Patrick Deneen holds a Ph.D from from Rutgers University. He is professor of political science at Notre Dame University. His published writings include The Odyssey of Political Theory and Democratic Faith. He has also previously published in Ethika Politika, and is a member of the editorial board. (See: “Contemplative Fatherhood” and “Loss of Vocation and the Demise of the University”).
This interview grows out questions I developed after reading Deneen’s much circulated piece “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching” where he linked my notorious piece “Contra Zmirak: In Praise of the Inquisition.” It closes our conversation on the Neo-Conservative imagination (See: parts I and II).
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Rosman: What about the example of the Christian Democrats in Germany, the economic envy of Europe? Or earlier, the Solidarity movement in 1980's Poland, which Gerald J. Beyer has called the prototypical embodiment of Catholic Social Teaching in his groundbreaking account Recovering Solidarity: Lessons from Poland's Unfinished Revolution? Can these serve as examples? If so, how?
Deneen: In both instances, as best I understand, the economies mentioned in your question value both solidarity and subsidiarity, with a focus upon relative economic equality while preserving a strong commitment to private property, an emphasis upon the role of families and associations rather than giving priority to individuals, and reasonable economic growth without losing sight that a good life involves more than just more stuff.
I’m more familiar with aspects of the German economy, which I quite admire. Like Germans in general, slow and steady is the course. Americans gloated over the slow German economy in the go-go 90s, but now look with barely-veiled furtive envy at their steady growth and the absence of a comparable massive economic dislocation such as that we experienced in 2008 (which country is more Statist?). I don’t want to paint a picture of utopian bliss in Germany—of course, that’s far from the case—but we ought to look at specific practices in countries such as Germany to begin to think about how better to avoid some of our wrenching instability and how we might better conceive an economy to support family and community.
One thing we might see is the way that they trade some forms of apparent “growth” and the opportunities for extreme forms of economic inequality for policies that favor small family-owned businesses and independent business owners (i.e., that “widespread distribution of productive property that supports families and communities” at which some of your readers apparently scoff). Here’s one very modest example in which public policy can contribute to this “distributist” aim. For a long time in most German cities and towns, the law has required shops to close at 6:30 p.m. Can you imagine—how would we Americans survive? But this is precisely the point: the law exists to benefit the shop owners and producers, not the consumers. And it benefits them in the following ways: First, families that own and operate small businesses—often only employing members of their own family—can be home to have dinner with their families in the early evening. Second, this policy removes the advantage of larger businesses that can employ people to work at any and every hour (such as Wal-Mart, and other companies, that have started to open at dinnertime on Thanksgiving). And lastly, it establishes that there are certain times of the day when commerce occurs, and other times when other activities ought to prevail (this idea lay behind the existence of Blue laws, once upon a time). In my wife’s Southern German dialect, the meal at this time of day is still called “Vespers,” reflecting the time of day still linguistically ordered by the monastic offices.
Of course, this law is under heavy duress in a global economic system that, as Polanyi argued, makes all of social life an extension of the economy, and in which family is secondary to economic activity. But it is just one example of a way that the law can be supportive of families, of small and family-based producers over concentrated economic organizations, giving preference for production over consumption, and establishes an appropriate place for commerce. Our laws are not neutral on these questions—they are formative of a certain kind of economy and certain kind of people. That we believe them to be “neutral”—the creation of “market forces”—reveals how completely in fact we are shaped by them.