Private Tyranny, Public Liberty

Oliver Anthony of “Rich Men North of Richmond” fame has got all kinds of people wanting to identify with “the working man.”  So, for instance, it has become a big fad to wear trucker’s hats.  Of which one of the most popular reads: “Born to hunt.  Forced to work.”  Which captures perfectly how “the working man” views the world of work.  He’s forced to do it.  But of course he does it well.  And that’s the nobility in it.

Nevertheless, if he can ameliorate that feeling of “being forced,” say, by working in a family business, as a sole proprietor or independent tradesman, or as an expert whose judgment counts – then that’s good.

Also, if he must work for a boss, he generally does not want a second, union boss additionally telling him what to do.  And he resents the hidden government boss of compliance, with its threats of fines and stoppage of work.

He, of course, wants smaller government.  He knows that he already works for the Government Boss one-third of his time, from January 1 until late April (“tax freedom day”).  His freedom to hunt in the evenings and weekends is eroded by government spending (a.k.a. vote-buying) with its inflation (a.k.a. theft of his assets).  He knows that his kids and grandkids won’t be able to hunt if he hands down to them trillions of dollars of debt to bail out his generation’s bad habits.

He’s happy to be forced to work for himself and his family, but not for the able-bodied guy or gal down the street living off of his labor.  Maybe he’s aware too that Social Security is a near-bankrupt Ponzi scheme, whereby his kids support the childless couple down the road, in their old age – you know, the ones who despise him as a “deplorable.”

I want to say that the working man’s outlook is also the outlook of Thomas Aquinas. The motto of that trucker’s hat, after all, is taken from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, its opening line, in effect: “all men are born to hunt (for truth).”  After which the central question of both Aristotelian and Thomistic ethics becomes: when we clear the deck of “forced” work (a.k.a. “business”), what do we use our leisure for?

And this is also the question of human liberty, tied inextricably to the question of religious liberty, as Joseph Pieper reminded us.  In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye sang that once he became rich, he’d spend his time debating questions of the Law.  Calvin said that even while you are poor, study Scripture on Sundays.  Catholics should say: for some part of each day, and on Sunday each week, honor the Lord, spend time with family and friends, enjoy recreation, and do acts of almsgiving.

Yet leisure is social for the human person, centered around the family as the basic cell of society.  If the mother of small children has no practical option to stay at home with them, if she wishes, then she and they have no leisure; if the parents have no practical option of educating their children in the faith, then their leisure is subverted.  Both circumstances are contrary to what the families live for.

Enter Sohrab Ahmari who recently wrote a piece in Time magazine complaining that the Republican Party will never become the party of the working class.   What he means is that it will never adopt his own ideas of what it means to advocate for “workers.”  Maybe his recent book, Tyranny, Inc., helps to explain why.

He gives no thought in the book to leisure, to the family as the basic cell of society, or to subsidiarity.  He has no discussion of government debt, the administrative state, monetary policy, school choice, the tax burden, or the effects of Great Society programs.  The pending bankruptcy of Social Security is off his radar screen.

He begins by saying that we suppose that the world of work should be free, but everywhere it is coerced.  But who ever thought that the world of work should be free?  Rousseau? Marx?  Friedman?  Yet so Ahmari claims, and yet freedom of a system, or in a model, is different from the concrete freedom of an individual.


To prove that it is coerced, he relies on a misguided analysis of a market exchange offered by the progressivist lawyer, Robert L. Hale.  If I am walking by a peanut stand, Hale says, and refrain from stealing a bag of peanuts, then my action is “coerced,” because if I had taken a bag without paying, the government would have fined or imprisoned me.  Therefore, I am coerced and not free, anytime I purchase something.  Likewise, the seller is coerced, because, if he takes my money without handing over any peanuts, the government will fine or imprison him.  The presence of a government to vindicate property rights, Hale holds, implies that all exchanges of property are coercive.

Note that Hale’s principle is the same by which it is claimed a woman is coerced to have a child if the government forbids abortion.  His analysis of a “voluntary exchange” as a lose-lose rather than a win-win is very far from the truthful analyses offered by Thomas Aquinas and Carl Menger.

Be that as it may, since the market is a world of pervasive coercion, Ahmari says, it is foolish to object to any degree of government regulation or control, as though it adds anything different. And because anything that is coercive is also “political” (liberty is just power, Ahmari asserts) government in principle must enter into any market exchange, he thinks, to protect the “common good.”  Therefore, more government is both necessary and good.  (The notion of limited government also seems to be off Ahmari’s radar screen.)

For agreements between employer and employee, organized labor is essential, Ahmari says.  The gross disparity in coercive power ex-ante between employers and employees requires some sort of “countervailing power” (John Kenneth Galbraith’s phrase) on behalf of the employees.  Although coercion can never be avoided, it can at least be balanced.

Ahmari’s analysis of American “market society” comes with a potted history.  The New Deal, he says, issued in a “glorious” couple of decades, post WW II, of unions as counterbalancing corporate power.  But the New Deal was undone by a “neoliberal” cultural change of the 1980s, initiated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who followed the economic ideas of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.

Since then, Ahmari says, “the market” has progressively eroded families, churches, and civil society.  Government therefore should be promoting the formation of unions in all sectors of the economy, so that we can hope to return to glorious years.

The societal upheavals of the 1960s, contraception, the sexual revolution, the secularization of public schools, the baleful effects of Great Society initiatives on families, and new technologies (e.g. the television wiping out bowling leagues) are also off of Ahmari’s radar screen, completely.  Oddly, he seems not to recognize that that nefarious entity, the public company, was a creation of the New Deal – perhaps its sole, enduring, fabulously successful accomplishment.

His take on unions is as if he were Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in 1848 and is just now clearing the sand out of his eyes.  He offers no discussion of union corruption, union implication in organized crime, politicization of unions, union action in some countries against the common good, and union-demanded inefficiencies, which good workers hate.

You may ask: What does anything of this have to do with Catholicism?  Nothing whatsoever, I would say, which is itself an important point, since Ahmari has a certain prominence as a convert.  His intellectual debts on display in the book are not to Catholic Social Doctrine but American Progressivism and Marxism.

Ahmari himself seems to hold to some soft version of economic determinism.  He seems to believe that if the employer-employee disparity in power is remediated, then couples will start getting married, having children, and going to Church, just as in the glorious years.  He presumably believes (against all available evidence) that big government policies “for the working class” are a necessary precondition of desirable cultural and spiritual renewal.

I was amused by implicit contradictions in the book, pointing to tensions among the “post-liberal” five.  It is dedicated to Patrick Deneen, who believes that American liberalism was vitiated at the Founding. Yet how could there then have been “glorious decades” so much later?  Ahmari sometimes rails at the Originalists with Adrian Vermeule (another dedicatee), and yet he devotes a chapter arguing for what he regards as the necessary originalist interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925.

In closing, I want to warn student readers in particular of the perils in Ahmari’s favored notion of “countervailing power.”  The underlying principle is this: whenever there is some original or natural disparity of authority, then, to remedy possible abuses, for justice’s sake, a countervailing power must be introduced.

On this principle, feminists have insisted that women must have a right to abortion, so that they have countervailing power against men.  Public school teachers have insisted that secular schools assert countervailing power against religious parents.  And atheists have been concerned to assert countervailing power, through a “naked public square,” against what they see as the tyranny of Catholicism in particular.

One could see this logic being eagerly applied in the comments by readers of a recent New York Times piece on Ahmari’s book: “You’ve come this far, comrade – why don’t you come all the way over to us?”


*Image: Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen by Marten van Valckenborch, 1580/1590 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]

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+Michael Novak’s Does the free market corrode moral character? No! And, well, yes.

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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI. You can follow him on X, @michael_pakaluk