Don Devine’s ambitious new volume is that rare published work that delivers an even larger and broader message than its title promises. A focus on the practice, history, and ethics of capitalism would itself be enough for several volumes, but Devine’s work is nothing less than a history of Western civilization, including the origins of human society, religion, and morality itself. Readers looking for a digestible survey of business ethics or a mere guide to socially responsible investing will quickly find themselves in over their heads.
As the title’s “tension”—and the cover’s bold half-orange, half-silver design—suggests, we are in for a study of dichotomies, in which twin opposing visions struggle for dominance. Starting his narrative in ancient times, Devine describes the early “cosmological” societies, like ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia, in which religious belief and civic life were seamlessly combined. These societies were challenged by the rise of Christianity, which emphasized the importance of individual belief and acknowledged the distinction, and occasional antagonism, between religious and civil authority.
The Reformation presents another great dichotomy of religious and political legitimacy. Martin Luther launched a revolution against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but did not attempt to turn his theology into a systematic anti-Catholic movement. As Devine writes, “some of Luther’s followers wanted to go further than he,” including in endorsing radical social and religious changes that “horrified” Luther himself. By analogy, Luther is more like America’s Founding Fathers, while the Anabaptists, who wanted to abolish private property, were more like the Jacobins of the French Revolution.
More familiar to students of American political theory is the dichotomy to which Devine pays the most attention—that between John Locke and Edmund Burke on one side and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire on the other. Locke and Burke, and their intellectual offspring, believed in a practical approach to morality and politics that encompasses both reasoned analysis and a respect for tradition, while the Rousseauians insisted on a rigidly rational system in which any competing source of legitimacy, including religion and tradition, must be attacked and excluded.
With this philosophical dichotomy established, most of modern political history can be fitted into one or the other side of the aisle, however imperfectly. The Lockeans are mostly conservatives and centrists, while the rationalists are mostly socialists, progressives, fascists, and most contemporary leftists. This framing is not unique to Devine’s work, even in recent conservative writing. Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions (1987, 2007) and The Vision of the Anointed (1995) are informed by a similar philosophical dichotomy, which Sowell refers to as an antagonism between the Lockean “constrained” vision of politics and the Voltaire-ish “unconstrained” vision. (Ironically, Steven Pinker, whom Devine criticizes as a materialist intellectual who undervalues religious faith, described a version of Sowell’s constrained vs. unconstrained tension—as “tragic” vs. “utopian”—in his own 2002 book, The Blank Slate.)
Devine’s impressive career is on full display, as he makes several references to his tenure leading the Office of Personnel Management under Ronald Reagan and the almost-half century anniversary of his Nixon-era analysis The Political Culture of the United States: The Influence of Member Values on Regime Maintenance (1972). Devine moves confidently between the original texts of early modern and Enlightenment figures like Locke, Montesquieu, and Burke, to more recent writers like Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Friedrich Hayek, to contemporary political authors, including Jonah Goldberg, Charles C.W. Cooke, and Yuval Levin, connecting them, for the most part, to one of the two main sides of the political philosophy divide.
That said, Devine’s wide-ranging mastery of political theory and public policy may also be one of the book’s few drawbacks. The Enduring Tension jumps between discussions of the origins of social cooperation in prehistoric times and the metaphysical nature of the human soul to skeptical assessments of anti-discrimination statutes, civil service reform, and common core curriculum standards. Conservative and libertarian readers will likely experience few disagreements, but the rollercoaster of emphasis from the eternal and sublime to the recent and specific will likely cause some readers whiplash.
The citations also seem to cover everything that has crossed Devine’s desk in the last several decades, including much of his own published work. The index starts with Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, and several references to Aristotle, but also includes plenty of works by modern pundits like Juan Williams and Fareed Zakaria, and even several of Devine’s own columns for Newsmax. This isn’t a dissertation, of course, but the range of sources is certainly heterogeneous, to say the least.
Putting aside the author’s—occasionally fascinating—side excursions into topics from musical theory to the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, however, his championing of the Lockean view of political theory is relatively straightforward. A free and prosperous society needs more of the things that made the nation great in the first place: limited government, free markets, and individual rights—and a belief in a creator that is the ultimate source of those rights.
There is a long list of ways in which attacks on those institutions have produced misery and failure. Devine covers many of them, but pays little attention to attacks on the market economy itself—a surprising lack of emphasis for a book with the word “capitalism” in the title. Progressive critics of markets have long sought to undermine the private control of capital and bring the alleged robber barons of the industrial world to heel under the guidance of enlightened expert opinion. But we don’t hear about many of those developments.
From the New Deal to the birth of the “corporate social responsibility” movement in the 1950s to the rise of anti-capitalist environmentalism in the 1970s and the emergence of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) theory in the mid-2000s, shareholders’ rights of property, speech, and association have been under assault for some time. Those efforts, including new statutes, regulations, and guidelines from quasi-governmental institutions, have aimed at eroding the right to dispose of one’s property and subjecting economic activity to supervision and approval by supposed expert officials.
Developments like these may be less grand in scope than our eroding national commitment to Enlightenment values in general, but they would arguably fit better in a book about the tension between capitalism and morality than some of the (admittedly persuasive) examples of economic and social policy failure that Devine includes.
The rationalistic progressive assumption that all will basically agree in the end is simply wrong.
Several other contemporary authors have written books more closely focused on defending the moral status of capitalism per se. The late economist David Henderson championed the traditional understanding of property against leftist bureaucracy in Misguided Virtue: False Notions of Corporate Social Responsibility (2001) and The Role of Business in the Modern World (2004). The University of Notre Dame’s James Otteson presented a traditional, Adam Smith-focused defense of modern capitalism in Honorable Business: A Framework for Business in a Just and Humane Society (2019). More recently (and more didactically), finance professional and political commentator Steve Soukup has taken on the socialization of corporate America in The Dictatorship of Woke Capital: How Political Correctness Captured Big Business (2021), covering some of the same intellectual developments as Devine, from Rousseau to Marx to Woodrow Wilson and the modern administrative state.
The Enduring Tension is fascinating, informative, substantive, and entertaining, though it covers so much territory that it is difficult to properly categorize. Yet, it is worth the price of admission for a few deep passages alone. For example, Devine strikes at the condescension of much leftist posturing when he writes, “Americans disagree about moral values and governance. The rationalistic progressive assumption that all will basically agree in the end is simply wrong.” He also gives a good summary of fusionism when he says, “Something distinguishes both conservatives and libertarians from the progressive Left: they do not insist on telling people hundreds or thousands of miles away how to go about their lives.”
Finally, though, it is his emphasis on the core institutions of our civilization that contains his most vital message: “The moral assumptions of the Western traditional mythos, in which individuals have been created free and equal, are indispensable to legitimizing a pluralist, federalist, traditionalist, capitalist society with free markets and localized powers under a limited central state—a society where liberty and order coexist in a creative tension.” Our forefathers bequeathed this heritage to us. Let’s hope, even at this late date, that we can keep it.
This article was originally published on FEE.org