The contributors to “Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny” underscore the truth that liberal intellectuals who foster the illusions that God is dead, that man is self-sufficient, are but tools in the hands of the actual dominant force: global corporations that wield economic power, power that the liberal intellectuals unwittingly serve by providing corporate advertisers in the so-called neutral market with illusions to package and sell for handsome profits.
Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny, edited by Doug Bandow and David L. Schindler (538 pages, ISI Books, 2003)
Under the auspices of the John Temple Foundation and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, editors Doug Bandow and David L. Schindler have brought together in Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny a dozen interrelated essays on the moral, spiritual, and religious implications of the global economy. Both the essayists and the editors are earnest espousers of traditional doctrinal Christianity who are mutually concerned about issues related to the book’s title. But their thinking about the world’s poorest and the object of life in relation to the new economic order divides, quite surprisingly, into two very different points of view.
One is articulated by Bandow and his six contributors, who contend that, in terms of absolute poverty, the poorest segments of countries that have liberated their markets, encouraged international trade, and welcomed foreign investment within their borders are economically far better off than their counterparts living in countries where markets are closed or governmentally restricted.
They further point out that discussions of relative poverty, or economic inequality, tell us nothing about the creation of wealth, upon which depends the (physical) well-being of the poor. Removing barriers to free trade and allowing more migration from poor to rich countries is the most practicable way, they insist, of ensuring that the poorest among us are not only fed and clothed, but also presented with possibilities to lift themselves out of the ravages of poverty.
Bandow’s eminent contenders are Father Richard John Neuhaus and lay theologian Michael Novak. Neuhaus builds a plausible case for economic liberalism by presenting Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus as an implicit affirmation of America’s “liberal tradition.” From the same encyclical, Novak infers a justification for an expanding global economy committed to “universal opportunity.” Notwithstanding his otherwise considerable defense of the neoconservative position, Novak verges on absurdity where he implicitly likens human interaction within the multinational corporation to a communion on a globally grand scale.
Neuhaus also invites criticism. Insofar as he defines Catholicism as a form of liberalism, his logic relies upon a semantically false premise. Catholicism, in spite of Neuhaus’s intriguing argument to the contrary, is the very antithesis of liberalism properly understood. In contradistinction to Catholicism, liberalism, as it derives from state of nature scenarios conjured up in the minds of Enlightenment thinkers, imagines men to be subject to no authority other than individuated intelligences and, as Schindler insightfully points out in his editor’s response, “invests rights in [individuals] independent of [their] relations to family” and abstracted from the ordering creaturehood of God.
Bandow’s most surprising contributor is Jennifer Roback Morse, whose essay seems to be included as a bridge between the book’s opposing views. She reminds us that we are all, late or soon, dependent on others, be it in infancy or in sickness or in palsied old age. Despite this certainty, many of us, she observes, celebrate self-reliance to a fault and mistakenly associate dependency with weakness, denying ourselves the one thing the world truly needs—namely, the needy. Besides institutionalizing the elderly and expecting the government to support the disabled, we place our offspring in supposedly beneficent daycare centers, transforming the care of children into “one more commodity, another household expense,” and obscuring the reality of “just how profound our initial helplessness is.”
There is nothing objectionable in Morse’s suggesting that we humanize society “by embracing those who are legitimately dependent on us.” There is nothing wrong with encouraging us to take personal care of our offspring, “so they know they are loved and the world is worth being part of and contributing to.” There is nothing morally repugnant about calling us to take personal care of our disabled or elderly relatives, “so they know they are loved, and their lives have meaning and value.” Indeed, we ought to commit ourselves to doing all of this, “so that we have an opportunity,” as Morse writes, “to take a vacation from the world of exchange and live in the world of gift at least some of the time.” But, as contributor David Crawford observes, to insist on the priority of gift only “with respect to family relations” and not “with respect to the public [economic] order” is to settle “for an incoherent anthropology.”
In other words, Morse ignores the fact that self-interest, in which she heartily trusts, cannot be reconciled with selflessness, the anthropological crux of Christianity that warrants her plea for a humane free society. Nor can selflessness be expected to endure where capitalism abounds unchecked, since, as Crawford points out, “Economic exchange is. . . a fundamental form of community that profoundly molds society itself.” It is this indisputability that seems to be lost on Bandow’s free-market apologists, who mistakenly presuppose that democratic capitalism constitutes a neutral ground on which self-interested human beings can freely realize their private destinies.
Schindler’s six contributors engage in a rigorous dialectic to show that the emerging economic order is neither as neutral nor as free as neoconservatives think. Crawford and the other essayists who challenge Bandow’s point of view make the imperative, if difficult, metaphysical argument that freedom and human destiny, rightly construed, depend for meaning not on self-realization within the global economy but on an ontology prior to self and society, a ground of being defined by a first and final cause in which, to quote St. Paul, “we live, move, and have our being.”
Without a final end (telos) to guide them, individuals are subject, as William T. Cavanaugh makes clear in his signal contribution, to the arbitrary competition of wills that gives rise to a set of illusions fostered by a dominant class to ensure its own continued dominance.
Today’s dominant class appears to be made up of liberal intellectuals who foster the illusions that God is dead, that man is self-sufficient, that civilization gets better with every human impulse it unleashes and with every traditional restraint it overthrows. Yet Schindler’s writers underscore the truth that liberal intellectuals are but tools in the hands of the actual dominant force: global corporations that wield economic power, power that is absolute in the new world order, power that the liberal intellectuals unwittingly serve by providing corporate advertisers in the so-called neutral market with illusions to package and sell for handsome profits.
“Wherever the market is ‘neutral,’” writes contributor Adrian Walker, “there homo economicus is busily at work remaking society in its own image.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in Hollywood, whose celluloid productions determine to a large extent America’s habit of mind. Hollywood’s message is clear: No one need take seriously ultimate things such as death, judgment, heaven, or hell. Death for most Hollywood elites is meaningful only insofar as its depiction satisfies morally confused theater patrons upon whom homo economicus (the film producer) relies for lucrative box office returns.
As Schindler demonstrates in the most astute of the two editors’ responses, intellectual liberalism and liberal economics share an inner logic that “tends to fragment a person’s relations to God, others, the world, and the family, thus rendering man ‘homeless’ in the deepest sense.” This logic has its genesis in the thought of Hobbes and Locke. For these two early liberationists, as Russell Hittinger has recently observed in The First Grace, the various authorities around which societies organize themselves derive not from God, but from “covenants of individuals constrained to reach a consensus on the basis of what is (or seems) self-evident.”
Central to Schindler’s response is the idea that man is but a sojourner in this world, an alien of a kind who finds himself truly at home in an “original and abiding ontological community with God,” from within which, and only from within which, each person “has his meaning as an individual.” It follows upon this premise that, contrary to the defining assumptions of liberalism, individuality and community presuppose one another. As Schindler puts it, individuality “is always already an expression of community, even as individuality itself conditions and is presupposed by the original meaning of community,” which finds quintessential expression in the married couple and family, the first and fundamental communion of mankind.
Intended as background to the other essays in Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny are two pieces included as appendices, one by Wendell Berry and another by Max Stackhouse and Lawrence Stratton. Stackhouse and Stratton’s is a “bibliographical essay” in support of globalism and the acceleration of technological development relative to it. What warrants comment is not the essay’s substance, but rather its obvious disregard for ontocratic discourse, the language, that is, of those whose idea of order issues not from cogitamus ergo sumus (we think, therefore we are) but from cogitat Deus ergo sumus (God thinks, therefore we are), not from the rule of what seems self-evident, but from the rule (-cracy) of being (onto-). As Schindler points out, the authors’ claim “that Christian theology underpins technology in its hallmark modern sense is made. . . in a way that sets aside without discussion an entire stream of historical Christianity.” Schindler has in mind the ontocratic Theology of Maximus, Aquinas, and Bonaventure, whose work informs the thought of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, George Grant, and other salient ontocrats of the twentieth century.
Berry, perhaps America’s last agrarian intellectual, takes an unabashed stand for “the principles of neighborhood and subsistence.” His, the globalist will chide, is a stand for “protectionism,” and they will be right, says Berry, because “that is exactly what it is.” Back of Berry’s campaign is a pained remembrance of the American subsistence farmer of yore, who, after growing dependent on ready money for his cash crops, became a servant to the market and a victim of its fluctuations. Berry knows that the global economy envisioned by neoconservatives can be realized and sustained “only if nations and localities accept or ignore the inherent instability of a production economy based on exports and a consumer economy based on imports.” Because they are “beyond local influence,” export and import economies depend on inexpensive, unencumbered long-distance transport, which “is possible only if granted cheap fuel, international peace, control of terrorism, prevention of sabotage, the solvency of the international economy,” and an ideological assumption that wars (as Berry prophetically remarks) “are legitimate and permanent economic functions.”
Of these cogent tracts for and against the new Leviathanism, those commissioned by Schindler are finally the most concerned about economics, that is, if economics is rightly seen as a word derivationally related to stewardship or household management. Schindler’s essayists defy neoconservatism and its sentimental assumption “that everything small, local, private, personal, natural, good, and beautiful [as Berry puts it] must be sacrificed in the interest of the ‘free market’ and the great corporations, which will bring unprecedented security and happiness to ‘the many’—in, of course, the future.” Statistically compelling and religiously informed though their essays are, Bandow’s champions of global capitalism ultimately lose sight of the metaphysical reality that man is something more than a belly to fill. Schindler’s ontocrats, on the other hand, are ever mindful that in the end, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “a starved man exceeds a fat beast.”
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The featured image is Poverty and Wealth (1888) by William Powell Frith (1819–1909) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.