Thomas A. Spragens, Jr., is professor emeritus of political science at Duke University. He is the author of numerous books, including the prizewinning Civic Liberalism: Reflections on Our Democratic Ideals. He recently sat down with us to discuss Capitalism and Democracy: Prosperity, Justice, and the Good Society (March 2021). In this much-needed and timely book, Spragens examines the opposing sides of the free market versus welfare state debate through the lenses of political economy, moral philosophy, and political theory.
When did you get the idea to write Capitalism and Democracy, and why did you write it?
I realized approaching retirement that my last three books, Reason and Democracy, Civic Liberalism: Reflections on our Democratic Ideals, and Getting the Left Right had covered most of what I had to say in the way of constructive democratic theory. Taken together, these books argued that the best understanding of our democratic ideals represents a constructive blending of the liberal ideals of liberty and equality with the classical republican ideals of civic friendship (aka “fraternity”) and civic virtue (aka “public spiritedness”), that democratic practices at their best embody a form of collective pragmatic reasoning among free and equal citizens, and that the most constructive and convincing version of American liberalism draws more upon the inspiration of the democratic “perfectionism” found in people such as John Stuart Mill and Walt Whitman than upon some specific normative conception of social justice.
I decided, then, that the best service that I could perform in another book would be to draw upon the content of courses I have taught over the years in order to provide a synoptic overview of the long-standing political contestation between the advocates of laissez-faire economics and minimal government on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the advocates of a mixed economy in the service not only of economic prosperity but also of other social goods that free markets alone arguably will not provide.
In doing that, I wanted to explain that this long-standing laissez-faire versus mixed economy contestation is a composite of three logically distinct and separable debates: the first of these being an empirical debate about the best way to achieve economic prosperity; the second being a debate about distributive justice; and the third being a broader debate about the constitutive purposes and ideals of a good democratic society.
I thought it also was important to explain why none of these three debates can be decided in some definitive and incontrovertible way—because of the limits of our ability to achieve certainty about causes and effects within very complex empirical social phenomena, and because of two important kinds of moral tragedy in the human condition that are beyond our control.
And finally, I thought that it would be incumbent upon me to share with my readers some of my own reasoned but not incontrovertible judgments about the issues covered here—if not to persuade them, then at least to push them to arrive at their own judgments in a way that they are able to defend.
Who would you like to read Capitalism and Democracy, and why?
There are three academic fields that have important things to say about the role of the free marketplace in a prosperous and just society dedicated to democratic ideals. These fields are political economy, moral philosophy, and democratic theory. Capitalism and Democracy does not represent an attempt to break any significant new ground in any of these three areas of academic expertise. Instead, it draws upon the resources of all of them in order to explain and illuminate the central issues and viewpoints that drive the perennial and crucial political debates in all modern industrial countries about the proper relationship between the capitalist marketplace and a good and successful democratic society.
I do not expect my colleagues in any of these three specific disciplines to learn here anything new within their own field of expertise. Depending upon the extent of their familiarity with the other two disciplines, however, I suppose it is conceivable that they might learn here something about the issues and arguments covered by these adjacent fields. A political economist could, for example, conceivably learn something he or she did not know about certain debates within moral philosophy or democratic theory. Or vice versa. But that’s about it for my fellow academics.
My primary intended audience is what might be called the politically engaged educated public. That includes college students, especially in the social sciences, and also members of the citizenry at large who have an interest in issues central to the politics and governance of their country. One of the models for my work, so far as its intended audience is concerned, was Milton Friedman’s widely read Capitalism and Freedom, a book that began as a lecture series at a liberal arts college. So I wrote here with that kind or forum and audience in mind. I assumed a certain level of interest and capability in my readers, while also presenting the relevant issues and arguments in a manner that would not require those readers to have some form of academic expertise in order to find them accessible and understandable. My hope is that this is a book that can be a valuable classroom resource while also serving as an engaging evening read for a broad audience seeking to gain a better understanding of the political world in which they live.
How does this book help readers achieve a greater understanding of contemporary debates about government’s role in the economy?
Although a number of social and cultural issues—such as race relations, immigration, gay marriage, and abortion—have recently become more prominent in both American and European politics, the most constant and enduring policy debates and battles in these economically advanced societies have been and will continue in the future to be centered around the issues covered in this book. My purpose and hope for this book is that it will help its readers to understand more fully and clearly the issues and competing arguments about the most felicitous relationship between the capitalist marketplace and the larger society that it serves and shapes, that it will help them understand why reasonable people can differ on these issues, and that it will help them reach their own well informed and thoughtfully considered judgments about these important topics—judgments that will play an important role in shaping their own political allegiances and actions in the years to come.