Brian C. AndersonAre democracy and free markets inherently hostile to each other? That’s the question Brian Anderson takes up in his new book, Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents, my review of which appears in the Nov. 6 issue of National Review, currently on sale at newsstands and online.

In my view, the problem is with democracy, not markets. Finding any faults with democracy is undoubtedly a bizarre thing in our time, but it is clear to me that the contradictions that seem to be inherent in democratic capitalism are in fact inherent in democracy itself, and that market capitalism is the victim of democracy, not an abuser. Hence my thought, taking after that of the American Founders, is that where democracy interferes with freedom, it is democracy that ought to give way.

I recognize that this proposition may sound rather radical, and I shall defend it further in future, but in the meantime, here’s my review of Brian Anderson’s book, which will give you a sense of the outlines of the argument:

Vision Things

S. T. Karnick

Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents, by Brian C. Anderson (ISI, 189 pp., $25)

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the effective end of international Communism, and given that radical Islam is a thorn in our side but no long-term threat to Western culture, democratic capitalism no longer faces any plausible external threats. It confronts plenty of serious internal ones, however, as Brian C. Anderson makes clear in this new book.

Anderson, editor of City Journal and author of South Park Conservatives, is concerned about whether democratic capitalism can continue to survive, particularly in its greatest historical bastion, the United States. A particular worry is whether there are elements in democratic capitalism itself that inevitably press toward its demise. He observes that “the notion of the universal equality of man, which liberal democracy claims as its foundation,” has inevitably unleashed “an egalitarian spirit that it could never really tame.” Economic and social freedom create inequality, because not all people are equally gifted, but if everyone is created equal yet not everyone is equal in fact, something must be wrong.

Pursuing this materialistic conception to the point of obsession, the Western Left promotes as remedy “an aggressive secularism, an overweening state, and a transformation of constitutional law into partisan politics.” Resolutely avoiding the sin of despair, Anderson answers the critique by outlining both the real achievements of free societies and the intellectual and cultural foundations for them. Key among his insights is that the defenders of freedom tend to take a very practical view of life, judging ideas and policies by the consequences they bring, whereas opponents of liberty want to force reality into a mold based on their imaginings of an ideal society. The radicals’ vision isn’t connected to an understanding of how human beings really are; that’s why they end up attacking all the organically developed institutions and ideas that make a free society work– economic freedom, religious faith (especially Christianity), individual liberty, rule of law, the principle of subsidiarity, the family, and public morality.

At the center of the conflict is religion. “Post-Christian Europe has unsurprisingly sunken progressively deeper into moral relativism,” Anderson writes; and the differences between Europe and America are clearly a result of two entirely different worldviews. Despite the presence in America of a fairly influential though relatively small atheist contingent and some strong currents of relativism and antinomianism, “religious conservatives profoundly shape American society. . . . They are a transpolitical presence in almost every walk of American life. In this way, they continue indirectly to influence political society by helping to ‘regulate’ political mores.”

This infuriates both European and American statists, for Christians and many Jews consistently champion the very things that stand in the way of the creation of a new and (as imagined) vastly better society. That, I think, is what they really hate about Judaism and especially Christianity: not the belief in God as such, but the fact that the belief in an all-powerful God who cares about individual human beings makes people much more reluctant to indulge in coercive schemes to transform people and their surroundings to fit materialistic dogma.

The purveyors of modern liberalism relentlessly impose these utopian visions regardless of the disasters they create, and then use the resulting catastrophes as an excuse for more ambitious schemes even further disconnected from reality. As Anderson observes in his critique of the lionized liberal philosopher John Rawls: “The egalitarian liberalism Rawls called justice would be unworkable in practice, even if it were desirable. His works do not speak to any recognizable political world and ignore almost completely the real dilemmas and tragedies of our time.” Similarly, Jean-Paul Sartre’s work “stands as an absolute warning about the wrong turns that moral and political thought can take when untethered from nature or any sense of reality.” The hate-filled revolutionary blather of Antonio Negri, the Italian co-author of the immensely popular 2001 socialist screed Empire, expresses nothing but contempt for ordinary people and is simply another example of “the adolescent thrill of perpetual rebellion.” This mentality in extremis is most luridly evident in Fascism and Communism–which, Anderson writes, “desolated entire nations . . . in their quest to revolutionize the bourgeois economic and political condition.”

The central question is how to understand in a healthy manner the idea of popular sovereignty. French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel observed the rise of what Anderson describes as “the idea that ‘the people,’ not some divine source or ancient custom, have final authority on all matters of law and social organization.” While that may sound completely benign, Anderson notes, it actually “erodes the restraints on what political communities can imagine doing” and “encourages the notion that the state is a tool for directly securing the people’s well-being.” As a result, even in democracies no practical concerns can ultimately constrain the perpetual amassing of government power toward any ends that ambitious and influential people may conceive.

Anderson thus observes, after Tocqueville, that the great current threat to democratic capitalism is inherent in democracy itself, as “the democratic regime threatens to eliminate every reference point beyond the sovereign individual” and eats away everything except the pursuit of material gain—which is a pretty good description of our current Western political situation. Anderson–himself avoiding any utopian temptation–ultimately offers no specific solution to this fundamental problem. Instead he posits a “humbled modernity” that “distrusts any utopian efforts” and is “aware of the limits of what the state or any centralized authority can do.”

Such a negative, conservative response, however, is hardly calculated to fire the imagination of those headed to political combat. (Yelling “Stop!” is not nearly as appealing as saying “Go!”) The great challenge for contemporary defenders of freedom may be to create a vision of a free society that sounds as good as the fantastic schemes of the utopians, if that is indeed possible. And it may well be: The fact is, freedom works. Free people reduce economic inequality, lift multitudes out of poverty, cure diseases, clean up the environment, and make lives longer and more comfortable. And social freedom need not undermine religion or morality. Echoing historian Rodney Stark and others, Anderson attributes America’s religious strength to the nation’s “free market of religions.” When people are truly free to choose, they tend to be religious, as America demonstrates so vividly.

Perhaps, then, there is indeed a highly appealing picture that champions of freedom can draw—of Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” a place of both liberty and order, where people are free to pursue their dreams as long as they don’t harm others, and in which their dreams are constrained by a modest sense of their place in the world based on a recognition of their humble status before the Almighty. The world is always going to have its share of dreamers, so we might as well give them something good to dream about.