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Volume 47, Number 1 (Winter 2010)

The Lesser of Evils: Democratic Capitalism Reconsidered

book cover imageDemocratic Capitalism and Its Discontents
by Brian C. Anderson.
ISI Books (Wilmington, Del.)
225 pp., $25.00 paper, 2007

Glen Austin Sproviero

Few things are more irritating, wrote Lord Acton, than those which expose the pedigree of ideas. Brian Anderson’s Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents is a concentrated effort to disrupt the unreflective comfort with which we treat certain ideas that have become entrenched in our cultural framework. While Anderson’s book offers no grand panacea, and although he writes from a Manhattan think-tank, he eyes his subject with the acumen of a first-rate political philosopher. Occasionally beleaguered by the author’s comfort with statistics, Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents is a thoughtful examination of an enormously important concept that requires a deep understanding of the West’s political history and its grand cultural patrimony.

Harvey Mansfield distinguished political philosophers from political scientists in that the former transcend politics in an attempt to find the best type of regime. In the tradition of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, political philosophers are in constant search for an ideal; nevertheless, the political philosopher need not be divorced from his culture, nor need he be separated from the political realities of his time. Without losing sight of the search for a better solution, Anderson knows that the ideal system will remain elusive, and that true political progress is an attempt to find what Russell Kirk called a tolerable civil social order. For Anderson, this order is found in democratic capitalism—the best, worst regime.

Anderson wastes little time before confronting the central theme of his book: what are the current challenges to democratic capitalism, and why do its critics assail it with such force? This question is broader than any possible explanation, and the short length of Anderson’s book prevents him from providing a comprehensive answer. Nonetheless, Anderson does provide a provocative discussion of the most important policy issues confronting Western society, and places them within the context of a broad cultural vision. He is at his best, not when discussing legal trends or judicial activism, or even the policies associated with these subjects, but in his analysis of the great political thinkers that mark the focus of his efforts. For instance, Anderson’s analysis of Francis Fukuyama reflects his careful antipathy toward the “end of history,” although he sees some elements of truth within this vision.

“The far Left gets its kicks in the adolescent thrill of perpetual rebellion,” Anderson writes, and this rebellious spirit lends its support to the eradication of religion from both public and private life. The growth of government power and the rise of the state as the principal agent of social and economic change has displaced the traditional faith of Europe. Furthermore, the welfare state wages a daily battle against individual responsibility, and lends itself to the aggrandizing of an already burgeoning bureaucratic society. Government programs, Anderson argues, often exacerbate the conditions of the poor and discourage ingenuity. Welfare has become a “dysfunctional, intergenerational way of life, associated with an array of social pathologies, including an atrophied sense of personal responsibility, rampant illegitimacy, and high levels of substance abuse, school failure, and crime.” Recognizing the failure of the state to guard against these social ills, many civic organizations, churches, and volunteer groups have joined the fight against poverty, the disintegrating family, and the erosion of faith in God. This private, civic initiative is where Anderson sees hope in the effort to ameliorate the conditions of the less fortunate. When self-help and the efforts of family and friends fail, then the Church and other civic organizations should begin their efforts. Only as a last resort, Anderson argues, should the state become involved. Efforts to help the poor are best kept local, Anderson asserts, because these efforts will require knowledge of local circumstances. Neighbors and friends are in the best position to help those in need.

A civil society is one that encourages its citizens to be self-reliant; family and friends watch-out for one another, neighbors care about their community, and friends are willing to sacrifice for the maintenance of the common good. When government compels such behavior, as opposed to encouraging voluntary cooperation, a certain ingenuousness reigns. Religious organizations, and charitable groups such as the Boy Scouts of America, Anderson argues, should be the major contributors to a neighborhood in need. Anderson continues his argument with an observation that is too often overlooked by advocates of the poor: business is a principal contributor to private charity, and business—small and large—contribute to ending poverty by employing people. Corporations and firms often encourage their employees to be virtuous citizens by supporting private charities and by contributing their energies to good causes. It is in a local business’s best interest to promote the overall health of the community—businesses need customers, and customers need employment in order to buy goods and services. Both need stable neighborhoods. Anderson takes what should be one of the most obvious forms of social welfare, and makes the case that enterprise is a bedrock of an economically just society. With half a century of failed government welfare programs to ponder, Anderson argues that a civil society—defined by its dedication to private solutions—is the best way to ameliorate the suffering of the poor and to build a free society.

Anderson’s book is concerned with ideas that are distinctively Western, but the characteristic attribute of the West—its Christianity—is all but forgotten in post-modern Europe. The erosion of traditional morality, the uprising of the liberal tradition against its ancient antecedents, and the artificial faith in abstract political ideologies, gradually worked to replace Christianity with dogmatic beliefs in progress, technology, and the individual. “Europe is becoming a secular place,” Anderson writes, but few Europeans admit to atheism. This unwillingness to let go of the Christian tradition has not stopped the typical European from imbibing in moral relativism, and from discounting a belief in the reality of sin. Even the European Union, in a purposeful reproach to the Vatican and various Christian groups, refused to include any references to Europe’s Christian patrimony in its new constitution.

The shadow of a Christian Europe lingers, but the most active concentration of spiritual vitality resides in an unlikely place—the United States. While much of the West abandons its religious heritage, Americans still crowd into churches, believe in hell, and are chastened by a Christian morality. In this acknowledgment, Anderson embraces a deep sentiment of hope, because—his argument implies—a stable social order cannot exist without religious belief of some sort, even one as seemingly powerful as democratic capitalism.

Anderson forcefully argues against purely political solutions to social problems. In fact, he argues that politics is often the cause of the initial trouble, and that the promise of political perfection is a fatuous endeavor, driven by ideologues and ambitious charlatans. The conservative disposition toward what Edmund Burke called “little platoons”—the local community—is a centerpiece of Anderson’s argument against centralization and the creation of a political society. Conservatives are painfully aware of the dilemmas caused by intemperance—the follies of communism on the left and the dreadful consequences of fascism on the right. Knowing that political solutions are temporary, Anderson charts a course between the extremes. Absolute faith in government, politicians, or abstract formulas promising a lasting peace, prosperity, or equality, are guaranteed paths to confusion and unavailing sorrow.

Anderson is no blind apologist for democratic capitalism, so those looking for a fully critical study of this philosophy may need to look elsewhere. Anderson sees the shortcomings of a democratic and capitalist society, but he is chastened by the idea that this is the best choice among many bad ones. Anderson deserves much credit for his ability to bring so many vast ideas into a readable, humane book. He possesses an unusually thorough command of his subject, and writes with logical, flowing prose. It is refreshing to see a book with so many good ideas flow from an urban-based think-tank, and that policy is discussed within the context of solid philosophical reflection. As with Anderson’s other books, this one deserves to be read and considered a serious contribution to the literature of American conservatism.

Glen Austin Sproviero studied philosophy at Fordham University, and modern history at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Posted: April 5, 2010

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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