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The Neo-Conservative Imagination: An Interview with Patrick Deneen, Part II

Patrick Deneen holds a Ph.D from from Rutgers University. He is professor of political science at Notre Dame University. His published writings include The Odyssey of Political Theory and Democratic Faith. He has also previously published in Ethika Politika, and is a member of the editorial board. (See: “Contemplative Fatherhood” and “Loss of Vocation and the Demise of the University”).

This interview grows out questions I developed after reading Deneen’s much circulated piece “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching” where he linked my notorious piece “Contra Zmirak: In Praise of the Inquisition.” This interview also continues “The Neo-Conservative Imagination: An Interview with Patrick Deneen.”  The third and final installment of the interview (coming soon!) will continue exploration of Third Way economics started in this installment.

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Readers were predictably skeptical about the paucity of “third way” examples in your answer to my last question in the previous installment of this interview. How does one answer such understandable objections?

As I said there, I’m not an economistthough, that’s perhaps a good thing too. Some of the most interesting work in the area of “third way” economics is being undertaken by non-economists, in the technical sense, but rather by people in disciplines that once would have been recognized as affording insights into “political economy.”  Most economists today begin with the following presupposition: what best promotes economic growth?   At their best, economists are very good at looking at cost-benefit ratios, stated preferences as expressed through various data sets, and unintended consequences of various policiesbut at the end of the day, while they may disagree on how to interpret the data, their basic question is the samehow best to increase economic growth.

Those who think about “third” or “other” ways will begin with different questions, perhaps above all, “how does an economy best support family and communal life” and “what contributes to human flourishing, not only materially, but entirely?”  To some extent economic growth may be a part of that answerbut at best, only a part.  The answer will involve a “moral” dimensionas of course it must, since economics is part of the human, and thus, inescapably moral sciences.  As Aristotle and Aquinas both understood, economics is necessarily part of the study and practice of ethics, broadly conceived.  Economics must serve the human good; it is not the human good itself.

I would commend to your readers a number of works that have approached economics in this veinones that begin by asking a different question than that posed by most contemporary economists.  I would first commend Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation for a sweeping but deeply learned account of how modern economic arrangements were not merely the result of impersonal economic forces, but rather in what ways the “transformation” of society was the result of vested interests that sought to redefine the relationship of economics and society. Modern economics, on Polyani’s telling, was the result of the effort to “disembed” economic activity, and the very sphere of economic, from social norms and moral considerations.  This transformation represented a reversal of the dominant way of considering economics heretofore, both within ancient philosophical systems and Christian morality. As he wrote, “Ultimately that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.”

For a first-rate diagnosis of how deeply these assumptions and practices of modern economics tend to undermine family and community, I strongly recommend Stephen Marglin’s book The Dismal Science:  How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community.  For “third way” alternatives, which include, but are not limited to, Chesterton and Belloc’s “Distributism,” I recommend Allan Carlson’s Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies – And Why They Disappeared.  And I would recommend both books authored by John Medaille, a theologian who has made economic questions one of his main areas of study.  His first book is entitled The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace, which offers a fine discussion of the ways that Catholic social teaching ought to inform our actions in, and the organization of, the marketplace.  His second book I consider to be a tour-de-force, Toward a Truly Free Market, which not only reveals the deep interconnection between what we consider to be the opposite poles of “conservative” free market capitalism and “liberal” interventionist statism, but offers a sustained reflection on what policies and approaches might support a different outcome to most modern ways of conceiving economic activity.

But beyond offering these titles (and I could name many others, if readers are interested), let me try to respond to the skeptics, recognizing that there are deeply ingrained presuppositions about economics that make such a case difficult.  Sometimes, the approach to economics I was mentioning is called “third way.” This title seeks to convey that an economics informed by Catholic social teaching seeks to avoid either the deeply individualistic assumptions of market capitalism, on the one hand, and the deforming belief in a kind of thoroughgoing selflessness that informs socialist and communist statism, on the other.  While I think this is a generally accurate first stab, it’s also misleading.

It’s misleading because, in the first instance, this simple formulation can treat both capitalism and socialism as monolithic, when in fact we know that there are many varieties of each.  Simply to take capitalism as an example, we might correctly categorize the economic systems of America, Germany, Hong Kong and even China as capitalist, yet we would need to recognize that they are distinguished by a number of significantly different features.  Further, we would need to recognize that each, to a varying degree, has significant “socialist” elements.  As John Medaille argues at the outset of Toward a Truly Free Market (echoing longstanding analyses, such as that of John Kenneth Galbraith’s New Industrial State, published in 1967), the convergence of “capitalism” and “socialism” is not accidental, but is in particular an inescapable outgrowth of certain tendencies within a “free market” system, arising both from its inherent instability (and consequent demands for government intervention, e.g., 2008), and from its strong tendency toward concentration of economic power, and thereby the near-inevitability of large-scale economic organizations to seek out and even co-opt similarly increasing state power to afford themselves special advantages as well as stability.

So, the skepticism expressed by some readers toward a “third way” is informed by a kind of self-deception that there are readily distinguishable “two ways” in the first place, and assuming that since this “third way” is not “capitalism,” it must thereby be some variant of communism.  There are not just “two ways”every economic system involves an admixture of “the market” and “the state”so the question is, in what way is that mix combined, and to what ends?  What I pointed to as “distributism” is a variant of “capitalism,” if by capitalism, we mean an economic system that prizes private property, competition, and profit.  However, it is also a variant of “socialism,” if what we mean by socialism is a value upon economic equality, state “involvement” in the economy (which is, I would submit, inescapable), and a concern for the social good. It is of course, both and neither.

What distributism involves above all is the effort to order an economic order that promotes the widespread ownership of productive property in order to support the families, communities, and the liberty of each.  Notice that this is not “socialist,” since its core commitment is private property.  But notice that it’s not the fairy-book version of Ayn Rand’s “capitalism,” since the State is necessarily involved in setting certain kinds of policies to promote certain kinds of outcomes.  But that’s no different than things are todayand have always been since the rise of the modern State (See Polayni:  political powers established the purportedly autonomous Market).  Those who would throw up the specter of communism when a Distributist suggests the need for the State to set policies that steer the economy thereby reveal how much they are actually like the communists they claim to abhor:  both end up imagining a utopia of a Stateless economy.  Ayn Rand and Marxists both fantasize about the “withering away of the State,” one because of a society of perfectly expressed self-interest that gives rise to spontaneous order, and the other, a society in which self-interest is overcome, making the state finally superfluous at the end of history.  Baloney.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Edgardo Tenreiro

    The ideal distribution of capital (or “productive property”) that distributists and other “third way” proponents promote only makes sense in a make belief static world where capital is a given and where the problem to solve is how all of it should be distributed. It never occurs to them to imagine under what conditions capital is created. In the real world, the production and distribution of capital are two sides of the same coin: dynamically intertwined and interdependent as a consequence of the actions of the capitalist-entrepreneur. Therefore, when the third way proponents speak of “wide spread ownership of productive property” such statement is illogical and empty of any analytical content that can guide human action.

    Moreover the actions deriving from statements like this one–“We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. The effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.” H. Belloc–are inmoral on three levels: 1) to the extent that the redistribution takes capital away from or precludes further accumulation of it in the hands of some owners and gives it to other owners, it violates traditional and long standing rules of property rights that have made western civilization possible; 2) the systematic use of violence or threat of violence necessary to effect such redistribution makes the entrepreneurial function that produces capital at the very least difficult and at worst impossible; 3) such systematic compulsion violates the natural right that each human being has to retain the fruits of his entrepreneurial creativity and work.

    • Art

      You are reciting your own ideology, and do not address the issues we must deal with in the slightest. Your politics will never oppose abortion, will never oppose the sexual abuse of children by live in boyfriends, and will never oppose leftism and degeneracy in academic life. The life of the family and the intellect is intimately intertwined with the proximate means by which one’s daily bread reaches the table, which itself is part of the overall economic order.

      Address the relationship of the economic order to social and sexual behavior, and then you will understand things a bit better.

      • Edgardo Tenreiro

        Sure, I will: Sure. Aquinas argues that man is naturally social because of scarcity, (“because nature provides but few things that are sufficient for man.”) Such natural state of scarcity, of course, is good because it was created by God for man in his intersubjective relationship to other men. After all, even the most basic needs of man (unlike animals who must fight between species to minimize scarcity) are not satisfied but only through the products of social relations and culture, that is, through the division of labor, private property, money, the price system, savings, the interest rate system, contracts, capital, etc.

        We can speculate that prior to original sin we were somehow protected against scarcity. According to Genesis we certainly worked, but not by the sweat of our brows. Yes, Christ erased the guilt associtd with sin, but not its consequences, so even after Christ, we must contend with a situation of scarcity. Of course the destiny of all material goods is universal, but again, that does not mean that we can avoid scarcity. So how can we be assured that the destiny of material goods, given scarcity, is universal? That is, how can we minimize scarcity? That is the question economists attempt to answer. The answer is not part of revealed Faith and therefore is subject to opinion (as long as it does not contradict revealed Faith), but it is illuminated by Faith because its starting point is the universal destination of all material goods, the expulsion from paradise and work by the sweat of our brows (that is, scarcity.)

        I think sex offers a perfect analogy to understand what I am attempting to convey. Prior to original sin, the harmony between reason and sensibility was perfect and hence in Adam and Eve matrimony and sexuality were in full harmony too. After original sin, all manner of problems arose, but not because sex was evil, but because the consequence of original sin was the separation of reason from sensibility, sex from matrimony. It took some time, but for the last 100 years or so, the Catholic Church teaches that matrimony is a vocation where sainthood can be fully achieved. No Catholic in his right mind would look suspiciously at the family and the sexual nature of marriage. The same should be with scarcity. No Catholic in his right mind should look suspiciously at scarcity and the institutions that result from it like private property, the market, the price system, capital, etc.

        Obviously there are also differences, marriage is a sacrament instituted by Christ and the market is good but it is not a sacrament, etc. Never the less, it would behoove us as Catholics to ask ourselves if our attitude toward the free market today is not analogous to the attitude that as Catholics we had toward marriage several centuries ago.

        • Art

          I do think your argument is great, and show the mindset of a true philosopher, but I think that your argument needs to be brought into concrete particularities.

          The tendency of political and social liberalism to follow economic liberalism is a real issue. Societies with clearly defined material bonds tend to preserve their social stability far better than societies where material bonds are fluid and unstable like ours. Also, societies with a productive class of hunters and gatherers, or societies with a well established aristocratic elite better preserve a traditional social order than societies that are dominated by an Upper Middle Class that disdains tradition and benefits from the destruction of traditional bonds.