Wednesday, February 24, 2021


The farther and faster any of us ventures through this mortal life, the clearer it becomes that human problems don’t really ever dissolve, they just on take new forms. Debates, however crisp and fresh they seem initially, tend to repeat themselves. Think Groundhog Day.  

What a distinct advantage, all this being the case, to have the experienced and lucid Donald Devine as a guide to the newest phase of the unending argument over capitalism’s moral properties. No sooner do we think we’ve settled this business to general advantage (cf. Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek) than the artillery opens up on another front. 

We’re told that the encouragement of “greed” and “opportunism” depletes moral understanding, making us meaner and selectively more indifferent to suffering. We’re a funny lot, we humans: never wholly happy with whatever arrangements are at hand; always bestowing Olympian status on our very personal insights or, worse, crotchets.

And doesn’t Mr. Devine know it?! He ought to after a long career in political science teaching, with time off to run President Reagan’s personnel shop. You will gather from his book title he thinks the argument has endless shelf life. Between freedom and moral duty there is “endless tension,” one side constantly pushing back against the other: as right now, with Mr. Devine’s fellow conservatives battling — not as  charitably as one might wish or suppose — over how to reposition the post-Trump Republican Party for electoral majorities achieved with something like integrity.  

Mr. Trump’s ouster from the White House, whether it proves temporary or not, affords Republicans at least the temporary chance to say all manner of things concerning these great matters. It is a chance fewer and fewer find themselves able to resist. 

Mr. Devine, as it happens, has thought and thought about these very matters during his long and distinguished career as a conservative intellectual lastingly influenced by National Review’s Frank S. Meyer, whose ideas on “fusionism” fused order and liberty as inter-related, mutually supportive goals. 

There was — is — a fullness in Meyer’s analysis of the human condition, unserved as he saw it by libertarianism alone or, on the other hand, you-there-get-in-line moral order. And so there is in Mr. Devine’s deep, deep thinking on the subject a quality that the feverish and excitable might describe as ambiguity. I don’t think, for instance, the Proud Boys are likely to hang up Mr. Devine’s escutcheon in their dimly lighted taverns.

Longer-term thinkers might, by contrast, reason along with Mr. Devine that “unique human rights and freedoms” require a “foundational mythos that elevates humans above other creatures” — that enfolds them in its wonders.  “The conception of humanity,” he continues, “that sustains and justifies a pluralist, capitalist social order derives from Judeo-Christian beliefs, beginning with the doctrine of a caring Creator who made humans in his own image, endowing them uniquely with a moral worth that inheres in every person. This was the faith of the American Founders, not in the form of a sectarian Christianity but as a broad consensus on a few basic doctrines.”

We notice even today the tricorn hats of the Founders — Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and the rest; Jefferson, too, for all the modern attempts to blackguard him — hanging in every hall or seminar room where the meaning of America has set chins to wagging and pulses to throbbing. The wonder of the Founders continues to be their intellectual and moral nearness to the great questions of all time, for all their inability, as it proved, to settle matters no other society, from Aristotle’s time to Joe Biden’s, ever has gotten totally right. 

“The tension between freedom and order is fundamental to capitalist civilization,” writes Mr. Devine. We never get it quite right. We keep trying, nevertheless: that “we” embracing Pope Francis and his astringent criticisms of capitalism and the freedom he sees — I cannot help thinking out of a warm heart — as prejudicial to the needs of the poor.

It is nothing new — the reverse — for lovers of mankind, as they see themselves, to hurl themselves against entrenched greed and selfishness.  Yet it was Christianity, Mr. Devine notes, that “opened Pandora’s box of individual freedom …”   No wonder, perhaps, that life often seems one big moral muddle: its precepts and commands about as clear as mud. 

To the important  task of showing why things in reality are nowhere near that dismal — we just think they are — Donald Devine brings judiciousness, a sense of proportion, and not least an equable temper such as I can’t imagine angering anyone but the maddest and the wildest. Of whom, I admit, a lot live around us today, producing a racket we once would have thought exceeded American capabilities.

• Bill Murchison is a former syndicated columnist and retired professor of journalism at Baylor University.

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By Donald J. Devine

Encounter, $31.99, 371 pages

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