Like any great human idea, liberalism carried within it paradoxes and self-contradictions: potential seeds of its own destruction, inherent tendencies of whose existence the adherents and proponents of this grand idea appear not to have been always aware.
As modernity’s defining idea, classical liberalism created the culture we live in. But to growing numbers of observers, whose faith in our cultural and political institutions is all but lost, or who never had faith in those institutions to begin with, liberalism seems to be a spent force.
Like any great human idea, liberalism carried within it paradoxes and self-contradictions: potential seeds of its own destruction, inherent tendencies of whose existence the adherents and proponents of this grand idea appear not to have been always aware. Surveying the landscape of our culture today, it looks more and more like someone has sown those seeds, and it’s almost harvest time.
How did we come to this pass? To find the answer, we must look back to the transition period from medieval to modern times. As I said last time, it’s an epic story, prefaced by the fatal fracturing of the unity of Christendom in the early 1500s. At that time, in place of the medieval ideal of a single Christian social polity, headed by pope and emperor, with Christ at the center of all things, Europe came to be divided into Catholic and Protestant camps.
In countless ways, that division or fracturing helped to bring about the collapse or dismantling of the old social order that had formed and informed the morals and expectations of the Christians of Europe for centuries. However, despite the religious division of Europe, the medieval political arrangement, with its close association if not union of State and Church, survived until the 1800s. Only then did liberalism change things in the political sphere.
But well prior to the political revolution came the disintegration and destruction of medieval economic morality. In the economic sphere, the change has been so thorough that about the only trace of the old arrangement that remains is our vague sense that greed is bad, that the rich should give to charity, and that there’s something seriously wrong with our culture’s absurdly unequal distribution of wealth.
These days Catholic teaching on sex gets frequent attention and generates the most controversy. In comparison, classical liberalism’s triumph in the realm of economic morality has been so thorough that Catholic teaching on that subject rarely makes the news.
However, Thomas Storck in “Liberalism’s Three Assaults” emphasizes that medieval Catholic teaching “had strongly impressed on society the necessity of keeping in check the powerful human desire for economic gain, just as much as the powerful human desire for sexual pleasure.”
Classical liberalism advocated free trade, free markets, and individual liberty with as little interference from the State in matters of business as possible. But where liberalism placed freedom from restraint (including in economic matters) as its highest value, medieval man saw that pursuit of wealth and attachment to material possessions cause unhappiness and spiritual impoverishment, and therefore need appropriate limitations in society.
Historian Richard Tawney describes the medieval attitude: “It is right for a man to seek such wealth as is necessary for a livelihood in his station. To seek more is not enterprise, but avarice, and avarice is a deadly sin. Trade is legitimate …. But it is a dangerous business. A man must be sure that he carries it on for the public benefit, and that the profits which he takes are no more than the wages of his labor.” Justice and stability, not profit and competition, were the fundamental economic principles.
Medieval economies developed several institutions to put those principles into practice, chief among them being the craft guild, which, says Storck, “embodied the quintessential Catholic idea of regulating the economy without direct governmental intervention.”
All of that was swept away by the early 1800s. The guild system was hardly perfect, but in its place, as Pope Leo XIII lamented, working men were “given over, isolated and defenseless, to the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition.” Also, where medieval society was centered on God, modern society placed the individual’s material concerns at the center of life. Naturally, then, as Ludwig von Mises approvingly wrote, “With the spread and progress of capitalism, birth control becomes a universal practice.”
Next time, we’ll look at liberalism’s political revolution.
Community editor Jared Olar may be reached at email@example.com.