14 min read

The moral philosopher and political economist speaks with Daniel P. Schmidt and Michael E. Hartmann about freedom and faith, economic nationalism and the working class, philanthropy and ideas, and faith and reason.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., which promotes the consonance of free markets and limited government with religious perspectives. He has been quite busy lately, what with all of the many serious questions and concerns being raised about the proper roles of markets and government—from Rome and in American public discourse, including within American conservatism itself.

Throughout his career as a public intellectual, Gregg’s work has been published widely, in both the academic and popular press, on matters of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural-law theory.

His most-recent book is the ambitious Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (2019), and his other books include For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016) and Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (2013).

Below is the second of two parts of an edited transcript of a discussion that Gregg was kind enough to have with us earlier this Winter. The first part—in which he talks about differing emphases in papal thinking and teaching about capitalism and markets, the Vatican’s circles of engagement in consultations about them, and divisions within conservatism today—is here.


Schmidt: Are we still living under the umbrella of “rational-choice” theory and the thinking of all the people in the Chicago School—[George] Stigler, who was on the Bradley Foundation’s board early on for a while, and [Milton] Friedman?

Gregg: I’m glad you mentioned Friedman, because I was recently speaking at a Mont Pelerin meeting  at the Hoover Institution, and Friedman was there forever. If you go back and look at the way that Friedman talked about these issues, he emphasized things like efficiency, effectiveness, and utility. He was reluctant, I think, to embrace normative questions in a substantive fashion.

For him, it was about freedom. Fair enough. But we have to ask, freedom to do what? What’s the freedom directed to? What’s the relationship between our liberty and our reason, and liberty and faith?

In the free-market movement, there’s more realization that you have to make these types of normative arguments, because the left is extremely good at this. The left’s command of the efficiency and effectiveness arguments is terrible. In some respects. they’re not even interested in those things. What they’re interested in is appealing to particular normative claims, like equality, for example, or redistribution, or even socialism. The left has always been very proficient at using normative language.

The right, I often say, is fantastic at policy, but we are often lousy when it comes to making normative arguments. I do think there is more recognition across the free-market world, the conservative world, the classical liberal world, and the libertarian world—of the need for stronger normative argumentation. People like Hayek, for example, certainly understood this.

Hartmann: This is because of the current, Trump-caused turmoil among conservative thinkers or within  conservative thought, or why? These integralists have benefited you, haven’t they? They’ve given you an  opening?

Gregg: I’m sure you’re both seen all the statistics about what younger people think about socialism and capitalism and the very high rates of approval of socialism among people below the age of 31. Now, if you ask them what they mean by socialism, you get a kaleidoscope of completely contradictory answers. A lot of it is about equality.

In terms of the impact of President Trump, I think one thing we’re finding is that, to a certain extent, many of the messages that were being articulated by free-market conservatives were not effective, at some level, in persuading some people. President Trump is clearly an economic nationalist. He’s willing to experiment with all sorts of government intervention in the economy—whether it is tariffs or different types of industrial policy.

That type of thinking now has a considerable constituency on the right. Conservatives and free-marketers need to ask themselves why that is the case.

Hartmann: Why is that the case? What do you say to the people in the counties in northern Wisconsin who gave Trump his victory margin in the state?

Gregg: There’s a number of things. One is the intellectual argument. In recent years, I have spent much time arguing with economic nationalists—people like Oren Cass, for example, who is probably the leading exponent of industrial policy in the United States.

I think that another argument which has to be deployed is to alert people to the risks and problems associated with economic nationalism. Let me give you an example. If you adopt things like tariffs or subsidies in response to, say, what China’s doing or the European Union is doing, you start to hurt yourself by introducing all sorts of inefficiencies and misallocations of resources into your own system.

Also, alerting people to the ways in which economic nationalism contributes to the problem of what we call crony capitalism is important. Industrial policy and tariffs create incentives for lobbyists and people who want favors from the state to go to the government and say, “You need to protect me from competition—not just foreign competition, but domestic competition—because my business or my industry is somehow uniquely crucial to the well-being of the United States.”

Economic nationalism opens the door to that type of behavior very quickly. It’s also a type of behavior that I think a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump really don’t like. They don’t like wheelers and dealers in D.C. They don’t like what they see as an established political class. Economic nationalism actually lends itself to bolstering that very same class of people that many Trump voters detest. The challenge for conservatives and free-marketers is to make some of these connections clearer to people.

State and nation

Schmidt: Are we in a do-over of the interwar period, 1919 to 1939, thinking of the Christian parties in Europe in particular? Now, obviously, economics was a piece of that and Austrian economics a big piece of it.

Gregg: Right.

Schmidt: But like then, it’s an interesting moment for Christian humanism. It’s an interesting moment for Acton, for that matter. Is Christian humanism up to it?

Gregg: In the interwar period, many people blamed the Great War upon capitalism. You also saw the emergence and spread not just of socialist movements and social-democratic movements—they’d been around for a while—but the seizure of power by actual Bolsheviks in major countries like Russia. That led to much uneasiness among Europeans. They asked themselves, “How do we stop ourselves from going down the path of Stalin’s Russia?”

Most people concluded that this meant the state had to take a bigger role in the economy. In the case of Continental Europe, you saw many political parties emerging which would best described as “corporatist”: the idea that you get business and unions working together while the state oversees and manages them, without fully taking them over. That occurred in countries like Austria, Spain, and fascist Italy. To a certain extent, this model is still influential in Europe today.

If you look at some of the proposals being adopted or articulated by some of the market-skeptic conservatives in the United States, they sound very corporatist. Others sounds like old-fashioned Keynesianism. But all of them are responding to a sense of unease.

The financial crisis of 2008 damaged many people’s faith in the workings of markets and capitalism. It’s very hard to deny that. Now, I think that crisis owed something to greed, but I also think that it was facilitated by bad monetary policy and bad and counterproductive regulation.

(Wikimedia Commons)

But most people don’t see it that way. Most people see this as a failure of markets and capitalism. The state, they believe, has to do more and more and more. Barack Obama certainly took America further down that path.

In any pushback against capitalism, it’s usually because there’s a certain unease that things are not stable and that security is not sure. Corporatist arrangements are often seen as somehow lending stability and increasing security.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. In the end, it just introduces more inefficiencies, enables cronyism, and generates all sorts of political problems. And then we have to get ourselves out of them.

Hartmann: Are all appeals to the nation bad? You could have a market-friendly appeal to nationhood,  couldn’t you? I thought I saw a lot of flags waving on Tea Party ads. You would, and do, make an argument that the market is the best way to achieve what might be considered a common good.

Gregg: I would argue that the free-market economy is the most-optimal set of economic arrangements that a country could have. Now, as one of my colleagues, Michael Matheson Miller, often says, markets are great for growth. They’re great for promoting exchange. They’re great for getting people out of poverty, for giving people jobs, new jobs, better jobs, better-quality jobs, all these things.

But he also states that markets won’t save your soul. The stock market is not going to make you a better person. It’s not going to answer the fundamental questions of human life. If you’re looking for the market to solve those types of problems, you’re looking in the wrong place.

That said, it seems to me that all the alternatives that exist to markets—be it socialism, social democracy, corporatism, etc.—are just not as good as the market at solving the key economic problems of our time.

Hartmann: Do the people in Trump’s winning margin believe that?

Gregg: Clearly, many of them are skeptical about markets.

Hartmann: Because they’ve lost out.

Gregg: Many people do get left behind in particular ways when we go through technological and economic transformations. If you’re a 55-year-old coal miner in Pennsylvania and you lose your job, it’s just not easy to get up and move to Silicon Valley and start a tech firm. We have to come up with much-better ways of trying to manage those transitions.

Now, I would also point out that, thanks to free trade, what you pay for clothes, food and consumer goods and services in general is much lower. Over time, free trade makes more goods and services more accessible and cheaper. But these facts don’t necessarily resonate with those who believe that they have been net losers from economic globalization.

I also think that there’s a tendency for some conservatives—this is one of my critiques of some writers at First Things—to articulate rather econocentric explanations for social problems, ranging from opiate abuse to unemployment, in certain categories of the population.

My response to this type of argument is to acknowledge that there is an economic dimension to these challenges. But do we think that the Sexual Revolution has had nothing to do with the breakdown of family and marriage? Do we think that the removal of stigma being attached to young people, particularly young men, who don’t want to work has had no consequences? Do we think that changing social mores are not in some way responsible for why people seek consolation in drugs? Does the effective degeneration of many religious institutions from being incubators of virtue into vaguely religious social-justice warriors has nothing to do with these problems?

I don’t deny that there is an economic dimension to some of these things, but there’s a whole range of social and cultural causes at work. I’m puzzled that First Things is—

Schmidt: Considering its origins …

Gregg: Right. They’ve always taken culture deeply seriously, and they write very interesting things on these subjects, now as well as in the past. But I’m puzzled why, when it comes to some of these social pathologies, they leap for the economic explanation. I worry that they are also drifting towards government-first solutions to these problems.

Hartmann: There’s too much materialism in conservatives’ criticism of markets? Too much reason, not enough faith?

Gregg: The irony is that many of the explanations that we’re hearing for our present social ills from some conservatives are highly materialistic explanations of why things have gone wrong.

Hartmann: So what can best be offered by conservatives moving forward?

Gregg: It’s not that people aren’t persuadable by reason. It’s not a question of giving up the arguments. We do, however, have to be more creative when we explain these things, and more attentive to what is happening in people’s lives.

Schmidt: Whatever the delivery mechanism, is conservatism currently equipped to explain these things?

Gregg: I think it’s worth keeping in mind that the right, so to speak, has always been divided about many issues. People like Russell Kirk and Friedrich Hayek disagreed with each other about some important questions—not just some economic issues, but all sorts of social and cultural subjects. There have also always been foreign-policy disagreements.

All these divisions have always been there. That’s not a bad thing, because I think it’s important that ideas are kept fresh, that there’s internal debate, so that we clarify what we do believe and what we don’t believe, what we think is important and unimportant, and what are our priorities.

We also have to identify areas where these different groups can work together. I’ve spent more time over the past four years debating people on the right than I have on the left, but we can’t forget that there’s a left out there that wants to destroy us.

Giving and gratitude, and ideas and innovation

Hartmann: What should philanthropy do then? I guess there’d be ideas, policies, marketing. You work at Acton, which would be in the ideas business.

Gregg: Mainly ideas, yes, but Acton is also in the education business as an extension of that.

Hartmann: These are long-term philanthropic investments, many might say.

Gregg: I would never presume to tell people in philanthropy what to do. I don’t like second-guessing people in that business. They have a sense of what works, what doesn’t work. They have a good sense of when you need to change, when you don’t, how you stick with certain things, or how you repackage things, etc. I’m just grateful they’re there and are willing to fund organizations like Acton, which are trying to explain our ideas and magnify their impact.

I think philanthropy in the United States, particularly conservative philanthropy, does a pretty good job. Compare it to the way that conservative philanthropy operates outside the United States, to the extent that it even exists. It’s incredibly weak.

In the United States, it seems to me that conservative philanthropy knows the limits to what can be achieved through politics per se. It’s also good at picking out particular niches.

People like me need to be aware of those things. We need to be more consultative with people in philanthropy, because they see things that we don’t. These are just some of the reasons why I’m very reluctant to tell those conservative American philanthropists and foundations which support conservative and classical liberal causes what to do.

Hartmann: If conservative philanthropy’s so good, why is conservatism in its current situation?

Gregg: I like to think about it by comparing the United States to other countries. Conservatism in the United States is in spectacular shape compared to, say, Europe, or Canada, or most other Anglophone countries.

The second thing is we have to understand that—well, you know this better than I do—but my understanding is that conservative philanthropy is a fraction of the overall philanthropy that’s done in the United States, much of which is not particularly political.

That said, there’s plenty of big liberal, left-wing philanthropy. It’s much bigger than conservative philanthropy in terms of dollars and resources. The left also controls the universities, with a very few exceptions, and the means of cultural production more generally. They control most of the media. When you think about all the resources—both monetary and institutional—that the left has , I think that conservative philanthropy punches way above its weight.

Reason and faith

Hartmann: How off-balance are we between reason and faith?

Gregg: One of the central arguments of my book Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization is that if you want to understand the genius of Western civilization, it’s because it achieved a synthesis between reason and faith in a way that no other civilization has. When that gets out of kilter, we see all sorts of pathologies start to develop—pathologies of faith and pathologies of reason. The master lecture to read on this subject is Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg address. In 3,800 words, he lays out the civilizational challenge of our time.

Pope Benedict XVI (Wikimedia Commons)

We see pathologies of faith and reason at work now. A pathology of reason would be something like what is called “scientism”—the notion that the natural sciences are the only sure way of knowing truth and anything that doesn’t fit into the empirical sciences is relative, subjective, etc. That’s a very prominent way of thinking in many Western countries today. Many intellectuals talk like that all the time. That’s a pathology of reason.

A pathology of faith would be something like the rampant sentimental humanitarianism that you find in religious organizations today. For example, when we constantly hear talk about love and caring for people—all of  which is good, but Christianity and Judaism have always said that these things need to be informed by reason, because love without reason and truth becomes sentimentalism. Sentimentalism is when you treat people like puppies, like little toys.

Schmidt: This is Daniel Mahoney’s point.

Gregg: Right, exactly. He talks a great deal about that. He notes that we hear a lot of religious leaders using sentimental humanitarian language. And it usually involves a concern for reason and truth going out the door, because reason is somehow seen as “rigid” and inattentive to people’s feelings. Well, I think that it is sentimentalism which hurts people because it involves infantilizing them. The rampant sentimental humanitarianism that we see in so many religious groups today   is what happens to faith when it is severed from reason.

The flip side to this is another pathology of reason, which we call jihadist fundamentalism. This expression of Islam has little time for reason. It’s all about the will. God is just pure will, and we just obey. That’s not the Jewish understanding of God. There’s not the Christian understanding of God. It’s one form of Islam which has emerged over time. I think we’re in considerable trouble, in light of the West’s inability to speak about this issue.

Schmidt: Like the reaction to Benedict.

Gregg: Yes. Benedict’s Regensburg lecture was not primarily about Islam. It was about us who live in the civilization that we call the West. His whole argument was to explain how this synthesis of reason and faith unraveled over time in the West and how various pathologies of faith and reason now act as a type of straitjacket on how we think about ourselves and the world.

It sounds abstract and detached. But it has very important implications for how Western society understands itself and whether it can resist these pathologies, which keep rearing their heads over and over and over again.

Marxism is another example of a pathology of faith. If you look at Marxism, it’s got all the structure of a pseudo-religion. It has its prophets—Marx, Engels, Lenin. They have saints—Che Guevara. They have sacred books—Das Kapital, the works of Engels, etc. They have a church-like structure called the Communist party. They have a hierarchy within that party that goes up to the General Secretary. You have a General Committee. It has orthodoxies that you can’t stray from. If you stray from these dogmas, you’re a heretic. Marxism is a classic example of a type of a pathology of faith.

It’s also a pathology of reason, though, because Marxists believe that the only type of reason that exists is that which is empirical. Scientism is part and parcel of Marxism.

Schmidt: There’s a new book out from Jonathan Israel at Princeton, distinguishing the Enlightenment from the Radical Enlightenment. If you’re positing that as something to be explored as not the truth, but an understanding of the truth, then we’re actually at the radical Jacobin stage, which also took Robespierre. That is what we’re wrestling with, I think.

Gregg: I think you made an important distinction there. By the way, Joseph Ratzinger makes these distinctions over and over again.

He doesn’t see the various Enlightenments as being monolithically bad. Catholics often fall into the trap of seeing the Enlightenment as something which was universally hostile to religion and faith. But the American Enlightenment was not an anti-religious phenomenon. Nor was the Scottish Enlightenment. In fact, most of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were ministers of the Church of Scotland. If you look at the later French Enlightenment, it was clearly anti-religious, but you also find many people of faith engaging with the new learning promoted by Enlightenment thinkers while not abandoning their faith in God, let alone doubting the reasonableness of Christianity.

That’s a subtle and nuanced understanding of history, which I think is very relevant to some of our discussions about reason and faith.

Schmidt: We’ve tried to emphasize a balance between societal sectors in some of our stuff.

Gregg: Well, there are certainly some reasons for worry about what you might call imbalance as we move forward. There are quite a few people, who are called “integralists,” who basically reject the American Founding. They’re very clear about this. They see the Enlightenment as basically a negative experience—including the American Enlightenment and the Scottish Enlightenment. They regard these movements of ideas as fundamentally problematic and irredeemable.

But I don’t think that integralism has an accurate grasp of the history of ideas. There are many good things that some Enlightenments brought to fruition. Where would we be today without the Scottish Enlightenment? I think we would be living in a much less-hospitable world. Where we be without the rapid development of the empirical sciences, which took off at least partly because of important Enlightenment thinkers like Newton, who, by the way, was a believing Christian? Where would we be without these people?

The other thing, which Joseph Ratzinger has said on a number of occasions, is that there are aspects of the Enlightenment that provided important correctives to problems in the Christian world. Would we have religious liberty as we understand it today, for example, in the United States without the Enlightenment? I’m not sure we would.

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