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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Matt:

    Speaking as an entrepreneur…

    No need to frame this as a question you are correct, BUT what is also in the mix is the whole self-image movement. People substitute self-image for familial stability and they are not the same thing. High achievers often “suffer” low self-esteem, while as high self-esteem leads to an e sense of entitlement which fights against risk.

    But I would add one other caveat. Relational stability need not be familial – it may be in a faith-based community or in the object of the faith itself. The real key is the feeling of a “fallback” or that some one has your back. Family is usually a source of money, which is needed for entrepreneurship, but can often, even in the middle of that fight against emotional stability..

    IN the end, I think faith is the key – it builds stable families as well as provides the other necessary stability.


  2. Matt-

    I think your question/observation is quite insightful. I would argue that, when approached correctly, economic and relational stability are mutually reinforcing; relational stability without economic stability is fleeting. Since people primarily form relationships with those who are similar to themselves, someone at the lower end of the SES-spectrum will operate in a community with few resources to help support that individual in the inevitable event of a crisis. Thus, there is some need for an institutionalized support system outside of relationships.


  3. My comment might come off as simply adding a bit of tinder here, but this strikes me as somewhat typical of Krugman’s penchant for hyperbole. It is somewhat disheartening to realize that many thinking folk actually buy into his minimal expectations framework. It is one thing to realize the limits of any economic system. But to hail the virtues of the welfare state does not square well with biblical virtue nor with prospects for long term growth.


  4. From my family experience, I can attest to the value of this. My grandparents (long, stable marriage) kept a good amount of money in savings and were careful investors as well as hard workers. My parents (long, stable marriage) have done the same, and that means my extended family actually has a big working budget that has really benefited my brothers and me. Even though my stock-based college fund tanked, my parents were able to pay my post-loan school costs by borrowing from our family account and slowly repaying it (they bought a house that way as well).

    Krugman rightly asserts that a corporate safety net isn’t certain, but it’s possible that a family who focuses on saving rather than living beyond their means/margins and experiences a fair amount of productivity can create a safety net of their own, at least partially independent of the corporate/economic “safety net” of the market.

    This does suppose, though, that no individual family member is acting as a sink and not contributing to the family welfare.

    It’s at least feasible that a church or community could have a net as well that they could extend to those in need while those in need aren’t able to supply for themselves.


  5. Matt, I’m going to ask a question and I really don’t want it to sound smug, self-righteous, or accusatory. But I want to know because I feel like there may be a hint of personal experience lacking in your writing.

    How much time do you spend (or have you spent significantly) with people who are materially poor?

    I ask because while this post does a great job at teasing out some of the good aspects of wild capitalism, it still descends into mushy generalities in the second-to-last paragraph that I think are easily checked by having friends who use various forms of public assistance to survive. I wholeheartedly agree with you that our economy would be better off with people having a settled community/neighborhood/family, thus free to spend their creative energies entrepreneurially (sp?) But it’s a long way from there to here, and one thing conservatism has to do in the coming years is figure out how to make our social safety net better, not just smaller. I think there are not nearly enough pundits (left and right) who actually live with or among the people who are most vulnerable when policy changes are suggested.


    1. I wonder why you are reading this as a statement one way or the other on the need for a social safety net, or the need to improve it, or the particular “size” of that safety net. All those questions are obviously important, but tangential to the line of inquiry (and I deliberately opened it as a line of inquiry) that I took here.


      1. hmm… I don’t feel like I’m nailing you to a particular position on the safety net (though I apologize if I did!) Just that the vagueness seems to belie an unfamiliarity with how an actual materially poor person would think about the issue. I brought up that paragraph only because it’s emblematic of my concern, not because I had a specific quibble with that particular line of inquiry.

        hopefully that makes sense?


  6. […] “Stability and “Creative Destruction” in the Home and Economy,” Mere Orthodoxy […]


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