Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
Talk long enough to European conservatives and they will eventually remind you that the communists in the western and eastern parts of the Old Continent have never been held accountable for their crimes. Certainly nowhere near to the extent that Nazi party members were following World War II. This lack of accountability has meant that communism was never made completely disreputable on the political left, so some variant of communism/socialism was bound to re-surface, despite the insurmountable evidence of its human cost and abject failure.
I’ve often wondered why communists have never had to pay a price for their sins and grievous errors of moral judgment. Perhaps victorious liberal democrats were too eager for reconciliation after the Cold War, too forgiving to punish the malefactors. Or maybe these same liberal democrats didn’t believe they actually won the Cold War, rather than the other side simply failing on their own accord, due to some kind of unforced error. Liberals seemed to refrain from gloating over what they thought was an undeserved triumph. Did they ever really believe in the superiority of their beliefs to begin with?
Whatever the reason, the failure to discredit communism and socialism has come back to haunt us. The popularity of Bernie Sanders, the only openly socialist politician in the US Congress, among young Americans along with their dislike of capitalism would have been unimaginable just ten years ago. Millennial religious conservatives at places like First Things are okay with calling themselves Christian socialists.
Two older and wiser religious conservatives, First Things editor Rusty Reno and Acton president Fr. Robert Sirico, recently debated the merits of the free market. In my obviously biased view, Fr. Sirico won the debate hands-down, especially since Reno seemed to defend capitalism by the end of it. But then again, I’ve never been attracted to socialist ideas and have always thought most criticisms of market economics to be exaggerated or misplaced; I’m a child of the 1980s, after all.
Growing up with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II as my heroes, it is no surprise that I have such high regard for religiously-informed, liberal democratic capitalism. The Millennial generation went through adolescence during the Clinton presidency and entered adulthood with the 9/11 attacks, still-inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the sub-prime mortgage financial crisis, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and the legalization of same-sex marriage. The certainties I grew up with seemed to have vanished into thin air.
It’s therefore easy to understand why millennials are so jaded and now flirting with discredited and even inhumane ideas. But if we children of the Reagan-Thatcher-JPII era are true to our beliefs, we must reject this overly-historicist reading of the present time. Don’t we still possess reason and free will, aren’t we still able to see, judge and decide among the alternatives before us? If so, we have to look at current realities to renew our defense of liberal democracy.
It’s true, after all, that we don’t have a fully capitalist economy in the West; the size of government has drastically reduced the scope of economic freedom over the last several decades, regardless of which party has been in power. But the US and every other prosperous country in the world are definitely more capitalist than socialist. If you don’t want to believe sources such as the Index of Economic Freedom, just look at countries (more like prisons) such as North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. Look at international migration flows and you’ll see a fundamental difference between countries that try to keep people in and those that have to limit the number they take in. It’s a cliché but still a true one: people vote with their feet and they overwhelmingly choose liberal democracy over socialism.
Perhaps these migrants don’t know what they are choosing? Maybe they’re attracted to the tall, shiny buildings and the seductive opulence of the West, only to be exploited and marginalized by the corrupt plutocrats who thrive on cheap labor? This has always been the intellectual’s argument against the promise of economic opportunity. Maybe the problem is that capitalism has actually succeeded in bringing what used to be reserved to the upper classes within the reach of all.
The intellectual case has been as much about the “bourgeois (i.e. vulgar) culture” of democratic capitalism as it is about economics. Our good friend Alberto Mingardi has been discussing Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 1952 essay “American Democracy and Its European Critics” and cites this nice passage:
“When Coca-Cola, comic books, and Raymond Chandler murder mysteries invaded Europe, penetrating even into the British stronghold, radicals set up a great cry against American capitalism. What they chose not to see is that the real offender is not capitalism so much as the European masses, who have given an enthusiastic reception to these supposedly degenerate products of American capitalism. Europe's real complaint against America is not that America is exporting capitalist culture, but that it is exporting popular culture.”
So rather than give in to despair about the future or rely on a naïve hope in historical progress, we liberal democrats ought to redouble our efforts because fundamental reality is on our side. It may not always be edifying or ennobling, but it has the great advantage of being true. I’ll close by reminding younger right-wingers of a bold assertion attributed to one of those ‘80s politicians, “The facts of life are conservative.”