As a conservative, my basic approach to economics is that of Pope John Paul II, who said that man was not made for the market, but the market was made for man. He meant that the free market is only moral if it serves the end of  authentic human flourishing. If it undermines human flourishing, then the market must be reformed. The point is, the market is not an end, but a means to the proper end, which is the health of the community — especially, in Catholic teaching, the family.

I have been reading the conservative philosopher Robert Nisbet’s classic 1953 work, “The Quest for Community.”  In his introduction to the recently reissued ISI edition, Ross Douthat observes that it’s amazing how fresh a book written over 50 years ago seems today. It’s really true. Here is part of what Jonathan Jones said of the book last year at Postmodern Conservative:

The book is a critique of both leftism and the right-liberalism (more “freedom,” less “equality”), so prevalent in today’s conservative coalitions, which the author considers to be an invitation to statism. People need their community, and they are willing to look to the state for it. Humans are, intractably, social creatures built for communion. So prevalent is the belief that an equal satisfaction of preferences is a high social good, and that the purpose of politics and morality is the working toward that supposed good, that Nisbet can be a bit of a shock. As this blog argues, liberalism is very insufficient to maintain social order. Freedom and equality as high principles can harm other realities necessary for social harmony.

A particularly valuable aspect of Nisbet’s analysis is the underappreciated (by contemporary conservatives) way that economic changes in the 20th century have undermined the family. Nisbet says that the typical conservative critique holds that a rise in individualism and declining morals are to blame. There’s obviously something to this, he says, but conservatives don’t pay enough attention to the role structural economic factors play in this process. Here’s Nisbet:

But in any intelligible sense of the word it is not disorganization that is crucial to the problem of the family or of any other significant social group in our society. The most fundamental problem has to do with the organized associations of men. It has to do with the role of the primary social group in an economy and political order whose principal ends have come to be structured in such a way that the primary social relationships are increasingly functionless, almost irrelevant, with respect to these ends. What is involved most deeply in our problem is the diminishing capacity of organized, traditional relationships for holding a position of moral and psychological centrality in the individual’s life.


For the overwhelming majority of people, until quite recently the structure of economic and political life rested upon, and even presupposed, the existence of the small social and local groups within which the cravings for psychological secuirty and identification could be satisfied.

Family, church, local community drew and held the allegiances of individuals in earlier times not because of any superior impulses to love and protect, or because of any greater natural harmony of intellectual and spiritual values, or even because of any superior internal organization, but because these groups possessed a virtually indispensable relation to the economic and political order. The social problems of birth and death, courtship and marriage, employment and unemployment, infirmity and old age were met, however inadequately at times, through the associative means of these social groups. In consequence, a whole ideology, reflected in popular literature, custom, and morality, testified to the centrality of kinship and localism.

Our present crisis lies in the fact that whereas the small traditional associations, founded upon kinship, faith, or locality, are still expected to communicate to individuals the principal moral ends and psychological gratifications of society, they have manifestly become detached from positions of functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions of our society. Family, local community church, and the whole network of informal interpersonal relationships have ceased to play a determining role in our institutional systems of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution. Yet despite the loss of these manifest institutional functions, and the failure of most of these groups to develop any new institutional functions, we continue to expect them to perform adequately the implicit psychological or symbolic functions in the life of the individual.

Nisbet goes on to say that in the past, the family was an “indispensable institution,” because it was the nexus of the individual’s relationship to the political and economic order. Nowadays, Nisbet writes, not only is the family largely irrelevant to politics and economics, but in some cases a worker’s economic prospects might be better without the family.

Since Nisbet wrote this, much social science research has shown that forming and maintaining strong families is key to economic success. But it should be understood that to do so requires far more effort today, in our contemporary social and economic conditions, than it did in the past. We have an economy today that rewards flexibility, which means workers who are willing an able to uproot themselves and move. This is easier to do if you don’t have a family. If you move with a family, you subject the children to the emotional and psychological difficulties of breaking ties with friends, family, and institutions that had been part of their lives. But if you aren’t willing to move, you could be in serious economic trouble. There are myriad ways in which our version of the free market works to undermine family stability and community cohesion.

It is astonishing, when you think about it, that conservative politicians who bang on about the importance of “family values” don’t grasp the connection between the economic policies they favor and the potential for erosion of those same values. It is also astonishing that middle-income and working-class conservative voters don’t recognize the same connection, and expect more from the politicians they favor.

It’s not just structures in our economy that work against the virtues necessary to form and maintain strong families. It’s seeing policies (often supported by both parties, whose contributors they benefit) that result in a massive share of wealth being accumulated by the wealthiest members of society, while most of us struggle to keep our heads above water. And it’s finding out things like the fact that banks lied (and lied, and lied) about products they sold to investors. The banks the federal government is now suing over these toxic investments could be ruined if the courts require them to pay back the full face value of the crap they sold. Some are saying this could collapse the entire US banking system.

Think about that: the survival of the entire economy may well depend on lying banks getting away with it. To put it bluntly, the economy is built on everyone agreeing to lies, and to not punishing lies and wrongdoing by elites.

Thus does the “free market” we have promote virtue. You can see why people lose faith in these institutions, and faith in doing the right thing. The connection between private virtue and public virtue is much closer than people think.