Humane Economy: A Symposium - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Humane Economy: A Symposium


Philosophers long believed that human beings live to serve rational, natural ends. The precondition of happiness was virtue: attaining excellence in our moral capacities. Wealth might be useful in the pursuit of such excellence, but it was not a criterion by which to measure the success of a person or a political community. Human practice did not altogether reflect this philosophical ideal, of course. But even kings did not think much of using wealth to build more wealth. They preferred to spend ostentatiously, on palaces or personal effects—crowns and jewels—or to put their money to military use.

Modern economics was a moral revolution, and a revolution in reasoning as well. Human ends, for purposes of economics, were not universal and natural but also subjective. They are today understood in terms of consumer preferences. The role of reason in economics is not to supply the standards by which we should live our lives but to show us the means by which we can achieve our individual (and aggregate) aims efficiently. Wealth is still instrumental, yet it is now the one common measure among souls and nations with differing goals. Wealth is now a standard, and the increase in wealth is easily seen as a proxy for success or satisfaction.

This does not mean people are more mercenary or immoral than any time in the past. And the new standards of efficiency and wealth cultivation have given rise to great benefits for humanity, making life in most places longer and less parlous. Respect and even nobility are now accorded to those who understand how wealth is created both in theory and in practice. And there is no way to forget what has been learned.

But if human beings were neglectful of economic science before, they run the risk of interpreting their lives and communities too narrowly on account of its criteria today. This not only comes at a price in happiness and virtue, as those things were once understood; it also risks breeding subjective discontent even with the objectively impressive fruits of our economics.

Hence the need for a rediscovery of the humane economy—humane in that it takes into account the human person as a whole, yet still a modern economy with all its benefits and possibilities. To explore the policies and practices required by a truly humane economy, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently invited a number of leading center-right thinkers, including classical liberals and conservatives, to its headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, for a wide-ranging discussion. This symposium, and a sequel to follow in our Fall number, presents a number of reactions, perspectives, and prescriptions that came about as a result of that gathering. —ed.


Oren Cass

Anne Rathbone Bradley

Richard M. Reinsch II

Rachel Bovard


Oren Cass

“Are You Better Off Than You Were Forty Years Ago?”

Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by three points in the late October 1980 Gallup poll taken just days before a staggering eighty-one million Americans tuned into the only debate between the two candidates. One week later, Reagan defeated Carter by ten points, with fewer than eighty million Americans voting for both of them. That debate is best known for Reagan’s rueful “There you go again” and the question he posed directly to the electorate: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Today, Reagan’s legacy is under fire, as politicians and analysts scrutinize the returns from decades of tax cuts, globalization, economic growth, and deregulation and ask, Are we better off than we were forty years ago? By some objective measures, the answer is an emphatic yes. Life expectancy at birth was seventy-four years in 1980 compared to seventy-eight years in 2020. Real GDP per capita had nearly doubled, from $30,000 to $58,000. As of 2019, real median household income had increased from $52,000 to $69,000. Modern technology, from the internet and the smartphone to life-saving medical treatments and air-purifying pollution controls, has improved life in countless harder-to-quantify ways.

By other measures, the picture is less rosy. The share of never-married adults (ages 25–50) increased from 13 percent to 35 percent from 1980 to 2018; among those in the bottom third of the income distribution, the increase was from 12 percent to 42 percent. The share of young adults (ages 18–29) still living with a parent increased from one-third in 1980 to half in 2020. Children born in the 1940s and ’50s had an 80–90 percent chance of earning more than their parents had by the time they reached age thirty-six, around 1980. By contrast, only half of children born in 1980 were earning more than their parents had at the same age by the mid-2010s. And while thirty weeks of the median male wage were sufficient to provide housing, healthcare, education, and transportation for a family of four in the mid-1980s, by 2018 a full year’s wages would not get the job done.

In some respects, then, the exercise is one in “looking over a crowd and picking out your friends,” to quote Judge Harold Leventhal’s dismissal of congressional deliberations as probative of a law’s meaning. There is no shortage of material to support whatever narrative someone might wish to advance. Wages are up, or stagnant, or down, depending on the measure and the inflation adjustment. Our gadgets place all the world’s knowledge in our pockets—and also leave us distracted and stressed at all hours. The elderly live longer and happier lives, and suicide rates are skyrocketing.

Still, we can do better than throwing up our hands in confusion. These data all describe the same reality but from different perspectives and with different emphases, like the blind men quarreling about the nature of an elephant after each one touches a different part. The blindest of the men in these discussions tend to be the economists who adhere strictly to formalistic definitions that take consumption to be the sole objective and “more” to be always “better.” To oversimplify, but not by much, if Americans used to have 20-inch cathode-ray-tube TVs with ten channels, and now they have 65-inch high-definition flat-screen TVs with a thousand channels, then they are better off.

That’s true as far as it goes, which is not very far. Consumption is nice, but no conservative attuned to the foundation of family, community, and vocation on which a good life is constructed should accept a case built on an abundance of stuff. This becomes especially obvious once controlling for status. To be sure, if everyone else has a 65-inch flat-screen, the family with the 20-inch CRT may be quite dissatisfied—certainly they will not be hosting the neighborhood Super Bowl party. But good luck spotting the difference in well-being between a society of modest, boxy televisions and one of wall-spanning panel displays.

Thus, when we ask whether people are better off, what we really mean is: Do they have greater agency in setting the course of their lives? Are they better able to form stable families and find fulfilling work that supports those families and allows the time to enjoy them? Are more of them able to earn the respect of their fellow citizens and places of pride in their communities, and to raise children able to do the same? Our market economy’s operation exerts enormous influence on these factors, yet the metrics we use to hold it accountable ignore them completely. Pew Research reports that Americans asked to choose between “financial stability” and “moving up the income ladder” prefer the former by more than ten to one, yet we obsess only about the latter.

What we also really mean when we ask whether we are better off, as a way of evaluating the consequences of the past forty years of policy choices, is which world would someone rather grow up in—specifically, someone of roughly average aptitude and ambition. Coming of age in 1980, that person would complete a high school degree and, with that degree, have little trouble finding a job that would support a family. With few exceptions, he could do this close to home if he wished or else could probably afford to begin his life in some new city. He would very likely get married and have children.

Our similar American embarking on life in 2020 would still earn just a high school degree. He would likely start college but not finish, wasting years and adding costs with no diploma to show for it. The job market for someone with his qualifications is far less rosy, many fewer regions of the country offer significant economic opportunity, and cities no longer offer the wage premium that would make a move viable. His chances of marrying or having children are lower. And his nation’s popular culture now ignores those of his socioeconomic status or else defines them as losers.

The description here is of a young man, but the story for a young woman differs little. For those with a high school diploma but no college degree, labor-force participation has fallen since 1992 (the first year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported these data). She, too, has experienced the labor market’s deterioration for less-educated workers and today finds it harder than ever to support a family on her income. She, too, faces the challenges of family formation and the disdain of a culture determined to define success in terms of career achievement.

Economists and policymakers find such conclusions enormously frustrating and tend to dismiss them as a “culture problem.” That reasoning is circular. If public policy aims only to deliver the goods, literally and figuratively, to Americans as consumers, and if the wisdom of various policies is assessed only in those terms, then of course discussion of other factors will appear out of bounds. But what if the goal of public policy were not to maximize consumption but rather to make people truly better off over time, even at the expense of standard growth and consumption measures? Perhaps our TVs would not get so big so fast. But no need to worry—that’s just a “consumption problem.”

Oren Cass is the executive director of American Compass and the author of The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.

Back to the Top


Anne Rathbone Bradley

“The Good News About Our Economy and Families”

I had the pleasure of attending the Intercollegiate Studies Institute colloquium on “The Humane Economy,” which brought together conservatives and libertarians for a weekend discussion on pressing issues of policy and human flourishing. The quintessential questions of political economy revolve around the proper role of government, and this discussion was no exception.

Among both conservatives and progressives, there are claims that the world is getting worse and that the American family had a better standard of living, better opportunities for employment, and a simpler life forty years ago. Some conservatives claim that because of this there might be cause for the government to have a greater role in protecting both American jobs and the American family.

The claim continues that modern families struggle to afford a home and to put food on the table and that this puts undue pressure on the family by forcing both parents into work. This destroys the fabric of the conventional American family by inducing the mother to work outside of the home.

There are several factors that play into this perception. The first is that we suffer from what Hans Rosling in his 2018 book Factfulness calls a negativity bias. It is easier for us to see the bad things that are happening rather than the progress. On important margins, including poverty, inequality, wealth creation, and economic freedom, to mention a few, the world is vastly improving. Yet we embrace declensionist narratives and long for “simpler” times. This is true of progressives like Senator Elizabeth Warren and conservatives like the University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, both of whom blame modern liberalism.

The second factor that plays into the sky-is-falling narratives is the result of the changed dynamic of the American family and worker. The argument goes that in the 1970s, the American father who was employed in the manufacturing sector could provide for his family solely on his income and that this protected the American family by allowing women to stay at home and raise children. Arguments are made about the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector, a result of globalization and forty years of trade liberalization, which have called conservatives to reexamine their prior commitments to free trade.

It is true that the American manufacturing sector looks quite different than it did in 1980—it employs far fewer people and produces far greater output, a thing to be championed in the name of the humane economy. It means that you can purchase a coffee table on Amazon and have it delivered to your front door in a few days, something that was unobtainable to any American in the 1970s. As American workers increase their productivity, their income grows. This is the secret to increased wealth and well-being. A humane economy is one that affords greater choices, not just in coffee tables but for all goods and services that we need and want.

Those that decry the loss of manufacturing jobs suggest that if we can return them to the U.S., we will restore both the role of the father in providing for his family and make greater headway against poverty. The opposite is true. We have lost manufacturing jobs because the American worker is more productive, and that’s why U.S. manufacturing output has doubled since 1984. Increasing output means greater choices and more high-skilled, high-paying jobs. 

The modern American family has changed: families have more control over their fertility and more choices in general about when and how they work. Male wages did begin to decline in 1973, in large part because women were entering the labor force, so any above-average rents that men were making were dissipated by an increase in labor supply. This is a good thing for families because it allows them greater choices in how and when and who will work. The gig economy provides both men and women part-time alternatives based on what works for their family. The American family does not have to factor historically high rates of maternal mortality into their family planning decisions: in this regard, life is far better than in either the 1950s or the 1750s. We have more choices over how to spend our time and the products we want to consume.

There are real problems that conservatives are remiss to ignore, however. Divorce and the resultant single-parent and divided households plague poor families more than rich families; drug cartels and slums set up shop in poor neighborhoods rather than wealthy neighborhoods; and lower-income families are more likely to experience higher high school dropout rates among parents and children. Charles Murray in Coming Apart details the fracturing of white America post-1960. But even he suggests we should never return to the 1970s as a method of correction. The state is not a tool we can use at our convenience to fix the problems we identify.

Laptops, cellphones, household items, TVs, and toys are far cheaper than they were even two decades ago, yet we see prices of college tuition and textbooks, medical care services, housing, and childcare increasing far faster than overall inflation. It should come as no surprise that the excessive inflationary pressure can be seen in sectors where government intervention is greatest and that price deflation results where government intervention is less.

The best way we can support the family is to reduce the size and scope of government in every direction. This includes repudiating the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, and general government intervention in and regulation of industry. Allowing markets to direct innovation will create the most productive jobs and provide families with choices that best suit them. Industrialization and the loss of manufacturing has been met with greater overall employment rather than less.

Conservatives must be the bulwark against the growth of the feckless state. Opening the family to state intervention will destroy it, as predictable and endless power grabs will ensue. Paying women to stay home and be with their children may sound reasonable, if the party you support is in power, but the long-range politics and their unintended consequences will not be family friendly.

There are real problems we must continue to solve, but the American family is a robust institution, and its best protection is an organic ethos of community, economic freedom, and a vibrant civil society.

 Anne Rathbone Bradley is the George and Sally Mayer Fellow for Economic Education and the academic director at The Fund for American Studies.

Back to the Top


Richard M. Reinsch II

“What Rebuilt Germany Can Fix America”

What is a humane economy? What does it look like? Whom does it serve?

Progressives assume that prosperity is easy, while redistribution according to an egalitarian schema that requires the science of policy and administration is the greater task. Such thinking drives much of politics and policy in our country, where there is a growing sense that the economy’s gains are increasingly going to a small set of hands that are themselves connected to those in power.

The challenge we face is to set the economy right so that its gains and opportunities extend to a much broader group of Americans. A sure way to chart a course to that goal is to bring forward the corpus of learning, wisdom, and scholarship embodied in the work of the great twentieth-century German economist Wilhelm Röpke, particularly in his 1958 book A Humane Economy.

We know that economic questions concern man as a whole and are not removed from larger questions of culture, morality, and law. So does American life in its full amplitude of ethics and civil society still support a robust and competitive market economy? Or do we now settle for a redistributive state that will take from us the burdens of responsibility in exchange for the purported benefits of security?

Röpke’s thinking assists in answering these deeper questions. His career was in part defined by the need to rebuild the German economy in the aftermath of Nazi rule and total war. Yet his emphasis was never simply on economics. As he states in A Humane Economy:

We need a combination of supreme moral sensitivity and economic knowledge. Economically ignorant moralism is as objectionable as morally callous economism. Ethics and economics are two equally difficult subjects, and while the former needs discerning and expert reason, the latter cannot do without humane values.

He made it quite clear that he had little interest in economics that didn’t take value questions seriously or that held itself aloof from such reasoning on grounds of scientific positivism. The refusal to consider questions of enduring human worth and liberty ultimately resulted in economic policies that devalued sound growth and individual and business accountability. In this, economic science was reduced to equations, aggregates, and statistics in support of various state megapolicies.

Even as an economic architect who helped rebuild postwar West Germany, Röpke stressed that markets were not merely about efficiency, nor were they ends in themselves. His prescriptions entailed West Germany’s heeding market principles that were in service of the human person as a whole: free prices, competition, rule of law, and what amounted to a value-laden constitutional and political choice for the market. Free prices allow for human choice, ingenuity, adaptability, and skill to set the value of goods and services without interference from the state, which was fundamentally incapable of setting prices for any item. Competition went beyond just economic gains for workers and owners, although it included that. Competition was meant to be the organizing principle of nearly every transaction, which would be free and spontaneous but ordered by the rule of law. This would ensure the freedom to work, to organize and compete freely as a business in making and delivering the best product or service, to find the best use for individual talents, and to do all this unhindered by private or government-favored cartels, special interests, and monopolies.

This last point was essential for Röpke. While Nazi control of the German economy had been extensive, the older principles that had guided German economic policies for more than seventy years, Röpke observed, were anything but market-based. Rather, they protected heavy industry and trade unions along with large agricultural concerns. The German economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been dominated by private cartels using price-discriminatory practices, which had been formally backed by the government. Crucially, Röpke thought that the laissez-faire economy envisioned by nineteenth-century liberals had proved incapable of warding off this corporate and statist takeover of the economy. That unlimited market approach gave way to rule by the strong. Consequently, Röpke stressed the need for a sturdy state that would protect economic, political, and religious freedom. The rule of law and what Röpke called the political constitution ultimately required a choice in favor of the market while protecting it from predation and bad monetary, fiscal, and welfare policies that would undermine its gains and freedoms.

The result of such a system would be that growth in productivity, technology, jobs, and incomes would find its widest economic distribution while remaining protected by the political constitutional order. The gains from a free economy would not accrue to special interests or to government, nor would such an economy deny people the pursuit of self-interest and their own talents. Rather, those who contributed to the economy in their distinctive capacities would find their particular contributions rewarded. And Röpke’s approach succeeded spectacularly for West Germany beginning in 1948, with productivity, income, and growth in standards of living surpassing what anyone had predicted for a country in shambles.

The successful establishment of markets, property, the rule of law, and limited government also helped create conditions for moral rehabilitation of a country that had been led by Nazi tyrants. We can say that a new moral order was, in part, brought about by the economic reforms that Röpke articulates.

America is currently embarked on a monetary experiment that has seen nearly five trillion dollars pumped into the economy for stimulus and pandemic-relief measures. Fiscal policy itself has been unbalanced for decades, with spending far outpacing revenues collected. The shortfall has been met by borrowing against the future for present benefits. Many now urge that this wasteful, spendthrift strategy should be used to expand our welfare state vastly and permanently. As critics note, we also have an economy defined in significant ways by “crony capitalism” and extensive licensing requirements for positions that don’t need them.

In short, we confront a situation where crucial pieces of a competitive market economy are chipped away or overturned. We aren’t Nazi Germany, or even Bismarckian Germany for that matter. Yet the trends indicate that we have embarked on a journey away from the conditions of a market economy with the rule of law and a constitutional guarantee of these things. We would do well to contemplate again Röpke’s humane economy to restore our nation’s strength and undo the damage.

Richard M. Reinsch II is the editor of the online publication Law & Liberty and coauthor, with the late Peter Augustine Lawler, of A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty.

Back to the Top


Rachel Bovard

“Market Unfreedom: Causes and Cures”

The American right is facing a host of new challenges. From the rise of China to the costs of globalization, from ideologically weaponized corporate power to the financial struggles of middle-class families, almost everyone can acknowledge the problems, but there is little agreement on what to do, or even whether something should be done at all.

Much of the disagreement centers on a tension that has long bedeviled conservatism: the tug between prioritizing traditional values and the family, on the one hand, and promoting economic freedom, on the other. In 1958, Wilhelm Röpke tried to bridge the two with A Humane Economy. In Röpke’s telling, economic freedom and society’s values are not so much in conflict as they are mutually reinforcing. A free economy depends on sturdy institutions and strong families, and the social and economic liberty a market provides is required for true freedom of choice and action.

But for the past forty years or so, much of the political and institutional right has emphasized markets over traditional values, convincing itself that competition and markets are the end-all of a free society, even as those markets concentrate and wield power in ways that are antithetical to traditional values, moral liberty, and free thought.

The result has been an institutional conservative movement that expresses a singular policy focus on markets, such that any positive action by the state—to curtail monopolies, respond to the excesses of globalization, engage with economic competition from China, or use public policy to support families in ways that sustain freedom and strengthen traditional values—is lumped together as “the heavy hand of government,” which we must avoid using at any cost.

This tension between markets and values, and between hesitance and action, is crystallized in the right’s approach to corporate power, in particular to the unprecedented market concentration and multisector control enjoyed by companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. The massive scale at which these companies exist has empowered them to alter the flow of information, limit the visibility of political speech and public dissent, and constrain access to the digital marketplace, which is now a dominant area of commerce.

These companies are profoundly reshaping our markets as well as our values of free speech and expression. Many on the right point out that these are private industries acting independently in the free market, and they suggest that the corporate First Amendment should trump the right of the individual. To use public policy to engage with these companies would be an abdication of principle, as market forces, not the government, should resolve market questions.

But this question is one that the right should not so easily dismiss. Amazon, Google, and Facebook monopolize different markets in legal ways and dominate value systems that exist outside of any marketplace. True, monopolies may fall on their own, but only after decades of wielding maximal economic power to crush competitors and impose cultural priorities that fundamentally remake the way we think, act, and engage with one another—behaviors that form the bedrock of citizenship and self-government.

Moreover, confronting tech companies on their own terms will require conservatives to be honest about the reality that these are not pure “free market” actors. They receive carve-outs and subsidies, and they benefit enormously from a government-created liability shield known as Section 230. In other words, the government incentivizes, and our public policy protects, behaviors that have grown detrimental to healthy market competition and the social order.

This is not to say that there aren’t trade-offs in public policy, or that the consequences of government action should not be thoughtfully and robustly considered. The state retains unique power to distort incentives and crush individual liberties, often in ways that are hard to foresee and difficult to undo. But just as there is prudence in pausing for reflection, there is imprudence in failing to consider the risks of inaction within the full context of the values, liberties, and traditions that are at stake.

Policies addressing these companies, from reforming Section 230 to common carrier regulation to enforcing our nation’s antitrust laws, are less about government acting where it wasn’t before than about a choice to be made between competing priorities. Does the unfettered market win for its own sake, or has the market created an excess that now threatens the values we as a society prioritize?

This question becomes especially pointed as “woke capital” escapes the Big Tech companies and infects the infrastructure of capitalism. Major financial institutions—beneficiaries of tremendous government largesse—are already denying services to companies that do business with our federal immigration-enforcement services, “dirty” energy industries like oil and gas, and anyone involved with the sale of certain firearms.

A conservative movement that supports active public policy toward these institutions in the form of tax breaks, deregulatory efforts, and multiple financial-sector bailouts but that also calls any action that opposes the targeting of politically disfavored businesses and individuals the “heavy hand” of “big government” is not one with a coherent political vision. Moreover, such positioning accepts the modern corruption of liberalism in which rights, once conceived in the Lockean sense as enlarging the space for individual autonomy against coercive power, are now used to justify narrowing that space in accordance with an inquisitorial agenda.

Conservatives have always believed in a government with limits. A function of the limited state is to clear and protect the space in which our markets, associations, and value systems can freely interact. Many of the policy challenges facing conservatives—from tackling China’s economic aggression, to combating the scourge of critical race theory and the diminishment of parental rights, to using our laws to correct distortions in our own free market, to encouraging strong family development—should be viewed through this lens. Recent actions taken by Florida governor Ron DeSantis to beat back the corporate power of tech companies that are shrinking the public square, for example, are instructive.

The left has shown no compunction about giving itself the authority to impose its will upon every area of public and private life—the economy, the culture, and even religion—regardless of what conservatives do. The question for conservatives now is whether they will meet their adversaries on the field of politics and use self-government to maintain and preserve a traditional order against the forces of decay, or whether they will continue their relentless retreat, paralyzed by an ideological commitment to individual trees as the entire forest is set ablaze.

Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute.

Back to the Top


Subscribe to Modern Age

Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like