will, I expect, stir the hearts and minds of Americans so long as the experiment continues. Woodrow Wilson failed to sell the League of Nations, but his essentially religious vision and rhetoric moved the nation toward a sense of global community and duty. To the distress and puzzlement of his political opponents, Ronald Reagan, no churchgoer himself, won the support of most Americans in large part because he communicated respect for their moral and religious sensibilities. Those who fail to communicate as effectively will, of course, complain that he “exploited” those sensibilities.
Probably the best example from recent history is Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a grace of my life to work personally with Dr. King for several years as a liaison between his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other social movements of the time. I was struck at the time by how often the media and many activists missed the heart of Dr. King’s message. During his public speeches, the television lights and cameras would go on when he touched on some specifically political topic of the day, and would go off when he explained, in explicitly biblical and Christian terms, his understanding of the driving ideas of the civil rights movement, centered in human dignity, creation, redemption, forgiveness, and the promise of the Kingdom. A few days after his death on April 4, 1968, a large memorial service was held at a Roman Catholic church in Harlem. The reporter on that evening’s television newscast noted that it was a religious service. He concluded, “And fittingly so, for, after all, Dr. King was the son of a minister.”
The moral transgressions in his personal life notwithstanding, Dr. King was above all a Christian minister in his public presentation of himself and his cause. He understood the need to “catch the conscience of the king”—meaning the American people and their leaders—by appealing to the truths by which people felt themselves conscientiously bound. His effectiveness, like Lincoln’s, was the result of skillfully synthesizing the American and the biblical stories, drawing on the Old Testament and New alike. The great “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 will, I trust, be recognized many years from now as a powerful and almost perfect articulation of the Puritan-Lockean Synthesis. Dr. King was fond of saying, “Whom you would change you must fi rst love, and they must know that you love them.” Dr. King communicated a love of the American experiment and persuasively appealed to the truths that most Americans, almost desperately, want to believe that they hold.
To be sure, there are those who claim that Lincoln, King, Reagan, and a host of others simply and cynically manipulated moral rhetoric to accomplish their purposes, for good or evil. Appeal to morality is no more than public “boilerplate” and “rhetorical fluff” designed to disguise other intentions. Those who interpret the world this way find it hard to believe that those whom they admire could possibly believe what they themselves do not believe. Nor can they credit with a moral or spiritual intention those whom they distain. Thus the narrow-eyed “hermeneutics of suspicion” quite thoroughly “deconstructs” the tradition of moral discourse by which democracy has been shaped. It is impossible to disprove a negative. Although it is utterly implausible, we cannot disprove the claim that, for instance, Lincoln neither believed in God nor despised slavery. Even the most obtusely skeptical practitioner of the hermeneutics of suspicion, however, might nonetheless recognize the social and political utility of moral discourse in our public life.
They might allow that, hypocrite though they think him to be, a Lincoln used and had to use the truths the people held.
Reviving and sustaining the idea of a free society, including a free economy, depends, then, upon our ability to draw from the font of popular moral beliefs and sensibilities, which in America are essentially religious in character. It is therefore only natural that we look to those institutions that are the chief communal bearers of moral and religious tradition. We may well wonder whether the religious institutions of America are up to the task. In the pages that follow, we will be looking at various aspects of the religious situation.
Briefl y, the leadership of the mainline-oldline churches of Protestantism is today deeply demoralized, and in many cases seems to have soured on the American experiment. Such leadership will be of limited help in revivifying the idea of the free society. Th e evangelical and fundamentalist churches are generally fl ourishing, but have not yet developed the critical mass of intellectual and cultural leadership required to shape a popular understanding of the American project. Despite the relentlessly secularizing mindset of most Jewish organizations, there is heartening evidence today of an emerging generation of Jewish thinkers who are determined to bring religion into a closer conversation with the ordering of our public life.
That brings us to Roman Catholicism in America. This book is in large part about the distinctively Catholic contribution to our public deliberation on the novus ordo seclorum. Because all Americans have a deep stake in that deliberation, the subject is most definitely not of interest only to Catholics. Our focus will be on Catholic social teaching, and most specifically on the remarkable encyclical of 1991, Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), which marked the centenary of another encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“The New Th ings”). The 1991 encyclical of Pope John Paul II has sparked a perhaps unprecedented measure of general interest. Th is author’s essay, “The Pope Affirms the ‘New Capitalism,’ ” appeared in The Wall Street Journal on May 2, a day after the encyclical was officially issued. Perhaps because of where the essay appeared, some readers assumed that Centesimus was an unqualifi ed endorsement of capitalism. But the Pope was endorsing the new capitalism, and the essay ended with the observation that “the work of the new capitalism has hardly begun.”
This encyclical, like others of recent popes, is addressed not only to the Catholic faithful but “to all people of goodwill.” All people of goodwill have good reason to be informed about what the popes are saying on questions that affect all of us. At least one out of four Americans is Roman Catholic. Despite the media’s exaggerated portrayal of the dissolution of Catholic allegiance in recent decades, for the great majority of Catholics loyalty to the pope is no light matter. There are over a billion Catholics in the world, with thousands of bishops, and hundreds of thousands of priests and members of religious orders. The Catholic Church is undoubtedly the largest and most widespread institution of moral instruction in the contemporary world.
Of course, a relatively small number of people read papal encyclicals, and many who read them do so only to disagree with them. But it is reasonable to believe that the redirection signaled by, for instance, Centesimus Annus will, through the myriad institutions of Catholicism, work its way into the thinking of millions of people, both here and in the farthest corners of the planet. Even those who are suspicious of or hostile to Catholicism will want to know what is helping to shape the cultural and moral mentality of our time. Beyond that, I hope readers will want to engage the arguments proposed in Catholic social teaching. They are emphatically public arguments in both substance and implication. As we shall see, Centesimus is not shy about advancing explicitly Christian truth claims, but its subject matter is the human condition and why that condition requires the free society and the free economy.
Samuel P. Huntington, professor of political science at Harvard University, has written about the “third wave” of democracy in the modern world. Th e first wave, lasting from the 1820s to the rise of the dictatorships mentioned above in the 1920s, was essentially a North American and European phenomenon that had its roots in the American and French revolutions. The second wave, resulting from the Allied victory in World War II, produced democracies in West Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan, and Korea, and strengthened democratic trends in Turkey, Greece, and much of Latin America. Both those waves, Huntington notes, were driven by countries—and most notably the United States—in which Protestant Christianity was dominant. In fact, until recently many scholars have contended that there is a necessary and integral connection between Protestantism and democracy. There is impressive historical evidence in support of that claim.
A third and continuing wave of democracy began with the end of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974. The third wave is overwhelmingly Catholic. Spain turned to democracy, and the wave swept through South America, then into Central America, and in the 1980s into East Asia, with the Philippines, that region’s only Catholic country, throwing off the dictatorship of Marcos. All this leading up to the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, with Poland and Hungary in the vanguard. “Th e future of the third wave,” writes Huntington, “thus depends on the extent to which Western Christianity expands into societies where it is now weak or absent and on the extent to which democracy takes root in societies that are not predominantly Christian . . . Western Christianity is clearly not a prerequisite for democracy—witness Greece, India, Sri Lanka, Israel, and Japan. Yet apart from these countries, very few non-Western Christian societies have sustained democratic politics for any length of time.” If Huntington is right, and I believe his argument is persuasive, the prospects of democracy and Christianity may be interlinked in complicated ways. In Eastern Europe, Orthodox Christianity will be critically important to the future of democracy. Almost everywhere, the future of democracy is tied to the influence of Roman Catholicism.
That is merely an observation, and in no way an exclusivistic claim. In world-historical perspective, the two expressions of Christianity that are on the move and expanding rapidly are Catholicism and the evangelical/fundamentalist communities. Frequently, and most notably in Latin America, they move against one another. In at least some Latin American countries, traditional Catholic establishments are on the defensive. On the world scene, a more or less centralized and hierarchical Catholicism claims three times the membership of the highly fi ssiparous evangelical/fundamentalist groupings. But, if we can mentally step back from the immediacies of the present, it may be that, in ways that elude our sure discernment, these two forces are working in tandem to advance not only faith in the God of Abraham but also the democratic project to which that faith gave birth and gives continuing foundation.
The role of Catholicism in the Revolution of 1989 is beyond reasonable dispute. People in Central and Eastern Europe are astonished and incredulous when told that many in the West credit Mikhail Gorbachev with the collapse of Communism. Th ey allow that Gorbachev made a great contribution by not sending in the troops to quell the uprising, as the Soviet Union had so often and so brutally done in the past. But the uprising in Poland and elsewhere is universally attributed to the influence of John Paul II. Th e millions of people who turned out and publicly stood up when he visited Poland shortly after his pontificate began in 1978 signaled the sure beginning of the end of the years of tyranny. Th e scant attention paid the religion factor in most Western analyses of the dramatic developments in Eastern Europe reflects a deep- seated secular prejudice that assures a continuing clash between elite perceptions of reality and the cultural forces that shape our world.
I know that despite everything said here, some readers will still resist the idea that the Catholic Church might have anything of importance to say about the problems of democracy in the modern world. The Church, they have been trained to believe, is the last major holdout against modernity, and against democracy in particular. That prejudice can find ample support from history, and especially from the history of the Counter-Reformation, which lasted from the sixteenth century to the Second Vatican Council that ended in 1965. Catholicism is still critical of certain versions of modernity and is determinedly set against democracy as the normative principle for ordering the internal life of the Church. Th e argument here, however, is that Catholic social teaching proposes a fresh way of thinking about modernity and about democracy in the public order. It is a way of thinking that could contribute powerfully to reviving and sustaining the idea of the free society, including the free economy.
I have tried to make the structure of the book quite simple and straightforward. There are ten chapters. Th e first two chapters deal with perennial problems in thinking about economics, morality, and religion—especially as those problems arise in the context of American public discussions. Chapters Three and Four address common questions and misunderstandings about Catholic teaching and the role of “magisterial” teaching in the social sphere. Th ey are designed to prepare the way for examining the theoretical and practical signifi cance of Centesimus Annus for a whole range of public policy disputes in American life. That examination is found in Chapters Six through Ten. Before getting to that discussion, however, there is the interlude of Chapter Five, “Reading the Signs of the Times.” It is no mere interlude. It is about John Paul’s understanding of the Revolution of 1989, and how those events enable us to think about history in terms of human dignity and providential purpose.
So there are four parts to our discussion: economics and moral reflection (Chapters One and Two), Catholic social teaching (Chapters Three and Four), an interlude on the Revolution of 1989 (Chapter Five), and what all this might mean for ordering our common life together in greater justice and friendship (Chapters Six through Ten). Please note that this book presents itself as nothing more than an interpretation of Catholic social teaching, and of Centesimus Annus in particular. As the reader might expect, I find the interpretation persuasive, indeed compelling. But it is offered as part of a continuing conversation. I am gratefully aware that it is not the last or the definitive word on the subjects that it addresses. So that readers may test the interpretation for themselves, I have included as an appendix the condensed version of the text of Centesimus Annus. It is a document that will live for a long time, I believe, help to advance the third wave of democracy. (Please note that the following chapters quote from the complete text of the encyclical, which is available from Catholic News Service, 3211 4th Street NE, Washington, DC 20017.)
Much of what follows deals with economics, and the author is keenly aware that he is not an economist. Of course, neither is the Pope. That’s one answer. The more serious answer is that there is little in the argument here that depends on narrowly economic expertise, that where such expertise is required the author has drawn on those better informed than he, and, finally, he would be grateful to be corrected wherever he has erred. Needless to say, that goes for the entire argument of the book. Knowing the ways of readers and reviewers, the author has absolutely no doubt that he will be given occasion for such gratitude.
There is the matter of gender and language, about which there is a great deal of understandable sensitivity these days. Suffi ce it that words such as himself and men are simply abbreviations for himself and herself, men and women, etc.
I am especially indebted to the following who read the manuscript in whole or in part and offered many helpful criticisms and suggestions: Matthew Berke of First Th ings, Midge Decter of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, Avery Dulles of Fordham University, Ian Markham of Exeter University, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, James Nuechterlein of First Th ings, and George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. I trust that they will recognize their contributions and their respective responsibilities. My thanks also to Eli Posner for much help, and to my secretary and colleague Davida Goldman, who, as usual, assisted in keeping this project on its scheduled track.