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

By Artur Rosman
August 26, 2014

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.