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Capitalisn’t: A Conservative Critique of Capitalism
- September 22, 2023
- CBR - Capitalisnt
In his new book, Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, Notre Dame’s Patrick J. Deneen argues that the liberal ideology that has shaped capitalism for centuries has also failed to deliver on its promises of freedom, equality, and prosperity. Is he able to offer a compelling alternative that serves the interests of the common good over those of wealthy elites? On this episode of the Capitalisn’t podcast, Deneen joins hosts Bethany McLean and Luigi Zingales to discuss his proposed ‘regime change’ and its implications for capitalism and the market economy.
Patrick Deneen: There needs to be resistance to the way that the market logic wants to insinuate itself into every aspect of life. And if this is one aspect of capitalism that needs restraint, this is one area where I would be especially insistent.
Bethany: I’m Bethany McLean.
Phil Donahue: Did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism and whether greed’s a good idea?
Luigi: And I’m Luigi Zingales.
Bernie Sanders: We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.
Bethany: And this is Capitalisn’t, a podcast about what is working in capitalism.
Milton Friedman: First of all, tell me, is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed?
Luigi: And, most importantly, what isn’t.
Warren Buffett: We ought to do better by the people that get left behind. I don’t think we should kill the capitalist system in the process.
Bethany: While it’s easy to criticize capitalism, it is far more difficult to come up with a viable alternative. We’re always on the lookout for constructive criticisms coming from both the left, like Piketty and Varoufakis, and from the right, like Oren Cass. When we heard that Patrick Deneen, the author of Why Liberalism Failed, had just published a new book entitled Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, we were very eager to have him on the show.
Luigi: Please, don’t be scared by the title. Deneen is not planning a violent coup. The regime change he’s talking about is the peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class, and the creation of a postliberal order in which the existing political forms can remain in place, as long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions and the personnel who populate key offices and positions.
Bethany: I might disagree with you already, Luigi. I’m not sure that Deneen is planning a violent coup, but I think he is . . . well, not violent in the military sense, but I think he is planning a coup. We can debate how violent it might be.
In the English language, regime is both the form of government and the set of rules, cultural or social norms, et cetera, that regulate the operation of a government, that regulate our life. Deneen uses regime in the second meaning. He wants to replace the liberal regime with what he labels common-good conservatism.
Luigi: Now, if you want to understand Deneen and the conversation we’re going to have with him, you need to drop a lot of your preconceptions, particularly the traditional categories between the left and the right, in which the left are social progressives who want an economic safety net, and the right who want unfettered capitalism. That’s not Deneen’s model.
Deneen’s view is that the main distinction is between those who favor the elites—he calls them liberals—and those who favor the people.
Those who favor the people are a strange mix of Marxists and conservatives. Now, of course, there are differentiations within those two categories. What differentiates classical liberals—think about the Romney type—from progressive liberals—think about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—is their view of the attitude of the lower class.
Classical liberals see the lower classes as potentially revolutionary forces that will threaten the rule of law. That’s the reason why they’re so enamored of constitutional norms. The progressive liberals, on the other side, see the lower class as a conservative force that needs to be educated, even against their will.
A similar distinction exists in the other camp, so between Marxists and conservatives. Marxists see the proletariat as the engine of social progress. In contrast, conservatives see the lower classes as the defenders of traditional values, and in Deneen’s case, traditional Christian values.
Bethany: In a nutshell, although he might quibble with this, I think Deneen would identify as a conservative, and conservative in the sense of a social-conservative populist. He’s very contemptuous of liberals, both of the right and of the left variety. He’s not a Marxist, though, because he thinks the people are much more interested in stability than in revolutions.
Thus, in his view, we need to develop an elite that is aligned with the interests of the people. Even some of his proposals have a slightly Marxist flavor, like putting wage earners on corporate boards.
But I think in addition to this big difference that he’s not interested in revolution per se, his main difference with Marxism would be the religious component, the Christian component. He’s a very strong believer in Christianity. He wants to bring Christianity into public life through steps like public prayer and the closure of business on Christian holidays.
One of the things he writes is that he opposes progressivism in both economic and social domains. I’m very curious to talk to him about whether you can have progress without progressivism. Is opposing progress the same thing as opposing progressivism?
Luigi: His book does not have many economic recipes. He talks about improving domestic manufacturing capabilities through tariffs and subsidies and fighting immigration, even prosecuting bosses who employ undocumented immigrants. In fact, one of the reasons why we wanted to have him on our podcast is to hear firsthand what his proposals are and what he thinks about an economic regime change.
Reading your book, I felt your book was not just a criticism of liberalism but also a criticism of capitalism. You don’t like the preference for creative destruction over stability that capitalism has, or the focus on material, nonmoral progress and the myth of constant progress.
Yet if I have to be honest, in your book, I don’t see a lot of discussion about economic alternatives. I don’t think a real regime change can take place without an economic change. What changes do you desire to implement in the economic sphere?
Patrick Deneen: Thanks, and thanks for having me on. That’s an excellent question. I would say that at least implicit in the argument of the book is a fairly radical proposal, as you point out, which is that the presumption that all economic changes, all economic transformations, are presumptively good or necessary is something I want to begin by challenging in this book. Of course, I’m not the first to do this, but it does seem to me that there’s been a kind of weakening of the view that there can be an external source of judgment about market phenomena.
This is a view that’s weakened, it seems to me, on both the left and the right today. One of the areas where this has been, it seems to me, at least in the past, something that people have been willing to think about is the impact of changes, market changes, transformations that come from the world of the marketplace, from the economic world, and their impacts on the kind of way of life, the continuity, the forms of life that people have become accustomed to.
That’s a form of thinking and a thinking about the nature of a good order—good political and economic order—that has tended to fall by the wayside as a general civilizational fact today and deserves, it seems to me, some considerable reassessment.
Bethany: Would you describe yourself as a believer in capitalism, or do you think capitalism itself needs to be abolished in order to move toward the kind of economic order that you’d like to envision? In other words, are you in maybe a little bit of Elizabeth Warren’s camp, capitalism with much stronger protections for workers, some of which you propose in your book, or do you believe that capitalism itself needs to go?
Patrick Deneen: I guess maybe we should get our terms straight. What do you mean by capitalism?
Bethany: I think of capitalism at its most extreme as an unfettered belief in the power of the market. I think of capitalism as most of us think about progressivism as a belief in the market but tempered by a lot of protection for workers.
My question is, is that tempered capitalism something that is part of regime change, or is it a complete abolishment of capitalism?
Patrick Deneen: I think we’re probably on the same page in the sense that there’s a place for the market, as you just said. When the question is, should we all be like Robinson Crusoe? Should we all attempt to basically do everything ourselves and create our own household that can be completely self-sufficient, or is it better for us and even more natural for us basically to focus and concentrate on one area of productivity, one area of work, one area where we seem to have particular talents, where we seem to have a particular calling?
As a result of this, we are put into a world in which we have to figure out how we’re going to exchange not just our products but our talents. But this is where I think the area of the market actually is necessary. It’s a part of our human life. If the alternative is the idea that we’re supposed to be self-sufficient and have our own huts or to be Robinson Crusoe, I think that’s unthinkable.
I think the extreme version of the market and of capitalism that you described is one in which it’s this utopian or dystopian idea of an unregulated and an unfettered free market. I would say, first of all, I think the actualization or realization of such a marketplace would be an absolute horror show, in which everything became subject to price mechanism, everything became subject to the logic of the market, which tends to have this reductionist quality to it that turns everything into a price, everything into something that can be bartered.
Now, we’re into the area of, what does a fettered market look like? I think you suggested one of those, which is those who are without wealth or status or power are going to be in a position of disadvantage, not only in a political sense, but also in the market sense. There needs to be a way of balancing that imbalance.
But I think there’s another area that I want to stress, and I think I do talk about a bit in the book, which is that there needs to be resistance to the way that the market logic wants to insinuate itself into every aspect of life. If this is one aspect of capitalism that needs restraint, this is one area where I would be especially insistent and why I think there’s a potential radical kernel to the arguments that I’m making, and it would constitute a kind of regime change.
It would mean putting up political protections but also changing a mindset about what it is and what areas of life we think it is appropriate to have these market forces become predominant in those areas.
Luigi: In your book, you emphasize the importance of the interests of the people and bringing the interests of the people into policy and this mixed regime that should take care of the people. My natural expectation would be to see some economic policy that maybe they are capitalists, but sort of a promarket populism. You’re one of the few people who use populism in a positive sense, and I subscribe to that. I like that.
But I would like to see some proposals, for example, very strong antitrust enforcement. This is beneficial to the people at large. Very strong white-collar crime enforcement. My main emphasis would be on higher progressivity in income taxes, possibly even a wealth tax above a very high threshold, like the one proposed by Senator Warren. Are you in favor of these proposals, and why were they missing from your book?
Patrick Deneen: Well, here I actually have to appeal to what I was just discussing, which is the natural and mysterious distribution of talents and abilities. I’m not going to stray too far from my own area of relative expertise, which is political philosophy, into the relatively more opaque and just, for me, the more treacherous waters of economic policy.
In one of the chapters of the book, which I think has been often critiqued, I kind of throw in a whole bunch of various proposals, some of which are economic in nature, some of which are social in nature, some of which are cultural, educational.
You’re right that the book could have included a much more well-developed economic set of proposals, which I think would have to be a part of this. But here, I just have to acknowledge my own limitations in thinking about and crafting economic policy. But I will point to a few that I thought at least overlapped my interest in encourag-ing the idea of a mixed regime and your rightful insistence that there be a much more programmatic economic approach.
I talk, for example, about the need to develop an industrial policy, especially to encourage an increase in domestic manufacturing and protection of domestic manufacturing. Here, I would say that if you’re going to have a robust working class that’s going to have political power, this, you could say, is the precondition for that. A precondition for a strong labor movement, a strong union movement, would be an actual manufacturing base in the country.
One of the ways in which labor has been significantly weakened and the ability of labor to organize has been the decimation of our manufacturing base and its replacement with a service industry, in which the jobs are extremely precarious and the ability to organize, it seems to me, is even more difficult. I do talk about unions and especially private-sector unions as an essential part of mixing, pushing back against especially economic elites.
I’m a critic, I think, in the book of the financialization of our economy, which I think creates a whole variety of really bad incentives for short-term thinking or investment in ways that don’t actually create genuine value in an objective, productive sense, but instead churn money and churn the abstract value. I’ll acknowledge that I could have done more, but I have to acknowledge my own limits.
Luigi: Going back a bit, I find your attentions to unions very important, private-sector unions. Now, you live in Indiana, a state with the so-called right to work that we know really weakens the power of unions. Are you in favor of abolishing the right to work in the state of Indiana to make unions more power-ful?
Patrick Deneen: I would be open to that. I mean, I don’t know. When you say abolishing, I assume you mean at the level of the state?
Luigi: Yes. Yeah.
Patrick Deneen: It’s one of those things where federalism proves often to be a benefit—we can have a variety of different kinds of state policies—but it can also prove to be a difficulty and a challenge. It seems to me that one of the areas where federalism can often prove to be a difficulty is that it can put states into a condition where, in order to compete for their domestic economic circumstances, they will lower the bar, often in their own states, in order to encourage certain kinds of businesses to enter.
We see this as well with the building of stadiums, the kind of tax incentives you get at the level of states. But in the American system, there’s not a lot of ways around this and what can often be a race to the bottom.
We’re still living in this kind of strange aftermath of the last 50 years, in which the political right spent a lot of time lambasting unions—not entirely without cause, because unions created a situation in which with rising global competition, it created some degree of inability of firms and businesses to be able to compete and increasingly pushed them to send manufacturing overseas. This led to a decimation of the working class and the manufacturing classes. And yet, at the same time, you have a growth of a populism that the right has, in many ways, embraced with a working-class base that has been often at the receiving end of these ill effects of these decisions. It’s interesting to me.
I would suggest keeping an eye on this, the extent to which you have a growing number, it’s a small number, but a growing number of people on the right, I think given shifts of the electoral base of the right, who are becoming open to questions and new possibilities for unions as one way of beginning to address the condition of a working class that seems to be shifting more to voting on the right side of the political spectrum than, as it traditionally has, on the left side of the political spectrum.
Bethany: I read your book as a strong if implicit critique of inequality. A two-part question. One is, what do you think distinguishes your view of inequality from, say, someone very much on the radical left like a Thomas Piketty? And secondly, as a political philosopher, what degree of inequality between people is acceptable? Is part of what you’re after the eradication of all inequality, or is there some degree of inequality that you view as natural and acceptable?
Patrick Deneen: It’s interesting, Bethany, you would draw that from the book. It is a critique of inequality at a certain level, but it’s also, I think throughout, an acknowledgement that there’s always inequality. Even if we could equalize material inequality, which I think already would be in the opposite direction of the unfettered market, it would be a dystopia. It would require a dystopian set of political arrangements. But let’s say it were possible to completely equalize our material inequality. I think there would still be forms of inequality that would emerge.
It would be inequality . . . human beings just find ways of . . . We compete. We seek to establish my superiority over you, your superior over me, my status. We would find ways to express certain kinds of inequality.
I think it’s just, again, built into the nature of the thing, the nature of the beast that we are. If inequality is inevitable, and I would include in that economic inequality, then I think we’re back at the somewhat more pragmatic, prudential questions of how it is that we can have inequality in ways that aren’t demeaning, in ways that aren’t dehumanizing.
Throughout the book, I rely on some arguments in thinking of Aristotle and Aquinas, and in particular arguments about what is the nature of human flourishing. I think Aristotle or Aquinas would acknowledge that a certain level of economic material goods is a fundamental requirement of human flourishing, as creatures that need a certain amount of food and shelter and so forth. Those ought to be the aim and understanding of a good political order to provide for those. If it can’t be provided through the pure market mechanism, then the political order ought to be responsible for affording those.
I think there’s also ways that we can think about flourishing that often I think those on the left are not as willing to think about, and those fall into the more, I think we would describe them as culture-war issues. We have lots of data, lots of ways that people have studied how our relationality is a fundamental requirement of human flourishing.
Obviously, family and the stability of families, the likelihood and capacity of people to marry and to stay married, the likelihood and capacity of those married people to be able to bring into the world children and raise those children in an increasingly difficult world. Once you have the economic conditions, at least minimal economic conditions, those seem to be equally the preconditions of a flourishing life. Here, I think we could be doing a lot more. I think those who are especially concerned with economic inequality tend to be less attentive to these parts of the equation.
That might be changing a little bit, but it seems to me that there’s been a division where the right-liberal side of the equation wants to emphasize the importance of family, going back to Reagan family values, while extolling this unfettered free market that often undermines the ability of families to create, especially at the lower end of the economic scale, flourishing, familial and communal lives, while the left has been much more attentive to economic inequality while being less attentive to the ways that family life is central and community life is central to human flourishing, I think because it’s seen as a form of oppression and judgmentalism today.
If we begin by acknowledging that there’s always likely to be a degree of inequality in our society, what do we do to make that relative inequality irrelevant to the prospects of human flourishing for those at the lower end at the economic scale? And that’s where I think a lot more of our attention should be.
Bethany: I think your argument is that those who have traditionally been less privileged, the working class, however we want to phrase it, are also more conservative. Not in the political definition of the word conservative, but in the definition of the word conservative, or to use your words, the common people find progressivism destabilizing. I want to push on whether you’re sure that that’s broadly true.
I grew up in an area of the country called the Iron Range, which actually ties perfectly into your discussions about unions. It was a very heavily Democratic area that voted for Trump starting in 2016. I agree, on that front, this broad economic progressivism has been destabilizing. But if you grew up Black in the South, if you grew up female, you like at least some aspects of progress. It may be destabilizing, but it’s been good. How do you distinguish between good and bad progress, good and bad progressivism?
Patrick Deneen: Yeah, that’s a great question. We tend to use this word progress to describe a lot of different things. At least as I’m using it, it’s not to suggest that arguments against progress should be admired and respected and recognized if it is a defense of an egregious form of inequality. I think that that’s one area where the language of progress has tended to often be used when we actually mean justice. I actually want to reclaim the language of justice and to say that justice isn’t necessarily progress.
To be a just society isn’t necessarily to be a society that’s progressing; it’s to become more just. Now, maybe that’s just semantic. But there’s a way in which progress as a word, as a concept, is bound up in an idea. Of course, it’s a kind of 19th-century idea of historical movement, of generative movement, of change, of constant improvement. It necessarily means that the past was a worse time than the present, and that the present is and will be a worse time than the future.
It then leads to a kind of almost implicit war between generations, that older generations are therefore backward-looking, older, regressive. Newer generations are by definition more progressed, more with it, more au courant. I want to resist the more conceptual ideas of progress with the positive valence that it has in the American tradition, which I think is also relatively . . . I don’t want to say it’s relatively new, but it hasn’t been uncontested in American history. In other words, the idea that progress is always good has not been an uncontested subject.
For example, right now, we’re in a big debate or seeming debate about AI. The person who takes the progressive position has the tailwind in our presumptively progressive society of saying: “This is inevitable. There’s no stopping this. Any argument to the opposite just has no place in our public space. It’s just irrelevant to the trajectory of the civilization.” I would want to say that as moral creatures, as creatures who can reflect and make decisions and have policies, that it’s absolutely our responsibility to have discussions and debates and to make decisions.
Bethany: Another big, broad question for me: one of the foundational documents of the United States has often been viewed as a liberal statement, namely, the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Very much a liberal statement. Is part of regime change also rewriting the Declaration of Independence to include something else?
Patrick Deneen: No, but it’s putting the Declaration in a broader context. There were many motivations that moved people to independence, among those the freedom to practice their religion. Now, the people who wanted to practice their religion did so, in some ways, under the umbrella of believing that a free society that allowed them to practice their religion was good, but it wasn’t in order to be liberal. In fact, it was the opposite.
You could say that a lot of the religious traditions even then, certainly then and even today, are not themselves liberal. They don’t begin with a view of the human person as this autonomous, rights-bearing creature that seeks to maximize their individual liberty, often requiring them to be disassociated from potential webs of obligation and responsibility to other people. The teachings of many of those religious traditions that were at that time being appealed to were the opposite. I think the danger, and I think especially in the latter part of the 20th century, I think there are really historical reasons why the Declaration has taken on this particularly strong influence and identity for Americans.
It became, in some ways—I think certainly for the right, the liberal right, the libertarian right, it became the form of self-identity, and then increasingly of the left, too—the way in which Americans could define what we were, precisely because what we were was less and less evident to us. We were, of course, becoming very different. We were becoming very different religiously, less homogenous, less racially homogenous, and so forth.
The Declaration seemed to be a sufficient way of describing what we were, what made us common, and in particular, against the threat of the Soviet Union—first fascism and then the Soviet Union—that we were a liberal people as opposed to that. I think we’ve reached a point in which to be a liberal people may not be sufficient to be a nation, to be a republic.
At a certain level—and I’ll put on my political theory hat now—to be a republic requires us to be something far more than merely liberal citizens, to be these rights-bearing creatures, because we have to be citizens. We have to be self-governing. We have to be responsible. We have to be committed. We have to be capable of self-sacrifice. We have to be capable of striving toward the common good, and there’s a deep tension between the liberal philosophy that, on the one hand, was part of our founding and the republican nature of our government that requires a certain kind of citizenry.
I think if there was a time when the Declaration was perhaps understandably ascendant—or its philosophy, I should say—I think we’re maybe at a valence point where different strands of our tradition are really necessary for us to rediscover and to shore up, particularly because taken to an extreme, these liberal identities actually will undermine the republican experiment of self-government.
Bethany: One of the core tenets of America’s founding has been the right to religious freedom. Would you argue that that has gone too far and has led to a form of secularism that you think is dangerous? And if so, how would you rewrite that aspect of American life? Do you think people should be free to pursue religious freedom, even if that means no religion at all, or do you think religion needs to have a more central role in modern life?
Patrick Deneen: In the book, I do have a concluding section where I talk about the central importance of prayer. I use a text called Prayer as a Political Problem by a Jesuit priest, Jean Daniélou, a French author, who speaks of prayer as, in some ways, especially difficult and challenging for the working classes. It’s especially difficult when one spends a lot of one’s day in the hard work, physical labor, and preoccupied with just making ends meet. The condition of being prayerful can be difficult or challenging and why a good society renders our capacity and even encouragement to prayer on a kind of equal level.
It sounds strange to say that, but all the same things we’ve been talking about, the need to create the conditions in which inequality is not a barrier to flourishing, that the modern mindset tends to think of this almost exclusively in the material domain. But one of the things Daniélou also speaks of, and I agree with, is that this also needs to be understood and considered in the spiritual realm. If Daniélou is right, and I think he is right, then we ought to be also attentive to the ways in which we should equalize the prospects and possibilities and opportuni-ties for prayer.
Now, what does that mean exactly? Well, it means among other things, one way that this was the case was to have a Sabbath, was to have a day of rest, was to have a day in which people didn’t have to work. This wasn’t just like you can have a day of the week where you don’t have to work; this was a day when commerce stopped. This was a day in which you said there’s a kind of sacred time when we’re not going to engage in that market activity.
What if there was a day of the week in which we said there’s going to be no commerce or hardly any commerce on this day? There’ll be no Amazon deliveries. The post office won’t be working. If it’s Sunday, it’s not going to be working on Sundays. Stores will be closed. You won’t be required to work. This also used to be the principle of the idea of holidays, which, of course, the word itself comes from holy days.
If it’s easier for the more secular ear to hear this in terms of, we should have days off, we should have days of the week in which there’s no work. We should have a constrained work week. We need to constrain the market, that’s fine.
But I actually think we need to be thinking as well about, how do we encourage ideals of reverence, ideals of thanksgiving, of being thoughtful to our inheritance and attentive to what we will leave behind? These are all a part of when I speak of this need for a prayerful mindset. These are all a part of these, and these seem to me as essential as a civilization to flourish as those material requirements.
Now, how does that translate into your question? I think we are so far from what I’ve just said to talking about, do we need to have an established religion, or do we need to have a particular religious set of beliefs? I think we are so far from that and that discussion. It’s purely in the realm of theory for me. Would I like to get closer to those discussions? Would it be of interest to me to say, “We should be unabashed as a society that was formed largely in the Christian tradition, in which most of the population is still Christian, that we should be unabashed in having certain holidays remain holidays?”
If it’s not your tradition, that’s perfectly good. I would be happy to have those conversations. But it seems to me we’re not quite there yet. To begin to get us into a mindset of at least being open and willing to discuss the need of a spiritual dimension that’s publicly recognized in our lives, I would be happy for that as a first step.
Luigi: Now, we’re running out of time, but I really want to ask you one last question because you’re raising the issue that the choice of being liberal in the United States, at least after World War II, was forced by product differentiation vis-à-vis the communists on the one side and the fascists on the other. Now, the communists are not really a threat anymore, but the fascists still are.
One of my concerns is, if I read it correctly, you recently visited Orban in Hungary. As we know, Orban has been declared by the European Union as . . . Hungary has been declared as not fully a democracy, where there have been violations of fundamental rights due to deliberate and systematic efforts of the Hungarian government. Aren’t you concerned about this trend? What do you see as desirable in Orban?
Patrick Deneen: Well, so, yes, I was invited to Hungary to speak about my book. And then, as part of my visit there, I was invited to meet with the prime minister. I don’t think I would endorse everything that’s done by the Hungarian government, but nor do I think it’s the most . . . at least from what I understand and have seen, nor do I think it’s . . . I mean, you seem to suggest that there’s little to differentiate the Orban government from a fascist government. Was that the suggestion, that we have to worry about fascism, and therefore, the Orban government is what we should worry about?
Luigi: Yeah. What is the difference between a fascist government and the Orban govern-ment? That’s a good question.
Patrick Deneen: Well, why don’t you tell me, because I wouldn’t consider Hungary to be a fascist government? How are you defining fascist here?
Luigi: I think that when some fundamental freedoms are prohibited, when the media are controlled, and when there is a push toward the superiority of one race over the others, and it seems that all these characteristics are present in the Orban government.
Patrick Deneen: A media that is one-sided and fundamental rights are removed. . . so, is the United States a fascist government?
Luigi: Not yet. There is—
Patrick Deneen: OK, because what you just described sounded to me an awful lot like the United States. In other words, I think every country in every political order is going to have certain preferences for its own way of life.
But you described it as antidemocratic. As far as I know and as far as I understand, Orban was recently elected by not just a majority, an overwhelming majority. One would have to conclude that everyone is in a state of false consciousness that they voted so completely against their interests.
I think it’s the case that those who are liberal don’t like the Orban government. It may not be, and in fact, I think he has said that he is not a liberal, he prefers democracy. And I think that’s probably part of what’s at issue. He’s not going to embrace the liberal program. He’s not in favor of largely open borders. He’s not in favor of the trajectory of the modern university, with its embrace of identity politics and so forth. And that is enough, I think, to offend the sensibilities and beliefs of the modern, liberal nomenclature in the West and certainly in the EU.
But that doesn’t seem to me to be in any way, shape, or form tantamount to fascism. I think it’s a deep mischaracterization. But I’m not an expert in Hungary or Hungarian politics, so that’s about all I would want to say about that.
I guess, let me just raise what I see as an interesting counter question to you. You began your question by saying that we don’t have to worry about communists; what we have to worry about are fascists.
It’s interesting to me because right now, on the political right, what’s often described as the new right, the kind of more muscular, masculine, the Bronze Age, pervert type . . . This is the part of the right that I think you would be quite worried about as a potentially fascist development. Here’s where I think . . . It is unabashedly pro-Nietzsche. It’s unabashedly pro the rule of the strong over the weak. It regards Christianity as an unfortunate error in world history that will be overcome, hopefully soon, in their view.
It regards the current regime as essentially run by mid-talent women who have taken over most of the levers of power through HR departments and the like and working in administrations and are de-manning, unmanning, an entire generation of young men.
I say this because if your worry is fascism, this is where you should be looking. It’s right there under your nose, and it’s probably among a number of your students that would never admit it to you but are reading texts, are talking to each other, are in parts of a kind of anonymous Twitter or anonymous X world in which this philosophy is being developed.
This is where I think we’re more likely to see the development of a kind of fascist movement in the United States, which is the growing influence of this worldview, especially among a younger generation but on the right. This is where a few years ago Ross Douthat said, “If you don’t like Christian America, wait until you see post-Christian America.”
This is where people on the left, I think, need to be especially attentive to being more generous to Christians, whom they’ve spent probably several generations regarding as the worst, most dangerous, recidivist people imaginable. In some ways, the only thing between you and these people now is the extent to which Christians will remain Christian. Because this new right is a real possibility. It could gain considerable, if not dominant, influence in the conservative world.
Bethany: Luigi, what did you think? I get the impression that you may be a little bit more positive on this than I am.
Luigi: Actually, I have to say that at the beginning, it was a bit difficult because it reminded me a lot of priests at Sunday school in Italy when I was a kid. It seems to me that he doesn’t really respond very precisely to questions. He likes to give a broad view.
Bethany: Yeah, that’s what I thought. I feel like I let him off the hook on the question about capitalism by defining it just as a belief in markets. I didn’t define it as a belief in markets over central planning. But I thought his answer was evasive, and I don’t know that trying to pin him down about how much he believes in central planning would have resulted in anything more substantive.
In the end, when you give an answer like that, when you say, “Well, it’s natural for people to want to create little markets,” what does that actually mean about how you then organize an economy? Does that mean it’s natural for people to want to have a little bit of entrepreneurialism like in China and have little bits of capitalism, or does that mean a capitalist system? I don’t think he was ever clear what the economic system that he’s envisioning actually is.
Luigi: Actually, your example with China might be good because I think that he might be sympathetic to a version where you replace the Communist Party with a Catholic party, if you have a system that allows free enterprise, but everything is subordinated to a very powerful political authority. In the case of China, it’s the Communist Party. In this case, it would be some religious authority or some notion of the common good. My understanding is that he would be happy with that.
But honestly, he did answer because when I brought up Orban, he was quite defensive, but he was clearly in favor of what Orban is doing because he thinks that some of those values are very important. It’s important to subordinate individual freedom to the common good. Once you go down the path of the existence of a common good, with a capital C, you’re willing to sacrifice some of the individual freedoms we are used to.
Bethany: Yes, but I don’t think he was clear on what that means for an economic system. I think he was pretty clear, and in a way I found actually rather chilling, on what he envisions as the social order, but I do not think he was clear at all about how that translates into an economic order.
Luigi: This is where I am very cynical, but my impression with a lot of these right-wing leaders, especially like him, is that they try to have their cake and eat it, too. They try to be populist in words. But then, at the end of the day, they also like the support of rich donors. They can’t really alienate the rich donors by saying we want a progressive tax or a wealth tax. They are very vague on their economic proposals, and he was very smart at saying, “Oh, I’m not qualified. I don’t know much.”
But it was a way to evade the question because the only thing he really said is that he believes in less immigration and more tariffs and industrial policy. I don’t really see his agenda as different and innovative.
There is a potentially interesting line of thought in what he’s saying. When he talks about a mixed constitu-tion, he’s very vague in the book. I was a bit frustrated. What is this mixed constitution? And then, I asked around, and basically, this goes back to Aristotle and even more Polybius, who were trying to explain the success of Rome versus Athens.
Some people, including Polybius, thought that the success of Rome was due to the fact that there were mixed elements of a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy in the system of government. You have the Senate that is very oligarchic. You have the tribunes that are very democratic. That combination makes it difficult for one party to completely dominate. Here, I’m a bit sympathetic because I think that having multiple sources of power creates a little bit more of a balance.
One of the great advantages of the West, in my view, historically was that there was a moral authority and a political authority. They were not all concentrated in one person, and that created some dynamic that allowed some freedom in between. When you have political and religious, economic power, all concentrated in one person, in one group, that’s very, very restrictive of your freedom. But when there are a lot, there is more space to discuss. You might think about how we could change the system of representation to make, for example, the interests of the lower class better represented.
In the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s, there were a lot of representatives in Congress who were coming from the lower class. Today, there are much fewer, and I think that’s a loss.
Bethany: Is that true, though? I mean, I guess two points in response to that. One, are you sure that’s true? I think there are plenty of people in Congress who would pretend that they are all about the interests of the less economically privileged. We can ask whether that’s true or not.
In terms of what you’re talking about, about a government effectively with checks and balances, where all the power isn’t in the hands of one entity, I mean, that’s what the US is supposed to be. It’s gone wrong, in part due to the influence of money in politics, but it certainly is set up that way.
I’m not sure what he’s trying to advance that is so different than what we are supposed to be. My point is that if you are going to advance something, you need a corresponding economic system to go with it, because the economic system dictates who gets money and who doesn’t, and how people get money and how they achieve material riches. To pretend that you can set up this system of political equality without setting up a system that is clear on how the economics are going to work, just feels to me, again, either naive or cynical.
Luigi: I think that the unions, for example, would play a much bigger role in promoting people. And in that respect, he was at least coherent because he was saying we want stronger private-sector unions. He stressed private sector. But I think we need stronger private-sector unions, and I think that’s a way to provide an elevator for people from different origins. I think that that’s part of the story.
On the division of powers, you’re absolutely right, that was the fundamental principle of the United States. But as you correctly pointed out, I think that my summary is that over time, money has eroded that aspect, and as a result, money controls basically all three branches of government without much of a difference. There is not really a representation. Having, for example, one chamber being elected by being randomly sorted, like we discussed with Hélène Landemore, could be an attenuation element to it. I don’t know because I don’t have a solution, but I was hoping he would come up with something like that.
Especially if you have a book called Regime Change, you expect that you really want a regime change, which is not just a change in a way of thinking but also a change in institutions and why these institutions are better than others.
Bethany: I guess that’s what I can’t tell in the end. My point, I’ll say it again in a slightly different way, is that I can’t tell if by regime change he actually means something fairly innocuous that doesn’t really change that much, or if he actually means something quite draconian and dramatic that really is a regime change, and he’s just unwilling to say exactly what it is.
Luigi: The other thing that is missing in the book is that if you have a regime change, you’d better say how it’s going to change.
I loved your question about the idea that if you’re a Black person or a woman, maybe you would like a little bit of progress in this dimension. His answer that there is a difference between justice and progress, what does it mean from a practical point of view? Does he mean that he believes in racial justice because it’s called justice and not racial progress?
Bethany: That was actually my strongest example of the way in which I found him slippery and dangerously so, because that answer of justice is really compelling on the surface, unless you start thinking about it. Great, justice, that sounds right.
But then you have to ask the question, justice for whom? Who deserves justice? If you don’t believe in liberalism, which, even if the US has not lived up to the promises in the Declaration of Independence, at least we made them, that is the definition of liberalism, freedom, and a right to pursue happiness for everyone . . .
If you don’t believe that, then how do you decide who gets justice? Would you have decided 50 years ago that African Americans deserve justice? Would you have decided that women do? Do you say that now because it’s become incontrovertible and unarguable? What does he say about people who are gay? What does he say about transsexuals? What does he say about a Muslim? Does that person deserve justice?
I think once you take away the idea at the core of liberalism that everyone deserves justice, then you’re into a place where you’re going to arbitrate who gets justice and who doesn’t. I find that really, really frightening.
Luigi: Yeah, especially because it’s very difficult to have a definition of justice without a common value. I think that his value seems to be very specific, and so, that creates a lot of ambiguity.
Bethany: I also, I guess, have an instinctive reaction to his phraseology of ordinary people. Perhaps this is in me a little bit because whenever I hear a politician refer to folks, I have the same flash of extreme irritation. But the idea that there’s a group of ordinary people who wants one thing because that’s what ordinary people want, strikes me as the most elitist, condescending attitude one could ever have.
I mean, there’s no such thing. That whole framing that ordinary people want this and want their traditions and ordinary people want that and folks, I’m talking to the folks, I mean, it is actually incredibly condescending and, to me, betrays someone who doesn’t actually spend any time talking to real people. But again, I know I’m twitchy on this issue, so maybe I’m reacting more strongly to it than I should.
Luigi: I see why you are so irritated by it. I think that the reason why today there is so much populism is because there is a lot of the opposite, which is elitism, and it takes elitism to create populism and vice versa. While I don’t understand what the ordinary man is, I do understand his plea of elitism, and it’s alive and well. I understand that who’s not part of it is upset.
Bethany: Yeah, that’s a fair point. I just think once you make it broader than that, and you presume that there’s an ordinary people who resent progress, that ordinary people want their traditions—which, of course, begs the question of whose traditions—there’s a lot of difference out there.
That said, I do want to get to the point, one thing he said that I really, really did like. I really did like the point he made about the right arguing for economic policies that make it impossible for people to achieve what the right says are its social goals. I thought that was a really good point.
Whether you take the right arguing for globalization and then criticizing people for families falling apart as their economic lives are destroyed . . . I’ve always thought it actually quite broadly true of abortion, in a very pointed way, that if you’re going to argue for a world where abortion is illegal, but then you’re going to refuse to provide care for children who are brought into the world without a means of sustenance, that’s the most pointed example, to me, of the right’s hypocrisy around its social goals and its economic goals. I really liked that point.
Luigi: To his credit, I think he has another point that is important, which is to what extent you need to subordinate some economic choices to some value choices. Remember the discussion we had on AI, and they will either say because it’s the right thing to do or it’s because it’s inevitable, because the competition with China, because of this, because of that, but there is not really a desire to understand the cost of transition.
I’m all in favor of progress. However, if we look back at the Industrial Revolution, the Industrial Revolution created dramatic costs that were born disproportionately by a group of people, and they were never compen-sated. Now, maybe their children and grandchildren eventually were better off, great, but couldn’t we have obtained the same result a little bit more slowly but with less pain? I think that that’s a fundamental ques-tion.
Bethany: That’s really interesting because that does link his thinking to a bunch of other people we’ve spoken to whose political views would probably not be at all aligned with his . . . Daron Acemoglu at MIT, whose book essentially argues against the idea that progress has been progress for everybody. Even if it has, that’s just been an accident of policies, not because progress is good for everyone. That’s an interesting bolstering or similarity between Deneen’s thinking and Acemoglu’s thinking.
And then it was David Autor who basically argued, why can’t we move, but move more slowly and move in a way that gives people a chance to adjust and adapt, instead of just believing that everything has to happen at speed and people will just figure it out? I think those are really good points, and there’s a very interesting overlap between them and Deneen.
But then I’d say, what really is Deneen’s thinking? How is it different from an Acemoglu or a David Autor that we need to soften the edges of capitalism? Other than that Deneen’s got this whole social agenda layered on top of it because he’s not clear again. I feel like I’m repeating myself. I probably am. He’s not clear on what his economic agenda is other than softening some of these rough edges of unfettered capitalism. Then the thing that really distinguishes his thinking from others like Acemoglu and Autor is that he’s got this whole social agenda that goes along with it.
Luigi: I think, by and large, you’re right, but I think that you’re maybe too critical in the sense that he does say, for example, we would like not to work on Sunday. This is maybe a small thing, but maybe it’s a big thing. It’s the fact that we actually take it seriously. The idea is actually more politically correct to me because it says Sabbath, and we did not specify what day of the week it was, but there is a day that we celebrate the Lord or your spiritual value, whatever it is, but you’re not forced to work, everybody contemporaneously. It might create a different pace in the economy.
Bethany: I actually like that idea, too, and think that it has some resonance to it, but once again, you’re defaulting to a micro example. It doesn’t fit into a macro whole. There is no macro whole to his argument. That is a micro example and one that I think is interesting, too, but it doesn’t add up in any coherent way to a macro whole.
Luigi: Yeah, but now you are a bit too tough because even Acemoglu and David Autor, who are top economists, they don’t have a perfect solution.
Bethany: Yeah, but they’re not writing books entitled Regime Change. They’re not pretending to have a perfect solution.
Luigi: I think David Autor has not written a book yet, but Acemoglu has written a big book, Power and Progress. It is about how to tame progress. He has some ideas, but it’s not like you know how to go from here to there tomorrow.
Bethany: No, and you’re right, and that’s fair. I am probably harder on Deneen because I am so worried about some of his ideas. I should say that even if I am worried about some of his ideas, the whole thing really did make me think.
I actually came out of this as a more ferocious defender of liberalism than I might have been before reading his book, because he made me ask for the first time. . . I think I just took it for granted this was the way things were. As I think about what the alternatives are, I think I am more of a defender of it than I might have been before considering the alternatives. If his book makes people think, then I think that’s of great value.
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