Dr. Sam Gregg is the Distinguished Fellow in Political Economy and Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research, a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, the Visiting Fellow for the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Sam previously directed the Acton Institute’s research and international outreach, including budgeting, personnel, and programming development and implementation. Additionally, he has written 16 books, published 48 academic journal articles, and penned over 300 articles in various periodicals. Sam was the Political Economy Professor for TFAS’s 2020 Virtual Global Political Economy Seminar and in 2022, delivered the annual Neal B. Freeman Lecture in Political Economy. He has a master’s degree from the University of Melbourne and received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford in moral philosophy and political economy.
In this week’s Liberty and Leadership Podcast, TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 and Sam discuss his new book, The Next American Economy: Nation, State, and Markets in an Uncertain World (which was recently nominated for a National Book Award), the virtues found within the concept of the “commercial republic,” the disconnect between modern U.S. policies and the founding principals of the nation, the impact of the progressive movement in the early 20th century, the economic chasm between the political left and right, the ebb and flow of religious fervor in the US and it’s impact on politics, and Sam’s work at the American Institute for Economic Research.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty + Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni who are making a real impact in politics, public policy, government, business, philanthropy, law and the media. Today, I’m very excited to be joined by Dr. Samuel Gregg, distinguished fellow in political economy and senior research faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research. Sam is a very talented thought leader, a writer and researcher on political philosophy, political economy, Western culture, religion, economic history, to name just a few areas of his expertise. He’s given lectures to TFAS students and donors, including as a political economy professor in our 2020 Virtual Global Political Economy Seminar. This past summer, Sam delivered the annual Neil B. Freeman Lecture in political economy to all the students attending the TFAS summer programs in Washington, D.C.. I’m excited to speak with Sam today about his recent book, his thoughts on the current state of affairs in the U.S. and his experience speaking to TFAS students. Sam, thanks so much for joining me.
Sam Gregg [00:01:19] Roger, it’s always good to be with you and always good to be talking to a TFAS audience. Thanks for having me on.
Roger Ream [00:01:25] Well, first of all, I’m going to hold up your book for those watching this on video. The Next American Economy: Nation, State, and Markets in an Uncertain World. It’s a superb book. I highly recommend it. And I was pleased to see that it was recently nominated for a National Book Award given out by ISI. And we’ll have to wait to see if it’s the winner. It certainly deserves to be. How’s the book been going in terms of being able to promote it and the ideas?
Sam Gregg [00:01:54] Well, I have to say that of all the books that I’ve written, this is the one which has generated by far the most interest. I’ve lost count of the number of interviews I’ve done, whether podcast or radio or on television. Lots of reviews have come out in a variety of publications, including some that you wouldn’t expect that have been saying pretty good things about the book. But I think it’s also because of the moment in which the book appeared. Because it’s very clear that across the political spectrum, Americans are very divided about economic matters in a way that they weren’t so divided even seven years ago. Because I think it’s fair to say that really between 1980 to, let’s say, 2008, there was a certain degree of consensus, certainly on the right of American politics about the place of markets as the preferential economic option. And even some people on the center left had more or less accepted that as the preferred position. But that consensus has broken down across the political spectrum, and it’s led to some very strange parallels on right and left in terms of what when it comes to thinking about economic policy and the future of the American economy. So to the extent that my book enters into that discussion and tries to first of all identify how we got here, in the sense that we see markets being rejected on the left, but also by parts of the right these days, how we got here with some of the causes of that. But also I try in the book The Next American Economy to try and present a different vision about how the case for markets can and should be developed in ways that recognize economic arguments. Obviously don’t change the economic truths about markets don’t change, but the context in which we articulate them has obviously changed. As I’ve said to a number of people, including you, in the past. We’re not living in the 1980s anymore. We’re living in the 2020s, and the political environment is very different compared to 40 years ago. And that means that those of us who believe in markets and limited government need to be recalibrating our arguments to take account of some of these changes that my book tries to do.
Roger Ream [00:04:24] Well, let’s dig into that a little bit, because this summer in the Freeman Lecture you delivered, it was a preview in some sense of some of the themes in the book. The book which came out, I think, as I recall, in the beginning of October. But in July, you spoke about this idea of the Commercial Republic and tying back arguments for markets and to not just moral arguments, not just efficiency arguments, but tying it to this idea of the Commercial Republic. Could you kind of explain what that concept is in the Commercial Republic?
Sam Gregg [00:05:02] Sure. Well, I’ll confess that the inspiration for this idea of the Commercial Republic, which is a very old idea, it’s not a particularly new concept. It’s just that it’s fallen out of usage, I suppose, over the past 100 years. The person whose writings pushed me in this direction was someone you and I both knew very well. Who was Michael Novak, the the author of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which was an incredibly important book when it came out in 1982. And one of the things that Novak talked about there was the idea that America and American capitalism is something different. It’s something unique. And he talked about it in terms of the idea of America as a commercial republic. And what he meant by that was he went back and looked at the way that particular founders, people like Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, the usual suspects, you might say, the way they talked about the nature of this new political regime that was being established in the wake of the revolution and then during the founding period. And the phrase that’s used a great deal, either directly or implicitly, is this idea of America as a commercial republic. And it basically embodies a couple of things. One is the word republic obviously suggests Republican forms of government. And at the time, that meant limited government, constitutionally limited government, the commerce part, the commercial part is the idea that this particular republic that separates powers, limits powers, places a tremendous emphasis upon constitutionalism and limiting power. This republic is a commercial republic. It’s not a military republic. It’s not like, say, the late Roman Republic, which was very much a type of militaristic enterprise. It’s a republic in which commerce is the epicenter, around which increasing numbers of the population and their lives revolve bartering, trading, the growth of free exchange inside this Republican form of polity, but also this Republican form of polity. The citizens of a trading freely and dynamically with each other and other places around the world. The third part of the idea of the Commercial Republic is that this republic, which has this particular economic character and this particular political character is also enveloped in a set of virtues, commercial virtues of the type that you find described in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and his theory of moral sentiments, classical virtues that the founders very much referred to when they were thinking about virtue. So people like Aristotle, Cicero, these classical virtues that we associate with ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and also religious values and religious virtues, because this, of course, is a time when Judeo-Christian norms were simply part of the furniture, the mental furniture of everyone’s world. And so these virtues, this particular form of government and this particular type of economy. Bring together the idea of America as a commercial Republic, it’s a very different political system to the type of systems that existed at the time. And this is the vision the founders had of America. This is the vision that we’re supposed to be. And as I say in the book, we’re not meant to be a European social democracy. We’re meant to be a society in which a particular type of economic life is prevalent and is accepted as the norm, as well as these particular forms of government and this particular set of virtues. And what I’m trying to do is to say that that’s the type of ideal that we should be aiming for. The idea of America as a commercial republic, because it makes it very clear that the case for markets needs to be grounded in this deeper understanding of what America is supposed to be. That is how I think those of us who believe in markets, we need to be talking this language and explaining what this means because that’s how you acquire legitimacy for particular ideas and institutions in America. And that making the case for markets, I think, has to be tied very carefully to this idea of legitimacy. What Americans look around the world and they say, this is who we are, this is what we’re meant to be. And if a free market is can integrate the case markets into this particular idea of America, I think we have a much better chance of persuading people that you and I both know who have sort of fallen off the free market side and are now dabbling in things like economic nationalism and industrial policy.
Roger Ream [00:10:00] Well, you know, I admire the extent to which you’ve taken it upon yourself, Sam, to engage with conservatives who may have moved away from, I’ll call it classical liberalism or free market ideas and become skeptics of things like free trade and supporters of mercantilism and even, you know, more vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws. That’s been a project of engagement that you’ve undertaken now for several years, taking on not just so-called gnat cons, but others. And it seems to boil down in some sense to a perceived tension, at least between virtue and liberty and freedom. The old fusionism that Frank Meyer wrote about and others that are they reinforcing? Is there a tension between them? Does a pendulum swing back and forth? But to me, they seem inextricably linked. But is that what is happening among many of these conservatives? They think that if you support a market, become what they call a free market fundamentalists, you’ve abandoned the idea that virtue is important.
Sam Gregg [00:11:10] Yes, that’s certainly one of the tensions I think that my book tries to address and in which, as you say, I’ve been involving myself in some of these arguments for well, really since 2015 is when it really started, because I think that’s when you started to see a lot of people who would describe themselves as conservatives, really questioning the free market orthodoxies that had hitherto prevailed across most of the right. And there is a philosophical tension which they think exists, in which they think that the pendulum has gone way too much towards liberty and away from the virtues side of things. Now, I don’t doubt that there are some people who describe themselves as libertarians to a certain extent, who pay a lot more attention to the liberty side of things and the virtue side of things. And I know that’s not what TFAS does, TFAS talks a great deal about the virtues and the importance of a particular type of moral ecology if you’re going to have limited government and free markets. But that’s certainly, I think, part of the critique that we’re hearing from sections of the right. And there’s no doubt that America has all sorts of social problems and cultural problems, I don’t think that’s in dispute. And they see obviously virtue as a way of addressing some of these questions, whether it’s family breakdown or whether it’s the disintegration of civil society, etc.. And I agree. I think virtue is certainly part of that discussion. But where I suspect you and I would part ways with some of these particular types of critiques that we’re hearing is that there’s a tendency, I think, on the part of some conservatives to think that the way you fix these problems or the way that you make virtue more central to public debate and the way we talk about things in the public square is a much more extensive use of state power to try and inculcate virtue throughout the population. Now, law certainly does have a role in shaping the moral ecology. There’s no question about that. But what many of these people are proposing, I think, in many respects goes far beyond, I think anything that the classical liberal tradition would regard as appropriate. But also I think a fair number of conservative thinkers would have some significant differences with some of the arguments that we’re hearing about the need for more rigorous intervention by the state and the legal system to shape the moral order in very particular ways, not least because it has implications for liberty. But also because when you start getting into the business of trying to coerce people to be good, I mean, beyond sort of basic norms of justice and basic principles of natural justice, once you go beyond that, there’s a real question about whether people are freely embracing these virtues or whether they’re just going through the motions so that they don’t get in trouble with the law. And of course, as you know, these debates go way back in history. This has always been an argument that’s gone on for a very long time about the relationship between liberty and virtue. And I always say, well, I think a truly free people needs to be a virtuous people. I don’t see liberty and hedonism as ultimately sustainable. I think that hedonism plus liberty usually leads to some type of servitude in different ways, that it opens up the way for some of the problems we’re seeing today with people wanting to use the state to do all sorts of things. But I also think that if you throw liberty out of the picture, then virtue becomes seen as something that’s not freely embraced. It starts to become seen as restrictive. And that’s a problem because virtue is supposed to be a real sign of human flourishing in the best sense of that word. So that’s part of the argument that’s going on, I think, on the right, so to speak, about these types of issues. And I think part of the problem is that some of the people you and I know, they argue that virtue has broken down because of what they call the prevalence of free market fundamentalism. I don’t actually know any free market fundamentalists myself. I’m not sure who these people are, but that’s part of the arguments you’re hearing. You’re hearing the argument that some of the causes of some of these social breakdowns that that undoubtably exist in America are because of the turn towards economic liberalization, both internationally and domestically. And I think there’s a lot of problems with that particular argument.
Roger Ream [00:15:49] I’ve been willing to say I’m a free market fundamentalist, but only if you let me define that as meaning I think the laws of economics prevail. Supply and demand and prices serve to allocate goods in the most efficient manner. It’s the economic way of thinking about things, but it doesn’t preclude or dictate, you know, certain approaches to public policy. And you’ve talked a little bit about the interplay of ideas, foundational ideas and policy, and that we’ve somehow often get those confused and you can say it better than me, but talk a little bit about whether the problems we’re in today, at least here in Washington, D.C., where I am, is that we push public policy that’s been severed from kind of the foundational ideas that should guide our discussions, our debates, and where that policy emerges from.
Sam Gregg [00:16:50] So, yes, I think that it’s definitely a tension because it seems to me that many policies being adopted and pursued and promoted in places like Washington, D.C. are in many respects at odds with the founding principles of the United States, but also at odds with some basic economic truths that we can know by virtue of the fact that we have reason and we can know certain economic truths, like there is a relationship between supply and demand, that the price signaling function is very important, that government interventions into the economy are often very ineffective and have all sorts of unintended consequences. So there’s all that dimension as well. But what I try to point to in the book is the fact that many of the policies that we’re seeing enacted in Washington now and in fact, we’ve been seeing enacted in the United States for a very long time, a lot of them really go back to the progressive movement of the late 1890s and 1910s. A lot of them reflect the imprint of the New Deal on the United States. A lot of them reflect the impact of the Great Society programs of the 1960s engineered by President Johnson. And so in many way in four respects, the policy framework that is applied to so many questions by legislators and regulators across the country is very much one of an interventionist mindset. Interventionism is seen as sort of something that just happens. You just do it when you don’t really question it too much. There’s a confidence that if only we get the right forms of intervention, the right forms of regulation in place, then we can make life better for everyone in the United States. Now, I’m deeply skeptical about that on an empirical level, because I just see things like protectionism, industrial policy, and certainly the welfare state. I think the effects of these things have been greatly detrimental to the United States, but also because they mark a very clear break with this idea of the Commercial Republic that we discussed before. And the idea of a commercial republic certainly thinks that there is a role for the state. Rule of law, private property, the police power, conduct of foreign policy, national security, none of which, by the way, are small endeavors. These are all pretty big and significant endeavors. And people like Adam Smith talked about these things as legitimate functions for the state. But the present policy framework and mindset goes way beyond those parameters today, and we’re used to seeing this expressed on the left, certainly in a big way since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But now we’re seeing a good number of people on the right, more or less saying, well, that’s the policy framework that exists. We’ve tried to change it, we haven’t succeeded. So we may as well use things like the regulatory and administrative state to achieve goals that we want to achieve. And that’s, I think, one of the big problems we’re facing now, because when you have people who are on the right who are saying, well, yes, we should be using the administrative state to achieve certain goals in the economy, but even beyond the economy, in the social fabric of America, not only do I think that’s ineffective, I think it’s also conservatives giving up on some important insights of the American founding and some important guidelines that were laid down by the founders about what America as a republic is supposed to be.
Roger Ream [00:20:41] And of course, you point out that there are very important, legitimate functions for the federal government. And when it gets involved in so much beyond that, it has a much more difficult time performing those legitimate functions that are so vital to the future of our republic.
Sam Gregg [00:20:59] Yes, when you think about things like, say, the police power or rule of law or just protecting property rights, the federal government in fact, government in general in America is not doing a very good job at those things right now. So if you go to some cities like where you are, Washington, D.C., or places like New York or Chicago, I have some big questions about whether law and order is actually being sufficiently enforced. I think we have some significant challenges on the rule of law and the rule of law right now in some parts of America. When it comes to things like just a sheer amount of government spending. So what is it, 63% of the federal budget is more or less mandated to be spent on what you and I would describe as welfare functions. 8% is on servicing the national debt in terms of interest, and the rest is what’s called discretionary spending. So basically, most of the federal spending in the United States goes on a pretty extensive set of welfare programs.
Roger Ream [00:22:06] Tocqueville would be maybe surprise isn’t the right word, but it’s very different from the America Tocqueville visited 100 almost 200 years ago where people didn’t look to government when they saw a problem. They tackled it individually through associations in the community. What do you think led us to this move away from self-reliance community to looking to government all the time for solutions?
Sam Gregg [00:22:39] Well, when Tocqueville came to the United States in the 1830s, one of the things he noticed was, well, lots of things. He said this is a country of entrepreneurs. Everyone, he said, is like an entrepreneur, they’re constantly starting a business and even before that previous business is sort of up and running, they’re starting another one.
Roger Ream [00:22:56] Commercial republic, right?
Sam Gregg [00:22:58] Right. And so people came to America seeking economic opportunity and they were prepared to engage in activities. And, you know, a lot of those business ventures didn’t work out. But then the expectation was, well you just get up and start another one. And there was no stigma attached to economic failure. So that was very important. He also noticed what he called the absence of government. The absence of government in the sense that obviously there was a government, there was a federal government, that state governments, but government just simply wasn’t involved in people’s lives anywhere near to the extent that it is today. And he pointed out that when Americans were confronting different problems around them, they basically banded together in association or forms of activity. And he said Americans are constantly engaging in associational forms of activity to fix problems, to promote things that we would call non-economic goods, culture, beauty, arts, all these sorts of things. And they did it of their own volition. It’s a totally different world to the one that we’re living in now, where government is really everywhere and so we really can’t get away from it in many respects. So what are the reasons for this? Well, I think the sort of decisive shift to my mind and there are probably some people who would say it goes back even earlier, but I think the decisive shift occurs with the rise of the progressive movement in the 1890s and the 1900s. And there were two things that characterized this movement. One was the notion that the founding period, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself were dated documents, they were no no longer capable of giving guidance to the America of the 1890s, 1910s and people like Woodrow Wilson and others more or less said, well, those things we need to relativize them. They’re significant for the time, but we need to come up with a very different vision of what America is about and what the role of government is. And that brings me to the second thing, which of course, is that they embody this confidence that through judicious use of state power, you could really manage the American economy and American society from the top down. And it’s not a coincidence, I think, that many of the early progressives and even some of the later ones they studied in places like Germany in the late 1890s, 1890s, even into the 1910s. And Imperial Germany at this particular time was a place in which there was a lot of confidence, certainly on the part of intellectuals in the professoriate. The state was really where the action was, that if you wanted to make a society great, you needed to have a big state intervening in different parts of the economy and society and guided by wise people, wise people to whom we would trust to do the right thing. And that’s where I think the really big shift happens. And you can look at things like the New Deal as a sort of logical outcome of that or even the Great Society programs as logical outcomes of that particular break. And that’s when I think it really starts to show us that there are significant numbers of Americans at that particular time who basically gave up on the American founding, who said there’s nothing really universal about this. We need to relativities that and we need to have a different type of political regime for the conditions of the 20th century. And that’s where I think things have went wrong. And those of us on the political side of the conservative movement, the liberty movement, pushing back a bit against that, I think has been really defined. I think, much of the conservative movement for the 20th century.
Roger Ream [00:27:06] Well, and then that brings us to the past 25 years or so when we shifted, it seems from this battle between, let’s say, right and left in terms of what the proper role of government should be, the progressive Wilson Great Society view versus, say, the Reagan conservative William F. Buckley view of less government. But then suddenly it seems like illiberalism seemed to come into the picture and we had a left becoming more illiberal with wokeness and less of a commitment, certainly among many on the left, to free speech. And now concerns about that on the right as well. Are there still opportunities for people who believe in liberty and limited government to find people? On the center left with that commitment to liberalism at least who can find common cause with and work together?
Sam Gregg [00:28:11] If you’d asked me that question five years ago, I would have said yes, certainly. So certainly on economic issues, I don’t think so much about social questions. And I’m skeptical about whether there was much to work with even five years ago when it comes to things like the proper understanding of the Constitution. But on economic issues, you had a good number of people who you might describe as being on the center left who had accepted that markets were the preferential way forward when it came to the economy. I suppose you might call them Clinton Democrats, Bill Clinton Democrats, not Hillary Clinton Democrats. But in the 1990s, for example, it seems to me that there were sections of the Democratic Party that were willing to say, look Great Society didn’t quite work out the way we thought it would. Look, we really can’t keep looking to government to do everything. Maybe we need to rethink the place of markets in our view of the world. And certainly I think you had some people in the Clinton administration who thought that way, especially when it came to trade issues. Remember, it was Bill Clinton who was one of the people who, you know, agreed to China coming into the WTO. And he was very much a trade liberalize. And there was a certain degree of skepticism about industrial policy from large sections of the certainly in the Treasury Department and others who were working in that particular, those two administrations. Clinton one in the first four years, in the Clinton second, four years. They’re harder to find now. I mean, I suppose someone like Larry Summers would be someone who you would say, who, of course, worked in the Clinton administration. You would say, okay, he at least is willing to say that there is an upper limit to how much government should be consuming of national GDP. It would be a significant higher number than you or I would like, Roger. But it’s still he’s willing to say there is a limit. And he’s been pretty aggressive on things like inflation and he’s acknowledged ways in which government spending and loose monetary policy has contributed to inflation. But I don’t see too many others who at least didn’t spend time in the Clinton administration thinking and speaking that way, at least publicly. The left, it seems to me, is I mean, they’re very much into protectionism. They’re very much now into industrial policy. And I’m not just talking about sort of the hard left, even the sort of squishy left, I think have more or less embraced some of those things. We’ve seen in the Biden administration’s policies. Because the Biden administration has adopted a sort of Trumpian approach to trade issues. It’s without the Trumpian edge when it comes to the rhetoric. But in terms of trade policy, they really haven’t changed. They’ve moved if anything, slightly more, I think, in an economic nationalist direction.
Roger Ream [00:31:40] Before joining the American Institute for Economic Research. Of course, you worked at the Acton Institute. Organization does great work, a lot of it pertaining to religion. It’s an area you’ve written a lot about. I wanted to ask you, my father was a minister, a Protestant minister, and his ministry went from about 1940 to the mid-eighties, and he used to say that number one culprit in the growth of paternalistic government, administrative welfare state, all powerful federal government was the clergy and their failure to speak out for kind of basic morality as it’s applied to the public square and the role of government. Where do you think things stand with religion in our country? And it relates to our discussion earlier about virtue and the need for virtue in a society. The church has become much weaker. Religious practice is very diminished, it seems. And, you know, as we were warned by our founders, that a free society requires a society that’s virtuous and much virtue comes from religious practice. So what are your thoughts about that and where we stand going forward?
Sam Gregg [00:32:56] Well, I often say to people that you don’t need to be religious to be virtuous. So if you look at, say, Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, there’s a lot of discussion of the classical virtues, there’s a lot of discussion of commercial virtues. And Smith himself was probably I don’t think Smith was, strictly speaking, a Christian. I think he was much more of a deist more than anything else. But he acknowledged the importance of particular virtues that he thought had a religious source. He talks about benevolence, for example, as one of the virtues that he believes emerges from religion. And it’s certainly true that the relationship between religion and liberty in America, as people like Tocqueville saw it, but also people like Michael Novak wrote about. The relationship between religion and liberty in America has traditionally been a pretty harmonious one, which is very different from the experience of, say, continental Europe, where the forces of liberty and the forces of religion were in pretty substantive conflict with each other for long periods of time. So when we come to the present, I think you’re right. It’s very clear that certainly among some parts of religious America, so for example, with mainline Protestant churches, religious practice has collapsed dramatically. In parts of the Catholic world, you see some parts of Catholicism are clearly in decline. I would describe that as the progressive side of Catholicism is certainly in terms of practice and numbers of adherents, etc., those who would describe themselves that way. I think that’s certainly in decline. But on the other hand, the sort of what you might call conservative Catholics are, I think, flourishing certainly compared to some other groups. And of course, evangelicals, they were a flourishing group for a long time. And it’s not clear to me that they are flourishing quite as much as they were, say10, 20 years ago. So I think it adds up to if you look at the generational differences, it’s very clear that religious practice is much less among some younger generations of Americans than it is among older generations. But here’s the thing about America, is that America goes through religious changes, so it has religious revivals at different points. And this is not the first time that religion in America has entered a type of slump. I mean, there were arguments that in the late 18th century it experienced something like that as well. But then you had a great revival that happened right at the end of the 18th century and continued on into the 19th century. So religion in America has a way of revitalizing itself if the right types of conditions and the right type of people arise. And, you know, even if you’re not religious, there are plenty of people who are not religious who would say, well, religion is actually sort of important for the maintenance of a free society because it is from religion that many people learn virtue. They understood why it’s good to be virtuous, etc.. But there’s no question in my mind that your father was correct insofar as certainly in the second half of the 20th century, many people, many clergy of all faiths and denominations pretty much put themselves behind the whole, the state needs to do more. The state needs to be heavily involved. And that went from sort of, you know, clergy who gave a sort of mild blessing to FDR’s New Deal program, but also to more radical forms, what you might call liberation theology, that you founded parts of the Catholic world, but also parts of the Protestant world as well. And so for that reason, I think one of the problems was that you had a lot of clergy talking about the specifics of economic policy, for example, which they really weren’t qualified to talk about in any sort of certainly not on a technical level or even on a philosophical level in many respects as well. And instead of doing their job of forming people’s consciences, trying to expose them to the richness of the particular religious traditions, they spent a lot of time talking about party political politics and the details of economic policy. And I think that was a big mistake because I think it meant that they became discredited in the eyes of many people, because when you know someone’s talking about something they don’t know anything about, you start to take them less seriously. Right? But also because they weren’t forming people as well as they should have been in some of these basic virtues, many of which come from religion that left a space. It left a space and I think some of the things that filled the space were not so healthy for the country.
Roger Ream [00:38:07] Well before we run out of time, I do want to ask you, Sam, about your new position at the American Institute for Economic Research and the work of AIER. We’ve had a great collaboration with AIER over the last few years in programing for high school teachers, teaching economics to high school teachers. It’s enabled us to reach a lot more teachers through these programs. But tell me a little bit more about the work of the institute and what you’re doing there.
Sam Gregg [00:38:36] So the American Institute for Economic Research was created in 1933, which makes it, I think, maybe the oldest market orientated institution in the country, really.
Roger Ream [00:38:49] I think must be.
Sam Gregg [00:38:51] Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s the case. And so for a long time the institute’s focus was very much on what you might call monetary economics. That was certainly the interest of the founder. So in more recent years, really over the past year, I suppose you would say, AIER has taken on basically what we call three different verticals, three different focuses. One is monetary economics, which is headed up by my colleague Thomas Hogan, and that’s very much focusing on what was a long time, the core focus of AIER which is monetary policy, which, as you know, is a hot subject for debate these days. And so under the guidance of my colleague Thomas Hogan, it’s very much focusing upon making the case for sound money. The second vertical is the sort of economic freedom vertical, and that’s really about making the wider case for economic freedom in the United States, because it’s very clear that certainly by all these different indicators, economic freedom is in decline in large parts of America, and we want to contribute to reviving that. The third vertical is the vertical that I head up, which is very much focused upon some of the issues that we’ve been talking about today, the types of new forms of collectivism that have emerged in America, whether it’s the reemergence of economic nationalism, protectionism, industrial policy that seems to be flourishing on a lot of the right these days as well as obviously on sections of the left. But another focus that I am heavily involved in is, for example, stakeholder capitalism, ESG, DEI and all of these things, I think, add up to an attempt by the left for the most part, to basically turn businesses into some strange combination of commercial organization plus lefty NGO. And that, I think, is a major problem in America right now, because it’s very clear that large numbers of people involved in the business community are embracing ideas that I think in the long term will only undermine their own freedom to operate in the market, the capacity of markets to serve consumers and the role that economic liberty plays and commercial liberty plays in general in sustaining a free society more generally. So the particular vertical I head up is about dealing with some of these economic problems of nationalism, economic nationalism on the right, but also some of the DEI stakeholder capitalism, ESG efforts that are coming from the left to basically hollow out the core business of business, which is profit and shareholder value. And to make those things just one of many different goals that they think business should be pursuing. And I think in the end it ends up destroying the core purpose of business, what Aristotle would call the telos of business. And that’s a big problem because if you destroy the telos of business, that does enormous damage to the economy, you do enormous damage to the economy, you end up doing enormous damage to the country as a whole.
Roger Ream [00:42:01] Yeah and to the consumers, to the poorest among us who suffer the most when things like that move forward. Well, I wish we had more time. I applaud you for the great work you did for 20 years at the Acton Institute. It’s a great organization. We had the privilege at The Fund for American Studies of honoring Jimmy Lai at a dinner in mid-November in New York. We showed a clip from the great Acton film, The Hong Konger. And did you have the opportunity to work some or meet Jimmy Lai?
Sam Gregg [00:42:36] Oh, yes, I’ve met him.
Roger Ream [00:42:38] The terrible news of a week ago that he was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for a minor accusation, a minor violation in his office lease. And, you know, let’s hope that at some point he will see freedom from that oppressive regime in Beijing. But beyond your work with Acton, I wish you the very best at AIER. I applaud this book. To anyone listening today, The Next American Economy: Nation, State, and Markets in an Uncertain World by Sam Gregg, our guest today. Thank you so much for joining me. I’ve enjoyed the conversation and I’m sure everyone listening to it has as well. Thank you, Sam.
Sam Gregg [00:43:22] Thank you, Roger. It’s good to be with you. Keep up the great work at TFAS. It’s been a pleasure to participate in many of your programs. You’re doing great work informing the next generation of Americans in the ideals of free markets and limited government.
Roger Ream [00:43:36] Thank you.
Roger Ream [00:43:38] Thank you for listening to the Liberty + Leadership podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty + Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time, show courage in things large and small.
About the Podcast
TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.
Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.
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