Samuel Gregg is an exceptional scholar. He is also a gentleman. His new book, The Next American Economy, is about half right. Upon the wrong half we will here reflect.
As a philosopher, Gregg, who is not trained in economics, sees all conflict as friction between theories. He believes the United States now has only two choices: what he labels as “state capitalism” and a real “market economy.”
On the contrary, we believe that the real conflict is between morality and a theory.
Action precedes thought. Morality is primarily a matter of habit. We are initiated into this morality in the same way we are initially educated to speak a language, that is, by osmosis; eventually we come to do self-consciously what was originally done unreflectively. This form of education accompanies every social practice. The genius of this education is that it enables us to act without hesitation when the occasion demands it. The stability of public morality is the result of the fact that it is not part of a fixed or ideological system, i.e., it can even withstand partial demise; its great strength is its flexibility and its capacity to evolve under pressure of novel circumstances.
Public morality can be subject to critical reflection, but it is critical reflection of a special kind. We call it explication. Explication presupposes that all social practices function with implicit norms and that to explicate a practice is to make explicit the inherent norms. In explication we try to clarify that which is routinely taken for granted, namely our ordinary understanding of practices, in the hope of extracting from our previous practice a set of norms that can be used reflectively to guide future practice. Explication is a form of practical knowledge and presupposes that practical knowledge is more fundamental than, and not reducible to, theoretical knowledge.
All reflection is ultimately reflection on primordial practices that existed prior to our theorizing about them.
Contemporary intellectuals in general, and philosophers in particular, have trouble with this idea because they are part of an institution that is meant to be almost exclusively reflective. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that reflection is, ultimately, a reflection not on other reflections but on actions in which human beings engaged prior to theorizing about them.
Sometimes the morally right thing to do is to use force in a situation where argument has reached the limits of what it can accomplish. Morality, in the end, is about action and not discourse.
The traditional idea that has come down to us from classical Greek philosophy is that theory is prior to practice. That is, we must first apprehend the external structure of truth and then conform our behavior to that truth.
What are the positive benefits of attempting to guide practice by reference to theory, any theory? The major benefit is that it provides work for philosophers. In the course of this attempt, philosophers will discover or rediscover that:
- There is no theory on how to apply theory to practice. Theory must be supplemented by an elaborate casuistry or hermeneutic. There will be endless lively and witty conversations punctuated by competing intuitions and “what if” scenarios. Professional philosophers love these conversations, it helps them to publish, and it keeps them out of trouble and busy.
- This will give rise, in turn, to competing versions of the theory. Whole careers can be based on a new version or defense of a prior one.
- Any theory is, in the end, a set of abstractions. Abstractions are so general that with a little ingenuity any abstraction may be stretched to cover any context. This creates the illusion that one’s own favored theory must be correct because it fits or can be made to fit everything. We say these are illusions because the same “stretch” capacity is inherent in all the competing abstractions.
- Finally, the best philosophers will emerge and help us to understand (a) that we live in a world of incommensurable rival moralities (i.e., moral theories); (b) that agreement can be obtained only on procedural norms, not substantive norms; and that (c) conflict may still be unavoidable if one of the rival claimants is unable to find the resources within its substantive view to endorse the procedural norms.
These are the good things. Now let us turn to the bad things, the negative consequences of attempting to guide practice by reference to a theory. Theory surreptitiously suggests a utopian resolution to the human condition. It is what Eric Voegelin identifies as the immanentization of the eschaton. It is the false and dangerous promise that we can do without morality and instead replace it with a “plan.”
Theoretical obsession undermines confidence in habit and ultimately the habit itself. People will tend to confuse having a coherent ideology with being moral. At the very least, students will be given a familiarity with one or more philosophical languages, but they will confuse the linguistic facility they acquire with the ability to make moral decisions. Unable to establish through theory its own universality, it will undermine faith in its applicability to its own context of origin. In the pursuit of peace, it will advocate pacifism even in the face of enemies determined to destroy it; in the name of tolerance, it will tolerate intolerant enemies determined to destroy it. Unable to establish its own universality by theoretical means alone, the entire moral code collapses, only to be replaced by rival codes that promise and are seen temporarily at least to deliver a form of universality.
Gregg in Practice
How does this apply to Gregg? After writing a thoughtful book on why Europe is failing, Gregg, an Australian who studied at Oxford, was a rabid “Remainer” in the referendum on Brexit. His position fails to take sovereignty seriously, is fashioned around a theoretical free-trade position that makes no empirical sense with reference to the EU and is elitist establishmentarianism. Gregg, no populist, favored the European Union and its statist nondemocratic bureaucracy, over a devolved political and economic system where a group of people—i.e., a nation—got to choose its own course of action. He was upset about the UK voters’ decision to leave.
The U.S. founding was not a theory but the product of an Anglo-Protestant culture. One of the many good reasons in favor of Brexit was to preserve that same cultural inheritance without which things like free trade lose their meaning.
We (Malloch and Capaldi) were in favor of Brexit. We also backed Trump. And, we are critics of Ayn Rand, Catholic libertarians, and especially RINOs and establishment figures, like former Speaker Paul Ryan and his economic and political views.
The Trump candidacy cum presidency was contentious, and both of us lost many friends when we backed the 45th President. Gregg, an ardent National Review-type NeverTrumper, sadly, was one of those friends who could not forgive us (we hope he changes his mind and stops blocking us).
From our point of view, a conservative, market-oriented thinker like Gregg opposing Trump was short-sighted; a contradiction to his underlying stalwart philosophy, with which we agree. Trump, it turned out, was more on board with conservative policies than any other recent elected official. Trump was/is not a theorist (and certainly not an advocate of state capitalism) but reflects instead a pragmatic conservative morality. Not only did Trump revitalize our economy, but he had it singing—to the benefit of every American group, most notably all minorities. But theoreticians like Gregg have no real-world business experience and lack both political and executive experience. Therefore, they are without an adequate understanding of the real world in which moral actions are messy and contentious.
Theirs is entirely a life of theory. They dislike Trump and his trade policy. Denying the effects of globalization and especially China’s dumping, China’s infiltration of international bodies like the WTO (it alleges that China is a “developing” nation), currency manipulation and intellectual property theft, they are willing to accept the loss of the middle class, jobs, and American culture all to cohere to their utopian theories.
The reluctance of libertarians to support Trump led to the catastrophic failures of the Biden presidency; analogously, economic globalism will not lead to a free-trade utopia but to Chinese totalitarian hegemony.
At the Catholic-libertarian Acton Institute until recently, Gregg embodies the bifurcated and contradictory worlds of both hard core Randianism and traditional Catholic social thought. It is a marriage not made in heaven—as they cannot be logically or philosophically, not to mention theologically combined. Gregg claims to be a Smithian follower, but Smith would not back the economy Gregg wishes for, nor would Wilhelm Röpke, another important economist we all have written about.
The point here is that there is little in the way of economics, statistics, or real world deliverables associated with what Gregg calls a “new economy.” In effect it would be another same old laissez-faire sellout to China and the big tech monopolists who might genuflect to the phrase free trade, but whose only aim is to triumph over the United States and dictate to its people.