In the economic realm you can see this with large corporations that get the government to create thickets of regulations which only they know how to navigate (and from which they’re often exempt) that prevent smaller, more local firms from competing. You see it, too, with teachers unions and government-run schools that create licensing requirements to prevent new teachers from joining the workforce and create local government-run monopolies on education while blocking school choice.
The education example quickly leads us to another form of cronyism, what I have called “cultural cronyism.” Cultural cronyism is when “The Bigs” collude to use their outsized influence to reshape the culture against the common good. It’s when elites use their power in non-democratic, non-accountable ways to force social change on ordinary people. It occurs when the Supreme Court redefines marriage or strikes down laws protecting unborn babies. It occurs when federal agencies make people of faith pay for abortion or perform sex reassignment surgeries. It occurs when the NBA and NCAA, when Apple and Salesforce, boycott a state because the citizens favor a policy that the elites dislike. Cultural cronyism takes place whenever the cultural Left can’t win an honest debate and a vote, and thus force social change through sheer power.
Whether it be crony capitalism or cultural cronyism, conservatives should see that the threat isn’t primarily voluntary exchange in markets, but government meddling to favor moneyed special interests; not classically liberal constitutions, but rulings that upset constitutional procedures. Supporting market economies need not entail supporting the business class. And supporting constitutions need not entail supporting judicial activism and rule by lawyers. It is thus by being more faithful, not less, to classical liberal, constitutional principles that we can eliminate the unfair advantages that cronyism creates.
After all, market freedoms, though not axiomatic, do play an essential role in promoting human flourishing. Freedom of contract and freedom of association can foster real human goods. Constitutionalism, governments of limited and enumerated powers, separation of those powers, checks-and-balances, the rule of law – and other hallmarks of classical liberalism – all help secure justice and promote the common good. They’re a recognition, as Lord Acton taught, that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Witness what happens with unaccountable bureaucrats in the Department of Health and Human Services – 0r for that matter in Brussels or Geneva; hence, Brexit.
Thus, classical liberal forms of government are not simply the result of Enlightenment liberal philosophy. They are fruit of Enlightenment thought along with classical ideas and ideals, medieval political thought, and the common law tradition. America’s founding, for example, is a lot more than just John Locke. Even Thomas Jefferson admits as much, stating that “the object of the Declaration of Independence [was n]ot to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent … it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.” And he pointed to “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”
Natural Law and Economic Freedom
I’ve mentioned the flawed intellectual defenses of freedom and the potential for an overreaction in our critiques of them. What, then, is the alternative? I’ve hinted that the alternative focuses on arguments about what freedom is for, a freedom for excellence, on how freedom serves the common good, and thus is limited by it, too. But any sound theory of the common good needs to rest on a theory about what is good for the people who are to live in common. And any sound theory about what is good for people must take seriously their nature.
In a word, we need to rediscover the natural law arguments for liberty. Such arguments ground the rightness of economic liberty, for example, in human nature and how liberty enables human flourishing. They take seriously man’s nature to labor for his keep, and how people should ordinarily interact with one another on a voluntary level – how we must work together to meet human needs, and how such coordination and “togetherness” should ordinarily be achieved through free associations and free exchanges. “Government” isn’t the primary word for what people do together; civil society, church, charity, and small businesses are how we normally work together.
Natural law arguments take seriously man’s nature as a self-directing, freely choosing agent and conclude that man needs the space and the room to determine himself. More than a Lockean self-owner, they see man as a self-author. It is by exercising freedom of economic initiative and freedom of exchange that people ordinarily author their lives.
But if freedom in general, and economic freedom in particular, is grounded in man’s nature and how such freedoms allow man to flourish given his nature, then freedom is directional – it has a purpose. It’s not a freedom from constraint, or a freedom of indifference to human choices and outcomes, but a freedom for excellence, a freedom for human flourishing.
In short, then, natural law arguments strike a balance. They are sensitive to the role that markets can play in fostering initiative and innovation, creating jobs and lifting people out of poverty. But they aren’t blind to the damage that market activity can cause. Natural law arguments look to the demands of justice and the ways in which liberty can both foster and undermine the common good. They take seriously the rights of private property owners, but also their duties in stewarding their wealth. This, in turn, provides an intellectual framework for thinking about both the justifications and the limits of economic liberty – and the reasons that we might be concerned with market failures and excesses.
This means defenses of freedom can’t be morally neutral, agnostic or skeptical about the content of human flourishing. This also means that we as market actors need to have true morality inform our market behavior, and not allow advertising, marketing, and new technologies to reshape our values. There is a world of difference, after all, between a society with a market and a market society.
America’s founders were able to recognize this truth and distinguish liberty from license. You can see this in what the Founders said about the limits of markets. For the Founders, there would be no markets in killing – whether it be abortion or physician-assisted suicide; no markets in sex or in illicit drugs. There are some things money shouldn’t buy.
The inability of modern progressives to distinguish liberty from license is one of the great threats to real liberty in the West today. Progressive defenses of license under the guise of liberty have played a significant role in the destruction of families, religious congregations, and civil society writ large. A failure to defend rightly ordered liberty has left an entire generation morally adrift, unable to harness freedom to choose excellence.
Natural Law Social Justice
Since I’ve just said a few words on natural law and economic freedom, in the time remaining I want to say a few words about a natural law conception of social justice and how it can help us now.
Some people think “social justice” is a twentieth century invention of left-leaning thinkers. But this starts the history of “social justice” midstream. To understand its true meaning we must look farther back to its real historical origins.
The first usage of the phrase “social justice” that we know of is by a Jesuit Thomist, Luigi Taparelli, in his multi-volume work published between 1840-1843 titled A Theoretical Treatise on Natural Law Resting on Fact. I want to emphasize two arguments Taparelli highlighted by coining the new phrase “social justice.” First, that man is social by nature, and belongs to many societies. And second, that man has natural duties to others in justice.
Taparelli created the phrase “social justice” to highlight that there are societies in between individuals and governments. He wanted to avoid both the individualistic and the collectivistic temptations. He wanted to point out that the truth was somewhere in-between. He wanted to highlight that as a matter of nature, man is a social being and that this places duties on individuals – duties people have to their family, to their church, to their community. It also places limits on government – that government is limited by the reality of the natural family, that government is limited by the prerogatives of religious communities, that government is limited by the authority of local communities.
But I want to focus here on the duties. Because one aspect of the crisis of liberty in the West is that we no longer realize we have unchosen duties.
A sound understanding of our duties, however, gives us one of our best reasons for respecting liberty: to have the freedom to fulfill our duties. This, after all, is precisely how Madison understood religious liberty. As James Madison wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man” because of a prior duty to seek out the truth about God and the created order:
What is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.
Indeed, one can understand many of the religious liberty threats in the West today as partly the result of people no longer thinking there are duties to the Creator. If there are no special duties to God, then there are no special religious liberties, either.
Something similar may be the case for the economy. Economic freedom is meant to give us the space to fulfil our economic duties: duty to work to support our families; duty to work hard and be a good employee, so as not to waste our talents or our bosses time and money; duty to serve our customers; duty to serve our communities.
Economic freedom was to allow people the space to fulfill these duties. Social justice is about fulfilling our duties to the various societies of which we’re a part. And it’s about the state respecting the authority of the many societies that make up civil society.
Take, for example, the society known as the family. The family is a natural society with its own nature and integrity. Because of the natural reality of the family, we have certain obligations. If you’re a husband or a wife, you have certain duties to your spouse. If you’re a parent, you have certain duties to your children, regardless of whether or not you ever chose them. And children, not Social Security administrators, have duties to their parents, especially as they age. It is the natural reality of father and child, mother and child, that creates the relationship of authority and responsibility.
This places limits on what the government can do. The government is not free to recreate the family. The government is not free to usurp the authority of parents over the education of their children, nor of adult children over the care of their elderly parents.
The same is true for religious organizations, especially if you believe that your church has a divine origin – it has a divine creation – so government is not at liberty to recreate it, to recreate its authority structure, or to recreate its teaching authority. It is something that is entrusted with a stewardship, and so the nature of religious authority therefore places limits on political authority and places duties upon members of the church.
None of this, however, says that the state has no role to play in economic justice, just that it must respect the proper authority of society – a society of societies – as it does so. And this means that it must also respect the proper authority of economic societies – of employees and employers, consumers and producers.