Capitalist Self-Seeking or Christian Self-Denial?
“FREEDOM OR VIRTUE?”— REVISITED
Recently, I was asked by this magazine to elaborate on a short letter I wrote to National Review (May 15, 1981) on the subject of Mr. George Gilder. I had indicted Gilder, a prominent advocate of unmitigated capitalism, for being something less than Christian: the policies he was promoting would “discourage a conscious effort to achieve the common good — or social justice”; they would “sacramentalize self-interest, even greed.” Moreover, Gilder was making “war against the development of virtue as the goal of the public life.” To the contrary, I suggested, “Christianity’s first rules of social, as well as interior, conduct are self-denial and sacrifice.” It seemed to me that Gilder’s views revealed the difficulty for Catholics — for Christians — of subscribing to conservative economic principles.
Anyhow, I agreed to explore that difficulty further in these pages. Some time went by before a car journey took me from Massachusetts to New Jersey along the New York thruway. I said a rosary en route — with one decade dedicated specifically to seeking the Virgin Mary’s help in figuring out how to begin this article. While that decade was being said, the car zipped by a road sign, signaling the village of “Woodstock,” N.Y., the home in years past of Frank Meyer, my deceased friend and colleague on National Review. Meyer, I then instantly remembered, had been my foe over 20 years before in an exchange which bore directly on the Gilder letter. I had initiated the exchange in an article called “Freedom or Virtue?” (National Review, Sept. 11, 1962), and it now seemed logical, after that signal, that I should summon that article as an introduction to current Catholic reflections on conservative economics.
“Freedom or Virtue?” was written in the summer of 1962. I hoped it would have a formative role in the burgeoning conservative movement then pointing to the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. I argued, in fine, that the first responsibility of a political order is to help men be good, not to help them be free. I said that the “freedom first” or “libertarian” version of conservatism ignored the truth that “moral freedom is beyond the reach of politics” — that the choice between virtue and sin can be made equally well in civil freedom, in prison, or behind the Iron Curtain. We “traditionalist” conservatives, I went on, would not hesitate to restrict freedom where the restriction would be an inducement to virtue and would nurture the good Christian life. I was beginning to suspect then (as I affirm now) that the first purpose of politics — of the public life, that is, as well as of the interior life — is to help men get into Heaven.
I also had occasion in that article to comment on the newly born Young Americans for Freedom’s founding Statement regarding economics: “‘the market economy [the YAFers announced] is the single economic system compatible with the requirements of personal freedom’ — which means, since personal freedom is the end-all, that the market economy itself, in the words of the Statement’s preamble, is an ‘eternal truth.’” I dissented from this position, asserting that both the free market and the satisfaction of man’s material wants are subordinate to virtue. I said that economic systems, as well as political systems, should be arranged so as to make virtue easier.
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