The Sterility of Intellectual Standardization

Capitalism is increasingly under attack these days by people who claim that it promotes a collapse of moral values, subordinating all else to the pursuit of individual wealth and pleasure. Often these critics demand either the strict supervision of the free market by elite government administrators or its outright replacement by socialism. In this very wide ranging book, Donald Devine responds to this attack.

He is well equipped to do so, owing to his long experience as a political science professor and as a government administrator. He tells us, “Your author comes to the discussion from the academic field of political science and two decades of teaching at the University of Maryland and Bellevue University. One competency was in normal politics, government, and democratic theory, but I also taught philosophy of science…. Another specialty was public administration, put to practical use as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in 1981–1985.”

What is the basis of the charge that capitalism leads to the collapse of moral values? Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin contend that the intellectual inception of capitalism lies in the thought of John Locke, who rejected Christianity and natural law. According to Strauss, “Locke did not take revelation seriously and was really a pure rationalist and a hedonist whose philosophy was essentially utilitarian, but disguised in a way to appeal to his readers, in a society where virtue rather than pleasure was the highest good.”

Devine agrees that Locke’s thought is central to the development of the free market, but his view of Locke differs from that of Strauss and Voegelin. “There is no question that Locke moved away from Aristotle and the ancients, but so did St. Thomas. The break was located in medieval thinking…. Four decades ago I argued, against the dominant scholarship, that one could not understand Locke unless one viewed him as medieval, as feudal, as Christian…. Locke was orthodox enough to write a discourse defending miracles, and in his last years he translated and extensively commented upon the Epistles of St. Paul.”

“Feudal” is for Devine a key word. Though people often denounce the Middle Ages as “dark,” he finds in this period the pluralist ideas and institutions that led to a highly successful capitalist economy embedded in a virtuous society. In taking this stance, he relies on both Joseph Schumpeter and surprisingly, on Karl Marx. “Slavery had been a part of all ancient civilizations, but in medieval Europe it was replaced by serfdom, granting limited rights. As Marx himself explained, serfdom was hardly ideal but it was an advance over slavery, and feudalism ended with broadly distributed de facto private property, which prepared the way for wage labor and mature capitalism.”

Devine also appeals to the great legal historian Harold Berman, who “in Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, meticulously traced the crucial legal and moral development back to the Abbey of Cluny (founded in 909) and to the reforms of Pope Gregory VII, who had been a monk in a Cluniac monastery. The many Cluniac foundations across Europe were governed through an innovative corporate structure under the abbot of Cluny, which enabled Gregory VII to reassert the independence of the church from secular powers…. As Berman’s comprehensive study suggests, the history of capitalism is simultaneously the history of Western civilization.”

Capitalism is then in its origins and essence moral. Far from being a predatory system in which the wealthy exploit the poor, the regime of private property on which the free market rests protects the weak. “Why might the very poorest be so interested in property rights? Armen A. Alchian, an emeritus economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, put it this way: ‘well-defined and well-protected property rights replace competition by violence with competition by peaceful means.’”

Devine’s positive view of the morality of the market puts him at odds with the market’s many critics, and, of our contemporaries, Pope Francis stands foremost among these. Devine contends that the pope developed his anticapitalist views through his experiences growing up in the Argentina of Juan Perón, and, though he is well-meaning, his ideas are often mistaken. He wrongly views the free market as a zero-sum game, in which some (the rich) gain only at the expense of others (the poor). In fact, the free market is a system of voluntary exchanges, and such exchanges take place only if all parties to them expect to benefit.

The free market, based on moral tradition and pluralist institutions of medieval origin, served our nation well, and it was subject to concerted attack only at the turn of the twentieth century. “When Americans wrote their Declaration of Independence, and eventually the constitution for the new nation, their main source for incorporating Magna Carta values was John Locke…. The Founders’ vision of a pluralist republic, with a market economy, mostly held sway in the United States until the progressive intellectual revolution led by Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey questioned its legitimacy. The pluralist consensus was then challenged by an ideology aiming to create a more perfect society through expert administration and scientific education.” Here, as it seems to me, Devine has underestimated the effects of the Civil War in promoting a powerful federal government.

Despite the Wilsonian assault on our traditional system of government and the continuation of that assault by Franklin Roosevelt and his successors, a consensus about morality remained in place through the early 1970s. “Forty-eight years ago, I published The Political Culture of the United States…. The editor warned that its thesis asserting the existence of a broad moral consensus on traditional Lockean values among Americans would antagonize fellow professors who assumed that the U.S. population was inclining leftward. But the book’s use of virtually all public opinion polls taken in the United States up to then was so empirically persuasive that academic reviews in a profession dominated by progressive intellectuals accepted its factual if not its moral conclusions. What were the elements of that consensus? … Free markets and property rights. Faith in God and commitment to traditional moral values. Attachment to family and community. A premium on education and work achievement.”

The consensus no longer prevails, but Devine, by contrast with Charles Murray, a fellow laudator temporis acti (praiser of past times) is hopeful for a restoration. He favors a concerted campaign to restore local institutions, and in particular federal controls over educational standards rouse him to wrath. He appeals in support to a great friend and benefactor of the Mises Institute. “Robert Luddy, an educational entrepreneur, has remarked that standardization ‘potentially sucks the life out of … great ideas.’ The reforms of public education that appear to be effective are the charter school movement, scholarships that enable students to transfer to better-performing private schools, and homeschooling. All of these permit some choice on the part of parents and students, rather than imposing a single-plan that supposedly fits all but actually benefits few.”

One could wish that Devine had carried out his main line of thought further to a defense of an entirely free market, without concessions to government welfare programs, but he stops short of this, owing to a preference for pluralism and empiricism over “rationalism.” I do not propose, though, to dispute with him here. Instead, I urge everyone to learn from Devine’s comments on a vast number of topics, only a few of which I have been able to address.

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