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Sorting Things Out

December 25, 2019 (5,697 words)

I’ve just started reading the economist Joseph Stiglitz’s latest book, People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent. If his name doesn’t ring a bell with you, be advised this Mr. Stiglitz (b. 1943) has had quite an illustrious career in public life.

We learn from the book flap he was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Clinton, chief economist of the World Bank, and named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential individuals in the world.

He is also a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (2001).

Now, as a 76 year-old gray eminence, he manages to keep busy by teaching at Columbia University, and being the chief economist of the Roosevelt Institute, a think tank.

Despite such impressive credentials I didn’t know Stiglitz from Adam, until hearing him interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR) recently. And I only just caught the tail end of what presumably was part of a press junket for the new book.

In that brief snippet Mr. Stiglitz came across as a congenial contrarian, good-naturedly challenging the popular libertarian assertion that government can do no right, and only muddies the waters by interfering with the proper functioning of a free market.

Challenging this conventional libertarian wisdom – one that is shared, I might add, by everyone I know who professes to be Catholic – is something that I, too, am keenly interested in.


a high school reunion in Gary, Indiana…


The narrative of this new book begins with the author traveling back to his home town of Gary, Indiana, located on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Like so many other once-proud cities, it has sadly traced the history of industrialization and deindustrialization in America. Founded in 1906 as the site of the largest integrated steel mill in the world, it was named after the founding chairman of U.S. Steel, Elbert H. Gary:

“It was a company town through and through. When I went back for my fifty-fifth high school reunion in 2015, before Trump had become the fixture in the landscape he is today, the tensions were palpable, and for good reason.

“The city had followed the country’s trajectory toward deindustrialization. The population was only half of what it was when I was growing up. The city was burned out. It had become a filming location for Hollywood movies set in wat zones, or after the apocalypse. Some of my classmates became teachers, a few, doctors and lawyers, and many, secretaries.

“But the most poignant stories at the reunion were from classmates who described how, when they graduated, they has hoped to get a job at the mills but the country was in another episodic downturn and instead they went into the military, setting their life trajectory into a career in policing.

“Reading the roster of those of my classmates who had passed away, and seeing the physical condition of many of those who remained, was a reminder of the inequalities in life expectancy and health in the country.

“An argument broke out between two classmates, a former policeman virulently criticizing the government, and a former schoolteacher pointing out that the Social Security and disability payments the former policeman depended on came from that same government.”


why does our economic system fail so many?


Growing up in Gary, Joseph Stiglitz saw racial discrimination and segregation, great inequality, labor strife, and episodic recessions. Leaving in 1960 to study at Amherst College in Massachusetts, these gnawing memories induced him to switch his course of study from theoretical physics to economics.

“I wanted to understand why our economic system failed for so many, and what could be done about it.”

His studies taught him the financial ideology of many conservatives was just plain wrong. Their almost religious belief in the power of unfettered markets to achieve a smooth-running economy had no basis in either theory or evidence.

From then on his professional challenge was two-fold: To dissuade others away from this unfounded belief, and to come up with specific programs to address growing inequality and the persistent potential for instability. As time passed he became convinced both problems had been greatly exacerbated by the financial liberalization begun under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Now, twenty-five years after entering the Clinton administration, Mr. Stiglitz surveys the landscape and sees ”excessive financialization, mismanaged globalization, and increasing market power” – all of which are interrelated and explain why the fruits of our growth have been so unequally shared.

We seemed to have evolved into “an economy and democracy of the 1 percent, for the 1 percent, and by the 1 percent.”

His book is intended as equal parts diagnosis and prescription. An important first step is to decipher the difference between “wealth creation” and “wealth extraction.” The latter is “any process whereby one individual takes wealth from others through one form of exploitation or another.”

In contrast, the true source of all (honest) wealth “lies in the creativity and productivity of a nations’ people, and their productive interactions with each other.”

Stiglitz outlines a progressive agenda he describes as sort of a twenty-first century blend of Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, which serves as the antitheses of the Trump agenda.

ONE: CONFLATING CERTAIN ISSUES

This blend will involve a resurgence of “Keynesian economics” that emphasizes how government can help to avoid the crippling episodic downturns we experience, and maintain something close to full employment through managing demand, via monetary and fiscal policy.

(The British economist Maynard Keyes [1883-1946] made his bones in the Great Depression of the 1930s, when he spearheaded a revolution in economic thinking challenging the ideas of “neoclassical” economics that hold free markets will automatically provide full employment, as long as workers “are flexible in their wage demands.”)

The Keynesian model of managing demand was of course replaced by supply side economics, which emphasizes deregulation and tax cuts that will free up the economy and incentivize it, increasing the supply of goods and services, thereby increasing the incomes of individuals providing those goods and services.

In other words, the “financial liberalization” that Reagan unleashed was merely a return to “neoclassical” economics that has been in place since at least the Industrial Revolution, when Adam Smith first put pen to paper, and published The Wealth of Nations (1776).

So wait a minute. Doesn’t this mean the “financial liberalization” that Joseph Stiglitz finds fault with, especially as it has been re-imagined and carried forward since the 1980s, is actually a product of the Enlightenment he is otherwise quick to hail as a watershed moment in human progress?

No doubt there is much Joseph Stiglitz can teach me about economic theory, and I look forward to reading the balance of his new book. But here in the early going, his sidebar analysis displays a lack of discernment and a tendency to conflate certain issues. This hurts his case.

For example: Reagan’s rising tide may have turned out to be little more than a trickle for far too many of our fellow citizens, but that’s no reason to denigrate his widespread appeal during those years, and chalk it up to “exploiting fear and bigotry.”

And Donald Trump may be just an old 1980s club-goer gone to seed, lacking the political savvy usually required of a small-town mayor, let alone leader of the free world. But his bumbling and bullying is simply a measure of base incompetence.

He is a spoof, a character only Mark Twain or Jonathan Swift could have imagined. Considered in this light, nothing he says or does can be taken seriously enough to be thought of as ”a disdain for truth, for science, for knowledge, and for democracy”…

But Mr. Trump does elicit a passionate reaction from our author:

TWO: AN ELOQUENT DEFENSE OF ACADEMIA

“Since launching his campaign, and especially since becoming President, Donald Trump has gone well beyond the traditional ‘conservative’ economic agenda. In some ways, as we have noted, he is in fact a revolutionary: he has vigorously attacked the central institutions of our society by which we attempt to acquire knowledge and ascertain the truth. His targets include our universities, the scientific community, and our judiciary…

“The attacks on our universities have not received the same attention as those on the media, but they are equally dangerous for the future of our economy and democracy. Our universities are the well-spring from which all else comes.

“Silicon Valley – the center of our country’s innovation economy – is what and where it is because of the advances in technology coming out of our great universities, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. MIT and Harvard have similarly spawned a great research center in Boston.

“…Many (of our private not-for-profit universities) have been central in the advances in knowledge that have been pivotal both in increases in standards of living and creating America’s competitive advantage.

“Some Republicans criticize our universities for being politically correct and intolerant of bigotry and misogyny. It’s true that academics universally teach that climate change is real, and many cast doubts about supply-side economics. Universities also do not give equal weight to theories that the world is flat, to the phlogiston theory in chemistry, or to gold bugs in economics.

“There are some ideas that deservedly do not receive equal weight in higher education. It would be malpractice to teach outdated ideas that have been repeatedly disproved by the scientific method.”

In all this the esteemed Joseph Stiglitz is painting with what I would describe as too broad a brush.

Again to re-state: He holds in contempt the financial liberalization he ascribes to backward souls (Republicans) he accuses of rejecting science and verifiable truth. Yet he seems unable to acknowledge the financial liberalization he abhors was first implemented as part of the Enlightenment he so admires.

Is anyone else confused at this point?


the Enlightenment and its discontents…


Here Mr. Stiglitz should be commended for not beating around the bush, as he continues:

“The progress associated with the Enlightenment always had its enemies. The list includes religious conservatives who didn’t like ideas like evolution, and some who felt uncomfortable with the tolerance and liberalism preached by the Enlightenment.

“To these have been added people who found their economic interests at loggerheads with the findings of science…

“But this coalition of the religious and social conservatives and those whose self-interest went directly against the scientific knowledge was not broad enough to attain political power. That power required the support of the broader business community…”

This prickly distillation prompts the following reaction from me:

#1) Religious and social conservatives have nobody but themselves to blame for being criticized as willing political supporters of the fiscal conservatives.

#2) Mr. Stiglitz’s cultural anthropology suffers from a fundamental prejudice that is widely shared in society, and prevents him from developing a more comprehensive picture of what is really going on.

#3) His thumbnail sketch of the accepted view of recent history is worth quoting verbatim:

THREE: THE SCHOLAR HOLDS FORTH

“(Adam) Smith himself was part of a great intellectual movement of the late eighteenth century called the Enlightenment. Often associated with the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment was built on developments over the preceding centuries, beginning with the Protestant Reformation. Before the sixteenth-century Reformation, initially led by Martin Luther, truth was revealed, ordained by authorities. The Reformation questioned the authority of the Church, and in a thirty-year war that began around 1618, Europeans fought over alternate paradigms.

“This questioning of authority forced society to ask and answer: How do we know the truth? How can we learn about the world around us? And how can and should we organize our society?

“A new epistemology arose, which governed all aspects of life aside from the spiritual world: that of science, with its system of trust with verification, where each advance rested on earlier research and the progress of those who had come before. Over the years universities and other research institutions arose to help us judge truth and discover the nature of our world. So many of the things that we take for granted today, from electricity, to transistors and computers, to the smartphone, lasers, and modern medicine, are the result of scientific discovery, undergirded by basic research. And it’s not just these hi-tech advances: even our roads and our buildings rest on scientific advances; without them, we couldn’t have skyscrapers and superhighways, we couldn’t have the modern city.

“The absence of royal or ecclesiastical authority to dictate how society should be organized meant that society had to figure it out. One couldn’t rely on authority – either on Earth or above – to ensure that things worked out well, or as well as they could. One had to create systems of governance. Discovering the social institutions that would ensure the well-being of society was a more complicated matter than discovering the truths of nature. In general, one couldn’t do controlled experiments. A close study of past experience could be informative, however. One had to rely on reasoning and discourse – recognizing that no individual had a monopoly on our understanding of social organization. Out of this reasoning came an appreciation of the importance of the rule of law, due process, and systems of checks and balances, supported by foundational values like justice for all and individual liberty.”

FOUR: A COMMON SENSE REBUTTAL

Mr. Stiglitz’s philosophical overview exhibits an all too common intellectual pitfall: the false corollary that if you are in favor of one thing, you must then automatically be against something else. We are forever setting up oppositions where they do not inherently exist. In this case, if you like electricity and smartphones and the modern city, you must by definition dislike the concept of “revealed truth.”

The implication is clear: None of our prized advances could have occurred unless we had successfully shed the outdated notion of moral absolutes, and a moral order to the universe, and revealed truth.

This suggestion, that religious belief is somehow the enemy of scientific discovery, strikes me as the most pernicious conceit imaginable.

Because the very idea of the university was initiated and nurtured by none other than the Church – the same Church that has always taught there in a unity between faith and reason. Fortified by this unity of vision, scientific discovery can only enhance our understanding of truth; it can never alter the very nature of what is true.

Of course Joseph Stiglitz is correct that a new epistemology arose, and that it came to govern all aspects of life, quite apart from the spiritual world. My point is simply this: The new epistemology leaves a lot to be desired.

A good healthy dose of reform may indeed have been warranted at the time of the Protestant Reformation, since mere mortals never seem to get anything quite right. But the full-out rejection of “ecclesiastical authority” that accompanied it had a serious downside.

In place of authority, law, and tradition, we substituted “individual conscience,” “mutual consent,” and “majority rule.”

(Mr. Stiglitz may want to ponder that the origin of this now-discarded authority, law, and tradition was the very same “close study of past experience” he characterizes as a singular attribute of the “new epistemology.” The old epistemology was based on the very same stuff. It was not conjured out of thin air. It did not simply descend from above. It was all born of human experience.)

Contrary to the Stiglitz formulation, it has ALWAYS fallen to society to figure out how best to organize itself. This wasn’t some new challenge that emerged after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The goal of such organization has always been the well-being of society. The only question has always been what principles would be followed to help guide that organization.

We moderns flatter ourselves into thinking we conduct our affairs and govern ourselves through reason and discourse, and dismiss the meager efforts of our predecessors as being unduly hemmed in by fear, and what we consider to be a blind faith that hampered their flourishing.

We like to toot out own horn, so to speak, and naively believe our modern high-mindedness has insulated us from the age-old inclination to greed and avarice and the other seven deadly sins.


a familiar litany…


Mr. Stiglitz’s familiar litany, lauding “an appreciation for the rule of law, due process, and a system of checks and balances, supported by foundational values like justice for all and individual liberty,” is here cited as a crowning achievement in social organization.

Granted it’s not a bad arrangement, though it’s anything but fool-proof. Notice how our staunchly secular attempt to keep the peace and provide justice inevitably runs into the same old insurmountable obstacle.

That obstacle can be summed up as follows: No matter how many good and earnest people devote themselves to our public institutions, they will always be outnumbered and outgunned by the connivers and the schemers who seek to manipulate those institutions for their own personal gain.

Simply put, our vaunted system of checks and balances is no match for fallen human nature.

In my decidedly amateur reading of recent history, the airbrushing of moral absolutes from our frame of reference – which may have started innocently enough with the Protestant Reformation, only to gain widespread acceptance during the swashbuckling Enlightenment – is the underlying problem that prevents us from getting to the heart of any social question.

In this case, it’s the question of economic injustice and inequity being grappled with. We have decided to re-invent the wheel, as it were, when it comes to promoting the common good. We have decided that reason and discourse and enlightened self-interest are the only reliable resources in this quest.

FIVE: RETURNING TO THE ECONOMIC QUESTION

But why should we let a few minor quibbles – such as those outlined above – stand in the way of recognizing a potential ally, and together developing an effective plan of action?

The Stiglitz mission to “advance our understanding about the real sources of the wealth of the nation, and how as we strengthen the economy we can be sure that its fruits will be equitably shared,” is something I wholeheartedly support.

In the Preface of this latest book he outlines a nine-point summary that details the alternative agenda he is intent on promoting. I consider it to be spot-on in every respect, worthy of wide dissemination and immediate implementation.

So too is his is observation, made at the end of this nine-point summary, that “the economy, of course, is a means to an end, not an end in itself.”

Mr. Stiglitz may be surprised to learn that’s exactly what Catholic Popes have been saying, ever since they started weighing in on the subject of the modern economy, starting with Leo XIII in 1891.

In addition to Maynard Keynes, whom Stiglitz obviously considers a touchstone, he may want to familiarize himself with another major player of the 1930s, who also had something of value to offer on the subject of economic justice.

That other major player is Pius XI, and specifically his papal encyclical of 1931, Quadragesimo Anno, (subtitled “Reconstruction of the Social Order”). This was said to have influenced (along with Keynes) the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration.


let’s all put our heads together, shall we?…


Okay, so the “stagflation” of the early 1970s eventually discredited Keynesian economics and saw the ascendancy of Milton Friedman. But then the financial crash of 2008 came along, and called Freidman’s free market consensus into question. This had economists reconsidering the worth of Keynes’ ideas.

A layman witnessing this turmoil from the trenches may be forgiven for concluding that no one theory unwaveringly applied will always achieve the desired results.

One can agree with Joseph Stiglitz’s negative assessment of “neoliberalism” and the presumed sanctity of unfettered markets. One only wishes he was more forthright in acknowledging it as a product of the Enlightenment.

One can also agree with Mr. Stiglitz when he writes, “this is a time for major changes.”

Perhaps the biggest change of all, though one not yet being considered by Nobel Prize caliber economists, will be to back off our collective aversion to the idea that economics is fundamentally a moral enterprise, and should therefore be governed not solely by mathematics, but by moral absolutes that have remained unchanged throughout human history.

SIX: KNOWING A PLACE FOR THE FIRST TIME

In addition to professional economists, there is another segment of the population who would do well to study up on Catholic anthropology and Catholic social teaching, particularly as it relates to the economic question. I am referring here, of course, to Catholics themselves.

Not only have these folks never come in contact with this teaching, they have no desire to even broach the subject, for they see no point in doing so.

Catholics, it turns out, generally agree with the positive outcomes of the Enlightenment as detailed by Joseph Stiglitz’s thumbnail sketch, especially its notion of personal liberty.

This leaves them mildly embarrassed by the Church’s record in modern times. Motivated by an acute sense of self-preservation, they deny any association with the disreputable history. This explains why no pre-conciliar Pope is ever mentioned in polite company.

Their embarrassment is neatly stowed away and kept out of sight, camouflaged by a patriotic pursuit of success. These days Catholics seem proudest and most self-assured when they can just blend into the mainstream with their education and their higher standard of living.

Even the ones who identify as “devout” limit their cultural complaints to abortion and same sex marriage. While these things are indeed sad indicators, they are only the latest manifestations. They are merely the tip of the ideological iceberg the Church crashed into during the Enlightenment, and has been wrestling with ever since.

Catholics should be dealing with the big picture, and uniting against the common foe of extreme and exclusive secularism, which expresses itself most forcefully with its “you’re not my problem” economic system based on self-interest.

Instead they are content to squabble endlessly among themselves, debating the true meaning of Vatican II, and whether this or that pontiff is a welcome voice or one of those nefarious anti-Christ Popes, spewing heresy and risking schism.

To which I say: Do yourself a favor and read up on some papal teaching. Check out the written record that spells things out. Even the work of those you have been assured are despicable and not to be trusted. Try to disengage from the cult of personality.

SEVEN: FINDING A HOME

There is a lot of hand-wringing these days over the troubled state of the nation. Much of the bitter partisanship is the direct result of economic injustice, and Joseph Stiglitz is to be commended for the work he is doing to both analyze the source of the problem, and offer prescriptions to improve the situation.

But there is something else at work here, something the outrage over what we are told is a disdain for science and a disregard for the rule of law is missing. As Mr. Stiglitz himself notes on the very first page of his new book, the tensions have been palpable for quite some time, long before Trump became the fixture in the landscape he is today.

The Atlantic magazine has devoted its entire December 2019 edition to this very subject. In calling the issue “How to Stop a Civil War,” editor Jeffrey Goldberg explains in his lead essay, “A Nation Coming Apart,” that his magazine doesn’t believe conditions in the United States today resemble those of 1850s America. But, he writes:

”We worry that the ties that bind us are fraying at alarming speed – we are becoming contemptuous of each other in ways that are both dire and possibly irreversible.”

The ties that bind us are indeed fraying, aren’t they? And from every corner we hear and read of the need to repair those ties as follows: By addressing the damage done to the American character, in order to preserve and maintain American values.

But nowhere is anyone willing to consider the possibility that it is precisely our values and our unique national character that has led to our current predicament. And that what we are witnessing may be the beginning of our “permanent eclipse.”

In my alternate take on current events, it’s the very secular concepts that Joseph Stiglitz and his celebrated cohorts put their faith in – the rule of law, due process, checks and balances, justice for all and individual liberty – that have failed us.

The reason for this failure is quite simple. In trying to order a society with man at the center of the universe, we have left ourselves exposed to the vagaries of fallen human nature, with no recourse to “ecclesiastical authority” that used to call balls and strikes.

Allow me to offer a simple example that illustrates why our national character and values are lacking:

Where once we prayed to avoid temptation, now we are encouraged to court it at every turn. Sexual temptation may be what springs immediately to mind, since it’s so pervasive. But there are many other forms of temptation that routinely do us in.

The American insistence on having things our own way, on following our bliss, on increasing our material well-being far beyond what we actually need – pretty much everything encompassed by the phrase “individual liberty” – is a temptation to indulge ourselves, to love ourselves to the exclusion of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

This radical notion of freedom is the fundamental flaw baked into the American Experiment. And the Enlightenment philosophy that was the source material for many of our most prominent founders. And the ideology of “classical liberalism” that in turn fueled the Enlightenment.


trapped in a failed philosophical system…


WE NOW FIND OURSELVES TRAPPED IN A FAILED PHILOSOPHICAL SYSTEM that sanctions only verifiable truth while refusing to acknowledge revealed truth. Outside of academia, where hardly anybody lives, the rejection of revealed truth serves as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It means we get to make it up as we go along, since there is no such thing as an objective sense of right and wrong.

The resulting moral anarchy is the ultimate source of Joseph Stiglitz’s dreaded “excessive financialization, mismanaged globalization, and increasing market power.”

It’s also the source of what The Atlantic magazine describes as “the tribalization of our politics, brought about by pathological levels of inequity, technological and demographic upheaval, and the tenacious persistence of racism.”

Today’s leading commentators insist the rule of law will save us from all this selfish excess, this endless expression of flawed human nature. But they miss a fundamental reality: In the modern context, the notion of law is meant to expand personal freedom, and unleash human nature.

This definition of law as expanding – not inhibiting – personal inclinations comes to us directly from John Locke (1632-1704), that well-known leading light of Enlightenment thought, whose work is widely acknowledged as the blueprint for our Declaration and Constitution. In his Second Treatise on Government he writes:

“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”

In case you’re wondering what’s come over me, no, I haven’t been reading John Locke. But I have been reading Patrick J. Deneen (b.1964), and his Why Liberalism Failed, published in January 2018 by Yale University Press.

The reader must keep in mind the “liberalism” being referred to in Deneen’s title, and throughout the following excerpts from his oh-so-perceptive book, is “classical liberalism.”

Mr. Deneen provides valuable insight into why we are – in the words of The Atlantic – “a nation coming apart,” on pages 49-51 of his book:

“We accept the social contract because it will actually increase our personal liberty by eliminating customs and even laws that can be thought to limit individual freedom, even while expanding the prospects for human control over the natural world. Locke writes that the law works to increase liberty, by which he means the liberation from the constraints of the natural world.

“Thus, for liberal theory, while the individual ‘creates’ the state through the social contract, in a practical sense, the liberal state ‘creates’ the individual by providing the conditions for the expansion of liberty, increasingly defined as the capacity of humans to expand their mastery over circumstances.

“Far from there being an inherent conflict between the individual and the state – as so much of modern political reporting would suggest – liberalism establishes a deep and profound connection: its ideal of liberty can be realized only through a powerful state.

“If the expansion of freedom is secured by law, then the opposite also holds true in practice: increasing freedom requires the expansion of law…

“Thus one of the liberal state’s main roles becomes the active liberalization of individuals from any limiting conditions. At the forefront of liberal theory is the liberalization from natural limits on the achievement of our desires – one of the central aims of life, according to Locke, being the ‘indolency of the body’.

“A main agent of that liberation becomes commerce, the expansion of opportunities and materials by which not only to realize existing desires but to create new ones we did not know we had.

“The state becomes charged with extending the sphere of commerce, particularly with enlarging the range of trade, production, and mobility.

“The expansion of markets and the infrastructure necessary for that expansion do not result from ‘spontaneous order’; rather, they require an extensive and growing state structure, which at times must extract submission from the system’s recalcitrant or unwilling participants…

“One of the main goals of the expansion of commerce is the liberation of embedded individuals from their traditional ties and relationships.

“The liberal state serves not only the reactive function of umpire and protector of individual liberty; it also takes on an active role of ‘liberating’ individuals who, in the view of the state, are prevented from making wholly free choices as liberal agents.

“At the heart of liberal theory is the supposition that the individual is the basic unit of human existence, the only natural human entity that exists.

“Liberal practice then seeks to expand the conditions for this individual’s realization. The individual is to be liberated from all the partial and limiting affiliations that preceded the liberal state; if not by force than by constantly lowering the barriers to exit.

“The state claims to govern all groupings within society: it is the final arbiter of legitimate and illegitimate groupings, and from its point of view, streamlining the relationship between the individual and the liberal state.”

DID YOU CATCH THAT? Classical liberalism’s ideal of personal liberty can only be realized – paradoxically enough – through a powerful state. This means the partisan battles between “small government conservatives” and “big government liberals” are in essence a sham, a show for the cameras, since in the end both sides of the liberal/conservative dialectic are after the same thing: an expanded State apparatus.

How’s that for a totally unexpected take-away. The expanded State facilitates both the conservative pursuit of “unfettered markets” in the public realm of commerce, and the liberal pursuit of “unfettered desires” in the private realm of sexual behavior.

Of course this unexpected unity of purpose is not immediately apparent to those of us caught up in the day-to-day. It’s so easy for the average citizen to miss the forest for the tress. Bringing the bigger picture into focus requires rigorous analysis of the reigning ideology’s component parts.

And so we have Patrick Deneen to thank for today’s epiphany: Living as we do according to the precepts of classical liberalism, there is no inherent conflict between “the individual” and “the state.” There is in fact a deep and abiding connection between the two – even if this connection escapes the notice of all brand-name commentary.


the grand trade-off…


WE ARE LEFT TO CONTEMPLATE THE GRAND TRADE-OFF society made at the beginning of the modern era: Opting for total emancipation of the individual, we jettisoned a concern for the common good. Opting to throw off all previously held authority, custom, and tradition, we decided to go it alone and let our conscience be our only guide.

Given this radical re-orientation of our priorities, is it any wonder the ties that bind us are fraying?

In reviewing Why Liberalism Failed, Ross Douthat (b.1979) had this to say in The New York Times on January 14, 2018:

“…(W)here it once delivered equality, (classical) liberalism now offers plutocracy, instead of liberty, appetitiveness regulated by a surveillance state; instead of true intellectual and religious freedom, growing conformity and mediocrity.

“It has reduced rich cultures to consumer products, smashed social and familial relations, and left us all the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an ‘anti-culture’ from which many genuine human goods have fled.”

That Ross is quite the phrase-maker, isn’t he? Circling back to where I started, it’s not that Joseph Stiglitz and his ilk don’t have some good ideas. His (and their) secular prescriptions can help reduce the tensions and get us back on the right path.

But those prescriptions as presently constituted won’t take us all the way home.

Mr. Stiglitz and those other 99 “most influential people in the world” will have to admit their prized Enlightenment took things a bit too far when it decided to reject revealed truth, and put all its chips on the rule of law. He (and they) will have to show a willingness to recalibrate accordingly. Otherwise their worthy stratagems won’t ever deliver a more just and equitable world.

Folks, there is just no getting around it: The reapplication of moral absolutes will be a pre-requisite to any repair of the social order.

And while Patrick Deneen and Ross Douthat may not come right out and say it, since their respective editors would not approve, there is nothing preventing me from doing so: The restoration we are all now clamoring for must start with acknowledging the author of human history.

The one who, to borrow a few words from the opening prayer at this morning’s Mass, “created human dignity, and then restored it.”

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
December 25, 2019

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