Economic Life Does Not Go on in a Moral Vacuum

The challenge of reconciling the socially conservative and economic-libertarian wings of conservatism and the Republican Party has garnered a lot of attention in print as well as on this website.  [Editor's note: Please see the comments by readers under this article.]  As many contemporary commentators have recognized, a possible "fusion" of traditionalists and libertarians has challenged the movement and party for decades.

The debate is of more than theoretical interest to Catholics and other people of faith because the Republican Party is the only politically viable vehicle for the right-to-life movement at this moment in U.S. history.  While the recent elections did bring some successes for pro-life Democrats, it will be a long time before this movement gains critical mass in the modern Democratic Party.

On October 7, 1986, I offered these thoughts on the matter in the pages of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, no longer in existence.  I believe they are still relevant to the ongoing debate.  With the permission of Martin Duggan, the former editor of the Globe's editorial page, I offer it for readers of Catholic Exchange.

Within the Republican Party, the economic and social conservatives warily eye one another as they co-exist, apprehensively, as part of the Reagan Coalition.  These two factions of the GOP, along with the proponents of a strong military and foreign policy posture, have accounted for the phenomenal staying power of President Reagan since his 1976 attempt to unseat fellow Republican Gerald Ford.

 The economic conservatives view the concerns of the social conservatives — abortion, family values, school prayer, welfare reform, and the like — as distractions from what they consider to be the real business of America and the Republican Party: business.  The economic conservatives may differ amongst themselves as to the various matters such as tax reform or free trade, but they are united in their view that economic growth and prosperity is the primary object of the political enterprise.  To squander valuable political capital on such risky issues as, for example, pornography or busing, undermines the effort to create jobs and wealth.

The social conservatives, while agreeing with the economic conservatives on most of the pro-growth agenda, believe passionately that man does not live by bread alone.  In their view an exclusive preoccupation with the material or economic dimension in national affairs is more appropriate to hedonists or Marxists.  They point to Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the Republican Party, as an example of a political leader who discerned the priority of moral and philosophic concerns over those of a purely economic outlook.  Slavery was evil, period.

Many Republican candidates, out of sheer political opportunism, give lip service to the conservative social agenda without really internalizing any consistent philosophy reconciling this agenda with that of the economic or free market conservatives.  Upon election to office, they soon put the social issues behind them and get on with the economic agenda.

This pattern, repeated too often, is certain to alienate those very constituencies which have energized the Republican Party beyond anything ever contemplated by the traditional business interests which have dominated the GOP for decades.  Is it any wonder that George Bush [Senior] and Jack Kemp, hearing footsteps over their shoulders, turn to find Pat Robertson closing fast in the 1988 Presidential Primary?

If the Republican Party is to continue as a party of governance, capitalizing on the desertion of the Democratic Party by Catholics, Fundamentalists, and younger voters concerned about the future of the economy, it must search out the means to justify the ways of the social conservatives to the free marketers.

The social conservatives need to articulate more fully the indispensable role that religion, morality, family, and social order play in sustaining and protecting a relatively free market system found in America.  This truth has been lost sight of in this libertarian age.  In other words, "economic life naturally does not go on in a moral vacuum."

This at least was the view of one of the greatest free market economists, Wilhelm Röpke, usually referred to as the architect of the post-war economic boom of Western Germany.  In his book, A Humane Economy, which appeared in this country in 1960, Röpke set out clearly the essential fusion of a free market and the social context necessary for its survival:

Self-discipline, a sense of justice, honesty, fairness, chivalry, moderation, public spirit, respect for human dignity, firm ethical norms — all of these are things which people must possess before they go to the market and compete with each other.  These are the indispensable supports which preserve both market and competition from degeneration.  Family, church, genuine communities, and tradition are their sources.

The free market does not spontaneously generate the morality and virtues vital to its existence.  Without them, competition degenerates into a dog-eat-dog struggle inviting government intervention; welfare programs fall victim to insurmountable problems of family breakdown; and crime, drug addiction, and other self-destructive behavior debases the citizenry and the work force. 

Neighborhoods, churches, families, and the like offer mediating structures between the atomistic individual and the monolithic state.  The family must be restored as the primary focus of economic, social, political, and legal policy.  Without it the Welfare State is, at best, an irrelevancy; at worst, an immense burden on those family units still intact.

The Republicans wandered in the political wilderness for decades, barely surviving on the gruel of an exclusively economic and business orientation.  If they now jettison those constituencies grouped around the social issues, they will have forgotten the lessons of the 1972, 1980, and 1984 Presidential elections.

G. Tracy Mehan, III, served at the U.S. E.P.A. in the administrations of both Presidents Bush.  A consultant in Arlington, VA, he is also an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.

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  • Guest

    I am reminded of the lyrics to the song from the King and I, "A Puzzlement."

    Shall I join with other nations in alliance?
    If allies are weak, am I not best alone?
    If allies are strong with power to protect me,
    Might they not protect me out of all I own?

    If pro-lifers have to be allied so stongly with those interests who view human beings through the lens of money, how do we know that once we get into power, they won't happily jettison the life issues? And if, as you indicate above, they already may be in the process of doing just that, why should social conservatives get back in bed with them?

    What happens when life issues get in the way of money interest, as with stem cell research, or organ farming or any other diabolical way to commodify human beings that may come down the pike?

    Why is it that we are having to convince the business end that good morality and strong families are good for them, instead of THEM having to convince US that a strong economy is good for families?  Doesn't this indicate that it is we, rather then the business interests, who are bargaining in the political arena from a position of weakness?

    I don't have a solution; but these are the questions that come to mind.

  • Guest

    It is so sad to me that the truth is that GOD always comes first.  If we cannot put an end to a baby being killed in their mother's womb, and if you crush a eagle's egg you can go to jail  for it we are not a society of putting GOD first.  How can we even end a war when we as Democrats and Republicans are at war against each other.  We are in the brinks of taking GOD aout of everything.  When you do that we are a nation that is going to fall.  We need so much prayer for the United States of America.  GOD BLESS YOU ALL!

  • Guest

    Della,

         This was an irony that I was not aware of.  It really is shocking that destruction of an eagle egg is illegal but abortion is not.  Of course, I believe in protecting wildlife, but let's get our priorities straight.

  • Guest

    MK, no one should "get into bed" with anyone, especially over money,i.e., eocnomics. Political alliances are functional, i.e., to obtain certain ends. In this case the ends sought are the protection of the unborn and the nurturing of a culture of life.  If the Republican Party ceases to be the vehicle for these goals, then one is forced to look around for an alternative.  Unfortunately, given the views of the Democratic Party, there are not many alternatives available in the political process.  That is why the debate within the GOP is important to follow.  Rudy G's candidacy is very problematic in this regard. If the former Mayor of New York becomes the nominee, what does one do? 

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    I think too that we have seen more and more evidence that elected officials of both parties have far less concern or stake in the economic or the values conservatism than they have in effectively buying votes of voters, and buying whatever they get out of being influenced by lobbyists, special interest group, cronies, etc.

    Can it be any surprise that the possible Giuliani-Clinton election race has Tweedledee-Tweedledum written all over it? Can you find much ‘platform’ difference in the operations of our government?

    But, too, it seems that increasingly voters vote out of their wallets and purses. And, to me, most libertarianism has this flaw to it. For another instance, being of the age, I have yet to see an AARP mailing that reflects upon how anyone pays for the entitlement increases they would demand.

    It appears to me that, like peace, correction of our culture starts with one heart – mine – at a time. I have to be the self-disciplined and moral voter, consumer, supporter, etc. The questions swarming about us will get answered some few at a time that way.

    Else, as in one of my daughter’s favorite remarks on this culture we’ll end up awakening and looking about and asking: “Where AM I? And, why am I in this handbasket?”

    Remember, I love you, too

    Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

  • Guest

    PS, I totally agree with you that elections are based more on pay-offs than values.  It's very sad.

  • Guest

    PS, I totally agree with you that elections are based more on pay-offs than values.  It's very sad.

  • Guest

    What DOES one do?

    Makes a 3rd party seem more attractive.  What are the options there?

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    A third party can only work if it throws the election into the House of Representatives for decision – electoral votes not succeeding to get the job done. Then, the third party can build off that. Without that impact, it is unlikely to catch on.

    Then again, getting the vast majority of pro-lifers to make a fully pro-life federal slate and all backing it all the way, such third party becomes very possible. This would have to be coupled with having very principled candidates with nearly saintly reputations which would make them bullet-proof.

    But – good luck – most ostensibly pro-life voters are too fickle, more likely to vote wallet issues rather than the Commandments; as well as other distractions of issues. And, the pols know this; they attend to distractions.

    It would seem more a work of organizing within both parties more and more solidly, vocally, significantly. Making the newly elected pro-life Democrats ‘put up or shut up’ – ‘walk the walk as well as talk the talk’ – is a good starting point within the Democratic Party. And, the Republicans, so long beneficiaries of pro-life votes, have to have their feet held to the fire if they seem reluctant to ‘walk the walk’. (to blend cliche metaphors . . .)

    Remember, I love you, too

    Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

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