Steering a Middle Course (Pt.3)

Michael Metzger

According to two editors at the Economist, there have been three revolutions in Western government. They believe we’re due for a fourth. Similarly, there have been three revolutions in economics since the late 19th century. Are we due for a fourth?

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, editors at the Economist, have authored a new book, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State. They cite three revolutions in modern world governments – the nation-state, “Liberal State,” and, most recently, the bloated welfare state.1 They say it’s time for a fourth.

There have likewise been three revolutions in economics. Crony and collusive capitalism are the first two. They try to expand the domain of free choice. The third, collectivism, reacts against both by expanding the domain of law. All three encroach on Lord Moulton’s middle course, however. That’s why many are calling for a fourth revolution, calling for conscious, inclusive, collaborative, and creative capitalism. And while each makes some good points, the better model is conscientious capitalism. It aligns with human nature, a lesson the Greeks learned long ago.

The Greeks had “a deep respect for the passions of the mind,” writes Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.2 Aristotle believed “the Good,” fully seen through inquiry and reason, yields a virtuous mind. Virtuous minds yield virtuous people. But this is the Enlightenment error – think right; act right. Vestiges of this are still visible in the “mindfulness” movement. It says “being mindful” of goodness yields goodness. But this assumes our minds work in rational ways. Dan Ariely debunks this.

In his 2008 book, Predictably Irrational, Ariely shows how our decision-making in buying things differs from academic models. Academicians act like Greeks. They believe data drives behavior. It doesn’t. Desire does. Ariely cites findings from neuroscience indicating we make decisions based more on our heart’s desires than data in our head. Our minds are fundamentally not rational, explaining why “mindfulness” is inadequate.

To be fair, the Greeks didn’t know about neuroscience. They instead learned the hard lesson of how ‘seeing the Good’ didn’t create good people. As society prospered, the wealthy – those most mindful of economic opportunities – acted like crony capitalists. Income inequities widened. Have-nots looked to the law as a corrective. As unbridled liberty and unduly burdensome law increased, the middle course shrank. “It was left to Christian thinkers,” writes Novak, “especially to St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, the task of correcting the unfinished psychology of the Greeks.”

The correction was conscience. The Early Church was steeped in the Old Testament where conscience is described as the “heart” (the Hebrew language uses body parts as metaphors for the immaterial realm).3 When the Bible says “David’s heart smote him” (I Sam. 24:5), it’s telling us his conscience was correcting him. David wasn’t merely conscious of his sin; he responded conscientiously by repenting and making restitution. Mindfulness is inadequate. It requires a moral motor, conscience, to move us from consciousness to conscientiousness. Conscientious individuals more often repent and repudiate bad behavior. They’re obedient to the unenforceable.

Conscientious people recognize the human capacity for rationalizing our failings (Jer.17:8-9). They know the mind plays all sorts of tricks on us. They believe self-awareness, or conscientiousness, requires outside assessments. Conscientious people rely on 360 reviews, avoiding today’s popular self-assessments that assume individuals can clearly assess their strengths and weaknesses. They can’t, which is how the church completed the unfinished psychology of the Greeks. It introduced conscience.

This is why Western culture flourished for a millennium. When a society’s institutions operate conscientiously, they steer a middle course. They exhibit the courage to do good – no matter what the cost. “Conscience is an active combining of knowledge with the moral courage to do the good,” wrote Thomas Aquinas. Martin Luther steered this middle course, standing at the Diet of Worms and uttering these immortal words: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

The founding fathers had much to say about conscience, tying it to a virtuous society and free markets. James Madison wrote that when a nation follows the “dictates of conscience,” a free people remain free. Sadly, within a century, the idea of conscience dissolved. Capitalism was no longer bound by its dictates. That’s where we pick up the story next week.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
2 Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).
3 Herant Katchadourian, Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 143.

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6 thoughts on “Steering a Middle Course (Pt.3)”

  1. Thank you for returning the background to white against the black typeset.

    But “conscientious capitalism” is still an academic term, mixing two opposites – David’s heart and Marx’s reactionary term. Rooted in the biblical ethics of informed choice, and in the founder’s language of “ordered liberty,” I find that “free market economy” conveys best what we are aiming for.

  2. Thanks for addressing conscience and conscious.
    Realms of magical thinking, phrases and pretence seem to have captured the minds of some.However, is the fruit of self-control only possible by outside intervention ?

    As for the phrase ‘conscientious capitalism’. It implies parameters of the ‘heart’ and ‘finance’. Is this the ‘hearts’ of many counsellors ? Remembering also that biblically people can be given offer to the desires of their hearts. Does a free market have a ‘heart desire’ other than max returns on capital investment. Should the parameter of social return on investment also be included ?
    Is the goal individuals with ‘law’ written upon their hearts ?

  3. Marshall Potter

    Great stuff, Mike. Reminds me of Langdon Gilkey’s observations in Shantung Compound (The Story of Men & Women Under Pressure), about the effects of different worldviews on the choices that men and women make in a resource scarce environment.

    Was also a great book to learn how Eric Liddell (Chariots of Fire) finished his life.

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