Has First Things Given Up on Freedom?

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

By John Zmirak Published on September 13, 2017

Rusty Reno just published a long piece at his magazine, First Things. It’s a kind of defense of why he has shifted the magazine’s editorial stance on politics and economics. First Things was once a flagship for orthodox Christians and Jews who value the free civilization of the West. And the free, dynamic economy on which its prosperity and progress rest. Those same believers saw grave threats to those good things: moral chaos, radical individualism, and suffocating government. (Of course, these three evils work together and feed on each other.) They knew that for freedom to thrive, we must be responsible and discipline ourselves.

As Edmund Burke wrote:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

That moral vision grounded thinkers like First Things founder Richard John Neuhaus and its guiding spirit Michael Novak. Many writers and scholars at the Acton Institute and elsewhere carry on this tradition. But it’s waning at Fr. Neuhaus’ old magazine. In its place we’re seeing pleas for cranky paternalism, religious tribalism, and hints of a baptized, morally upright Christian socialism.

The Magazine’s Left Face

Reno’s essay seems like a defensive measure. Perhaps he’s responding to pushback from readers and donors on all the obscure, illiberal stuff First Things has published of late. The sly flirtations with socialism. The coy defenses of crackpots like the Tradinistas. The efforts to find loopholes in Vatican II through which one could smuggle back in an Inquisition. The pieces that scoff at the American Founding or trade in throne-and-altar nostalgia. The reckless calls to political surrender. (Hang a Bourbon flag in your Benedict Option bunker while you wait for the cops to come take away your kids.)

It’s definitely Reno’s magazine now. He’s managed the Oedipal feat of erasing Father Neuhaus’ legacy. They should put Neuhaus’ portrait wherever reformers keep torn-down statues of Columbus and disused marble altars. It’s no surprise that Rod Dreher is now a regular writer at the magazine — the same Dreher who responded to Fr. Neuhaus’ painful cancer death with a mean-spirited attack that blamed him in part for the clerical sex-abuse coverup. (Dreher’s piece is now apparently offline, but you can read about it here.)

At the heart of Reno’s apologia? A bunch of unsurprising observations that don’t mean what he thinks they mean. What’s true in them isn’t new and what’s new really isn’t true.

What’s true in Reno’s manifesto is as follows:

  • Free markets don’t solve every problem.
  • Peeling back the government doesn’t work like sprinkling magic pixie dust.
  • You need more than small government to have liberty.
  • Order isn’t spontaneous, shooting up out of the ground the moment you pull off the cement of Big Government micromanagement and muddling.
  • Oh yeah, and capitalism changes things. Really quickly. That’s unsettling.
  • A lot of good things won’t get done if we leave them to for-profit corporations.
  • Man is fallen.
  • So if you leave them free, a lot of people will do wicked, foolish, or vulgar stuff.

After paragraphs of meandering, Reno implies that the sophisticated theologian Michael Novak didn’t quite understand all this. Nor does anyone who supports a basically free market and strictly limited government. Or who thinks that socialism, paternalism, and coercion make matters far worse instead of better.

An Act of Penance?

Reno dug up these “forgotten truths” like the lost ruins of Troy. Now First Things is repenting for its callow, naïve embrace of mindless capitalism and market-worship. That’s why it’s running all of that weird, unsettling stuff by monarchists, socialists, and people who think that private property is fundamentally unchristian. It’s an act of penance. (For the reader, that may well be true.)

We must act like adults, responsible before God.

Of course Michael Novak was not the strawman Reno invokes here. He was no Social Darwinist, or callow Ayn Rand acolyte. What’s more, First Thing’s old writers knew better too. I read the magazine during its heyday. You couldn’t find more nuanced, careful essays than used to grace its pages. The defenses of the free market offered were always grounded in firm realism about the costs that come along with it.

In fact, all these costs of capitalism have been well-understood for decades.

Conservatives Were Never So Naive

How do I know that? Because I wrote the first book in English on Wilhelm Röpke, the father of the German economic miracle. That great anti-Nazi writer, exile from Germany, and defender of human freedom wrote a famous trilogy in the 1940s:

These books laid in rich historical, cultural, economic and even theological detail all the problems that arise in a free society with a free economy. Thinkers in England and America absorbed Röpke’s books, which influenced the dawning conservative movement. Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley both credited  Röpke for their own clarity on the challenges of capitalism. Novak gratefully acknowledged his influence. The German and Italian Christian Democrats read his books during World War II, when they could smuggle them past the censors.

A free economy is a powerful engine for generating wealth. It frees ordinary people from the constant fear of famine that haunted all their ancestors. It creates technological and medical advances that save us from drudgery and disease.

Röpke knew that many different things can be true at once. As moderate, prudent citizens, not ideologues, we must hold them in tension. That’s the only way to achieve the complex fragile good that is a free, virtuous, prosperous society.

The Friction from Prosperity’s Motor

From his friends Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek Röpke had learned that a free economy is a powerful means of generating wealth. It frees ordinary people from the constant fear of famine that haunted their ancestors. It creates technological and medical advances that save us from drudgery and disease. It extended human lifespans by decades and lets us feed some 7 billion people. In fact, in the past 40 years it has cut extreme poverty by half, saving one billion people from want.

What’s more, as Röpke wrote, a political system that protects our basic rights must let people freely choose how and where they work. That is the only system that fully respects human dignity. Totalitarianism, paternalism, and rule by “enlightened” intellectuals (even Christian ones) are unworthy of the images of God. Such systems make of most citizens infants, and treat the rulers like petty gods.

Yes, the market economy is a powerful engine. It lets people work to their greatest capacity. It finds out what people want via prices. The market helps people figure out who can provide it best, and rewards them for it. It does all this without massive hierarchies of bureaucrats, ordering people around with the threat of imprisonment.

It also imposes costs. Like any mighty engine, it produces friction. Relationships that once were set in stone by custom or law are now fair game for change. Industries that once supported whole regions decline, and people lose jobs. If people are free to live out their dreams by starting new businesses, they’re equally free to fail, and see those dreams dashed to pieces.

The Price of Freedom: Adulthood

Likewise in culture. If the state protects real freedom of speech and religion, that leaves room for lies and ideologies, heresies and cults. It lets people peddle false ideas alongside true ones. No helpful soul from the government will come along and pry those wicked books out of our hands, for “our own good.” No, we must act like adults, responsible before God.

Röpke saw that the government could help buffer the friction that freedom causes. It should not take that freedom away, and hand it over to intellectuals or experts. He favored short-term programs to aid those who suffer when the economy changes. But mainly he saw the churches and civil society — that is, us — as the institutions that would do what the free market can’t. That would bind up the wounds it sometimes causes.

That’s still the vision promoted by other groups, such as the Acton Institute. Scholars there such as Samuel Gregg use Röpke’s ideas as touchstones for judging wise social policy. It’s a pity that such ideas no longer find a home at First Things magazine.

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  • Charles Burge

    The final section reminds me of the well-known John Adams quote:

    Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

    • Ol Buck

      Then it seems Reno has a great point. Because we do not have a moral and religious people.

      • Charles Burge

        Well, I think that’s one reason why we as a society are essentially becoming ungovernable. How can a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” function properly when the people are unwilling to govern their own passions and impulses?

        • Ol Buck

          Well man has always been (mostly) unwilling to temper his impulses. It’s how the Enemy got to us in the first place. It comes and goes in waves though, and it’s particularly bad right now, I would agree. Some future generation will look upon us as lunatics who were slave to their emotions… and then a generation after *that* one will believe that their parents/grandparents were incredibly rigid and without compassion.

          Such is man.

          As to what system should then govern such a people… I do believe we all need to repent and submit to Holy Mother Church on all things. That notion makes me *very* uncomfortable given the current occupant of the chair of Peter… but I probably need that.

  • TomaATL_AlKilo

    Read a couple paragraphs of RR’s article: don’t have the neuronal capacity or desire to process meandering prose of an editor in need of editing.
    In the meanwhile this came up from La Croix: “Ethics Belgian brothers defy Vatican order to halt euthanasia. The Brothers of Charity in Belgium has psychiatric hospitals where assisted suicide is allowed.”
    Let’s see how the Pope handles this, if they continue to defy the church for practicing 1930’s style eugenics.
    John don’t agree with you at times but keep up the good work.

  • tz1

    They haven’t learned the first thing from the National Review purges of people like Sobran.

    • Dean Bruckner

      Heh. ICWYDT.

  • A. Castellitto

    Say it ain’t so Reno….. Play the game get burned…..

  • Dean Bruckner

    It’s too bad that Jody Bottum let his humor get on the wrong side of donors over at First Things. I sensed things had changed, and for the worse, after he left, and now I’m realizing more of the reason why.

    A mentor of mine once told me that the Golden Age of Greece lasted only a few decades. So it would seem for many things of great worth and serendipity.

  • Theodore Harvey

    I make no apologies for “throne-and-altar nostalgia” or “scoffing at the American Founding.” I don’t understand Mr. Zmirak’s apparent need to take frequent pot shots at monarchists, surely the most marginalized of all political persuasions today, as if excessive monarchism were an actual problem. Perhaps he is arguing against his former self? Yes, I want the Bourbons restored, and the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and Romanovs too. If that makes me unrealistic I guess I’m unrealistic. I’m certainly not going to settle for “Freedom” when that’s not what I believe in and I’m convinced that Americanism and republicanism have done serious damage to civilization. However, unlike the most extreme reactionaries, I’m not totally opposed to elements of liberalism if they can coexist with constitutional monarchy. But for France, Austria, Portugal, etc. to be occupied by republics is an abomination.

  • Anne M

    We subscribed to every conservative magazine that we could, including First Things, American Spectator, Weekly Standard, and the National Review. American Spectator has gone online, the Weekly Standard is no longer Republican, the National Review has turned toothless, and First Things is slowly morphing into something Father Neuhaus wouldn’t recognize.

    Why aren’t there any conservative magazines????

    • Dean Bruckner

      World magazine focuses on news but has some good nuggets now and then. The Publishing c Discourse is online but appears to be an heir to what First Things was meant to be.

    • It’s disconcerting to see what’s happened to so-called conservatives. I have found an online magazine called American Greatness that is solid because along with its inspirations at Hillsdale College and Clairmont Institute it takes America’s Founding seriously. All are rooted in Athens and Jerusalem. I get a wisdom there about the nature of things that I don’t see in many so called conservatives anymore. I think the era of Trump has had and is having a way of clarifying things.

    • Charles Burge

      I only recently discovered National Review Online, but I’ve found them to be particularly good – especially David French.

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