In the year before the 1994 election, Ralph Reed announced that the Christian Coalition would broaden its focus. It would go beyond traditional social issues like abortion and school prayer and include economics. He made the case that the security of the American family, a central concern of any Christian political organization, is affected by far more than mere social issues. High taxes, for example, drain family bank accounts. Regulations destroy family businesses. Huge liabilities in the Social Security program threaten intergenerational relations.
True enough. And yet astute observers who read his essay in Policy Review had the feeling that there was an unstated subtext to this policy ecumenism. Would he use the new “broad focus” to water down the old social message? Would “economics” become a code word for moderation? Was this a prelude to full-scale political sellout? After all, it is far easier to make a coalition with establishment-oriented Republicans on issues like trade and petty business regulations than on tough issues like abortion and prayer. In time the suspicions of Reed’s detractors proved correct: the Christian Coalition’s political agenda was soon indistinguishable from Bob Dole’s.
The headlong slide of the organization from outsider to insider status angered many grassroots activists. Why was Reed talking about a balanced budget when local schools were being gobbled up by a centralizing and statist Goals 2000 program? Why was Reed calling for the flat tax when local communities lack the political autonomy to keep abortionists at bay? Abolishing the Legal Services Corporation is a worthy goal, but how does it compare with the evil of tax-funded, blasphemous sex ed and art exhibits?
Reed’s foray into the political mainstream—he eventually became a full-scale Republican politico—caused a gigantic backlash among Christian activists, even if it was not reported in the media. Organizations like the Family Research Council, headed by one-time Reagan aide Gary Bauer, vowed not to make the same mistake. What was that mistake? According to Bauer, it was Reed’s attempt to draw the Coalition into economic battles. Instead, said Bauer, the FRC would stick to the key issues, which are social and cultural, not economic.
Over the last year, we have seen the rise of a new breed of Christian activist that will tolerate no discussion of economic issues from an economically informed perspective. Candidates who call for tax cuts or focus on the federal budget are seen as suspicious types who would distract us from key issues, all of which are moral and cultural. (What exactly a President can do constitutionally to shore up the nation’s morals is always left unspecified.) It is no longer considered a conservative teaching that capitalism and Christianity can peacefully coexist. This is an alarming and self-defeating posture.
In truth, the Christian right drew the wrong lessons from the Reedian sellout. The trouble was not his attempt to bring economic concerns into the Christian political agenda. After all, in our century, American conservative Christian thinkers—from J. Gresham Machan to John Courtney Murray—have dealt with economic topics and arrived at generally free market conclusions. Reed’s trouble was the subtext: economic issues should be used as a path to the political mainstream through ideological compromise. Reed’s problem was the same problem that has afflicted every activist who has submerged principle for power. The particular path he chose is a side issue.
It may take years to undo the ideological damage inflicted by the new right-wing tendency to run down the capitalist system. It is a bias that can be philosophically poisoning, since the subject matter of economics involves most everything our very lives depend on. It is not just about accounting and profit maximization. It is about whether fathers have profitable opportunities to provide for their families, whether we are prosperous enough to volunteer our time to charitable causes and our money to our local parish, and whether we can afford to rear and educate more than one or two children. As people involved in political battles, our choice is not whether to deal with economic topics, but whether we will take the time to take economics seriously.
As if to prove the point, Bauer’s organization has concentrated its energies in the last year on two economic subjects. He threw himself into the battle over Social Security by exposing the idea of “privatization” for the Beltway scam that it is. If present payroll taxes are diverted to higher-interest earning accounts, a huge shortfall appears in the revenue stream that funds present recipients.
That is why every serious economist who favors “privatization” (Edward Gramlich, Laurence Kotlikoff, Sylvester Schieber, and Martin Feldstein) also favors a new round of tax hikes to “pay for” the transition. Bauer rightly pointed out what a disaster this would be for the American family; indeed, it is far better to leave the system as it is than to bail it out under a phony free market pretense. Here, Bauer’s position makes more economic sense than the professional economists he is battling. For this, he deserves congratulations.
Bauer has also been outspoken in the debate over trade relations with China. But here, his economic views have tripped him up. He is in favor of a dramatic curtailing of imports from China and of new limits on investment there, thus escalating the situation into a virtual trade war with China over its “trade deficits” with the United States and over its persecution of Christians. He eventually allied himself with protectionist business interests and labor unions to deny China normal trading status. Yet, he has not acknowledged that China’s economic reforms—toward the capitalism which the regime likes to call communism—have generated one of the greatest economic booms in human history, and dramatically changed the lives of the average Chinese family for the better. Taxes average a quarter of ours, and Christian missionaries operate openly, unlike in the Soviet Union or Mao’s China. Even the Clintonesque one-child-per-family rule is cracking under the new prosperity. An essential part of that transformation has been the influence of international trade, which is all to the good. Both Americans and Chinese have greatly benefited from the economic relationship that Bauer wants to bring to an end through new taxes, which is what tariffs are, after all.
Through all these debates, Christian activists may have lost sight of why they are involved in politics to begin with. It is not simply to have a “voice” within the Republican Party. It is not to be recognized as a legitimate interest group by the media. It is not merely to “influence” legislation or to have veto power over this or that Republican nominee. These are all signs of political power, which may or may not be used for proper ends.
What is the proper end of Christian politics? Boiled down to its essence, it is this; to build and protect the institutional framework necessary for limiting the social effects of the tendency toward evil inherent in the nature of man since the Fall. The family and the church must be protected since their structure restrains evil and points toward the good. The state must be limited and kept at bay since the law too must obey moral norms; moreover, government is capable of imposing unmitigated evil on an entire society.
The world is filled with evil people with an insatiable desire to destroy. Many of them work in government. Many of them work in business. Of the two groups, which is most likely to succeed in imposing its malice on the rest of us? That should be clear: it is far better that an evil person be in business, which is always subject to the ultimate authority of the consuming public, than that he work for the state, which is subject to few if any constraints, and imposes its will by force.
That should be clear, but it is not. Even aside from the new anticapitalists of the Christian right, no institution comes in for a greater cultural flailing than the free market. From academic journals to the op-ed page, it is accused of every manner of cultural crime. It supposedly causes us to neglect the plight of the poor, to oppress women and minorities, to exalt greed above goodness, and to waste resources. The market is said to war against our natural sense of community, control our minds through advertising, wield socially destructive power by creating false wants, and dumb down our tastes in food, art, music, and literature.
Some of these criticisms reflect sheer ideological blindness. What the left considers oppression of official minorities (including, most recently, the insane) turns out to be the failure not to hire and promote them on grounds of race, sex, and disability. This is an argument against the very idea that merit should have something to do with social and economic status. It is not an argument against the market so much as against Natural Law. To the extent that we abolish hierarchy and authority in markets, they are replaced by subjugation to government. Other complaints against the free market reflect intellectual confusion, which traces every manner of social evil in our century to precisely the wrong cause: the market instead of government.
We have seen in this century an explosive expansion of government power, and the rise of tyrannies on a scale unimaginable in times past, with at least 100 million people murdered by government, not counting its wars. The U.S. government is the largest and most powerful—in terms of sheer resources and weapons at its disposal —in the history of the world. Its growth has come at the expense of the private economy, which a century and a half ago was extremely free of government control. Small businesses, corporations, and charitable organizations in even’ sector could operate and serve the public while paying little obeisance of any sort to the central government, or even state and local government.
During this same period of government growth, we have also witnessed a collapse in public morals, the fraying of community, the loss of a sense of the sacred, the public exaltation of debauchery, the collapse of learning, and the bankruptcy of art and culture generally. Can we discern a possible cause and effect for these trends? Is it really McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, as symbols of free enterprise, that deserve our scorn, or the Leviathan state? Yet commercial society comes in for far more criticism from the intelligentsia than does government, despite its evident failures and destructions. (And let us not pretend there is some third choice between markets and government control.)
Before fleshing this out and considering its implications, consider my original question: Is it better for evil men to work in the private sector or to work for the government? Look at the deeds of two bad men; Michael Eisner and David Kessler. Eisner works in the private sector, he is the head of Disney, a company once synonymous with family entertainment. The Disney name served as an entertainment imprimatur at a time of great moral and cultural confusion. Walt Disney’s cartoon characters were funny, his animations brilliant, and his theme parks spectacular experiments in the uses of private property.
Even at the height of Hollywood’s studio system in the 1930’s, Walt Disney’s independently made movies succeeded because the sovereign consumer prevailed. But fast forward 60 years, and we see something radically different. Eisner’s movies have not-so-secret subtexts that are politically correct at best and deeply malevolent at worst. Even more disturbing are the movies backed by Disney’s subsidiaries, which include graphic sex, attacks on Christianity, and the basest possible celebrations of perversity. It is an appalling transformation.
But can we blame the market for this turn of events? Many have and do, but what it really illustrates is what we have always known: bad people can do bad things and stay within the law. The market, it has been noted many times, is a blank slate on which the consuming public scribbles its preferences; if people choose wrongly, it is the agents themselves who are at fault, not the mechanism that allowed them to make choices. Whatever a bad man wants to sell, he must find willing consumers to buy. The extent of his riches depends directly on the size of the market he successfully serves as well as his ability to serve that market without wasting social resources. These requirements alone make it more difficult for malice to thrive. The market also provides wide opportunities to beat back evil, and builds in institutional restraints that make it impossible for evil to flourish in a culture that resists it.
Eisner’s profits can only come about through persuading his audience to shell out money for his projects. With the Disney name behind him, he enjoyed something close to a captive audience for many years. But after two or three animated movies began to turn off audiences, he began to lose their confidence. Pocahontas was a worse movie from a cultural point of view than Hercules, yet the latter did much worse at the box office.
Consumer surveys reported in the New York Times show that consumers poured in to see Pocahontas based on the belief that it was made in the true Disney tradition, but they were dismayed by its overtly pagan theme. The Hunchback of Notre Dame squandered even more moral capital, and consumers lost further confidence. Hercules was made to recoup this loss and rebuild the company’s reputation, but by that time Disney was no longer trusted by much of the viewing audience. A money-making enterprise was turned into a relative loser, solely because the man behind it did not have the best interests of viewing families at heart. Some industry watchers have suggested that the animated film may have run its course; in any case, the Eisnerian variety probably has.
What can be done about purveyors of cheap, anti-religious fare like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Disney’s baser productions? We could reconfigure the law to define more narrowly what is allowed to be shown in public. We could restrict the rights of property holders to sponsor a Gay Day. We could forbid the use of attractive cartoon characters designed to appeal to children for destructive purposes (this is what the left proposes do about Joe Camel, for example). Or we could take the free market path and say, if you do not like it, you do not have to consume it; you can even boycott it. To many conservatives, this sounds like throwing in the towel in the culture war or succumbing to moral nihilism, but the only option to market-based production and distribution is legal restriction.
There are good reasons why seeking legal restrictions on the public offering of evil, except at the most local level, is a bad idea. There is no way to write a law that would ensnare the most cunning peddlers of trash. The very enforcement of such laws introduces its own forms of corruption because it will always mean transferring power to government officials. Such laws can also backfire by creating a forbidden-fruit effect, especially in times where government is held in such low esteem. It sets a precedent whereby anyone who grabs hold of the reins of power has his way (if porn on the Internet is ever abolished, “hate speech ” and antigovernment literature will be next in line, and the entire medium will become as politicized as the television networks). This is because power has no moral purpose of its own; it can be wielded with a range of intentions, few of them, in the long-run, in the “public interest.”
Let us say we generally leave evil to flounder in the public square, allowing consumers to watch the heretical movie Priest if they so choose, while taking the risk that misguided consumers will actually pay money to go see a Pocahontas subvert the very basis of Western culture: man’s domination of nature. What will happen? In reality, this is what happened: an astounding public backlash.
The Southern Baptists called a boycott of Disney. And despite the media’s attempt to portray it as silly and troglodyte, it has had a devastating effect on Disney’s image. Profits dropped, visits to Disney World shrank, sales of toys and figurines fell, and the boycott widened to ever more religious groups. The reactionaries had stood up to the progressives, and by sheer number and force of will, actually began to win. Disney is desperately, if quietly, trying to regroup, because if there is one thing an evil businessman wants more than the thrill of destruction, it is profit. That pursuit reins in his desires, and restricts the social effects of his malevolence.
Not so with government. Imagine if Michael Eisner were the head of a federal movie administration. The therapeutic movies funded by the FMA would not be subject to a market test. They would have ready funding and a truly captive audience, probably including every public school classroom. Eisner would be far freer to pursue his grudge against the public without restraint, so long as he could bamboozle his way through Senate confirmation hearings.
David Kessler did not even have to do that. As Food and Drug Administrator, Kessler enjoyed a degree of power unknown to any corporate kingpin. While Eisner may be chastened by public disapproval from time to time, Kessler could ignore public opinion, because he did not have to worry whether people will purchase his product. He attempted to smash the tobacco industry even though a third or more of the American public smokes cigarettes regularly or on occasion. His iron grip on the drug-approval process meant that untold tens of thousands suffer or die for lack of pain relief and cures. He could target any food or beverage company in the world and charge it with misleading its customers, thus driving its stock price to a fraction of what it should be, bankrupting stockholders on a whim.
These are the powers of an unchecked autocrat, and Kessler used them with profoundly destructive results. But who was Kessler subject to? Could consumers boycott him or influence his decisions? Not a chance; yet we were all forced to conform our buying habits to his dictates, which affect everyone in the country. Whatever Kessler wanted, Kessler got. In contrast, whatever Eisner wants is subject to a highly sensitive ratification process by the consuming public, and his fortunes can be reversed on our whim.
Evil exists in both the public and private sector, but there is a profound difference between government power and market power, and thus the power of evil to wreak social havoc. The popular music industry, for example, has been the enemy of decency and taste for decades. But in recent years, it has pushed matters over the top: rap music is the worst imaginable racket to appear in the history of recording technology, topped off by filthy lyrics celebrating behaviors lower than can be found in the animal kingdom. But it was the market that took the edge off: the largest seller of CDs in the country is Wal-Mart, and its buyers insist on clean cover art, no profanity, and no celebration of death and mayhem. As a result, parents have fallen in love with Wal-Mart’s CD bins: they live up to their family-oriented market pitch, and profit as a result.
There is bitter irony in the complaints that the market economy has destroyed our aesthetic sense. The market, above all, deserves credit for having saved us from a series of malicious conspiracies. Earlier in our century, the same intellectual crowd that gave us socialism also gave us serialism in music, Dadaism in architecture and art, and demented plays at the theater. There was just one thing that these ambitious intellectuals overlooked: the public does not like the way the 12-tone row sounds, does not like wacky-looking buildings, and will not pay to have its sensibilities insulted at the theater. Despite decades of promotion, these art forms survive largely as a result of government subsidies. The market has never wavered in its preference for minimum standards of beauty and form over the nihilistic demands of the government-connected intelligentsia.
This is the basis on which music critics such as Paul Griffiths of the New York Times denounce the idea that “the market is all we need to determine what matters.” To him, all that really matters is Schoenberg, and if he had his way, we would throw tonality into the dustbin of history. But to make that a reality within a market economy, we would all have to have lobotomies or live on heavy tranquilizers.
Still others have a different view: music went wrong in the 13th century with the advent of complex polyphony. How can we sort this out? How do we decide what kind music ought to be heard in a society that values freedom? We have done quite well with the market, which has managed to suppress the evil impulse to abolish tonality even while making medieval chant more widely available than at any time in history. If we had to depend on the government-backed concert hall for music education, tonality might have been wiped out by now, and with it the Western heritage of music. Thanks to recorded music, and the vigorous market for it, beauty in music survives, thrives, and has triumphed over evil.
The same is true in food. An evil crowd has insisted that people should eat only vegetables, pasta, bread, and rice. The cow comes in for special criticism because it wanders far and wide, letting off ozone-destroying methane gas, and eating far more than its fair share of grain. But this theory, promoted by the cultural elite, rejects the historical and physical reality that man and meat go together.
Despite a decade of pro-soybean propaganda, anti-meat hysteria, and pro-veggie enthusiasm, meat continues to triumph in the marketplace. This is in no small part due to the much derided institution of fast food, which continues to make a delicious meat-bread-vegetable package available to the masses of Americans for a very cheap price. So corrupt are the elites in some places, for example, that the only restaurants with the good sense to serve meat are fast-food joints. Say what you will about McDonald’s, but it has kept vegetarianism at bay for decades. And those who think fast food is tacky can feel secure in the knowledge that the market also offers the widest variety of ready-to-eat meat from grocery stores and fancier restaurants than at anytime in history.
It is an old canard to denounce the greeting-card industry for manufacturing “Grandmother’s Day,” “Secretary’s Day,” and all the rest. But compare them with the holy days that government has invented for us: Veterans Day (read: War Day), Labor Day (read: Union Day), MLK Day (read: “Hand Over Your Wallet, Whitey” Day), and all the rest. It has been the greeting card industry, together with the much derided “commercialism” of Christmas, that has helped keep traditional religious holidays alive even while the secular elites have attempted to banish them from public life.
The cultural critics of markets forget that there are mechanisms within the market economy that reward the good and punish the bad. The incentive to make contracts rewards promise-keeping and punishes people who go back on their word. Credit markets reward savers over spendthrifts, and make people who are present-oriented pay for their high-time preference in the form of higher interest, while punishing those who do not pay their bills by giving them a bad credit rating.
The profit system rewards those who use resources without waste and punishes those who do not. The market’s very efficiency ensures that if evil suppliers find wilting customers for their goods and services, they are not wasting social resources in the process. The job market encourages people to hone their skills and find a useful role in the division of labor, while punishing lounge lizards and freeloaders.
Government has done its best to hinder the workings of these market-based proddings towards virtue and goodness, of course. And to the extent that government intervention has expanded, so have the opportunities and payoffs of vice. Inflation punishes savers. Anti-discrimination law allows incompetence to thrive. Bankruptcy law allows improvident borrowers to steal from creditors. And all sorts of violations have weakened the protection of property owners from those who renege on their promises. Vice and big government have grown up together.
The welfare state reached a critical apex in the mid- to late- 60’s, when the New Deal dole was suddenly a mass phenomenon and lifetime “entitlement,” not merely a temporary help. Freedom of association was abolished at the federal level. Coinciding with this was the rise of the youth culture (the exaltation of immaturity), the breakdown of the family, the public approval of lasciviousness, and the increase of crime. Without attempting to untangle complex questions of causation, there can be no question these trends are intertwined. The limits on the free market meant a reduction in the natural rewards for bourgeois socialization and the penalties for antisocial behavior.
Yet even today, a market for goodness and decency still exists, and it is a profitable one. Indeed, it is the market that is protecting us against the breakdown of social norms reinforced by government policy. For example, while Congress was debating controls on the Internet, the market for censorship was busy inventing ever more sophisticated programs, available at no charge or minimal charge, that filter out trash from the Web with varying degrees of rigor. Productions of Shakespeare became box office hits while Hollywood films glorifying evil were losing money. In a market economy, no capitalist or entrepreneur can be sure in his social or economic status, whether he intends well or not. Far better that evil people be subjected to the competitive climate of profit and loss, and be at the mercy of bourgeois society, than that they be handed the license that comes with government power.
Forcing the David Kesslers into the private sector will not abolish the evil in our midst; nothing can accomplish that goal, until the end of the world. But doing so would make it possible for society to control and marginalize and redirect their influence over the rest of us, just as we are struggling to do with the degenerate postmodern in control of Disney.
Conservative Christians need to reintroduce themselves to economic theory. If they do, they will rediscover what was once taken for granted: a society that keeps evil at bay also severely limits the ability of government to determine how we go about earning a living, to confiscate the fruits of our labors, and to regulate the growth of enterprise at home and abroad. The system of economics that flowers in the absence of an imperious state is capitalism; it also happens that capitalism—by compelling everyone who wants long-run material success to serve the common good—works against the unmitigated spread of evil.