Kai Weiss considers Lord Acton's timely essay "Nationality" to better understand our current political fevers.
Conservative fusionism—combining social conservatism with economic liberalism—seems to have lost much of its political viability. Whittaker Chambers’ critique of fusionism seems to offer both a plausible explanation for this decline and an appealing alternative to current ways of rethinking the Right. For example, he shows why fusionism has been unable to fight off nationalism, and also why nationalism would be a wrong turn.
Continuing this series of articles, we now turn to the temptation of economic reductionism, and what Chambers’ thought helps us see about it. The next article will consider the temptation to romantic nostalgia for pre-modern social orders.
Why Economic Reductionism Is So Tempting
“There is no God in this book” is the notorious opening of Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West. The ire aroused in some quarters by this introductory sentence has sometimes obscured Goldberg’s real point. Goldberg is careful to acknowledge that God-fearing moral virtues are of great importance to the social system he is defending, and Goldberg’s critics are not always careful to acknowledge that fact. Nonetheless, his choice to open the book with this sentence is of great significance for any potential path forward for the Right arising from his reflections.
Goldberg boldly puts this statement front and center because he thinks economic liberalism must be able to make a case for itself to secularists “on their own terms,” as if there were no God, in order to be politically viable. The “Miracle” of economic liberalism, Goldberg calls it with deliberate irony, is not just that we can all get rich together without agreeing about God. As it turns out, we can all get rich together not just without agreeing about God, but without God.
Getting rich together is no small thing. As Goldberg vividly reminds us, the ubiquitous poverty of the pre-modern (i.e. pre-liberal) world is far worse than we tend to remember. We are always forgetting how far we have come economically, and just how important that progress is.
Goldberg brings in the godly virtues as necessary elements of an economically liberal order. But religion is strictly instrumental—a source of the behavior that the liberal order demands, whose truth value must (not just can, but must) be of no interest to that order. That is the whole point of opening with “there is no God in this book.”
This would take the Right decisively in the direction of economic reductionism—that economic liberalism can be justified on its own, without depending on general cosmologies that subordinate economics to larger moral concerns. This approach has long predominated among libertarians but has not been not widely shared among conservatives. The old fusionism always did have people, like Goldberg, who understood the partnership between economic liberalism and social conservatism in these reductionist terms. But it also had people like David Bahnsen, one of Goldberg’s more responsible interlocutors, for whom the religious premises of social conservatism were necessary preconditions of economic liberalism (just as the individual rights of economic liberalism, in turn, placed mandatory limits on social conservatism’s tribalistic tendencies). The Bahnsen view tended to dominate in the old fusionism, for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: That was where the votes were.
That is not where the votes are now. Because of fusionism’s inability to resist ethnic and religious nationalism, as well as encroachments from nostalgic movements, what we might call the old “God and markets” vote has been gutted. Following God is now much more connected to political protection for the nation (among evangelicals) or political protection for the church (among Catholics in both the Benedict Option and integralist camps) than it is connected to political protection for markets.
With the “God and markets” vote gone, it’s not surprising people like Goldberg, who always viewed God’s role in fusionism as instrumental, would double down on that strategy. It makes strategic sense in the short run. By making it clear that God is in the passenger seat—if not the trunk—rather than driving, economic liberalism could pick up both persuadable libertarians looking to get out of the political ghetto and moderate progressives concerned to protect the wealth-generating power of markets from the twin threats of socialism and identity politics.
Fusionism’s Blind Spot: The “Division Point”
Just as a fresh encounter with Chambers helps explain why fusionism ultimately failed to resist nationalism, it illuminates fusionism’s weakness before economic reductionism. To the extent that fusionists remember Chambers at all, they remember him for his breach with communism. Chambers describes in Witness how he reached a “Division Point” in his life as an underground Soviet agent, when he was forced to recognize the essential monstrosity of communism.
But Chambers says in Witness that he reached two Division Points in his life, and that his witness to the world consisted of the combination of the two. The first was his willingness to sacrifice everything he had built in his career as a revolutionary by abandoning communism. The second was his willingness to sacrifice everything he had built as senior editor of Time magazine—the income that supported his family farm, the position of social respect and influence—to tell the truth about his crimes when summoned to testify in 1948.
The two deadly temptations of the modern world, Chambers wrote, are the worship of revolutionary movements and the worship of the material comfort generated by modern markets. His witness consisted of his willingness to endure the rejection of both these false gods. If there is any hope for America—a proposition Chambers famously doubted—it lies in Americans rejecting them both as well.
Fusionism, in practice if not always in theory, forgot about the second Division Point. It bore fervent moral witness against communism and was right to do so. But it never had the same moral fervor about evils taking place in market systems. Too many fusionists embraced an explicit “greed is good” ideology, and even those who did not typically employed rhetoric and policy structures functionally indistinguishable from that view. The refusal of fusionists to see moral failures in market behavior as a problem centrally relevant to law, politics, and governance created the spiritual vacuum nationalism is now filling.
Why Economic Reductionism Doesn’t Work
Those who forget the second Division Point inevitably forget the real meaning of the first one. Materialistic pursuit of wealth and comfort—getting rich together without God—inevitably moves us toward the communist conclusion. That is why Chambers insisted his witness consisted not of his willingness to sacrifice everything, but his willingness to sacrifice everything twice.
Communism, Chambers wrote, is a “vision” (a way of understanding the world) before it is a “faith” (a willingness to live out the vision sacrificially). The communist vision is that the human mind is the highest thing there is in the universe. Thus, if there are to be answers to our pressing problems, they must come from human ingenuity.
In the modern world, we are faced with crises of unprecedented severity. World wars, totalitarianism and genocide are the more obvious crises. Less catastrophic but no less morally urgent is the presence of people living desperately impoverished lives in the midst of the Miracle; their presence continually calls into question not the fact of the Miracle, but its legitimacy.
These conditions demand some kind of response. It is naïve to think people are simply going to shrug their shoulders and accept a world of ever-increasing danger and anomie. Confronting questions of ultimate significance, we must have answers of ultimate significance.
Thus the communist vision of a godless universe leads inexorably to the communist faith—that we must sacrifice individual rights and happiness to remake the world and eliminate war, injustice and poverty. Since the human mind is the highest thing there is, we must use the human mind to invent solutions to the moral crises of modernity. What is one life, or a thousand, or a million, compared to the whole future of all humanity?
The only ultimate rejoinder to communism is the assertion that individuals have intrinsic worth, and thus intrinsic rights. And this claim is absolutely untenable unless there is a higher power upon which it can be grounded.
As Chambers wrote, at bottom the debate over communism is about this question: God or Man? As he memorably put it: “Without God, man cannot organize the world for man. Without God, man can only organize the world against man.”
Goldberg wants to have what Chambers called the communist vision (a godless universe) without the communist faith (a willingness to reorder society on the assumption that there is nothing higher than the human mind). That is unsustainable. As Bahnsen and Brian Mattson write: “A widespread effort to pretend to believe in God will not stave off suicide.”
Economics and the Right
The old ways by which pre-modern societies used to bring moral order into market behavior, primarily religious and community-based institutions, have not yet figured out how to do this effectively in the modern world. This is what Chambers called the “crisis of history,” discussed in the previous article. Political movements cannot govern as if this were not the case, and they cannot govern as if people did not need moral order in their lives.
The need for moral order in the economy ought to be especially clear to economic liberals. Reflecting on his break with communism, Chambers wrote that what a man does when he reaches the Division Point is determined by his answer to this question: Will God hear me if I cry out to him? An affirmative answer to that question, Chambers insisted, is the only finally effective witness against communism. But we cannot permit this question to be asked only to detach people from communism, and then suppress it. Once people decide God will hear them, that fact has consequences. The first Division Point demands the second one.
We can all get rich together even if we disagree about God. That is logically sound and historically proven. However, while we got rich together while disagreeing about God, we could not have gotten rich together without God, and we certainly will not stay rich together without him. Government need not settle the question of which religion is the true one, but it also cannot cynically use religion as an instrument of social control while laying its own foundations in de facto atheism. The ongoing lure of totalitarian ideologies in every part of the world—including fascism, communism and religious extremism—testifies not only to our permanent need for comprehensive moral cosmologies, but to the inability of secular government to contain and control this need within liberal frameworks.
Government cannot replace religious and community institutions. But it must not undermine those institutions while they struggle to learn how to do their jobs in the radically changed environment of modernity.
The reductive philosophy—we can all get rich together without God—sets up economic systems in opposition to religious and community institutions. Economic systems are constituted by the laws that govern property and contract rights. Political movements governing out of the reductive philosophy will write and enforce laws on reductive assumptions. Leaders who lead out of a morally reductive paradigm will not create a well-ordered market, but a grotesque, morally bankrupt parody of one. And people will see the morally bankrupt parody and take that as “the market” that economic liberals are defending.
This is not a hypothetical. This is an exact description of such institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—both of which were co-founded by Harry Dexter White, who worked for Chambers as a Soviet spy. It is also an exact description of large portions of the American economic order, built up by new economic policies in the 20th century as our national culture secularized.
It would be hubris to assume economic liberals governing from a morally reductive philosophy will do better at producing well-ordered markets than illiberal leaders have. John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman were both firmly dedicated to the view that economic systems should be constructed for an amoral homo economicus. It was as much under Friedman’s influence as Keynes’ that we have made economic laws and policies on the assumption that people are, and ought to be, selfish materialists. Keynesians bear their share of blame, of course; but it was Alan Greenspan, not Paul Krugman, who presided over the financial policy and regulatory structures whose moral disorder was the main cause of the 2008 crash.
The first Division Point, which makes people like Goldberg and myself economic liberals, demands a second Division Point to provide economic liberalism with a religious anthropology. Just as disagreements about justice do not render justice politically irrelevant, disagreements about God do not render God politically irrelevant. Economic liberals must allow everyone to disagree about God, within the limits of civilized coexistence, but they cannot make economic policy as if there were no God if they want to remain economic liberals.
At the Division Point, the only thing that can rebuke the pride of the human mind is the profound reality of the human soul, and its dependence upon its creator. Economic liberalism need not settle the question of who God is and what God has said and done. But it must at least begin with the assumption that human beings are religious creatures, whose beliefs and choices about God are the most important fact about them. For without that starting point, as Chambers argued so powerfully and recent experience has redundantly confirmed, economic liberalism cannot last.
The final part of this series can be found here.