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“There’s not a dull or insignificant page in the whole volume. . . . I don’t think we get better, or more consequential, commentary on the modern crisis than Mr. George affords us.”
“Brilliant theoretical argument . . . Should be required reading in colleges across the nation.” —Commentary
“George’s claim to that title [‘This country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker’] is made abundantly clear in this collection of incisive, accessible essays, which seek to expose and confront the dogmas of liberal secularism while also directing and deepening modern conservatism. . . . Intended for a wide audience, the book deserves one.” —Claremont Review of Books
“A primer in civics and a guide to addressing the cultural Leviathan . . . George’s incomparable expertise will give even the most seasoned reader new insights.” —Catholic World Report
Praise for Robert P. George
“A fascinating mind at work: brilliant, of course, and learned, but, above all, tenacious. Robert George is the bulldog of American intellectuals—grasping hold of a topic and refusing to let it go until he’s gotten to the bone.” —Weekly Standard
“This country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” —New York Times Magazine
“One of the nation’s most respected legal theorists . . . Even people who profoundly disagree with some of his conclusions [respect] his sheer brilliance, the analytic power of his arguments, the range of his knowledge . . . [and] a deeply principled conviction, a profound and enduring integrity.” —Elena Kagan, Supreme Court justice
“One of the most incisive legal and moral thinkers working today.” —First Things
“One of contemporary conservatism’s intellectual pinups.” —George F. Will
“George has done a great service in demonstrating that traditional morality still has an authoritative role to play in modern life, and in showing how a person of faith can enter the public square fearlessly, unashamedly, intelligently, and, above all, reasonably.” —National Review
“An indispensable man.” —Touchstone
“Professor George has helped strengthen our nation’s system of ordered liberty by exploring enduring questions of American constitutional law and Western political theory.” —President George W. Bush, in awarding the Presidential Citizens Medal
COMMON PRINCIPLES, COMMON FOES
SOME PEOPLE THINK that the alliance of social and economic conservatives is at best a marriage of convenience. I couldn't disagree more. Basic shared principles should lead serious social conservatives to be economic conservatives as well. And those same principles should lead serious economic conservatives to be social conservatives.
A sound conservatism will, as a matter of principle, honor limited government, restrained spending, honest money, and low taxes, while upholding the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and the protection of the innocence of children.
The Pillars of a Decent Society
Any healthy society, any decent society, will rest on three pillars. The first is respect for the human person—the individual human being and his dignity. Where this pillar is in place, the formal and informal institutions of society, and the beliefs and practices of the people, will be such that every member of the human family, irrespective not only of race, sex, or ethnicity but also of age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency, is treated as a person—that is, as a subject bearing profound, inherent, and equal worth and dignity.
A society that does not nurture respect for the human person—beginning with the child in the womb, and including the mentally and physically impaired and the frail elderly—will sooner or later (probably sooner rather than later) come to regard human beings as mere cogs in the larger social wheel whose dignity and well-being may legitimately be sacrificed for the sake of the collectivity. Some members of the community—those in certain development stages, for example—will come to be regarded as disposable. Others—those in certain conditions of dependency, for example—will come to be viewed as intolerably burdensome, as "useless eaters," as "better off dead," as Lebensunwertes lebens ("life unworthy of life").
In their most extreme modern forms, totalitarian regimes reduce the individual to an instrument to serve the ends of the fascist state or the future communist utopia. When liberal democratic regimes go awry, it is often because a utilitarian ethic reduces the human person to a means rather than an end to which other things, including the systems and institutions of law, education, and the economy, are means. The abortion license against which we struggle today is dressed up by its defenders in the language of individual and even natural rights, and there can be no doubt that the acceptance of abortion is partly the fruit of me-generation liberal ideology—a corruption (and burlesque) of liberal political philosophy in its classical form. But more fundamentally it is underwritten by a utilitarian ethic that, in the end, vaporizes the very idea of natural rights, treating the idea (in Jeremy Bentham's famously dismissive words) as "nonsense on stilts."
In cultures in which religious fanaticism has taken hold, the dignity of the individual is typically sacrificed for the sake of tragically misbegotten theological ideas and goals. By contrast, a liberal democratic ethos, where it is uncorrupted by utilitarianism or megeneration expressive individualism, supports the dignity of the human person by giving witness to basic human rights and liberties. Where a healthy religious life flourishes, faith in God provides a grounding for the dignity and inviolability of the human person by, for example, proposing an understanding of each and every member of the human family, even someone of a different faith or professing no particular faith, as a person made in the image and likeness of the divine Author of our lives and liberties.
The second pillar of any decent society is the institution of the family. It is indispensable. The family, based on the marital commitment of husband and wife, is the original and best ministry of health, education, and welfare. Although no family is perfect, no institution matches the healthy family in its capacity to transmit to each new generation the understandings and traits of character—the values and virtues—on which the success of every other institution of society, from law and government to educational institutions and business firms, vitally depends.
Where families fail to form, or too many break down, the effective transmission of the virtues of honesty, civility, self-restraint, concern for the welfare of others, justice, compassion, and personal responsibility is imperiled. Without these virtues, respect for the dignity of the human person, the first pillar of a decent society, will be undermined and sooner or later lost—for even the most laudable formal institutions cannot uphold respect for human dignity where people do not have the virtues that make that respect a reality and give it vitality in actual social practices.
Respect for the dignity of the human being requires more than formally sound institutions; it also requires a cultural ethos in which people act from conviction to treat one another as human beings should be treated: with respect, civility, justice, compassion. The best legal and political institutions ever devised are of little value where selfishness, contempt for others, dishonesty, injustice, and other types of immorality and irresponsibility flourish. Indeed, the effective working of governmental institutions themselves depends on most people, most of the time, obeying the law out of a sense of moral obligation, not merely out of fear of detection and punishment for law-breaking. And perhaps it goes without saying that the success of business and a market-based economic system depends on there being reasonably virtuous, trustworthy, law-abiding, promise-keeping people to serve as workers and managers, lenders, regulators, and payers of bills for goods and services.
The third pillar of any decent society is a fair and effective system of law and government. This is necessary because none of us is perfectly virtuous all the time, and some people will be deterred from wrongdoing only by the threat of punishment. More important, contemporary philosophers of law tell us that the law coordinates human behavior for the sake of achieving common goals—the common good—especially in dealing with the complexities of modern life. Even if all of us were perfectly virtuous all the time, we would still need a system of laws (considered as a scheme of authoritatively stipulated coordination norms) to accomplish many of our common ends (safely transporting ourselves on the streets, to take a simple example).
The success of business firms and the economy as a whole depends vitally on a fair and effective system and set of institutions for the administration of justice. We need judges skilled in the craft of law and free of corruption. We need to be able to rely on courts to settle disputes, including disputes between parties who act in good faith, and to enforce contracts and other agreements and enforce them in a timely manner. Indeed, the knowledge that contracts will be enforced is usually sufficient to ensure that courts will not actually be called on to enforce them. A sociological fact of which we can be certain is this: where there is no reliable system to administer justice—no confidence that the courts will hold people to their obligations under the law—business will not flourish and everyone in the society will suffer.
Decency and Dynamism
If these three pillars are in place, a society can be a decent one even if it is not a dynamic one. Now, conservatives of a certain stripe believe that a truly decent society cannot be a dynamic one. Dynamism, they believe, causes instability that undermines the pillars of a decent society. So some conservatives in old Europe and even the United States opposed not only industrialism but even the very idea of a commercial society, fearing that commercial economies inevitably produce consumerist and acquisitive materialist attitudes that corrode the foundations of decency. And some, such as several Amish communities in the United States, reject education for their children beyond what is necessary to master reading, writing, and arithmetic, on the ground that higher education leads to worldliness and apostasy and undermines religious faith and moral virtue.
Although a decent society need not be a dynamic one (as the Amish example shows), dynamism need not erode decency. We can strongly support a market-based economy if we understand it correctly, and defend it, as part of a larger whole, where moral values and virtues are honored and nurtured. We can affirm the commercial economy without fearing that it will necessarily take us down the road to corruption. A dynamic society need not be one in which consumerism and materialism become rife and in which moral and spiritual values disappear.
Even some on the Left have taken up the argument that the market system and business generally tend to crowd out moral and spiritual values. Although I applaud those of my liberal colleagues who have rediscovered moral and spiritual values as something important, some of these critics seem to be giving lip service to such values as a pretext to bash an economic system that has been the greatest antipoverty mechanism ever created. The market system is an engine of social mobility and of economic growth from which all benefit.
In fact, I venture to say that the market economy will almost certainly play a positive moral role when the conditions are in place to sustain it over the long run. So what makes social dynamism possible? The two pillars of social dynamism are, first, institutions of research and education that push back the frontiers of knowledge across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences and that transmit knowledge to students and disseminate it to the public at large; and, second, business firms and associated institutions that generate, widely distribute, and preserve wealth.
We can think of universities and business firms, together with respect for the dignity of the human person, the institution of the family, and the system of law and government, as the five pillars of decent and dynamic societies. The university and the business firm depend in various ways for their well-being on the well-being of the others, and they can help to support the others in turn. At the same time, ideologies and practices hostile to the pillars of a decent society can manifest themselves in higher education and in business, and these institutions can erode the social values on which they themselves depend not only for their own integrity but also for their long-term survival.
It is all too easy to take the pillars for granted, especially for people who are living in circumstances of general affluence. So it is important to remember that each of them has come under attack from different angles and forces. Operating from within universities, persons and movements have expressed hostility to one or the other of these pillars, usually preaching or acting in the name of high ideals.
Attacks on business and the very idea of the market economy and economic freedom coming from the academic world are well known. Students are sometimes taught to hold business, and especially businesspeople, in contempt as heartless exploiters driven by greed. In my own days as a student, these attacks were often made explicitly in the name of Marxism. One notices less of that after the collapse of the Soviet empire, but the attacks themselves have abated little. Needless to say, where businesses behave unethically, they play into the stereotypes of the enemies of the market system and facilitate their effort to smear business and the free market for the sake of transferring greater control of the economy to government.
Similarly, attacks on the family, and particularly on the institution of marriage on which the family is built, are common in the academy. The line here is that the family, at least as traditionally constituted and understood, is a patriarchal and exploitative institution that oppresses women and imposes on people forms of sexual restraint that are psychologically damaging and that inhibit the free expression of their personality. As has become clear in recent decades, there is a profound threat to the family, one against which we must fight with all our energy and will. It is difficult to think of any item on the domestic agenda that is more critical today than the defense of marriage as the union of husband and wife and the effort to renew and rebuild the marriage culture.
What has also become clear is that the threats to the family (and to the sanctity of human life) are necessarily threats to religious freedom and to religion itself—at least where the religions in question stand up and speak out for conjugal marriage and the rights of the child in the womb. From the point of view of those seeking to redefine marriage and to protect and advance what they regard as the right to abortion, the taming of religion (and the stigmatization and marginalization of religions that refuse to be tamed) is a moral imperative.
Some will counsel that economic conservatives have no horse in this race. They will say that these are moral, cultural, and religious disputes about which businesspeople and others concerned with economic freedom need not concern themselves. The reality is that the ideological movements that today seek to redefine marriage and abolish its normativity for romantic relations and the rearing of children are the same movements that seek to undermine the market-based economic system and replace it with statist control of vast areas of economic life. Moreover, the rise of ideologies hostile to marriage and the family has had a measurable social impact, and its costs are counted in ruined relationships, damaged lives, and all that follows in the social sphere from these personal catastrophes. In many poorer places in the United States, families are simply failing to form and marriage is disappearing or coming to be regarded as an optional "lifestyle choice"—one among various ways of conducting relationships and having and rearing children.
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard professor who was then working in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, shocked Americans by reporting findings that the out-of-wedlock birthrate among African Americans had reached nearly 25 percent. He warned that the phenomenon of boys and girls being raised without fathers in poorer communities would result in social pathologies that would severely harm those most in need of the supports of solid family life.
His predictions were all too quickly verified. The widespread failure of family formation portended disastrous social consequences of delinquency, despair, violence, drug abuse, and crime and incarceration. A snowball effect resulted in the further growth of the out-ofwedlock birthrate. It is now over 70 percent among African Americans. It is worth noting that at the time of Moynihan's report, the out-of-wedlock birthrate for the population as a whole was almost 6 percent. Today, that rate is over 40 percent.
These are profoundly worrying statistics, with the negative consequences being borne not so much by the affluent as by those in the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of our society. When my liberal colleagues in higher education say, "You guys shouldn't be worried so much about these social issues, about abortion and marriage; you should be worrying about poverty," I say, "If you were genuinely worried about poverty, you would be joining us in rebuilding the marriage culture." Do you want to know why people are trapped in poverty in so many inner cities? The picture is complex, but undeniably a key element of it is the destruction of the family and the prevalence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and fatherlessness.
The economic consequences of these developments are evident. Consider the need of business to have a responsible and capable workforce. Business cannot manufacture honest, hardworking people to employ. Nor can government create them by law. Businesses and governments depend on there being many such people, but they must rely on the family, assisted by religious communities and other institutions of civil society, to produce them. So business has a stake—a massive stake—in the long-term health of the family. It should avoid doing anything to undermine the family, and it should do what it can, where it can, to strengthen the institution.
As an advocate of dynamic societies, I believe in the market economy and the free-enterprise system. I particularly value the social mobility that economic dynamism makes possible. Indeed, I am a beneficiary of that social mobility. A bit over a hundred years ago, my immigrant grandfathers—one from southern Italy, the other from Syria—were coal miners. Neither had so much as remotely considered the possibility of attending a university; as a practical economic matter, such a thing was simply out of the question. At that time, Woodrow Wilson, the future president of the United States, was the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton. Today, just two generations forward, I, the grandson of those immigrant coal miners, am the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton. And what is truly remarkable is that my story is completely unremarkable. Something like it is the story of millions of Americans. Perhaps it goes without saying that this kind of upward mobility is not common in corporatist or socialist economic systems. It is very common in market-based free-enterprise economies.
Excerpted from Conscience and Its Enemies by Robert P. George. Copyright © 2013 Robert P. George. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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