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The Narrative is Problematic

The Narrative is Problematic

May 14, 2023  |  376 words  |  Philosophy, Politics

Which narrative is problematic, you may be asking… Every narrative, I would answer.
It is natural to assemble a story for ourselves that helps explain how and why things happen in this world. Along the way we encounter others who seem knowledgeable in these matters, and we add their understanding to our own. As we get older, our narrative emphasizes what has gone wrong out there, and what should be done to fix all the problems. This, too, is natural.
But there is a tendency to overcommit to a particular narrative, once we settle on a story that suits us. The very thing that starts out helping us discern the larger world can end up getting in the way of our understanding that world even better. Such as learning to appreciate all the component parts of a particular controversy. We get seduced, if you will, by the certainty a narrative can offer. Regardless of how reasonable/unreasonable a given narrative may seem to the casual observer, there is no denying it provides a degree of certitude for the person who embraces it.

This is reassuring, even when it leaves the bearer thoroughly annoyed or frustrated. My point is that instead of settling for this type of certainty, we should always be forging ahead on a quest for wisdom.

“Narrative” as I am using the term is inherently partisan. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, since every partisan narrative contains an element of truth. No matter how vehemently we disagree with an opponent’s initial premise, there is still some truth hidden in amongst what strikes us as his or her error.
Yes, some narratives do contain more truth than others, and therefore deserve more attention. But no narrative tells the whole story. No narrative is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Each of us has adopted a preferred narrative we are comfortable with, that we proudly march behind as our banner. And every single one of those narratives is problematic. Because they ultimately prevent us from a deeper understanding of the world and of our fellow citizens. Developing the deeper understanding I have in mind would result in our being much more forgiving than most of us are now, and far less confrontational.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Capitalism Condones Bad Behavior

Capitalism Condones Bad Behavior

April 25, 2023 | 1,357 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy

My thesis this morning is how easily our version of capitalism condones behavior that is fundamentally inconsiderate of others.  And how this is not just a case of bad manners, but rises to the level of injustice.

We are all familiar with the many positive aspects of capitalism, how a free market unleashes creativity and innovation, generating an avalanche of economic activity that benefits everyone up and down the food chain.  It yields the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.  Older readers may recall “trickle down economics,” a pithy catch phrase from the 1980s that perfectly captured the “you have nothing to worry about” spirit of those boom years.
Given all the glowing press capitalism has received since then, many of us have trouble addressing the obvious negative aspects of capitalism with a clear eye.  Any such discussion is immediately derailed by ad hoc arguments about socialism being an intolerable alternative.
We have even more trouble seeing economics as being tied in an inextricable way to moral behavior.  Or with admitting that when economics is untethered from morality it becomes a free for all that leaves the social fabric in taters, while the rich get richer.

Things in this realm have devolved to the point where we no longer recognize the central role morality was designed to play in modern-day economics, and argue instead over how much government intervention is needed to balance the scales and create a safety net for those hurt most by predatory practices.  Or whether the market should be free to operate apart from such intervention, in the expectation all social ills and inequities will eventually be ameliorated. 

This belies a basic reality: social justice hinges on the moral behavior of individual economic actors.  On doing right by people you don’t know but who are nonetheless affected by your economic behavior.  The countless others who are not part of your inner circle, that cadre of trusted lieutenants who execute a business strategy and help maximize profitability.
Conservatives continue to insist their favorite form of economic exchange is “inherently moral,” despite all evidence to the contrary.  This dubious claim picked up steam in the early 1980s and provided much-needed cover for the greed is good era of junk bond, private equity take-overs that began in the late 1980s, and has been with us ever since.

Much has been written on how our style of capitalism has failed to provide a living wage for so many Americans.  But none of that commentary seems to make a dent in the conservatives’ leave-it-alone view of economic life.  Nor do the boom-and-bust cycles we can’t seem to avoid.  Or the pillaging of so many industries by private equity firms who buy up companies only to slash jobs and siphon off assets, raising prices and negatively impacting customer service in the process.
And why isn’t there more hue and cry heard from the general public about all this economic mayhem?  Maybe because it is being drowned out by or diverted to noisy debates over cultural issues. Like how many types of assigned public restrooms we should provide.  Or what pronouns we should employ when addressing our fellow citizens.

Not that adequate bathroom facilities and proper forms of address are not important.  But in the hierarchy of societal needs I do wonder why the fourth estate seems so lax in its evaluation of economically immoral behavior on the part of the most privileged Americans, while choosing instead to direct the majority of its ire at what all enlightened souls now take to be the anti-woke contingent of “deplorables” in our culture wars.

We have hit a few snags on the way to achieving the informed electorate said to be a pre-requisite for democracy.  Our liberal media prides itself on defending “individual freedom.”  While our conservative media is committed to protecting “economic freedom.”  What is lost in this liberal/conservative obsession with “freedom” is any consideration of the common good. 

Which brings me back to economic behavior that is fundamentally inconsiderate of others, and how capitalism too easily condones such behavior.
In addition to the big, splashy examples of injustice that do sometimes make the headlines, there are other, less prominent indignities that plague our economic life here in what we proudly assert is the greatest country on earth.  I would like to offer one small example from my own experience.


I own a contracting business that functions as part of the commercial construction industry.  By that I mean my company does work in office buildings and auditoriums and such.  Over the years the services we provide have morphed into a “sound proofing” specialty, primarily in the form of fabric-wrapped panels for walls and ceilings.  Though we’ve always been based in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, in the last decade much of our work has migrated to New York City, where our client list is a veritable who’s-who of Fortune 100 heavy-hitters.

When things started to take off for me back in the mid-1980s, I was working for developers who were creating some of the first suburban “office parks” outside of Philadelphia.  Those developers instructed us to invoice twice a month for work-in-place, and they would fund those invoices in 15 days, like clockwork.

Now, some 40 years later, we are forced to chase the large Construction Management firms we bill our work “through,” and navigate a labyrinth of paperwork to shake loose our payments.  The soonest we can expect to see any money is after our invoices have aged 90 days.  Though having to wait 120 or 150 days is also not uncommon.  The reply we frequently get when inquiring about payment is, “The client has not funded the invoice for that work yet.”

Which is to say, the Fortune 100 heavy-hitters who lease lavish space in some of the most exclusive office towers in North American have chosen not to pay their bills in a timely manner.  Why?  Because they don’t have to.  Somewhere along the line the movers and shakers realized they could drag out payment indefinitely and get away with it.  If you complain, they simply move on and hire a competitor, and force that company to wait for payment.

This is one of the sins of omission conservative academics and think-tank scholars never get around to talking about, when penning their hosannas to the free market.  The economic engine they celebrate is indeed a wonderful thing to behold.  But what is missing from the current formula is any sense of fair play.  Any sense of treating those who lack leverage as you would want to be treated, were you to find yourself without leverage.  Instead, the prevailing ethos has reverted back to “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Private equity acquisitions siphon money from the bottom of the food chain.  The holding back of payment by the top of the food chain prevents that money from ever reaching the bottom to begin with.  It puts a crimp in the cash flow of the many different entities involved in the elaborate, multi-layered construction process.

This forces companies like mine to borrow money to cover payroll and pay suppliers.  It prevents us from adding staff to execute the work we have under contract more efficiently, or adding staff to possibly expand operations.  It also makes it difficult for us to increase the salaries of the over-worked people already in our employ. 

Competition, supply and demand, and self-interest can only bring an economic system so far, if the ultimate goal is social justice, rather just registering an uptick in the standard of living.  If you happen to be a big real estate developer erecting a skyscraper, or a major corporation building out a sleek office space in such a gleaming structure, you hold all the cards.  You can decide to pay the variety of contractors who bring your space to life as slowly as you want.

Because we in the construction industry are all scrambling for this elite work, we all want this prestige business.  Even though the terms we are forced to operate under have deteriorated dramatically over the course of the last 40 years.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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The Economics of Beauty

The Economics of Beauty

March 14, 2023 | 435 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy

Now here is an angle Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels probably did not cover in their famous 1848 treatise on economics, “The Communist Manifesto”…  Namely, the impact beauty has on an economic system.  But it turns out a gentleman by the name of Daniel S. Hamermesh has given it a lot of thought.

To be clear, we are not referring to Beauty in the transcendental sense, the virtue seen as complimenting Truth, and thought by philosophers and poets to be an expression of the Good.  No, what we are talking about here is good, old-fashioned physical attractiveness.  The kind of thing randomly bestowed on certain men and women through a favorable combination of parental genes, making them easy on the eyes.

Driving to work the other day I caught part of an entertaining radio interview Hamermesh was doing for the BBC, describing how better-looking people experience undeniable benefits like having an easier time finding employment, earning more than their average-looking counterparts, receiving promotions sooner, etc.

It was fascinating stuff, and instead of coming off like a stuffy academic he sounded like a wry, good-natured observer of human nature.  I looked him up the first chance I got, and learned Daniel S. Hamermesh (b. 1943) is a tenured professor of economics at the University of Texas, who since the mid-nineties has done a series of studies on the role appearance plays in the workplace.  

The thread that run through his work is simple enough:  Attractive workers make more money.  These amounts vary by gender, and looks are valued differently based on profession.  In a bold assertion that will surprise absolutely no one, Professor Hamermesh’s data clearly shows that “pulchritude” is valuable in nearly all professions, not just where good looks would seem to be an obvious asset.

In one of his recent books, “Beauty Pays” (Princeton University Press, 2013), Hamermesh considers whether  extra pay for good-looking people represents discrimination, and whether government programs should aid the ugly.  

Oh, my.  In the quest for economic justice, I do believe government has a role to play in trying to balance the scales our free market often inadvertently leaves dangling precariously over a cliff.  But no, government aid for the less-than-good-looking is not an initiative we should be storming the castle over.  

To all the other obstacles we face in creating a world that provides fair treatment and equitable compensation in the work place, obstacles Marx and Engels and many others of varying political persuasions and religious convictions have tried to address over the years, Daniel Hamermesh’s work has added an unexpected twist: one’s relative lack of physical beauty.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Julia Reichert, R.I.P.

Julia Reichert, R.I.P.

March 6, 2023 | 691 words | Movies, Economics, Philosophy

When Julia Reichert died a few months ago at the age of 76, she was eulogized as a “Documentarian of the Working Class.”  I knew of her only through the 2019 Academy award-winning “American Factory,” about the Chinese take-over of a shuttered automobile plant in Dayton, Ohio, which she directed with her second husband, Steven Bognar.

By reading her obituary I learned about Ms. Reichert’s extensive career, as both a filmmaker and educator.  A longtime professor of motion pictures at Wright State University in Dayton, Ms. Reichert “was in the forefront of a new generation of social documentarians who came out of the New Left and feminist movements of the early 1970s with a belief in film as an organizing tool with a social mission.”

“Although Ms. Reichert addressed a variety of social issues in the documentaries she directed and produced, her enduring interests were labor history and the lives of working women.”

Reichert’s resume as a filmmaker starts in 1971.  As an undergraduate at Antioch College in Ohio she made a pioneering feminist documentary, “Growing Up Female,” with a male classmate by the name of James Klein, who became a frequent collaborator and her first husband.  In 2011 “Growing Up Female” was selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.  

Other stellar early works completed with Mr. Klein include “Union Maids” (1976), and “Seeing Red” (1983).  The critic Vincent Canby considered the latter “a fine, tough companion piece to ‘Union Maids.’”  Rather than trading in dogma, he told us, her subject was “American Idealism.”  

A few years ago the writer Barbara Ehrenreich (who herself died this past September) recalled how Ms. Reichert “defied every stereotype I’d had of independent filmmakers…  She wasn’t rich, and she wasn’t arrogant or egotistical.  The daughter of a butcher and a house cleaner turned registered nurse, she dressed and spoke plainly, usually beaming with enthusiasm, and never abandoned her Midwestern roots.”

It is her enthusiasm that really comes across in the interview she and Mr. Bognar did with Barack and Michelle Obama about the making of “American Factory.”  (Netflix released the film in conjunction with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions.)  This interview is packaged as a companion piece to the film, both of which are available for streaming.

What makes “American Factory” so engaging is the way it is “suffused in ambivalence.”  The New York Times called it “complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present, and possible future of American labor.”  It centers on a Chinese billionaire who purchases a shuttered GM truck factory, and re-opens it as an automobile glass factory.  He is welcomed by the Ohio community as a hero who promises to restore lost jobs, only to become a villain by “confounding American workers with a new set of attitudes.”  And by chopping their previous wage and benefit package by more than half. 

Surprisingly that billionaire, Cao Dewang, is not portrayed as a one-dimensional scoundrel straight out of central casting, as one might expect from a Documentarian of the Working Class.  In many ways he is actually the film’s protagonist.

Though everybody in this documentary eventually gets their say.  We hear from union people, anti-union people, and an array of workers.  Both the native Americans and the exuberant Chinese who are brought in to show the sometimes-recalcitrant locals how to be more efficient and productive.

“Hearing from” is an accurate description of how this and Reichert’s other films typically unfold.  She avoids voice-over narration in favor of interviews with her mostly rank-and-file subjects who are allowed to speak for themselves on camera.  This lets us make up our own minds about what we are watching.

The obituary closes by describing Julia Reichert as a committed artist who was more interested in people than in ideology.  She “wore her politics so lightly that almost no one seemed to notice when she concluded her Oscar acceptance speech for ‘American Factory’ by cheerfully citing the best-known phrase from Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels’s ‘Communist Manifesto.’”

“We believe that things will get better,” she said, “when the workers of the world unite.”  And so do I.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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The Second Bill of Rights

The Second Bill Of Rights 

February 21, 2023 |  1,431 words  |  Politics, Philosophy, Religion

More on Christianity versus Liberal Democracy

Everyone is always singing the praises of liberal democracy, but these days many enthusiasts are expressing concern about the future of the institution.  Populist uprisings here in the United States and across Europe are seen as threatening the rule of law, and the idea of free and fair elections.  It seems the will of the people is not always a reliable arbiter of social policy, at least not when it contradicts that of our leading opinion-makers, or of the cognoscenti already in power.

But hasn’t that always been the dark underside of the radical autonomy ushered in by classical liberalism a half a millennium or so ago, and which defines the liberal democratic order?  

Most democracies have historically tried to mitigate the potential damage of an unrestrained outbreak of radical autonomy by limiting the franchise to the right kind of people.  While still describing their elections as “free” and “fair.”  In the case of our country’s Founders, some of the most revered signers lobbied hard for only property owners to cast ballots.  The common rabble was thought of as not having a vested interest in the outcome, and couldn’t be relied upon to vote responsibly.  This sort of gerrymandering has been happening ever since, both here and abroad, in one form or another.

The current state of classical liberalism, like that of liberal democracy, is also being hotly debated, at least among certain elite thinkers and opinion-makers.  Some are explaining “Why (Classical) Liberalism Failed.”  Others are contributing to forums asking “Is (Classical) Liberalism Worth Saving.”  The crux of the problem seems to be the way individual autonomy, when taken to an extreme, threatens the civil liberties of the wider community.  This puts a strain on the rule of law and makes it difficult to keep things from unraveling completely.  The potential for complete social unraveling has been a recurring theme under classical liberalism and liberal democracy, since it’s hard to avoid such extremes of behavior where flawed human beings are concerned.

As a culture we have agreed this strain is worth putting up with, in return for enjoying wonderful everyday liberties like religious freedom and freedom of speech.  Not to mention the crown jewel of classical liberalism: free market economics.  This last has bestowed untold riches on even ordinary working people, as basic income has increased 25 times in real terms since 1800.  

That is quite an impressive statistic, one many economists are fond of citing.  But there is more to the story, now that we are several centuries into the grand narrative.  After envisioning the ideal of a truly globalized economy for hundreds of years, we have finally arrived at its universal implementation.  And what is there to report?  The interests of most people in developing countries are being served quite well, along with the interests of elites in advanced countries.  Meanwhile, the interests of the working and middle classes in developed countries are being served hardly at all.  The very people that did so well in the three decades after World War II.

Which goes a long way toward explaining the populist uprisings being experienced here in the United States and across Europe.

It’s not that we should have stuck with the so-called “mercantile” economic system that proliferated in the 16th Century.  Only that when we started to substitute laissez-faire economics as part of an embrace of classical liberalism, we unfortunately turned our back on Christianity.  This expressed itself in a new focus on individual freedom as opposed to a concern for the common good.  This change in focus has yielded the injustices and glaring inequities we are experiencing in our free market system today.  Despite the post-1800 “enrichment” economists are forever raving about.  


We are taught the liberties and freedoms espoused by classical liberalism and codified in the liberal democratic order are contingent on limiting the size of government.  But when classical liberalism was first getting off the ground a half a millennium or so ago, it wasn’t “big government” in the cross hairs.  The new, revolutionary concept of individual emancipation was seen as a liberation from all previously held authority, custom, and tradition.  In other words, the elite thinkers and opinion-makers of the day were making a conscious decision to topple Christianity, the authority of record and primary keeper of custom and tradition, in favor of having us all go our own way.  In morals, politics, and economics.

The irony is that so many of today’s most enthusiastic advocates of limiting government so as to unleash economic growth consider themselves to be faithful Christians, without realizing their economic prescriptions are often at odds with the essential precepts of Christianity.


The presidential administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) remains an object of ridicule for those who see a commitment to limited government as the driving force behind our nation’s remarkable success.  FDR is still a poster child for what many regard as socialist policies that are anti-American and stifle economic advancement.  While I am not qualified to debate the relative merits of Roosevelt’s many legislative initiatives, or care to defend his long and varied record in public office, I will say this: There is no denying the man’s life-long interest in social justice issues, first developed during his time at Groton Prep School in Massachusetts,  which he entered at age 14.

A much older FDR unveiled what he described as a “Second Bill of Rights” during his last State of the Union address, delivered to Congress  in January 1944.  (His better known and more frequently cited “Four Freedoms” speech was presented during his State of the Union address of three years earlier.)  By 1944 he had accumulated quite a bevy of boisterous critics, and they pounced on this particular speech as nothing less than a radical reworking of the American creed.

Instead of simply ratifying the central idea of classical liberalism, which defines “freedom” as protection from the abusive powers of government (described by some as “negative freedom”), Roosevelt proclaimed government could provide citizens with “positive freedoms,” in the form of tools they need to live lives of honor and dignity.

Here is the slippery slope of “How Classical Liberalism Morphed Into New Deal Liberalism,” as one scholar has put it.  FDR’s wacky and wild-eyed 1944 bullet points included:

  •  The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.
  •  The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.
  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.
  • The right of every family to a decent home.
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
  • The right to a good education.

Roosevelt’s many ideological opponents, then and now, abhor even the slightest hint that government should provide any of the above.  And who knows, maybe they are right.  Maybe it is Corporate America that should take a closer look at this Second Bill of Rights, and figure out how to work a social conscience into its playbook.  Maybe being profitable isn’t the only thing a successful corporation owes the wider community. 

Regardless of who does what, it’s obvious there is a shortfall being generated by our current approach.  It is equally obvious that everything in Roosevelt’s idealistic (quixotic? unrealistic?) Second Bill of Rights aligns with the precepts of Christianity, and constitute what might be described as the Christian social order.  That we are no longer willing to acknowledge that, and no longer wish to discuss the situation in those terms, reveals how our commitment to the liberal democratic order has led to our complete rejection of Christianity.

So, listen, by all means let’s continue with this emancipation of the individual and this limiting the size of government.  Or, emancipating the individual and expanding government as needed to address the social fall-out.  Either way, if the objective is a well-ordered society, where every citizen has a reasonable shot at leading a life of honor and dignity, all these liberated individuals (and corporations) should consider an emergency infusion of empathy.  

Especially that segment of the population who are clever or advantaged and get to live above the fray.  For they too often employ a radical autonomy as their modus operandi.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Selective Ridicule

Selective Ridicule

February 13, 2023 | 1,198 words | Politics, Philosophy, Religion

Christianity versus Liberal Democracy

Everyone is always singing the praises of “liberal democracy” these days.  Not only is it universally thought of as the best possible form of government, it’s the only one any reasonable person will even consider.  This despite the strife and turmoil being experienced in democracies around the world.  And despite how we here in the United States have not done a particularly good job over the last 250 years keeping some of our own golden promises, such as the “all men (and women?) are created equal” clause in our country’s founding documents.


Somehow coming up short on such a fundamental premise has not prompted Americans to re-think their enthusiasm for, or question their commitment to, the liberal democratic “rule of law.”  Probably because they see it as the only game in town.


Christianity, on the other hand, has not been so lucky.  It no longer elicits the same degree of loyalty it once did.  In searching for a viable operational system that works for modern-day society, many elite thinkers and leading opinion-makers passed on the idea of religious belief and practice a long time ago.


And the rest of us have followed suit.  Christianity is no longer seen as a reliable arbiter of social thought or and public behavior, having been relegated to a merely private matter with no bearing on the larger community.


There is a consensus among opinion-makers and common folk alike that Christianity has been tried and found wanting.  It enjoyed its time at the top, running the show, but failed to deliver peace and prosperity.  Determined to find a better way, we adopted a system of “checks and balances” and now assume the problem is solved.  But there is something askew with the conventional wisdom.  Look how mightily our three branches of government have struggled to mete out simple justice over the last 250 years.  Then consider how much harder it has been for Christianity to get the mass of Western humanity to embody the divine directive “love your neighbor as yourself” for the last two millennium. 


Yet that degree-of-difficulty does not earn the Catholic Church, as the primary purveyor of Christianity for much of history, any wiggle room in the public eye.  Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has been shunted to the side of any serious political science discussion.  Apparently, the Achilles heel of Catholicism is that it operates without consulting “the will of the people.”  This makes its shortcomings and outright failures more reprehensible, and less forgivable, than those of a run-of-the-mill secular institution. 


My contention is this: There was no reason to abandon the Christian social order half a millennium or so ago in favor of classical liberalism – the ideology at the heart of the liberal democratic order – due to the so-called failure of the former.  When things go wrong it is not necessarily the operating system in question that is to blame, but the people attempting to apply the system.  Flawed human beings trying to implement the lofty objectives of liberal democracy are no better or worse than the flawed humans who have been trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. 


We have been taught that liberal democracy is synonymous with reason, and is therefore the rational alternative.  But instead of an objective analysis of the advantages and benefits of one system (liberal democracy) versus the other (Christianity), we have embraced liberal democracy (and rejected Christianity) based on a highly emotional appeal to liberating the individual from any prior constraint: moral, political, and economic.  This liberation, it should be noted, is widely viewed as the key to “human flourishing.”


Having said that, I realize many Christians who embrace liberal democracy and the broader tenets of classical liberalism do not see themselves as rejecting Christianity.  Far from it.  In my experience, they typically see the liberal democratic order as a perfect embodiment of their Christian ideals.  A timely update, if you will, of the Christianity they know and love and profess belief in.  But to my mind that’s only because these well-intentioned souls have been let down by their teachers, and cannot see the forest for the trees.




There are many things to like about liberal democracy in the abstract:  Representative government with free and open elections.  The protection of individual liberties such as freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.  With these rights being codified in law, and therefore not subject to the whim of an unelected ruler.  Along with an emphasis on the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a system of checks and balances between branches of government.  But these lovely-sounding concepts are fatally undermined by the faulty  premise at the heart of classical liberalism, which serves as the ideological wellspring and jumping off point for liberal democracy.


That premise involves elevating individual autonomy and individual freedom and individual rights above any other consideration, such as the common good.  Classical liberalism asserts the individual knows best, does not require any guidance in moral, political, or economic matters, and should therefore be set free to direct his or her own path in life.  Unencumbered by any previously-held authority, custom, or tradition.


Following this line of thought, there is a corresponding belief in the power of the individual to figure everything out as he or she goes along, and that things in the larger society will work out for the better, eventually.


If you are looking for a quick explanation of how liberal democracy currently functions in opposition to Christianity, I would offer this straightforward observation.  The former encourages chutzpah in all things, while the latter encourages humility.


I would also suggest the Achilles heel of classical liberalism and liberal democracy is that it removes all limits to individual appetite.  It assumes an invisible hand and enlightened self-interest will corral and mollify age-old, socially-corrosive predilections such as pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth.




It seems that Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has spent the last century or so trying to adapt belief and practice to the liberal democratic order, in one way or another.  For the Anglican Church, a seminal event might be the Lambeth Conference of 1930.  For the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) comes to mind.


I am not critical of these efforts.  But I do think the larger society would reap more benefit if the adaptation came from the opposite direction:  If the liberal democratic order, which now reigns supreme, could bring itself to work the basic precepts of the Christian social order into its thought process.


Giving priority to individual freedom in social, political, and economic life, with the pursuit of individual happiness understood as the highest good, may sound reasonable.  And focusing on limited government and economic freedom to get there does indeed make a degree of sense.  Especially to the clever or advantaged among us. 


But this logic ignores the larger philosophical issue.  Namely, the important role humility and moderation (i.e., limiting individual appetite) play in a well-lived life, and contribute to a well-ordered society.  And how practicing these virtues naturally makes citizens more empathetic toward their fellow citizens.  Especially toward those citizens less advantaged or less clever than themselves.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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