A Healthy Culture in a Healthy Economy

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Law & Liberty on March 25, 2024 and is crossposted here with permission.

A specter is haunting capitalism – the specter of “higher” things.

Or so an increasing number of thinkers among the New Right, the National Conservatives, or the Economic Nationalists might say. They insist that the “neoliberal” order of free enterprise and free trade has failed to deliver cultural and spiritual goods – and even economic goods – to large swaths of Americans. In their view, free enterprise capitalism built on a constitutionally limited rule of law lacks soul; and so we need “common good capitalism” or even “common good constitutionalism.”

But defenders of free enterprise, rather than being unsettled by the specter of higher cultural and spiritual things, ought to recognize these higher things as the disembodied spirit of capitalism. Let me suggest instead that it is the thinkers on the New Right who are haunted by free enterprise capitalism and feel uneasy about it.

They worry that it aids and abets materialism. They worry that it distracts people from worship. They worry that it neglects the higher things of virtue, justice, and community. In sum, they worry that championing free enterprise capitalism elevates lower material goods over higher spiritual goods.

These worries partially stem from demoting market activity to the status of purely instrumental. When viewed simply as tools, free market institutions and interactions have little or no ethical standing. They can only be used or discarded as the “spirit” of society directs. But this view fails to capture the important relationship between free enterprise capitalism and the higher things.

The point may become clearer if we use an analogy to the human person to understand society better – something ancient and modern philosophers have done. Human beings are spiritual and physical. So, in a way, is human society. The higher things of virtue, justice, and community are the “spiritual” dimension of society while business and the marketplace are the “body” of society.

Many pre-Christian philosophers wrongly denigrated the body when arguing that reason should rule the appetites. While the argument is sound, they mistakenly associated reason exclusively with the mind or spirit while associating the appetites solely with the physical body. Christian theology, especially as explicated by Augustine, corrected this ascetic or dualistic view.

The spirit and the body should be in harmony, not at war. A healthy culture cannot exist for long outside of a healthy economy and vice versa. They are not equal partners, but neither are they master and slave. As C. S. Lewis argued in The Four Loves, “the highest does not stand without the lowest,” nor should we “throw away our silver to make room for the gold.”

Free enterprise capitalism within a constitutional order is not purely instrumental, a mere tool without any moral worth. Rather, it constitutes the body of society. And so, we shouldn’t pejoratively label free enterprise capitalism “zombie Reaganism” or “market fundamentalism.” Instead, we should recognize the goodness of our social body, just as we recognize the goodness of our natural bodies.

Free enterprise capitalism is the most natural structure and ordering of human society. It respects moral agency, individual autonomy and responsibility, the rule of law, and voluntary and civil association. Within free enterprise capitalism we find abundant opportunities to pursue vocation and to fulfill the cultural mandate in creation. More broadly, we tend to find greater religious liberty and toleration too.

This has implications for how we should talk about the marketplace when it has problems and shortcomings. Sometimes the spirit must confront the excesses and abuses of the body – but it does so from a close affinity, even love, for the body it inhabits. We ought to champion healthy free enterprise capitalism. Sometimes our bodies need external interventions such as medicine or surgery to restore health. But most of the time they need renewal from within – a vision of health – establishing rhythms of exercise and rest, of eating well, and of respecting our limitations.

Some problems represent an external threat to a healthy commercial society, just as a cancerous growth, a virus, or an autoimmune disorder threaten the body. This kind of problem – fraud, theft, harm, and the like – warrants scathing criticism. Good laws and regulations deal with problems that endanger the social body – regulating firearms and markets for high explosives, punishing extortion and theft, having clear rules regarding transferring property and dealing with conflict, and so on. Laws restricting the sale of advanced weaponry to foreign entities also fall under this category.

These interventions should be used sparingly, like antibiotics, surgery, or chemotherapy. They should be a last resort, not championed as normal and good for society. Though they can solve some important problems, they often create costly side effects: pain, limited mobility, low energy, etc. Yet those who are suspicious of, or hostile to, the market order often recommend dramatic and intrusive interventions in the social body when they are not necessary or even helpful. These interventions range from restricting international trade to social engineering through subsidies and tax policy to interfering with the decisions of companies and imposing union representation on corporate boards. Trump’s proposed 10% tariff on all imported goods is like an intense form of chemotherapy, creating widespread and severe complications and side effects. Only the threat of imminent death to the social body would warrant such an intervention.

Many thinkers from Smith to Tocqueville to McCloskey have argued that voluntary exchange in markets rewards “bourgeoisie” habits and virtues while punishing many vices like lying, cheating, laziness, and so forth.

But another class of problems does not require any external treatment. Anemia, obesity, eating poorly, or not exercising, may manifest as physical problems, but they are often symptoms of spiritual issues that emerge from our actions. Shortcomings in market activity like narcissism and consumerism, poor taste in entertainment, not valuing or investing well in families and communities, workaholism, and other disordered loves are like this. They require not external intervention but spiritual renewal.

I have concerns about the health of our social body (economic efficiency). But I am more concerned about defects in the spirit of society – people seeking physical goods, production, wealth, success, and pleasure at the expense of the higher goods of religion, family, and community.

The remedy is not cultural asceticism, rejecting the body in favor of the spirit, but rather a proper ordering of the body with the spirit. Although our bodies are not the highest part of our nature, they are still integral to it. They are not mere tools to be used however we wish. Instead, they ought to be valued and cared for properly.

Like our physical bodies, market activity can be beautiful as well as useful. Beauty does not require perfection. Our physical bodies are not perfect, yet they are still beautiful – hair, eyes, physical figure, function, potential. And even when they have deficiencies, they still have value. The market order, as the body of society, has both beauty and intrinsic value.

Consider the beauty and goodness of the young person in an entry-level job who learns how to show up on time, work diligently, and serve others. Or the educator who instructs and cares for students in creative and excellent ways. Or the accountant who brings order to businesses’ financial operations. Or the architect who designs buildings and the engineer who builds them. Even the workmen (carpenters, plumbers, electricians) exercise their talents in imitation of the Creator. They bring order to chaos and create excellence, from wiring a switch or light fixture to building a house or a neighborhood.

Not every work is excellent, of course, nor is all market activity beautiful. Our physical bodies have imperfection and ugliness because we are human. Free markets are vehicles for our pursuits. They magnify and extend our abilities, for good and for ill. And, like the body, certain abuses of the market weaken or undermine it – activities such as gambling, excessive entertainment, pornography, or excessive consumption. People can engage in activities that reduce their flourishing and that corrupt the spirit – cutting corners, becoming lazy or complacent, being distracted from or numb to the well-being of those around them.

But this problem arises from human nature, not from free enterprise capitalism. Free markets make the problem more visible, but they also enable forces of revitalization and reformation. In fact, many thinkers from Smith to Tocqueville to McCloskey have argued that voluntary exchange in markets rewards “bourgeoisie” habits and virtues while punishing many vices like lying, cheating, laziness, and so forth.

Some people worry that free enterprise capitalism creates greater means for indulging human weakness and undermines norms and traditions. The ability to binge-watch Netflix, play video games all day while living in your parents’ basement, and indulge in self-gratifying vices is certainly greater in the past – though we should note that much of this behavior has been enabled by government welfare programs.

Still, the creative destruction within market economies, identified by Joseph Schumpeter, creates stress for the social body. But this is not necessarily bad. Our physical bodies require certain amounts of stress to grow stronger. Astronauts who spend extended periods of time with little gravity lose significant bone density. Physical training literally involves tearing our muscles through the stress of exercise. Those muscles then become stronger when our body repairs them.

Too little stress leads to stagnation and decay in our physical bodies. Analogously, it leads to stagnation and decay in our social body. Consider the situation in poor third world countries – poverty, limited opportunity, less education, less access to healthcare, and little hope for improving one’s condition. This has also been the case in many societies throughout history.

Of course, too much stress on the body also causes problems like injuries, exhaustion, and sickness. Dealing with stress to the body requires wisdom, not invasive external interventions. We ought to figure out both how much stress our social body can take and how we can increase its capacity to handle stress. Individuals and communities ought to exercise caution before embracing new disruptive technologies.

Our physical bodies can handle a range of stress depending on our health and our habits. Successful athletes don’t simply engage in exercise. They have regimens of rest, diet, and sleep to help their bodies handle, and recover from, the stress they experience during intense exercise. Our social body has not dealt as well with the stresses of creative destruction as many of us would like because of its deficiencies – not getting enough rest, eating badly, etc. – which require freely chosen internal change to correct.

Free-market orders also sustain far more excellence than other systems, and far more excellence than most of us realize. Excellence pervades our world to such an extent that we comment more on its surprising absence than on its common presence.

Think about how often you drive your car without a problem compared to how often you do have a problem. Or consider how many successful flights you take relative to unsuccessful flights (problems with the TSA don’t count – they are a government agency). Or consider how often you find what you want at the grocery store compared to how often you don’t. All these examples require incredible coordination and creativity, or excellence, to be sustained: the skills and knowledge of farmers, mechanics, engineers, executives, etc. When we do have problems, they are unpleasant and memorable, but they are shockingly rare.

Market exchange and production may feel mundane, perhaps even trivial, compared to the “higher things” in our lives. Yet they are inextricably intertwined. The needs and desires of our physical bodies may be less important than our spiritual good, but they still matter. Sickness in the body affects the spirit. We are less able to participate in spiritual activities and in community when we are laid low by the flu, for example.

Advocating a free enterprise capitalist social order does not mean we must reduce everything to economic exchange – far from it! This order creates the means and space for us to engage in non-economic, non-market behavior – not only with greater leisure time, but with greater scope for family, education, health, worship, and caregiving. Using philosophical language, free enterprise capitalism expands our capacities as individuals and as communities. Our social and cultural problems arise not from free markets increasing our capacity, but from our abuse of that increased capacity.

Obesity, for example, was a much more limited problem in subsistence societies – although it is not clear that the vices of avarice, greed, or gluttony were any less present then. But the abundance of food should not be criticized for enabling obesity – although it does. Similarly certain modes of life within modern free enterprise capitalism may not be seen or treated the way they used to be. How we think about adolescence, vocation, motherhood, and retirement have all changed in profound ways from a couple centuries ago.

Still, we ought to keep the crux of the moral problem on the agents, not on the means. And we should recognize that some virtues are more important in the modern world than they were in the ancient world. Our goal, again, should be harmony between the “spirit” of higher things and the social body of free enterprise capitalism. This leads to flourishing.

On the other hand, wrong views of the social body tend to distort our views of the social spirit too. Marxism and Communism demonstrate just this point. Societies whose economies (bodies) are governed by those principles – Russia, China, Venezuela, Cuba, N. Korea, etc. – do not instruct their citizens in virtue or encourage them to aspire to the higher things. The cultural and spiritual desolation in these countries mirrors the corruption and decay of their economies and their political order.

Free enterprise capitalism without virtue and morality will be corrupted. It is the body without the spirit. But where is the spirit without a body? Virtue, justice, and community, though higher than market activity, are intertwined with it. Free enterprise capitalism houses the spirit of higher things and allows that spirit to act in the world.

Creating too stark a separation between market institutions on the one hand and virtue and justice on the other falls prey to an unhealthy spiritual asceticism. We should reject this trend on the political right of spiritual asceticism towards markets and the social body because the “higher cannot stand without the lower.”

Free enterprise capitalism isn’t haunted by the higher things. It embodies them.

Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image 


  • Paul Mueller

    Paul Mueller is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, as well as a Research Fellow and Associate Director of the Religious Liberty in the States project at the Center for Culture, Religion, and Democracy. He is the author of Ten Years Later: Why the Conventional Wisdom about the 2008 Financial Crisis is Still Wrong and his popular writings appeared in USA Today and Fox News, as well as the Intercollegiate Review, Christian History, Adam Smith Works, and Religion and Liberty, among others.

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