Where Fundamentalist Religion Meets Fundamentalist Economics
No deep appreciation of the dynamics of the American political economy in 2009-2010 is possible without understanding the importance of economists Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, as well as religious fundamentalists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Throw in some fascinating background on George Gilder, and the politics of the past two years begin to make much more sense, and we have Kim Phillips-Fein to thank for that. And for pointing out what American Progressives probably don't want to hear, but need to: that "the most striking and lasting victories of the right have come in the realm of political economy rather than that of culture."
Phillips-Fein also makes two fascinating observations about these Austrian economists in Invisible Hands, important for the major concerns of this essay: how The Market has assumed religious dimensions and attributes, especially here in the United States, and how it "assumes" different "moods" or attributes - projections if you would prefer - of its human inventors, recalling our wonderment at the anthropomorphic projections upon the Greek or Roman deities, or the Calvinist constructions of the 16th century. The first is Hayek's admission, in his famous Road To Serfdom, that "at times modern man would feel subordinated to the market and would chafe against economic forces that he could not control. But he argued that submission to the marketplace was infinitely preferable to deference to a ruler. `Unless this complex society is to be destroyed, the only alternative to submission to the impersonal and seemingly irrational forces of the market is submission to an equally uncontrollable and therefore arbitrary power of other men.'"(Page 37.) Now that's what I call "market fundamentalism," with not much room left for the politics of democracy (freedom in his view, comes from The Market), much less Social Democracy with its mixed economy and deep and open involvement in a fully recognized "political economy." The other stunning comment here, on what I will call the "brittle Prometheanism" of The Market, is the attribute that insists upon "hands off!" from government interventions. It has two features: that the market is spontaneous, "a complex system that came into existence without forethought or planning...the robust force that generated all of life and human production and a terribly fragile entity, threatened on all sides...in desperate need of protection..."(Ibid.)
Although there is a great deal else that happens to build conservative momentum inside the economics profession, especially the development of the rational expectations school and the efficient market hypothesis, readers wondering about our nation's strange 40 years' wanderings towards the edge of the economic cliff won't stray far from the path if they will remember these key features bequeathed by the Austrians. Yet as important as they for our understanding, they nonetheless don't tell the full story. For that, we must turn to the nature of the response from the religious fundamentalists to what is going on in the turbulent world of the 1970's - economic events, certainly, but also cultural ones as well.
Building the Conservative Coalition
As Kim Phillips-Fein lays out for us in Invisible Hands, political conservatives, especially business conservatives, were lamenting their lack of a grass-roots movement to counteract the power of labor which grew out of the organizing successes of the 1930's and the legal sanction bestowed by the New Deal. Protestant churches were the logical place to turn, but the climate in their pulpits, in the wake of the New Deal, and indeed, ever since the rise of the Social Gospel in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Progressive Era, was not very receptive. "The basic argument was that Christianity had too long been associated with altruism, selflessness, and a devotion to helping the poor - principles that might lead good Christians to advocate government intervention in the economy. To counter this idea, Spiritual Mobilization insisted that Christianity was rightly associated with shrinking the welfare state." (Page 74). Spiritual Mobilization was, among other things, an attempted collaboration between J.Howard Pew's Sun Oil-generated money and the religious organizing genius of James Fifield, a dynamic Congregational minister with a huge parish in Los Angles, who had originally founded Mobilization in the 1930's. And one of the first outreach efforts is to mail out free copies of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom in an attempt to gauge the mood amongst the ministers. Although it faltered in the 1950's, Spiritual Mobilization foreshadowed the framework for the conservative alliance in the 1980's.
Although most of my readers will be familiar with religious fundamentalism's focus on personal morality - crime, sexual transgressions, gender roles and abortion - much less attention has been paid to its attitudes towards economic questions and the role of the federal government. Because they have been part of powerful national political coalition, the Republican Right, since the late 1970's, and one where it is not clear that the leadership positions on economic questions fit comfortably with the economic needs of many in their congregations, nor where the steady green light given to rapid economic changes fits logically with the biblical and theological inflexibility, it behooves Progressives to take a closer look at how this coalition handles these tensions. All the more so during times when core portions of the national identity - the American Way of Life - Economic Abundance and Leadership, Moral Leadership, Success in War - seemed to be in decline. Indeed, as we will see, the relation of alleged moral decline linked to various forms of real or perceived national decline, is a theme that runs right back to the nation's Puritan roots in 17th century New England, and is in turn, closely linked to the Protestant Ethic and the earliest capitalist traditions of the nation.
We have stressed the importance of the various national shocks of the 1970's; so how did two of the most important fundamentalist religious leaders react to them, since both Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would play key roles in putting together the Republican Right coalition? First, we have to note, in partial answer to the seeming incongruity of fixed-theology fundamentalists advocating a permanent green light for the creative destruction of restless capitalism, that these religious leaders were businessmen as well as evangelists, familiar with the cutting edge technologies they utilized to spread their message by print, radio, and especially, television. It may have been for Falwell the nostalgia dripping title of the "Old-Time Gospel Hour," but it was also an example of electronic savvy and a cash-cow. In 1978, he began publishing a newspaper called the Journal-Champion which went heavily political, with a surprising dose of economic issues. Of course it had the standard pleas to "cleanse America of sexual sin," but it also took positions against federal bureaucratic interventions (OSHA), in favor of the California property tax revolt (Proposition 13), and against a federal bail-out of NY City. On the alarming national inflation of the 1970's, Falwell wrote that "God is bringing the entire nation to its financial knees. If we want to control inflation, we should set our spiritual house in order." (Phillips-Klein, Pages 228-230.) (Contrast that to Galbraith's remedy, never applied, of complex wage and prices controls, structured to account for the large firm/small business dichotomies in the US economy, and biographer Parker's call for - and the implied military threat - to force a roll-back of the OPEC oil price shocks - something he said Kissinger and Nixon wouldn't countenance for fear of roiling the tinderbox of the Middle-East).
And 30 years ago, in 1979, Pat Robertson issued his "Christian Action Plan to Heal Our Land in the 1980's." In one respect, it seems like it was a reversal of Falwell's diagnosis of cause-and-effect: "Robertson indicated that the moral illness threatening the United States in the late 1970's had its roots in the nation's political economy." It's timing was 50 years after the onset of the Great Depression, and it's pretty clear that Robertson blamed the liberal tools set in motion by the New Deal for the ills of the 1970's: "`a powerful central government...an anti-business bias in the country...powerful unions' and most important of all, `the belief in the economic policy of British scholar John Maynard Keynes...'" He conceded some positive good to them in curing the Great Depression, but "fifty years later they were responsible for the `sickness of the `70's - the devaluation of the dollar, inflation, the decline in productivity." The remedy? A "`profound moral revival'" and the election of those who would "`reduce the size of government, eliminate federal deficits, free our productive capacity, ensure sound currency.'" (Phillips-Fein, Page 225).
As noted, the cause and effect between economic decline and moral failings may get switched with less than airtight rigor within the worldview of even these two major fundamentalist leaders, but if we recall that in the 1970's and 1980's the charge was often made by conservatives that the liberal welfare state, especially its Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program (AFDC), aka as "welfare," was undermining both morals and marriage, then the seeming inconsistency here can be clarified. And who better to further shine a light on these matters of the moral economy, than the fascinating figure of George Gilder.
George Gilder and a Morality Enforced by The Market
This writer didn't know, until reading Invisible Hands, that Mr. Gilder was raised, after the death of his father, with the help of the Rockefeller family, especially David, who was a roommate of his father's at Harvard, nor was I aware of his two books published before the famous Wealth and Poverty of 1981. Wikipedia also notes that he attended a private school in NY City, Hamilton, then Phillips Exeter Academy and finally Harvard. I note these biographical features with interest because, as Thomas Frank tells us in One Market Under God (2000), Gilder was a proponent, among many notions, of the idea of class warfare "between righteous new money, the entrepreneurs who created wealth, and bitter frustrated old money..." The new entrepreneurs "were both society's `greatest benefactors' and yet also the `victims of some of society's greatest brutalities'" at the hands of "`the mob'" which turns out to be incited by... "...the very rich, the people of inherited but declining wealth whom, Gilder imagined, controlled `the media and the foundations, the universities and the government.'" (Page 35). Gilder's background is also ironic in light of his high flights into the realm of market populism, especially with the rise of the Internet and its entrepreneurs. But that's a digression from Invisible Hand's reminder of his earlier works.
The language Phillips-Fein uses to describe the early Gilder is revealing for the purposes of this essay. Gilder "wrote passionate jeremiads against modern liberalism's effect not only on the economy but on culture, sexual relationships, and morality...His first book, Sexual Suicide (1973), was a harsh critique of the women's movement; his second, Naked Nomads (1974), catalogued the hazard that single, unattached men posed to social order."(Page 177, My Emphasis.) In Wealth and Poverty, however, Gilder was trying "to demonstrate that capitalism was an inherently moral economic order." These were not entrepreneurs driven by greed; "they wanted merely to have the `freedom to consummate their entrepreneurial ideas,'" driven by "a spirit closely akin to altruism...'" (Ibid.) But then, like a turn in Zeus's mood, the market shows us another face, and becomes "a measuring stick for morality that meted out rewards to people who lived virtuous lives while punishing those who violated codes of decency. `Work, family, and faith' were the only solutions to poverty." And now for Gilder's main thrust:
that "the real danger of the welfare state was that it created a mode of subsistence and survival free of the morality enforced by the market." (Page 178. My Emphasis.)
Readers who would like to read more about the importance of Invisible Hands can find it as part of a longer essay, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Market" [...]