Earlier this week Andrew Strain wrote a sharp, if also too short, post for First Things arguing that economic debates that orbit around whether or not the government should intervene in the marker are ultimately meaningless. This is the gist of his argument:
Neoliberals often invoke a dichotomy between public and private: The private (“the market”) operates according to competitive self-interest, whereas the public (“the state”) is a coercive expression of politics. But the foundation of markets in western economies is the commercial corporation, and commercial corporations are not simply private. As David Ciepley has pointed out, they are neither fish nor fowl. They rest on private initiative but depend on the state to co-create and sustain them. The distinctive features of commercial corporations are impossible to maintain without the state’s ensuring them. Ciepley explains: “The business corporation depends on government for its contractual individuality, or ‘personhood’—its right to own property, make contracts, and sue and be sued as an individual. . . . The corporation depends on government for its governing rights: its right to establish and enforce rules within its jurisdiction.” The corporation is defined by its government-created and -conserved properties: limited liability, asset shielding, and asset lock-in. The corporation as a market institution is a product of the state, and what it means to be a corporation is inseparable by its very nature from governmental power.
That comment, along with a few other conversations, made me realize that it may be helpful to explain why there is some small amount of momentum for a trad Christian left amongst younger believers and what that means and what it does not mean going forward. For today I am mostly going to try and explain what I think is going on. Tomorrow I’ll expand on one particular point that has pushed me leftward on many economic questions.2
I suspect there are two things driving the emerging leftism of young trads.
First, we think, with some reason, that we got played hard by the free market.
Many white, college-educated millennials (which describes a large majority of the trads) grew up in a context that free-market advocates hail as the closest thing we had to a Golden Age in 20th century America—many of us were born during the Reagan years and grew up during the Clinton administration.
At minimum, we can say that we grew up in a time with dramatically lower tax rates than at any other time in the post-war era and that we saw a level of economic growth which rivaled the 1950s. We think, rightly or wrongly, that we lived through a fairly free market era. And then we went to college. Many of us graduated in or shortly after 2008 and found ourselves chasing after jobs which no longer existed due to the Great Recession and struggling to service the student loan debt we had taken on because we were confident of securing a good job post-college.
We saw—and lived!—what a lack of regulation of banks did to the market. I graduated summa cum laude from a major university in 2010. I did not have a job that paid me a living wage until 2013. For two years after graduation, I worked jobs that paid minimum wage or slightly above that, including a teacher’s aid job at a local public school in which I was assaulted multiple times by students and was once sent home early because I was exhibiting signs of a concussion after being headbutted by a student. And amongst my friend groups, I’m probably one of the luckier ones.3
It’s hard not to draw lines between those experiences, the 2008 recession, and the free rein bankers had in the days leading up to that crisis.
On a similar note, many of us saw and experienced what a lack of adequate state-backed protective measures in the health insurance market did to people with pre-existing conditions and the chronically ill. And we looked at all of that and said, “yikes.” Leftism doesn’t look so bad.
In interests of fairness, I should point out another major generational factor in play here: The 20- and 30-something trad Christians I have in mind have no real living memory of the Soviet Union or even of China back when it was actually Communist. Sure, we’ve read about all that, but none of us have ever lived at a time when there was a real, viable socialist superpower on the world stage.
Last fall I had lunch with an evangelical pastor here in Lincoln in his 50s. Our conversation turned to the election and after I got done ranting about Trump he said, “well, I can’t vote for Hillary either.” We talked about that and after a few minutes I asked, “so how much of my strong anti-Trumpism and much weaker anti-Hillaryism is just a function of me not remembering the Clintons as well as you do?” He looked at me and said, “I think that’s a big factor.” Something like that may well be in play here—we simply don’t have the living memory of Really Bad Leftism and so it causes us to be naive to where it can lead.
Second, much historic Christian reflection on political economy isn’t particularly friendly to the economic right.
There is a movement amongst both young Catholics and many young Protestants to go back to the sources of the western Christian tradition. Thinkers like Elizabeth Bruenig are drawing heavily from Augustine. My friend Brad Littlejohn has worked on Thomas. Others have spent extensive time in the primary sources of Catholic Social Teaching or in reading early Reformed political theorists like Althusius.
What we find when we work with these writers is that Christian reflection on political economy is far more complex than many of us were led to believe. We find things like a robust condemnation of usury, to take one example. In fact, Dante places usurers and sodomites in the same moral category because both are taking a gift that should be stewarded toward fruitful ends and are instead squandering it. We also find, in many historic Christian writers, a far more ambiguous attitude toward property rights, and even a deep suspicion of what we might anachronistically term modern-style western individualism. All of these things make us suspicious of the just-so narratives that the Christian Right often resorts to when arguing for a more libertarian or quasi-libertarian economic system. Given these concerns, it will take more than someone saying, “well, markets account for human sinfulness better than anything else so they’re the best,” which is how Dr. Rathbone Bradley opened her remarks at a recent Acton event. (I have more to say on this but will save it for later.)
What This Move Means
One of the big consequences from this move is that we may see some of the traditional culture war battlelines begin to become more muddled. The culture wars routinely became a sort of proxy for describing entrenched conflicts between the same two groups of people who held to a comprehensive set of principles that directly clash with one another at multiple points.
So one day we’re arguing about gun rights. The next we’re on immigration disputes. Then we’re arguing over abortion. But the groups fighting are staying mostly the same: You’ve got National Review and the Weekly Standard on one side and The New Republic and Mother Jones on the other, world without end, amen. But that sort of culture war framing of political debate is going to become harder to maintain in the years to come. Indeed, we already have hints of it from things like Matthew Walther going on Chapo Traphouse and Matt Schmitz trying to define his own views as being distinct from both the hard leftism of Dissent and the nationalistic right wing views of American Affairs.
In an ideal scenario, what we will see is that the Post-Religious Right is combatted by principled free-market Christians who remain on the American Right while the Secular Left finds itself having to work more and more with a solidly pro-life, pro-traditional marriage Religious Left.
I don’t imagine that will happen because when was the last time a situation that is described as “ideal” ever happened in American politics? But that would be a good outcome. Certainly it would have a complicating effect on our politics as we would again begin to see defined coalitions within each party that would, in turn, force each other to moderate and work for more carefully defined policies and to pursue compromise when possible.
A second thing that I think could happen, again in an ideal scenario, is that we will begin thinking more carefully and seriously about questions of political economy. I very much hope that pieces like this reflection from Brad Littlejohn and this response from Charlie Clark will become more the norm amongst evangelicals.
What This Does Not Mean
There are core principles that Christians should agree on in the field of political economy: We should all desire that our economic system would lift up the poor. We should all have high regard for the various intermediary social structures that animate local places. And we should all recognize that the material goods we “own” are actually owned by God and given to us to steward for his glory. These are the principles and if we have differences here, we have a problem. (This, incidentally, is why we should all be up in arms about the Republican healthcare plan right now—the current proposals on the table do not reflect these principles.)
But principles are not the same thing as policies or tactics. So while I will fight stridently for the principles, I will hold my preferred tactics or policies with a more open hand and will have a greater willingness to bend or compromise on points to achieve desired goals. So, speaking only for myself, I’d be very OK with policy reforms that saw us use a higher income tax and higher capital gains tax to help finance a single-payer healthcare system. But that is an area where I am making a prudential judgment about a policy which I hope will help us realize a goal that is defined for me by a core theological principle. I could be wrong. There is room for debate here. Indeed, there must be room for debate.
As long as we are dealing with people who are in good faith affirming the underlying principles demanded by Christian confession, we should continue to believe and hope all things—because that is what love does. So while we have a small group of younger writers who probably are Protestant versions of what folks like Strain and Schmitz are to young Catholics, Mere O itself is not a leftist platform. If it were we would need a name change and, besides, if we went that route I strongly suspect Matt would return to take the keys from me and send me home. So Mere O itself will always be a platform where these debates are welcome and where both sides of the debate are invited to publish. We’ll have more on this in the near future.
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- Some might think Joe’s description of FT is unfair, but given that their literary editor and, in my opinion, finest writer describes himself as a socialist, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Joe to frame the concern in that way.
- For sake of clarity, when I say “young trad” I am thinking of 20- and 30-something Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, who hold to traditional orthodoxy in general and particularly on matters of sexuality and marriage. An appreciable subset of this group would also have strong tendencies toward economic leftism of one sort or another.
- I suspect that Joe will respond, with some reason, that such a career path or an even more difficult one is not really anomalous and may even be a good thing for most people. That may be the case, but my point here is that the free market system we grew up in promised us one thing—a relatively smooth path to affluence following graduation from college—and it still hasn’t really delivered for many of us.