Acton Institute Powerblog

David Brooks, Economic Liberty, and the Real Threat to Social Preservation

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David Brooks recently took on the conservative movement for relying too heavily on pro-market arguments and tired formulas rather than emphasizing its historic features of custom, social harmony, and moral preservation.

As I’ve already noted in response to the Brooks piece, I agree that conservatism needs a renewed intellectual foundation brought about by a return to these emphases, yet I disagree that a lopsided devotion to “economic freedom” is what’s stalling us. If we hope to restore traditionalist conservatism, we’d do well to recognize that this means restoring economic conservatism along with it. Brooks is upset that dogmatic pro-market folks have seized the Republican Party, yet this is the same Republican Party that nominated the architect of Romneycare and can’t seem to get serious about the deficit.

Conservatism is faltering all around, and the reasons for each “sect’s” demise are more or less interrelated. As I’ve written elsewhere, we need to restore a holistic conservative imagination that ties its social and economic strains together by grounding them both in Russell Kirk’s “enduring moral order.”

For David Brooks, restoration is all about “balance,” but for the true conservative, it needs to be about integration.

In his own response to Brooks, Richard Epstein offers a similar but far more thorough critique (HT), noting that Brooks’ elevation of “custom, convention, and continuity” is fine and dandy when taken by itself, but any healthy translation of such notions into society at large will require a stronger promotion of economic liberty than Brooks deems necessary. For Epstein, competitive markets are not just important in the economic arena, but “in all areas of human endeavor.” To pretend otherwise, as Brooks clearly does in his brief sampling of interventionist policy recommendations, will eventually lead us to more social and moral decay, not less.

Epstein then moves to define Brooks’ terms, which he believes are far too wobbly as stated. Although I take issue with some of Epstein’s rabbit trails into evolutionary biology and psychology, he ends up in the right place: the human person is designed for voluntary cooperation (yes, “designed” – see how I did that?):

The arguments in favor of this position need not be left to the conservative’s love of intuition, but can be formally stated. Cooperation creates a positive-sum game between the two parties, whether we measure outcomes by wealth or utility. Aggression generates a negative-sum game. We should therefore encourage the former by enforcing contracts and discourage the latter by punishing aggression.

On the contractual side, it is critical to note that the forms of voluntary association are not strictly limited to commercial exchanges of particular goods and services. Indeed, the legal framework needed for the protection of all of the social virtues is at root identical to the legal structures that are needed to protect the institutions of marriage, religion, charity, and friendship.

The logic of contract law lets the parties decide what kinds of benefits—material or spiritual—generate mutual gains for them, and does not prescribe that they define these in pecuniary terms if they choose to do otherwise. Indeed, there is nothing about the logic of contract that limits its operation to simple two-party transactions. The law of partnerships and voluntary associations lets any group of any size come together for any purpose they choose.

Now, as Jennifer Roback Morse routinely notes, such contracts language can quickly be abused toward advocating narrow ends, but Epstein is simply noting the fundamental role that competition and cooperation play in reinforcing the very features that Brooks elevates: custom, tradition, social institutions, order, etc. Economic conservatives should be generally opposed to government intervention in “chaotic neighborhoods” (one of Brooks’ proposed positions) not primarily because it’s a “balance-sheet” issue, but because we believe it disrupts the very “harmonious ecosystem” Brooks attempts to advocate.

As Epstein concludes, pointing specifically to the dangers of government overreach:

The Lockean point of view speak volumes, not only on the issue of religious toleration, but also on economic issues, where one key principle of social organization is that government should never use its force to displace competitive markets with monopolistic ones, a tenet which has been discarded by progressives for the past 100 years.

The sad truth here is that the government can suppress freedom and competition in economic markets, and can also wreak great destruction to the voluntary associations that operate in other areas. One recent vivid example of government overreaching is the determined effort of the Obama administration to insist that Roman Catholic institutions should provide insurance coverage for contraception.

The greatest threat to the intermediate institutions that social conservatives rightly extol is not markets. It is government, which has the power to impose its own uniform vision of the good not only on economic exchange but also on a full range of social, religious, and charitable organizations. These conclusions are consistent with the standard conservative credo. But conservatism all too often resists any rigorous defense of its own conclusions based on a set of first principles. The bottom line is that human flourishing is best served by a combination of cooperation and competition in all walks of life—economic and social alike.

A proper understanding of the social role of cooperation and competition is crucial for a renewed traditionalist conservatism. In short, we will have a difficult time restoring a conservatism that preserves social order if we continue to downplay and confuse the role that economic liberty plays in cultivating and reinforcing society’s basic institutions in any authentic and enduring sense.

Joseph Sunde Is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.