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Little Platoons and the Market

August 4th, 2017 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

In his response to Andrew Strain, Joe Carter noted that one of Strain’s problems is the assumption that “some other people—rather than those directly engaged in the market activity—should decide what is best for those involved.”

Well, yes—at least in a way.

This isn’t a crazy idea or even a weird one. Seen rightly, it is both common sensical and a principle that many of us already follow in our daily lives. Because other people are implicated in the decisions we make, it is not unreasonable to think that someone other than ourselves should be involved when we make an economic decision.

We are part of all sorts of different mini societies—families, churches, neighborhoods, companies, and so on. What one person does affects others. And it is not wrong to say that those others affected should have some role in making a decision. I suspect that Joe agrees with me on all these points. Indeed, much of the argument from Acton folks is, I think, an argument about how to maximize the liberty of those groups by minimizing the power of the group with coercive power—the government. What I think Joe misses is how his economic individualism undercuts these other societies we are part of.

This is the point that Liz Bruenig made at Acton U: If you insist on such a robust form of individualism in the market you won’t be able to keep it confined to the market. You can’t say “no one except the directly participating parties should have any say over a property dispute” and expect that idea to stay constrained to debates about property:

There were many other things that came with liberal democracy. The sexual revolution was always going to happen. De Sade saw it right off the bat. The French Revolution, the state of the family, the state of governance, the disillusion of religious belief, that was always going to happen. Capitalism transforming the way people lived their lives was just a piece of that puzzle.

The remarkable thing about this moment during the discussion was Rev. Sirico’s response. After hearing Ms. Bruenig list of all of these things, Rev. Sirico’s response is “And that’s a negative?” Bruenig’s dumbfounded response, “I… uh, yes. I think so,” roughly matches my own response while watching the discussion.

This, then, is the main concern I have with what I take to be the Acton approach to economics: It attempts to enforce a system of handling economic relationships that I should hope we all recognize is deeply destructive when applied to other sorts of relationships.

Of course, on this point Joe and I are concerned about different things. If I’m following, Joe is concerned that we would move from “people other than those directly involved in a transaction should make decisions about the manner of the transaction” to “the state will dictate how transactions can and cannot work.” But, then, his silent movement from the first idea to the second is precisely the problem.

Speaking only for myself, I am not remotely arguing for a planned economy writ large or even necessarily for more extensive involvement of the federal government or any other magisterial power in every decision or transaction that people make. For now, my argument is much more basic and is basically the same as that made by Susannah Black earlier this year:

The Democrats, in general, seem to have undermined the solidarity that we are meant to have with our families, with the next generation, with the very old and the very young, and to have uprooted our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman in a human body.

The Republicans, in general, seem to have undermined the solidarity that there is meant to be between employer and employed, and between different classes. On some basic level, the libertarianism to which Republicans are addicted rejects the concept of relationships outside the family but which are yet not purely financial, whether those are relationships of peer-friendship or of hierarchy.

It was also echoed in Stephen’s piece published earlier this week:

It is important to recognize, however, that while the civil and ecclesiastical are separate and equal institutions, their principal ends are not equal. The civil has authority over the outward man and his outward good. The ecclesiastical, however, speaks to the inward man, calling him to faith and repentance unto eternal life. Eternal life is the ultimate end of man and temporal life only facilitates the accomplishment of that end.

So the civil realm, which concerns the temporal, is penultimate, meaning that its activities are not the ultimate end of man. It serves the ultimate and, for this reason, must be arranged with prudence and in light of circumstances to facilitate and support man’s ultimate end. …

Cultural Christianity in these Christian communions is the civil relationship that encourages proper belief and behavior toward man’s ultimate end (eternal life) within the limits of civil (or social) action. It cannot bring about a spiritual effect; it cannot make true believers. It plays one role in the Christian’s walk; it is not a sufficient role for spiritual life, and it was never meant to be sufficient.

Drawing on still another source, this is the way some Catholic leftists explained it earlier this year:

We believe that all human institutions ought to render to every person what they are due: this is the meaning of justice. Since the end of mankind is holiness, it follows that he is due by nature the ability to move towards this end as easily as possible. A just society, then, is one in which mankind can easily advance towards the True, Good, and Beautiful and receive aid on his quest for holiness. Similarly, an unjust society inhibits the development of holiness and persecutes those who seek it.

Though Susannah, Stephen, and the Tradinistas will differ on the sorts of economic levers they want the state to pull, that is not the chief thing I am concerned with for now. My primary concern is that when I read Joe’s work and I listen to Rev. Sirico questioning whether we should have child labor laws because of the unintended harm they do, I find myself wondering where Acton differs from conventional libertarianism. I’ve spoken with Acton people who blanched when I called them libertarian, but… if it quacks like a duck, etc.

And if it is libertarianism we’re dealing with, then it seems to me the first order concern is not the debate about economic policy, but rather the debate about the basic nature of human society and, particularly, whether there is such a thing as a polis which has the power to tell individual citizens “this and not that.” I think it is clear in Christianity that there is such a thing—and for once it appears that all three major western branches of the faith, Catholicism, Magisterial Protestantism, and Radical Protestantism, agree on this point. We disagree on the nature of that polis, but we all agree that Christian freedom is not primarily freedom from but freedom to. And one of the consequences of this is that unchosen restraint on our behavior is not necessarily a violation of our liberty or an injustice in itself.

Again, I’m reasonably confident that Joe would agree with me on everything I’ve just said. Indeed, I think it would be hard to be a Christian and not agree with something like “Christian freedom is primarily about being freed toward a specific end.” But if that is the case, I fail to see why an unchosen limitation imposed on me by another person is by definition unjust. Yet I also don’t see how Joe avoids that conclusion given what he has said so far.

So then this is the question I have for Joe or any other Acton people who want to wade in: Can we define what the largest political entity in a society is and what powers that entity has? If we can do that, then I think we can move forward and make a bit of progress here. But before anything else can happen, I need to establish that we’re even running on the same imaginative plain. Because right now it seems like the “socialists” are simply saying “hey, the civil realm is a real thing that can achieve appropriate positive goods in a society which are also conducive to man achieving his ultimate end as well.” The Acton folks are saying “a constraint imposed on economic activity that is not chosen by the parties involved in that activity is by definition unjust.” If you say that, how do you not end up functionally destroying the civil realm and reducing human relationships to a kind of ornamental supplement to life that can be occasionally pleasant but is ultimately unnecessary?

Put still another way: I think the “socialists” are really just people who believe in a civil realm and think some sort of Christian Republic or Christian Social Democracy is what we should be working toward. In which case, there is all sorts of positive work the state can do in guiding and directing society. The Acton side, on the other hand, seems to functionally end up with a naked public square because of their robust economic liberalism, although I know they would strenuously dispute that description. So before I can wade into the policy debate, I think I need to understand better what Joe’s positive vision for political society is. If we can figure out the principles we share on that point, then I think we can move outward in the discussion and probably arrive at greater clarity regarding these vital issues.

One final note: There is a much more brass tacks discussion that needs to be had here regarding more technical economic matters concerning things like how markets work, monetary policy, and so on. I am working on getting to a place where I can discuss that debate well, but I simply haven’t read enough to get there yet. (I am reading Hayek right now though, for what that’s worth.) But I think before we can get into the debate about what policy levels to pull, we need to first establish some minimal agreement about the nature of political society. That’s what I am stuck on right now.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).