Recently the Eastern Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, in a fine article in First Things on Laudato Si’, wrote as follows:
We [Americans] tend to think that all enterprise is of a piece, that the small business that produces a useful product and creates needed jobs exists in some sort of inviolable continuum with global corporate entities of every kind, and that we cannot affirm the former without defending the latter. Even “conservative” Christians who deplore the cultural costs of late modernity treat any critique of its obvious material basis as practically blasphemous. But everywhere else in the world, [such] criticisms would simply, and correctly, be described as “true.” They would even be regarded as simply “Catholic.”
If this accurately describes the thinking of most Americans, why is this so? I suggest that there are a number of closely related reasons why this kind of thinking is so common in the United States, reasons all stemming from the pervasive influence of John Locke on the American mind. Although one can examine these reasons separately, in fact each one of them overlaps with the others to such an extent that in a sense they are only one reason.
The first reason, and perhaps the one that instinctively arises first is, Who gets to decide? That is, if anyone suggests that there are important policy and perhaps even moral differences between small entities that serve useful purposes and “global corporate entities of every kind,” the fear that immediately occurs to many Americans is that someone, probably from the government, is going to be able to impose limits on how big a business can grow. Sometimes this is put crudely as in, “Do you want Hilary Clinton [or Nancy Pelosi or Al Gore or whoever] telling you how big your business can be?” Such an objection is often considered fatal and as decisive in ending any debate on the subject. But this objection rests on at least two errors. First, if a society were persuaded that allowing entities to grow as large as possible is bad policy, it by no means necessarily follows that an explicit limit need be established by law to bring this about. In fact, almost the very opposite is true, for the prodigious growth of corporations since the second half of the 19th century was itself the product of favorable laws and judicial decisions—and even giveaways of public property. Corporations, too few Americans seem to grasp, are not natural entities, they are artificial creations of the law, endowed with many of the rights of natural persons but at the same time not liable to most of the legal penalties that natural persons can suffer. So if the laws creating and favoring corporations were removed or revised, this in itself would remove an artificial stimulus to corporate growth and economic domination. So even without actual legal limits on the size of companies, merely to remove artificial incentives to their growth and power would be a giant step in the right direction.
Secondly, this pervasive fear of any state influence on the size of a business is based on the philosophical error that man’s natural state is apolitical and asocial, that human society is (at least in theory) a deliberate creation, the result of a social compact by which each of us agrees to give up some of his rights for the advantages to be gained by living in society. Society, and especially the political community are thus always negative things, not really natural to man’s nature. They exist solely to prevent obvious evils and have little or no positive role, no business interfering in such matters as the size of commercial entities. Such a view of things is deeply engrained in the American mind. Its proximate source is the writings of John Locke. Political authority and law on this view have merely a negative purpose, to restrain evil doing, but not to guide citizens toward right conduct. Thus James Madison in Federalist no. 51, wrote that “If men were angels [i.e., unfallen creatures], no government would be necessary.” This is contrary to the classical and Christian understanding of the state, as expressed for example by Thomas Aquinas, who taught that even had our first parents never sinned some directing power would have been necessary in human affairs since “social life cannot exist unless someone presides who aims at the common good.”1 Social authority is truly natural for mankind, not merely a safeguard against our tendencies toward ambition and other socially disruptive passions, as Madison assumed.
The common American idea that if small-scale private enterprise is good, then large-scale enterprises must also be good, rests further on the notion that freedom is an absolute and unconditioned good. If I am not free to expand my business as much as I would like, then I am inhibited in an essential aspect of my human nature. This flows, of course, from the reason discussed above, namely, that by nature men are free and solitary beings, each a kind of little sovereign, with “perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man,” as Locke wrote.2 While Locke held that in entering into society men gave up some of their freedom for the sake of the benefits they would obtain, by nature they still possesses their original, unconditional and purposeless freedom, so that within society freedom should be limited to the smallest extent possible. Thus the libertarian attitude of a minimalist state expressed in these words of Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute: “So long as individuals avoid forceful or fraudulent actions in their dealings with one another, government is to stay out of their business.”3 Freedom on this view is not related to any rational purpose, but simply exists unconditionally, and governmental authority exists solely for restraining evil doers, not for promoting the common good. The common good is seen as purely negative, to avoid the inconveniences and disruptions that Locke recognized one was likely to suffer in the so-called state of nature.
Lastly, this view presupposes that there is no inherent purpose in anything human, neither in the community, nor in political authority, nor in economic activity, except what each individual may opt for as a personal choice. Whether I regard economic activity as a means of unlimited enrichment, as a method of self-expression, as a way of supporting my family, as my contribution to the common good—no one of these conceptions is any more natural than the other. Everything depends upon my personal will, which is the assertion of my inalienable freedom of choice. While Locke acknowledged that in the state of nature individuals were bound by the natural law, each person is the sole judge for himself of what the natural law permits or demands. Every person is free to pursue his own version of happiness according to his own preferences.
Today Americans mostly think of themselves as either conservatives or liberals. But the truth is that both these groups wholeheartedly embrace the basic liberal or Lockean view of human nature. The historian Louis Hartz wrote in 1955 that in the United States John Locke is a “massive national cliché,” who “dominates American political thought, as no thinker anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation.”4 Conservatives and liberals merely disagree about the spheres in which freedom is to be exercised, while libertarians logically see no reason to restrict it at all. But if the natural state of mankind is to live in society, and society, as St. Thomas taught, “cannot exist unless someone presides who aims at the common good,” then this Lockean view is simply wrong. The good for mankind is not merely something individual, but likewise something social. Until we recognize this, we will be enslaved, knowingly or not, to the “massive national cliché” of Locke’s political philosophy.