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.

Former First Things editor Joe Carter fired back on the Acton Institute blog, noting that he was disturbed by what he described as a socialist turn that First Things has taken in recent years.1

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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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador 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, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Adam Shields

    I am far more left than you (and about the same age as Joe Carter). So anyone calling mereothodoxy a leftist site needs to re-evaluate their terms. I often disagree with you about political specifics, but I very much agree with you about many principles that we as Christians should be working toward as we think about and act in the political world.

    One of the signs of the health of a political philosophy is its ability to see limits. Political actors on the right that continue to call for reductions in taxes when they are relatively low (both historically and in the current international climate) don’t understand the limits of their political philosophy. That is true on both left and right.

    To have a good political world, we need Christians active on both sides. And we should want healthy parties on both sides. That just seems like such a basic insight that it is always surprising to me that it needs to be said.

    • A. Alexander Minsky

      I largely agree with your post, but I wonder if there can be a leftist, as opposed to liberal or social democratic, politics that does have a healthy respect for the limits of politics. Such a perspective seems to be at variance with the radical leftist project. Are there any leftist thinkers who have grappled with the limits of politics?

      • Adam Shields

        I am not sure about your definitions that separate left, radical leftist, liberal and social democrat. So it is hard to know who would fit into those categories.

        My guess is that anyone that I suggest that is on the left that has thought about the limits of politics you would be not consider a leftist

        I tend to personally call people that can’t see the limits of their ideological bias as ‘true believers’. But that is not a particularly helpful term for dialogue.

        My suggestion for understanding the limits of politics is Reinhold Niebuhr. And if you think he isn’t a liberal you need to remember that when he wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society he was still a member of the socialist party and a pacifist. He certainly moderated as he aged but I think he still was a progressive at heart throughout his life.

  • calebroberts811

    Speaking for myself (as someone who more or less tracks autobiographically with the story you tell about yourself here), my move leftward was also due to my realization that many of the principles of so-called “liberalism” and “secular humanism” that my worldview/apologetics training had trained me to reject only make sense in light of capitalism, which that same training oddly treated as inscrutable and practically ordained by God Himself. This then led me to the classic left-wing attention to the material conditions and relations from which ideas then emerge. “Behavior precedes discourse,” as a seminary professor of mine used to say.

  • James McClain

    I’m wondering if part of the problem here is that those of you with statist leanings re. economic issues (insert “leftist” if you prefer), is that a conflation is being made between the basic reality of economic activity necessary to live on this planet on the one hand with actions by the state that impact such activity on the other. Prior to any political action, human beings, created as stewards of this planet, have a basic right and responsibility to produce. When the state contravenes these rights, actors in the market should be concerned. I am not suggesting the state plays no role in the market-place, but that role is necessarily limited in a society that recognizes the rule of law played out in the daily workings of a free people. And this will sometimes produce unseemly results, you know, with human beings and all. Ultimately, this largely comes down to the question of the level of trust one has with respect to the collective actions of the state relative to those of individual actors in the market-place. In any case, I find it strange that anyone with a strong Christian orthodoxy would choose the former, especially given the track record in the modern era. And as an aside, it is somewhat puzzling that people who have the time and resources to spend reflecting on such things would want to bash the very types of market activity that bring about a platform for this type of discussion – that is unless you really buy the idea that what’s his name actually invented the internet. (Come on, you can crack a smile).

    With respect to the third footnote above, the “free market system” didn’t promise anything to anyone; that’s part of the point.

    • Doc

      I want to second this comment about the free market system promising an easy road to affluence. I have seen this sentiment frequently used as a justification for things like Occupy Wall Street, and basically Millenial dissatisfaction in general. I just don’t get it.

      Jake, how did you come to understand that this was the case? How was this promise made, and how was it broken? I’m serious. I’d really like to understand this. This seems to be such a strong motivating factor for Millenials, but I don’t understand how it happened or where it came from.

      • roo_ster

        Doc:

        A sense of entitlement.

        I busted my hump in grunt labor jobs in HS and college, majored in a STEM discipline, and served in the military. One heck of a lot more blood, sweat, effort, and agony than than Jake Meador will admit to experiencing. Yet I do not think that I am owed “a relatively smooth path to affluence following graduation from college.” That footnote excretes entitlement all over the screen.

        Just _reading_ that makes my Inner Drill Sergeant want to have some quality time with Jake.

        • Cal P

          Even though Jake might deserve your inner DI, a chip on the shoulder and goofy threats don’t add much to the argument. Though, military service and a STEM major were clearly the more economically savvy choices then, say, trying to get a graduate degree in English lit.

          And why is entitlement such a swearword? Not only does everyone function with them (would we work jobs if there was no guarantee of pay? would we join the military if it was not only economically futile, but socially reprehensible and oriented towards certain death? would we do STEM majors if they weren’t thriving “ins”?), but they make sense within any social polity.

          • Doc

            rooster,

            I’m not really upset at Jake for feeling that he was entitled to a relatively smooth path to affluence. I’m more curious why he felt/feels that way. It’s clear that we have a whole generation of folks (at least) who feel similarly entitled, and their expectations are not being met. Just because your sense of entitlement is misplaced doesn’t mean you can’t still break windows and set cars on fire. I want to know why Millenials feel like they were owed affluence, and how we can avoid instilling the same nonsense into the next generation.

            I’m from the tail end of generation X, and my kids are on the front end of whatever comes after the Millenials. I didn’t feel the sense of entitlement Jake describes. And I don’t think my kids will/do. But I’d like to understand where Jake came to understand this so that I can guide my kids around it.

          • Adam Shields

            I think entitlement is probably too pejorative a term at this point.

            But I think what he means, and what no longer really works (and hasn’t worked for many) is the idea of the American Dream. If you work hard you can achieve the white picket fence and homeownership, a good fulfilling jobs, 2.5 kids and a good retirement.

            This article on the decline of the middle class ( http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/09/the-american-middle-class-is-losing-ground/ ) I think is a good example of what has changed about the economy.

            The rich are sucking up a greater and greater share of the wealth. Class mobility is stagnating, or outright declining depending on how you measure. Homeownership rates are declining. And things like workplace based health care and pensions do not really exist for most people.

            There probably is a problem with some young people expecting to make as much as their parents a year or two out of college. But it isn’t about entitlement to think that a health problem for your child can bankrupt you. That has been and continues to be a real problem with our economic system.

          • Doc

            I’m just jumping on the “entitlement” train proposed by rooster and Cal. I don’t really care what term we use. But honestly, I think “entitlement” fits what I think we’re describing. And maybe we could describe the entire concept of the American Dream as an entitlement. Do kids growing up in other nations have the same sense of expected economic comfort that supposedly comes from following the rules and living right? I don’t know.

            I’m just using Jake’s bio as an example, so I could be mistaken here, but it seems to me that this sense of disenchantment is mostly coming from college educated folks. Is that true? Is it mostly folks who “followed the rules” and got a degree that are mostly feeling this disappointment that their American Dream didn’t pan out?

            BWF, if and when you have kids, you still won’t understand it. But you will still end up conveying the truth to them the best you know how. And hopefully your advice doesn’t end up in one of their long posts on the wrong things conveyed to teenagers. I would be willing to bet that the people who taught you that following the rules would lead to success genuinely thought they were telling you the truth.

            Adam, I think most Americans do receive employment based healthcare, pensions, not so much. Home ownership rates are declining. But they are still way above pre WWII rates. I wonder how much of our national identity is tied up in the post WWII economy and culture. We see time and progress as a line that is always meant to go up, always increasing. And then we can start with the more recent past as a baseline. But it may be better to view time more cyclically, or like a spiral anyway. In that case, the 20th century isn’t the baseline.

          • Doc

            Adam, you say that this has been and continues to be a real problem with our economic system. But I think it’s more likely a real problem with humanity in general. There’s not a governmental or economic model that is going to fix poverty or hardship or broken dreams.

          • BWF

            You’re not on the mark when you use the term “entitled”. This isn’t a matter of people feeling entitled to something just because. It’s a matter of being frustrated for not receiving reciprocation for holding up their end of the agreement. When I say agreement, I mostly mean the same things Adam Shields mentioned about the American Dream, and I could get into a good long post about the specific types of messages conveyed to be as a teenager (at a Lutheran high school in particular, where the tradition Protestant Work Ethic was very much part of the education)… but the message was never “you deserve all these things because you’re a special snowflake”. It was more of that if you followed the rules and lived right, you’d be at least economically comfortable.

            I do agree with you that it’s important to rethink how we influence how our children to have healthy expectations. If I am fortunate enough to have a child one day, when discussing these matters, that I have hope and confidence in them, but also that the world is difficult and that nothing is for sure… but I don’t yet know the details of how to explain it.

    • Adam Shields

      I always find it odd that discussions of the superiority of unfettered free markets seem to forget the late 19th and early 20th century. Govt innovations like food inspections, labeling laws, truth in advertising, anti-monopoly laws, etc. are essential to restraining the free market in very important ways for human flourishing.

      Believing that unfettered free markets can (and will) harm, is not the same as being statist. The free market has done amazing things in bring about significant reductions in extreme poverty, expanding information and material goods to the masses, improving health care and quality of life, etc.

      But not everything that is brought about by the market is a good. Critiquing weaknesses is not denying that goods exist. And there are lots of weaknesses.

      • James McClain

        I’m not making the claim that 1. Free markets are unfettered (I don’t know that such a thing exists) and 2. That markets only bring about ethically acceptable outcomes. Porn is quite marketable, but not a social good. My point is that the normal human activity related to procuring the goods necessary to existence is fundamentally different from the purpose of the state. As such, justification for interference in that activity must be made. I’m not at all suggesting that it follows that the state has no interest in the kinds of market activity taking place within its borders. However, when one considers the magnitude of its intervention and the suspicion of individual market participants implicit in these discussions (also implying a sort of moral purity on the part of state actors), a healthy skepticism is in order.

        • Adam Shields

          I am not really talking about ethics as much as I am talking about govt limiting harm to individuals.

          For instance, food safety, vehicle safety standards, clean water, etc. All of those are have had real impact by govt intervention against the free market. There just are not examples of markets cleaning up problems like this on their own without rules that everyone in the market has to abide by.

          If one market actor can opt out of a safety rule or standard, then they have a market advantage so systems of market based reform are rarely effective.

          Of course, the govt can actually initiate some of these harms as well, for instance the govt role in facilitating segregation, redlining, war on drugs, etc.

          I am not for unlimited govt action either. Govt has a similar propensity toward abuse of power if left unchecked. But there is a balance that seems to be necessary.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            One more quote, this time from the political writer Michael Lind: The mistakes libertarians make is that they believe you can privatize everything and not have anarchy. The mistake Communist mistake is they believe you can socialize everything and not have tyranny.

      • A. Alexander Minsky

        I’m not a big fan of Bill Maher, but he did make a comment about economics that I find helpful: Capitalism and socialism are economic systems, they are not your first kiss.

  • Physiocrat

    The US nor Western Europe are anywhere close to being a free market. The criticism of the corporation is entirely consistent with a free market perspective because it essentially amounts to a legal privilege – that is the corporation does not bear the full-costs of their actions. In fact big businesses in the West are hugely subsided by the state. Here is just a few: the free
    highway system decreases the costs of long distance delivery,
    government underwiritng of shipping insurance contracts, third party
    limited liability laws (this is massive with large firms), implicit
    bailouts of financial institutions, licencing laws (this is also a
    problem in the legal sphere which reduces the power of small firms and
    individuals to bring tort cases – it is also one of the main reasons why healthcare is so expensive), hugely complex tax systems which make
    it viable for large firms to dedicate an entire department to circumvent
    it, intellectual property laws, fiat currency, subsidised immigration
    etc.

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  • C.J.

    Joe Carter *was* being unfair on many points. This is a particularly nasty paragraph:

    “A key problem is that magazines, think tanks, and non-profits are often staffed by the same type of cheap labor—young people who all went to the same elite (or semi-elite) schools, all live in the same liberal urban environs, and who have never done any real work outside of academia or have any real experience with business or the market economy. Often, these staffers have no economic background yet think they are qualified to pontificate on the problems with markets because they read a few old encyclicals.”

    • calebroberts811

      Yes, no right-wing Christian defense of capitalism against its cultured despisers is complete without a ritual bashing of “liberal arts” people and their hoity-toity and pie-in-the-sky ideas about justice and goodness.

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  • First, let’s understand that very few religiously conservative American Christians have even a clue about what Socialism is. And that applies to Joe Carter. Carter, who is against socialism, opposes any public or private sector entities from becoming big. But how does one keep that from happening. In addition, Carter, like many other religiously conservative Christians mistakenly confuse big government with socialism. From the Marxist tradition, Socialism rests on changes made by a proletariat dictatorship. Without that, no system, regardless of the size of the government, is socialist. In other words, government is like love, size doesn’t matter, fidelity does. When a government is unfaithful to all of its people because it is seeing select privileged groups, then the government will cheat its people regardless of its size.

    Also, if we remember the good old days when tax rates were lower. Well, tax rates for those with wealth were much higher then.

    Third, if we don’t demonize other groups, it is possible that all groups will work together rather than just the pairings listed in the above article.

  • Cal P

    One does not have to be a socialist, or left-leaning, whatever any of that means, to recognize Capitalism is socially corrosive and ethically disastrous. It’s more than an economic system, it becomes a mode of being, a set of ethics, and an anthropology. Smith and Mandeville even provide a theological scaffolding for it in the construction of myths. This is all clear from the cultists sneering at the idea of a social promise or that free-markets promise nothing, as if that’s a blessing!

    But the truly ironic part of it is that very few devotees recognize that the military-industrial complex is a form of statist corporatism, where companies live on the dole and it continues to expand. But the military is the sacred cow of American politics. Ron Paul, in this way, was the only ever consistent libertarian, and he was harried from all sides. But, as the so-called tigers of Asian Capitalism show, there is no intrinsic or necessary relationship between free markets and capitalism. In fact, as some Socialists and Syndicalists have argued, Capitalism enslaves the market, and they advocated a “freed” market.

    We need a new J Gresham Machen to write Christianity and Capitalism. But alas, many love mammon far more than they love Christ.

    • Cal P

      In addition: very few seem to realize that Christian conformity with Capitalism has been an extremely turbulent relationship in the US. Look up William Jennings Bryant’s “Cross of Gold” speech. It only became the “common-sense” orthodoxy after the synthesis work of Buckley, who combined capitalism, American Cold War patriotism, and socially and theologically conservative Christianity into the Barry Goldwater campaign. Reagan perfected the synthesis, and Evangelicalism became a part platform of bending skeptical and uneasy Fundamentalists back into the social arena.

      Even though they were notorious for their polemics, Buckley and Vidal were both vile cretins and perverts.

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  • KSM

    Jake – Please don’t further harm and enslave me and my family by pushing for Single Payer. The 10th Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the federal gov’t from doing anything like it or Obamacare. Shouldn’t we honor just laws?

    To use the coercive power of gov’t to confiscate what someone has earned for their family in order to give it to someone who has not earned it is immoral and unjust. Furthermore welfare programs undermine the influence and authority of the family and the local church.

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  • Did the ” the free market system” **really** promise you such things, or was it adults who mistakenly took the stock market as a good indicator of economic growth and stability?

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