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Stability and “Creative Destruction” in the Home and Economy

November 20th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Ross Douthat, from a column that is in the running for the best of the year:

What unites all of these stories is the growing failure of America’s local associations — civic, familial, religious — to foster stability, encourage solidarity and make mobility possible.

This is a crisis that the Republican Party often badly misunderstands, casting Democratic-leaning voters as lazy moochers or spoiled children seeking “gifts” (as a certain former Republican presidential nominee would have it) rather than recognizing the reality of their economic struggles.

Paul Krugman comments:

Every time you read someone extolling the dynamism of the modern economy, the virtues of risk-taking, declaring that everyone has to expect to have multiple jobs in his or her life and that you can never stop learning, etc,, etc., bear in mind that this is a portrait of an economy with no stability, no guarantees that hard work will provide a consistent living, and a constant possibility of being thrown aside simply because you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And nothing people can do in their personal lives or behavior can change this. Your church and your traditional marriage won’t guarantee the value of your 401(k), or make insurance affordable on the individual market.

So here’s the question: isn’t this exactly the kind of economy that should have a strong welfare state? Isn’t it much better to have guaranteed health care and a basic pension from Social Security rather than simply hanker for the corporate safety net that no longer exists? Might one not even argue that a bit of basic economic security would make our dynamic economy work better, by reducing the fear factor?

Sometimes people don’t see how a strong socially conservative position fits together with an emphasis on the so-called “creative destruction” of late-modern capitalism.  Indeed, I bet most social conservatives don’t actually see it themselves.  Prior to the rise of the Tea Party and the explosion of concern about debt, compassionate conservatism was a viable option.  And a few more losing elections may make it come back into style.

But in this bit between Ross and Krugman, there is a hint as to why the two fit together on such a deep level.  A country facing economic insecurity, or even territorial insecurity, will be more equipped to handle them if things are alright at home.  As long as every sphere of our lives is shaped by the felt threat of failure, then I suspect we will gravitate toward buttressing whatever social institution can signal the most strength and stability.  In this case, an expanding federal government that can print money and has nuclear warheads.  Yes, it will reduce “the fear factor,” as Krugman points out.  But at what (literal) cost, and for how long?

Allow me to frame this all as an inquiry, because I honestly don’t know the answer.  But it seems to me like taking entrepreneurial and business risks is a lot easier if we are operating in a context of relational stability.  George Will here suggests that immigration is an “entrepreneurial act,” and that’s an interesting way of thinking about it.  But I wonder how much entrepreneurial creativity is in fact motivated and grounded in a strong sense of familial ties and in a personal rootedness in a community?

Which is to say, Krugman is right that the church and traditional marriage won’t guarantee the value of our 401(k).  But they may orient us toward more permanent and enduring goods and give us the confidence to risk those 401(k)s because we know that if things go wrong we’ll somehow be alright.  To reverse Krugman’s final question, might not one argue that a bit of basic relational security would make the people in our economy work better, simply by providing more emotional and intellectual reserves to be directed into their creative activity outside the home?

Therein lies a question.  It’s a germ of a thought, and doubtlessly could be pressed on and knocked down from a hundred different directions.  But if we’re trying to understand how economic and social conservatism might end up fitting together, it might provide a halfway decent start.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.