A brutal business climate and societal breakdown have brought major changes to America. In response, many Americans, especially conservatives, are soul searching for something more compassionate for those left behind. Unfortunately, they are looking in the most unlikely places: business and government. They will likely be searching for a long time.
The controversy over this shift in mentality erupted with the publication of a Wall Street Journal advertisement in which major firms pledge a commitment to “stakeholder” capitalism, which holds businesses should be run having all society, not just shareholders, in mind. Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) stirred the pot with his recent speech at Catholic University, where he explored what he called “common-good capitalism.”
The thesis is that the modern American economy does not care for everyone. It falls short by concentrating only on return on investment to shareholders. Businesses need to think in terms of more general obligations to workers and community—“stakeholders” in the overall economy. Since business cannot provide for all social needs, state systems must also be put in place. The soul-searchers say it is time to admit that the federal government might indeed have a role in helping those left behind.
Challenging the Conservative Orthodoxy
Such thinking is especially hard for conservatives to accept. It challenges the reigning orthodoxy that has long held to low taxation, decreased federal spending, scrapping socialist government meddling and regulation, and free and fair markets as a means of providing for the common good. The movement maintains a Reaganesque distrust of government and a rightful distaste for its eternal programs. The libertarian right relegates the solving of most problems to markets.
However, there is no denying that something is missing from today’s superficial and materialistic society. Countless people are suffering materially and especially spiritually, whether it be from anxiety, depression, opioids or family breakup. Society seems to have lost its soul. Hence, the searching.
As a result, many conservatives now question old assumptions about market reliability or the evils of government social largess. They are looking for new models for business and government to help find a soul for society that will help people cope. They assume these are the only two institutions from which all solutions flow.
The Limitations of Markets
These are strange places to look for solutions. Modern economy and government are sterile institutions built upon mechanical models and systems. To have recourse to them is to look for materialistic solutions for spiritual problems.
Modern capitalism, as it now operates, is not meant to be soulful. It is meant to produce material stuff—lots of stuff. It works like a machine producing efficiently, quickly and abundantly. Modern markets scour the globe looking to maximize efficiency and distribute risks. While such efforts do benefit society greatly, their primary purpose is directed toward trading, not giving.
Markets work in function of commutative justice. This form of justice requires a fair exchange of goods or services between contracting parties. It facilitates transactions by requiring, as nearly as may be, a near equal payment be rendered for the near equal value of a good or service.
Markets do not work in function of charity. Charity cannot govern economic transactions since, for an economy to function justly, each party must be strictly given its due. To insist that charity be made part of economic theory would put the charitable at a disadvantage and leave the marketplace in the hands of the hard-hearted or dishonest.
Thus, efforts to baptize modern capitalism by insisting upon integrating charity into its program will inevitably fail. Soul-searching conservatives might encourage entrepreneurs to practice charity in their dealings, as indeed many do. However, the cold mechanical processes of modern capitalism remain morally indifferent and soulless. They will not “renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 103:30), no matter how they are tweaked.
The Limitations of Big Government
The same comments can be made about modern government. If any institution can be called soulless, it is the anonymous, bureaucratic machinery of big government. Its bloated systems offer to be everything to everyone while suffering from a lack of the efficiency of business.
A government is supposed to be the political system and institutions by which the State is administered and regulated. It should be oriented toward the common good by providing a general framework by which society can prosper. It also is not directed toward giving but administering.
The sad reality is that modern government is usually big government. It does not provide for the common good but buries it under its massive structures.
Decades of social programs have proven that big government, like markets, is not meant to work in function of charity. Big government distributes its largess with cold indifference and sterile rules. Once entrenched, its self-perpetuating programs tend to prolong not diminish poverty at great cost to the nation.
Looking for America’s Lost Soul
Looking for America’s lost soul in business and government is not the right move. These institutions themselves are not bad, but they are directed to other purposes. The modern versions of these institutions are further handicapped by their cold mechanical structures and systems that can lead to abuse and frenetic intemperance.
Some conservatives have the idea that their message can be more palatable if it is dressed up with secularized systems of charity and government oversight. However, to replace one mechanical system with another does not address the soulless component that is missing.
That is not to say that these institutions cannot be instruments for a return to a more soulful America. Like all instruments, their use depends upon the motives of those using them. The human element is the most crucial part of their functioning.
A Needed Moral Regeneration
If America is to find its soul, a moral regeneration is needed that will address the causes of society’s breakdown. It should not focus on symptoms. As it stands, everything is upside down.
Soul-searchers must seek out those institutions that are especially directed toward moral regeneration, not the mechanical workings of society. The God-given institutions of the family and the Catholic Church are two important natural regenerators that work in function of charity. They can transform society.
When all society is infused with family-like relationships and religious, moral observance, business and government can then play their essential role in fostering (not controlling) virtuous life in common.
However, such a message is not what people want to hear. It involves restraint, sacrifice, responsibility and accountability amid a culture that teaches the contrary. It is much easier to solve problems by creating stop-gap aid programs that never stop. Better to tweak the system than revamp fundamentals.
Only true Christian charity can overcome the selfish interests that cloud the soul-searching process. For charity is that supernatural virtue by which people love God above all things for His own sake, and their neighbors as themselves for the love of God.
The present soul-searching must either lead to God or end in failure.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society--Where We've Been, How We Go Here, and Where We Need to Go. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.