The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Ethics of Economics

Professor Ronald S. Dart of the University of the Frazer Valley in Abbotsford, B. C. is a traditional, Canadian Tory. So, for that matter, am I. His interpretation of the Tory tradition and mine differ in a number of ways. One way our interpretations differ is in the colour we each would assign to the tradition. I, who place much emphasis upon the monarchist element of traditional Toryism, insist that the proper colour of Toryism is royal blue. Professor Dart on the other hand prefers the colour red for his Toryism.

Do not mistake me. The expression “Red Tory” is used in two different ways, with two different meanings, in Canada and they are not interchangeable. One way the term is used is to refer to people who are members of the Conservative Party but whose ideas are indistinguishable from those of progressive liberals or the socialist Left. The other way the term is used is to refer to people whose ideas genuinely fall within the British-Canadian conservative tradition and more specifically within the interpretation of that tradition associated with the great Canadian philosopher George P. Grant. When the term is used the first way I mentioned it is as a term of derision, usually applied by those who would refer to themselves as small-c conservatives. When it is used in the second way mentioned it is proudly self-applied. The Red Toryism of Professor Dart is the second and by far the better of the two.

Toryism is a tradition that began in the United Kingdom in the seventeenth century but which draws upon the much older traditions of classical antiquity, medieval Christendom in general, and of England/Great Britain in particular. It is also an expression of an attitude that can be found in every time and place – that of preferring the known to the unknown and the tried, tested, and true to the inventive and innovative. The Tory tradition, which started with the royalists or cavaliers in the English Civil War, stood for the established constitution of Church and State, as grounded in prescription and divine authority, and for an organic view of society rather than a contractual model. When modern philosophy bore fruit in the violence and terror of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, even though he had been a member of the opposing party in Parliament, took Tory principles and reworked them into a philosophical defence of the English constitution and Christianity against modernity. This revitalized Toryism was the first political philosophy to bear the name conservative.

The Dominion of Canada, which never violently broke continuity with the British tradition in which she was founded in the way the United States did, inherited its conservative tradition directly from Great Britain. Furthermore, the Toryism Canada inherited is a specific branch of the Tory tradition that developed in the Victorian era, the era in which Canada came together as a country in Confederation. That branch of the Tory tradition is known as One Nation Conservatism, a title derived from a phrase in the book Sybil, by Victorian Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. What distinguishes One Nation Conservatism from other forms of Toryism is its emphasis on the idea that participation in the organic whole that is the country should be of benefit to all members and levels of society and that the security of the established constitution depends upon this being the case. Thus the One Nation Conservatives supported modest social programs that would alleviate misery and prevent the dissatisfaction from developing that is the fuel of the revolutionary demagogue.

The Red Toryism of George Grant – who disliked the expression “Red Tory” – is a further interpretation of the One Nation Conservative interpretation of the High Tory tradition. While Grant is a man I highly admired and whose writings have been quite influential on my own thinking, I disagree with his contention that socialism is more conservative than capitalism, which is the main reason his version of One Nation Conservatism has been dubbed Red.

Professor Dart, who has made significant contributions of his own to this branch of the Tory tradition, has recently posted a manifesto entitled “Red Tories of Canada Unite” at the Clarion Journal to which he is a frequent contributor. I encourage you to read it as there is much in there that is of value even to those of us Tories who are not particularly “Red”. There is one section in particular that caught my attention. I will quote it in its entirety using boldface to represent what is italicized in the original:

Third, Tories do not separate ethics from economics. When the ledger of profit and loss becomes the dominant criteria we use for evaluating the wealth, health, prosperity and development of a people, we become moral cripples. The tendency to divorce ethics and economics runs contrary to the best of historic Toryism that grounds political life in the classical virtues of courage, wisdom, justice and moderation. The cleavage between the rich and poor is a natural product of elevating trade and commerce and ignoring or subordinating an ethical plumb line by which wealth is earned and distributed. Dante, for example, placed the greedy and idle rich in the lowest level of hell. We need not read too far in Leacock’s Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich or Prime Minister William Bennett’s The Premier Speaks to the People to get a solid fix and feel for how the best of Canadian Tories have viewed the clash between ethics and economics. (

It is the first sentence in this remarkable paragraph that I wish to comment on, although my comments may and probably will touch on the other sentences as well. “Third, Tories do not separate ethics from economics”. This is a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree. It is worthy of deeper reflection and I can think of no better way of beginning that reflection than by addressing three questions that arise naturally out of the statement. What is ethics? What is economics? Why should ethics and economics be inseparable? Let us think about those questions in that order before moving on to consider the implications of the inseparability of ethics and economics.

What is ethics? The term ethics comes from the Greek word for habits, manners, or patterns of behaviour, just as the term morals comes from the Latin word with a similar range of meaning. Ethics is moral philosophy, i.e., intelligent, contemplative, thought about human behaviour both as it is and as it ought to be.

Everything we human beings do we do with some end in mind. We may desire that end for it’s own sake or because it is a step towards a further end. These ends we consider to be goods and the most basic way by which we judge our actions to be good or bad is on the basis of how effectively they achieve their ends. There is often a difference, however, between the ends we actually strive after and the ends we ought to strive after. We may put all our effort into achieving a lesser good while ignoring completely a greater good. We may fail to recognize a good as a good or we may mistake as a good something that is not a good. How to distinguish a true good from a false good, a greater good from a lesser good, and the supreme good from all other goods is the subject matter of ethics.

Ethics is not just an ethereal, abstract, ivory tower discussion however. It too has an end, a good that it strives after, and that good is the formation of human character. Our actions are not carried out in isolation from each other. When we make a decision, good or bad, we increase the likelihood that we will make that same kind of decision again. We are creatures of habit, in other words, and our habits, our patterns of good and/or bad decision making, shape our character. The proper goal or good of ethics is the development of good character by the formation of habits in which we discern and choose true goods rather than false goods and value greater goods over lesser goods. These habits are called virtues and their opposites are called vices.

The introduction of ethics was the greatest contribution of the Athenian school to the Western philosophical tradition. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle began the discussion of ethics to which subsequent schools of thought would later add their own contributions. In the Christian era, ethics was fundamentally transformed. Philosophy, guided by the light of reason, could only go so. It could not bring man to the highest good, for the highest good is God. Since human reason and philosophy cannot reach God, God had to come down to man, which He did in the Incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ. Christ’s Life, Death, and Resurrection forever changed the relationship between God and man and in the Self-revelation of God, man was given three new virtues to cultivate – faith, hope, and charity or Christian love. This was beautifully illustrated by Dante in the poem Professor Dart referred to. (1) Virgil, representing natural reason, could guide Dante only so far as to the entrance to the Earthly Paradise at the peak of Mt. Purgatory. After that point Beatrice, representing divine wisdom had to take over.

Let us turn now to our second question. What is economics?

Economics is also a word that comes to us from the Greeks. It is derived from the word economy which combines the Greek words for household and law. The Greeks used this combination to refer to the management of household affairs. We still sometimes use the word economy in this way, to describe the virtue of the man who manages his affairs so as to live within his means. The ordinary use of the word economy to refer to the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services within a community, region, or country is an extrapolation from the original meaning. If you think of your community, province, or entire country as an extended household you will see how this meaning was derived. This kind of economy is properly referred to as a political economy, the affairs of the polity or commonwealth, conceived of as a large-scale household.

Economics is a modern twist on the concept of economy. Economics is an intellectual discipline that treats the kind of human activities that we would call economic because they fall under the earlier meanings of economy as the subject matter of a science. It is not a hard science, like natural sciences such as physics, biology and chemistry, but a soft science, i.e., a social or behavioural science. Whether soft or hard, however, the sciences of the modern age rest upon a number of shared assumptions – that everything we need to understand the world is available to us via our physical senses, that through empirical methodology we can convert our observations of the world into laws explaining how things work, and that we can then use the knowledge contained in those laws to obtain mastery over all we survey.

The first of those assumptions is epistemological nonsense and is arguably the root error of all modern thought. The last of those assumptions, however, has the appearance if not the substance of truth, and this is the source of the hold the sciences have had on modern man. “Look at all the wonderful things we have been able to accomplish in such a short time through science, it must surely therefore be the source of all wisdom and truth.” Even if it were the case, however, that we could obtain complete mastery over ourselves and the world through science that would not answer the question of whether or not we should do so. This question is dismissed by many in the scientific community today, as can be seen in the “because I can” justification one often encounters in debates over the moral implications of such things as stem-cell research. It is a question, however, that needs to be asked and which deserves a better answer than that. (2)

Which brings us back to ethics and to our third question, why should ethics and economics be inseparable?

The subject matter of economics is a class or category of human activity. Human beings have material needs and desires. To satisfy those needs and desires we either produce what we need and desire for ourselves, produce things that other people need or desire to exchange with them for what we need or desire, or offer services of various sorts to other people in exchange for the things we need or desire. These are the activities that are studied as economics and, like all human activities, they are subject to evaluation in terms of the questions posed by ethics.

The modern economist does not deny the claims of ethics over economics altogether. He answers those claims, however, by asserting that the science of economics, by uncovering the laws that govern the production, distribution, and consumption of material goods, will provide man with the tools needed to create material abundance for all – or at least the largest number possible - and with that material abundance will bring universal human happiness, or at least something closely akin to it. This is economics’ version of the claim made by all modern sciences. Since this is the claim of the economist regardless of whether he supports capitalism or socialism all ethical criticism of this claim applies equally to capitalism and to socialism.

There are many such criticisms to be made.

The ethics of the modern economist is utilitarian. It is based upon the idea that right action is determined by what produces the maximum amount of happiness for the largest number of people. Utilitarianism removes the qualitative element from ethical judgement and reduces it to quantitative measurement. As an ethical system this is inferior by far to those developed by classical philosophers and the theologians of Christendom.

Furthermore, it is a materialistic ethics that equates material abundance with happiness. This equation, however, is false. Economic liberalism or capitalism, the system devised by the first modern economists in the 18th Century, as it has developed to the present day has produced material abundance that would have been unimaginable in previous centuries. It has also managed to distribute this abundance widely throughout the populations of those countries that have embraced capitalism. This can be seen by everybody except those who blind themselves to it by measuring the distribution of affluence against the yardstick of absolute equality. In a sense, therefore, liberalism has fulfilled the claims of modern economics. In a larger sense, however, it has failed because this material abundance has not brought happiness with it.

Think about it. If material abundance brought happiness, why are alcoholism and drug abuse significant social problems in liberal countries? These same countries, in the period in which they saw the greatest explosion of material abundance in human history, have experienced a massive social breakdown. There has been an erosion of a sense of community, divorce rates have skyrocketed while fertility rates have plummeted. All of these problems are symptomatic of a deep and widespread unhappiness.

Capitalism’s main competitor has been socialism. Socialism was originally thought up as an alternative to capitalism by economists and political radicals in the 19th Century. According to liberal capitalist theory the road to material prosperity lay in the investment of private entrepreneurs in large scale production products carried out in a setting of freedom guided by the forces of the free market. Socialist theory taught that there would be greater material abundance which would be more fairly distributed if the means of production were publicly owned and distribution was administered for the common good by a board of intellectual experts.

Socialism was a disaster when put into practice. It had the same goal as capitalism – maximizing material abundance and distributing it to the largest number of people – but it was nowhere near as capable of accomplishing that goal as capitalism was. Worse, if neither capitalism nor socialism was capable of generating human happiness, socialism proved remarkably adept at producing the exact opposite, human misery. Everywhere it was attempted for any significant length of time it eroded human sympathy and feeling, generated mass suffering and misery, and brought about widespread spiritual and moral death.  Deducing what socialism would be like in practice, Canadian Tory Stephen Leacock declared “socialism, in other words, is slavery.”

The temptation to equate material abundance with happiness – or at least to think that the two go hand in hand – has always been with men. The ethical teachings of the great classical and Christian tradition, however, guarded against this temptation. Material goods, including such necessities as food, clothing, and shelter, are real goods, the ancient philosophers taught, i.e., things to be desired and sought, but they were among the lower goods. True happiness came through the cultivation of virtue and the pursuit of the higher goods, including the transcendental ideals of truth, beauty and goodness. Men need material goods to sustain their existence, and are drawn to these and other lower goods by the appetites of their animal nature, but these goods were to be the means and not the end of their existence. Men were called to rule their appetites rather than to be ruled by them and to make the pursuit of the higher goods the end of their existence.

That the accumulation of wealth should not be the end of our existence, the purpose for which we live, is also the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. The Book of Proverbs records the request of Agur ben Jakeh that he be given “neither poverty nor riches” so as to be spared the temptations that come with each. Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, warned His disciples against making mammon their master and told them to lay up eternal treasures in heaven rather than fading treasures on earth. They should not worry about material things, He said, but should seek first the kingdom and righteousness of God. St. Paul, writing to the Philippians from his prison cell, told them that he had learned “in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”

Modern economics in both its capitalist and socialist forms has inverted the hierarchy of goods contained in classical and Christian teaching.

There is, of course, a lot more in the ethical teachings of the pre-modern tradition that applies to economic matters than just the idea that we are to devote our lives to the pursuit of higher goods and to make the activity by which we obtain the material necessities of life to be merely the means to that end. I have focused on this because the deviation of modern economics on this point appears to me to be its first ethical error and the source of all the others.

The Holy Scriptures repeatedly condemn the person who allows others to perish for lack of the basic necessities of life. They even more vehemently condemn the person who does more than just stand by and watch but who actively takes advantage of the vulnerability of others. The Psalms frequently express astonishment that such people seemingly prosper and are not struck from the earth. The prophetic literature is full of rebuke after rebuke of the kings of Israel and Judah for not doing their job and administering justice for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor in general, upon the heads of their oppressors.

There are many forms of liberal capitalism, such as Social Darwinism and that taught by Ayn Rand, that come out looking very bad in the light of this Scriptural teaching.

That does not let the socialists off the hook, however. Socialist economic theory is built upon the idea that private property is the source of all evil, that man went wrong when he first pointed to what had previously been held in common, and distinguished between “mine” and “thine”, and that things can only be set right by returning everything to common ownership. Two of the famous Ten Commandments handed down to Israel and Mt. Sinai and reiterated at the edge of the Promised Land, however, are protections of people’s property against the designs of others, the commandment against stealing and the commandment against coveting.

There is no contradiction in the ethical teachings of the Scriptures here. In the condemnation of the indifferent onlooker, the oppressor, and the unjust ruler, the basic instruction to us is that we are to help others, to share what we have with those who are need, and basically to treat other people well and just. When the Scriptures forbid us from stealing or even coveting the property of others they are giving us the same basic instruction. To share what is ours with others when they are in need and to refrain from lusting for and taking what they have are two sides to what it means to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

In interpreting these teachings of the Scriptures for the faithful down through the centuries the Christian Church has identified avarice and envy as being among the seven sins that are particularly deadly and to be avoided. Avarice, or greed, is not just the desire for material goods. Nor even is it just the desire for more material goods than one already has or for more material goods than one needs, for if those desires were a deadly sin then it would be a moral requirement for us to live in caves and possess nothing more than the spears we would need to kill our daily dinner. Avarice is best understood as being the polar opposite of the idea of sharing. It is the desire to possess as much as one possibly can while leaving as little as possible for others. To envy is both to covet what another has for oneself and to resent the other for what he has. Dorothy L. Sayers once remarked that “If Avarice is the sin of the Haves against the Have-Nots, Envy is the sin of the Have-Nots against the Haves.”

I think she was right in saying this and I do not think that I would be straying too far from her original meaning by making the paraphrase that avarice is the sin of capitalism, and envy the sin of socialism. I would add, however, a proviso, that while capitalism may create occasion and temptation for the sin of avarice, socialism requires and is fueled by the sin of envy. Businessmen are frequently accused of the sin of avarice and undoubtedly are frequently guilty of it as well. They are also frequently falsely accused of it and these false accusations arise out of the envy that is at the heart of socialism. A person does not have to be avaricious to be a businessman. There is nothing innately avaricious about running a business and wanting it to turn a profit. Socialism, on the other hand, could not exist apart from the sin of envy. It is its lifeblood.

Neither of the two main systems of economic organization, dreamed up by modern economists, measures up by the standards of traditional, classical, and Christian ethics. As we have seen, capitalism and socialism both have their own specific moral defect, but more importantly they both share in the common ethical failing of all modern economics , the mistaking of material abundance for happiness and the inversion of the hierarchy of goods so as to make the pursuit of material goods the end of human existence.

I do not mean to propose another economic system as a kind of ethical alternative to capitalism and socialism. The problem is not just with capitalism and socialism but with the whole idea that an economic system could be devised that would bring Paradise to man on earth. Tories recognize that economics in the best sense is an art rather than a science, the art practiced in each family by those who manage the affairs of the household, and the art of statesmen in managing the affairs of the country. Tories also recognize that, for those practicing that art, the most useful information does not come from blueprints drawn up in some ivory tower, but from experience, both personal, and the collective experience of the society and of the human race in general, i.e. the experience embodied in tradition. Included within that tradition, and inseparable from it, is the ancient and ongoing discussion of goods and the good (3) that we call ethics, and so for this reason, among many others, Professor Dart is indeed right in saying that “Tories do not separate ethics from economics.”

(1) There is an error in the reference. Dante did not place the greedy and the wasteful in the lowest level of hell. He placed them in the fourth circle of hell, the lowest circle of upper hell which Virgil and Dante passed through before crossing the River Styx and the city Dis into lower hell. The ninth, and lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno, was the pit of Cocytus, reserved for the treacherous.

(2) Much of the published writings of George Grant is devoted to this question in one form or another. See especially his Philosophy for a Mass Age, Technology and Empire, and Technology and Justice.

(3) Part of that ongoing discussion, is the serious critique of modern economic systems, including both capitalism and socialism, from a standpoint of traditional ethics. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum is an excellent example of this. It called for social justice for the workers in industrial capitalism but condemned socialism as an unacceptable alternative to capitalism. In this it was far superior to the attempt to equate socialism with the Christian gospel that was occurring in North America at the same time. This latter so-called “Social Gospel” was found primarily among free church Protestants who had been influenced by modern philosophy into rejecting the doctrines contained in the Creeds of the ancient Church and the Confessions of their own denominations. Leo XIII’s encyclical, inspired the “distributist” critiques of capitalism and socialism among early 20th Century Catholic writers such as Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, who in turn inspired the critiques of such men as E. F. Schumacher and Wilhelm Roepke later in the 20th Century. Roepke wrote at a time when the distinction between capitalism and socialism was becoming blurred as both systems were evolving in the same direction – mass society governed by bureaucrats and technocratic managers. He was an advocate of economic liberalism, of the Austrian school type, but only within a Christian social and moral context. Schumacher wrote later on in the 20th Century, when the evolution of capitalism and socialism into a single large scale system was already more or less complete. He believed that large scale economics in mass societies dehumanized those who participated in it, and declaring that “small is beautiful” issued a call for local, small-scale, economics “as if people mattered”. That call would be repeated in the writings of many others, left and right, including Kirkpatrick Sale, Wendell Berry, Rod Dreher, and Bill Kauffman.


  1. Thank you for another insightful article, Gerry. I'm not sure what the counterpart to Red Toryism would be in America. In the North we had 'free soil' that had overtones similar to distributivism-- strongly producerist. But Americans tend to cut themselves off form older customs. I plan to read more about Ron Dart now that you dropped the name, and I'm glad an authentically 'conservative' Red Tory viewpoint is still alive. Sincerely, Charles

    1. You're welcome Charles. I am sorry for the lateness of this reply. Are you familiar with the webzine Front Porch Republic? ( Admiration for the better kind of Red Toryism - i.e., that found in the writings of George Grant, Ron Dart, and in the UK, Philip Blond - has been expressed in their pages in the past. Gerry