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Toward a Realistic View of Society

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 15, 2011

In the “While We’re at It” section of First Things last month, I found this: “Critics of neoconservatism don’t seem to grasp that support for a market economy and limited government doesn’t express a romantic or idealistic view of business but a realistic view of government.” Many First Things writers have a reputation for neoconservatism, which is probably unfortunate. But I think this statement is generally true, and it is an important corrective to many left-right debates, at least in the United States.

More to the point here, Catholic social teaching also requires a realistic view, for the Church’s insights will almost invariably be implemented very badly by those who do not have a realistic grasp of the typical strengths and weaknesses of various players in the social order, including their present tendencies. Moreover, if we are not realistic enough to recognize that even business and government together are not sufficient to produce a healthy social order, then the few things we do see clearly are unlikely to matter.

The Bifurcation of Our Society

Let us start with the dangerous bifurcation of the social order into market and state, a tendency which Pope Benedict sharply warned against in Caritas in Veritate. For example, I am continually amazed by conservatives who argue that if only market conditions were perfectly free of state interference, everything would work out for the best. Their economic theory holds that a true and proper self-interest produces business practices oriented toward satisfying customers through sound goods and services at a fair price over a very long period. Therefore, free business activity always results in the best possible social good.

But any realist sees two major flaws in this premise. The first is that none of us ever knows his true self-interest perfectly, and so we frequently chase false visions or short-term gains, often at the expense of more lasting relationships or more important goods. The second is that the market is never altogether free, at least not in the sense required by this theory. There are always players with vastly unequal power in the market, and those players with more are all too prone to restrict the freedom of the market in order to gain still greater power and wealth, without corresponding merit, and at the expense of others.

On the other hand, I am also amazed by liberals who seem to think that if only the government will take charge of something, it will make that thing much better. They might not say that the government should take charge of everything. It is just that no problem ever arises that they don’t think can be best solved by government. But a more realistic observation would include, among many other factors, the mental littleness, endemic inefficiency and lack of personal concern characteristic of all bureaucracies, as well as the astonishing ability of politicians to craft government programs to favor not only the needs of their particular constituents but their own paths to power and wealth.

It ought to tell us something that the only people with worse reputations than business leaders are politicians.

Market and State Not Enough

It behooves us not to fall into a dichotomy of market vs. state for two reasons. The first is that, when we do, we tend to have a horse in the race, deciding questions based on prejudice or ideology instead of practical deliberations about what each entity typically does best. And the second is even more important: It is that market and state, or business and government, are simply not enough. The failure to grasp this goes far toward explaining the Western tendency to see the solution to all problems in either the one or the other—including many problems neither can effectively address.

While there is no escaping the need to deliberate over how we might use existing institutions to solve existing problems and avoid past errors, a true realist understands that the premises of both sides in this debate are false. In the first place, it is impossible for a sound social order to emerge from absolutely unbridled economic liberty (or any other kind of unbridled liberty). There are as many reasons for this truth as there are persons with their own agendas, some of which must be restrained or modified for the common good.

And in the second place, it is equally impossible to craft a system of controls which will prevent businessmen and politicians alike from doing things that are either stupid or evil or both. There are four reasons for this impossibility: First, the system itself will be flawed; second, the system will always be exploited (as will the freedom of having no system); third, even the best system cannot exhaust the sheer range of human stupidity and perversity; and fourth, as systems add rules to deal with one stupidity or evil after another, they become increasingly burdensome and counter-productive.

One might argue that the key to success is to strike the right balance between freedom and control, and this is not an unimportant consideration. But what we will find is that there is no balance of any kind that works well if we fall into the trap of believing that the only factors to be studied are the market and the state.

Tradition and Moral Formation

It may be a paradox, but the best way to minimize stupidity is to maximize what we can learn from tradition. The more a society exposes its members to what it has learned by hard experience, the less likely its members are to make the worst kinds of mistakes. Put another way, various kinds of tutelage and apprenticeship—from strong families on up—are often to be preferred to what passes in the modern world for education, with its unbridled abstraction and its emphasis on constantly transforming society de novo. A respect for the patterns of the past, and a reluctance to change them without good reason, raises significant obstacles to stupidity, which invariably appears in its most severe forms when we attempt to create out of whole cloth.

Similarly, the best way to eliminate evil in government, business and everywhere else is not through ever-growing rulebooks and every-increasing regulation but actually to form people spiritually and morally from the beginning. It goes without saying that stupidity and evil will always be with us. But both of these realities, and especially evil, show us immediately why government and business—the market and the state—are not enough. This is so true that the very first step in any realistic assessment of our current situation is to recognize that we are lacking some of the most important ingredients for success.

Both government and business depend on morality without being able to create it. The infusion into the social order of ultimate ends, legitimate means, and the strength to adhere to them must come from other sources. This is one (but not the only) reason why a vibrant and deeply moral social order requires institutions which go well beyond the dangerous bifurcation of market and state. More than anything else, a successful social order absolutely requires both personal and public embodiments of the moral seriousness on which nearly everything else depends.

A social order comprised of essentially amoral citizens—citizens, in our own case, who are actually formed to be morally stupid (which fosters other forms of stupidity as well)—has no chance at either effective business or effective government. Nor will it possess any other kind of effectiveness. Many early American political writings assert the necessity of virtuous citizens for a successful republic, but it is an idea which goes back to both Christian and classical political theory. Unfortunately, neither the Greeks, the Romans, nor the American founders (as a rule) understood what is necessary to keep people virtuous; and those who were once seriously Christian have largely forgotten what is necessary.

What is required is a commitment to the natural law supported by grace. Those who claim realism when considering the social order but do not see this most fundamental point actually have no claim to realism at all.

The Need for Other Institutions

Once again, a healthy realism demands that the strengths of a community be expressed in a variety of institutions which represent different forms of excellence, each in its own sphere, and each capable of influencing its participants toward the good, as well as sheltering them, through some measure of solidarity, against the slings and arrows which will otherwise prove unnecessarily injurious in so many ways. But above all else, realism demands that the moral fiber of a commonwealth be both formed and represented by an institution which can teach clearly and provide grace, independent of the economic and political powers between which we so often wish to divide our broken world.

This includes, but goes far beyond, teaching and strengthening people to pursue the legitimate ends, purposes and moral parameters of both sound business and sound government. Speaking in terms of the social order only, the goal is to form a strong community which is already internally committed to moral integrity and the common good. Such a community will certainly continue to be affected by stupidity and evil, as well as by problems and inequities for which there is no fault, but it will most often be stupidity that the community itself is capable of correcting, and evil which the community itself is not ashamed to denounce and expel, and problems which the community itself can go far to ameliorating—all without formal rules or bureaucrats.

It is in this context and this context alone—the context of a community which is genuinely concerned to provide for its members spiritually, morally and materially—that other challenges of personal and social life begin to fall into place, including those very important challenges of good business and good government. After all, within a strong moral context, government and business problems ought to be primarily logistical. Outside of this context, business will be only selectively effective and invariably often nasty, and government will be both corrupt and ineffective, no matter how much freedom, or how little.

The One Thing Needful in the Social Order

Again, we cannot avoid attempting to solve problems as best we can with the tools at hand, but only a short-sighted person refuses to develop better tools when the ones he has are unsuited to the task. If we ever hope to succeed in building a healthy social order, complete with both effective government and effective business (relatively speaking, of course), our first priority is to reverse the trend of weakening other institutions in general and Christian churches in particular.

Like it or not, the West continues to define itself in the light of Christianity, either by its deliberate adherence or its deliberate rejection. You will look a long time to see a statement of secular values which is not rooted in the rejection of Christian principles. So it is that once the light of Christ has shone in a given culture, it becomes all but impossible for that culture, and the social orders which embrace it, to stand in the absence of Christian principles and Christian grace—principles and grace which guarantee also that the natural law will be read aright.

For all the reasons I have touched on here, the most important program that any of us can adopt for the improvement of both government and business is the strengthening of an institution which looks very much like the Catholic Church. Just as focusing on Christ is the one thing needful for the person (Lk 10:42), so too in the social order is focusing on the Church. When the Church is right, everything else becomes much, much easier. In today’s world, that’s what being realistic means.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Universal - Jan. 01, 2012 5:22 PM ET USA

    Exactly as you write! We are so focused on (our) systems that we forget what it takes to make all systems (work): MAN. But we fear man, and we are too lazy to undergo the difficult task of education, too impatient to wait for its results, cheap to bear the costs, too proud to admit that actually we cannot achieve our goals without God. And that is why we flee into systems, as anonymous solutions, safeguards and redemption. This must change. It will change. Let"s try for a holy Year 2012!

  • Posted by: dt.dean9713 - Dec. 19, 2011 11:49 AM ET USA

    It is that politics must fulfill the measure of the just society. Religion cannot, and must not, create the just ordering of society. Religion's role in the creation of the just society, is to form the will, within society, that which would be the ordering of just men for the sake of the just society.

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