Book Review: ‘The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order’

February 23, 2021 Updated: February 23, 2021

One of the selling points for those who embrace far-left progressivism and even socialism is the “morality” of redistributing income and even wealth from productive, hard-working Americans to others.

Opponents of these tried-and-failed philosophies can cite the empirical numbers, demonstrating that the outcomes of states and nations that have moved toward socialism have botched their economies and harmed their societies. But what about the morality of their plans, and how best to defeat the far left and move toward a vibrant economy and properly-ordered government?

Brooklyn-raised professor Donald J. Devine has written a persuasive case and political road map for re-invigorated capitalism in “The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order.” Expanding on his 2015 essay of the same name, Devine sets out the case that capitalism and freedom are the philosophies most compatible with virtually all senses of morality.

Devine taught political science for much of his career, ran for the U.S. House from Maryland, and advised Ronald Reagan during his quests for the presidency. That last role led to his being named the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in President Reagan’s first year. He may have been the most innovative OPM director ever, given the reforms he implemented.

One was “merit pay” for federal employees, and as a Reagan administration executive myself then, I can attest that most of my workforce across six offices embraced pay for performance. That new staff eagerness to deliver results certainly enhanced my ability to manage federal employees. Sadly, the feds gave up on merit pay once Devine had departed.

Devine cites Pope Francis, who criticizes “limitless” freedom as fostering a “fundamental terrorism against all humanity.” Francis came of age in Argentina and its mix of crony, state-managed capitalism, and creeping socialism. In the pope’s lifetime, Argentina declined from one of the world’s most prosperous nations to one with large swaths of poverty, as it moved more toward a state-managed economy.

John Locke and Adam Smith made the “moral” case for capitalism, but added that free enterprise could flourish best in a Christian (more recently, we’d say “Judeo-Christian,” and still more recently, a “faith-based”) society. These learned individuals linked the importance of private property to any free society, something that Karl Marx wanted to obliterate, and as a priority.

During the terrible riots and spasms of looting in summer 2020, some bullhorn-enhanced protesters disrupted residential neighborhoods in Seattle, demanding that homeowners surrender their houses and condos to “displaced” groups. Marx would be pleased.

Free-market Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek synthesized the notions of a “moral capitalism” ecumenically, concluding that “a successful free society will always in large measure be a tradition-based society,” given that freedom requires law and law requires traditional virtue.

Currently a senior scholar at The Fund for American Studies, Devine doesn’t simply posit for an absence of restraint on commerce, but argues for a well-ordered freedom. He echoes William F. Buckley Jr. as encapsulating a synthesis (or “tension”) for the way forward, his principles being: “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of conscience, the spiritual view of life.”

Reagan appreciated and embraced these principles of synthesis, the philosophy of which was coined as “fusionist conservatism” by Brent Bozell Jr. Along with Buckley, one of the other important polemicists for fusionism was erstwhile communist Frank Meyer, later a vociferously anti-communist senior editor of National Review.

At conferences of Young Americans for Freedom in the 1970s, I got to meet, hear, and question Buckley, Meyer, and Devine, leaving me with the gifts of their still relevant and always coherent thoughts.

Devine’s book has plenty of observations and facts documenting the failures of expansive, centralized government, noting that U.S. national debt now exceeds 90 percent of our gross national product, and is heading to 300 percent over the next 25 years.

That doesn’t include the unfunded liabilities of Medicare, Social Security, federal and state pensions, and other state debts! When Greece’s debt reached 312 percent of GNP in recent years, it became functionally bankrupt.

In Frank Meyer’s “fusionist conservative” epitome, the state has only three legitimate functions: “police, military and operating a legal system,” all necessary to control coercion, which is immoral if not restricted, according to Hayek. The framers of the Constitution envisioned a similarly frugal state, only supplementing Meyer’s future vision with a postal service, a treasury, federal roads, customs authority, and regulation of commerce between the states.

In this Biden era, we can hope that Republicans will rediscover their traditional role of questioning excessive and wasteful government spending.

Disciples of “fusionism” and the vision of the framers might also allude to the utter failure of those who’ve already had some success in reversing America’s ordered liberty balance.

From candidate Joe Biden declaring the police to be “the enemy” to BLM and Antifa rioters and looters screeching to “defund the police,” the interim results of such policies are evident to all.

Those urban centers that have cut police funding are the ones that have suffered through dramatic violent crime spikes, looting, and other decay. Thousands of innocent lives have already been lost, thanks to the “police are the enemy” ideology.

Conversely, our progressives and socialists now call not only for redistributing income, but wealth. Then, they believe, they can “fund” all of the social justice programs they love, such as health care for noncitizens, solar power (forget Solyndra-style scandals), guaranteed incomes for all, funeral expenses for illegals, and much more.

They are reversing the vision and priorities of the founders at an accelerating pace. Federal indebtedness per taxpayer already exceeds $200,000, and is expanding apace.

It’s clear that capitalism bestows the most wealth on the most people, and that effective policing makes for safer communities. But what about that question of morality? Devine invokes St. Augustine, Jewish tradition, the Thomists, and other great spiritual influences. Yet two of the strongest moral voices come from recent history, and with the awful advantage of experience.

They are Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, a Pole and a German. Both had personally witnessed the horrors of Nazism and communism. Both holy fathers were ardent opponents of totalitarianism, and unflinching in their embrace of liberty and free enterprise. Who better to settle that morality question?

Epoch Times Photo
“The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order” by Donald J. Devine.
(Courtesy of Encounter Books)

“The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order” 
Encounter Books, 2021
354 pages

Herbert W. Stupp is the editor of He was an NYC commissioner, 1994–2002.