There is a major problem with books written solely from an economic prism.
Consider the fact that the American economy is booming by all major indicators. Unemployment is down to record lows. Inflation is minimal. Consumer confidence is up. We have not seen times like this for decades. Admittedly, wages are still low, and debt levels are off the charts. Other major economic problems lurk on the horizon, but, for now, everything seems to be running well.
Indeed, for some, never in recent memory have we been so prosperous. However, at no time in postwar history have we been so divided, unhappy, or lonely. If economics is so important, we should be happy … or happier than we are.
Economics as a Secondary Perspective
Of course, books written under an economic prism do provide insights into reality. However, it is a partial perspective—and a secondary one.
The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed is a book that attempts to explain the last general election and present administration from this partial yet secondary perspective.
Author F. H. Buckley, a Foundation Professor at George Mason University, readily admits his economic outlook and even likes to define himself as a “right-wing Marxist.” He expresses the American Dream in economic terms as a “mobile and classless society” now gone awry. The author imagines a new class struggle between a rich liberal establishment now holding power and the more conservative yet forgotten working class representing the oppressed. He thinks we are living in revolutionary times, not unlike 1917, and he is on the side of the new proletariat.
In all fairness to Prof. Buckley, he does agree that culture matters and that things like two-parent families and strong communities make economic sense. However, he does not see these moral issues as matters of public policy. He takes a seek-ye-first-real-jobs attitude and “after that, we can take care of ourselves.”
The Canadian now American citizen is provocative. He claims the American Dream is not dead but has migrated to the more upwardly-mobile-friendly Canada (under Justin Trudeau). He likewise proposes a single-tier one-size-fits-all university system, again like in his native Canada, instead of our multi-tiered ”elitist” system.
His Pikettyesque dislike for accumulated generational wealth, especially when parked in private foundations, sparks a call to repeat Henry VIII’s looting of the accumulated wealth of English sixteenth-century monasteries. Social conservatives will disagree with his conclusion that they have accepted same-sex “marriage” because it did not “pick anyone’s pocket.”
The Proper Role of Economics
Such provocative views are to be expected since a solely economic prism will always be unavoidably materialistic, religiously indifferent, and painfully egalitarian. Economics is a pragmatic practice and science that deals with the production, administration, and exchange of goods and services. It involves concrete realities that tend to exclude other human considerations. It can be brutal and without nuance.
Economics tends to be considered the most important human field. Such an attitude is risky; as sociologist Georg Simmel once wrote: “Money is not content with being just another final purpose of life alongside wisdom and art, personal significance and strength, beauty and love. But in so far as money does adopt this position, it gains the power to reduce the other purposes to the level of means.”
An Angle Often Ignored
Those holding a solely economic perspective often fail to realize that man has another side that is spiritual and superior. Conservatives have long acknowledged this. Barry Goldwater’s classic manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative, ghostwritten by William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law, Catholic convert L. Brent Bozell, Jr., affirms that every man is a unique and “spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires.”
This superior side of man’s nature makes us unique and establishes our dignity. This side gives rise to political, social, cultural, and religious activities and sciences that tower above mere material economic production. These endeavors help satisfy our spiritual needs and ultimately lead to our eternal salvation.
A Focus that Fails to Consider the Spiritual
The Republican Workers Party suffers from its failure to consider this spiritual dimension seriously. The author focuses on workers and jobs, politics and power, and special interests and privileges. It is a prism that relegates the spiritual to poetic longings for a Christian past with little connection to modernity.
However, we must note that the material perspective offers nothing new, and is itself guilty of nostalgia. The author echoes a typical Enlightenment perspective that waxes lyrical about the brutal trilogy of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Prof. Buckley recognizes no specific metaphysical order and notes his disappointment that we have failed to move beyond the times “when people look to theologians rather than scientists to make sense of a confusing world.”
Thus, this dominant materialistic narrative weighs heavily upon the book since economics needs norms outside itself to judge its ethical value. Church teaching is that economics must be subject to and seek orientation from those higher normative sciences like ethics, logic, and moral philosophy which have as their focus all human activity. Economics is a science that is intertwined with all others and should belong to a worldview since it seeks to understand human action. It is no coincidence that Adam Smith taught moral philosophy and not statistical analysis or macro-economics.
Looking for the Whole Picture
This is not to say that Prof. Buckley does not have valuable insights into what has happened in American politics over the last few decades. He knows many of the characters of the 2016 election and his book is full of anecdotes about the great drama of that campaign which readers will certainly welcome.
However, we are left desirous of the whole picture. The author forgets that America is a religious nation that still clings to its moral values despite pockets of secularism in urban centers and elite circles. Concern for a moral Supreme Court justice figured higher than employment statistics for many of those who voted in 2016. It is all well and good to remember the forgotten worker who lost a job to outsourcing. However, we must also remember the ever-forgotten Christian whose values (including traditional marriage) tend to be treated as bargaining chips on the road to power and deemed inferior to consumer confidence and job creation. Even Prof. Buckley would agree that the fringe campaign agenda of Hillary Clinton (e.g., transgender bathrooms) alienated some of her own base and contributed to her defeat.
While it is true that the ruling class has been increasingly unresponsive to the needs of workers in traditional industries and, especially, religious voters, the author’s scathing generalizations against all elites are likely to unfairly target the competent ones. True self-sacrificing elites have always played a leadership role in American society—especially the Founders. America cannot be reduced to a Labor Party. The Christian soul desires the social harmony of all social classes, both true elites and workers. We are all equally American.
Federal power can only do so much to inspire spiritual renewal, as Prof. Buckley would no doubt insist. Yet that same power should not impede spiritual renewal (as the courts have actively tried to do) and could encourage and inspire state and local efforts to strengthen the social fabric. Indeed, the author’s attempt to explain the present administration in secular terms runs counter to the president’s own references to God and religious imagery. While few would claim the president is a deeply religious man, he is clearly aware of the abiding religious character of the nation. Despite our secular times, we still see ourselves as “a nation under God.” The phrase is found on our coinage and written on countless American hearts. We cannot help but think that so many of the problems that Prof. Buckley mentions in his book could be better resolved if we would get right with God.
As seen on Crisis Magazine.