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C. Bradley Thompson on Making Capitalism a Known Ideal

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 11, No. 4.

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Craig Biddle: I am speaking with C. Bradley Thompson, professor of political science at Clemson University and the executive director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism (CISC). Dr. Thompson received his Ph.D. at Brown University and has been a visiting scholar at Princeton and Harvard as well as the University of London. He is the author of John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, and coauthor (with Yaron Brook) ofNeoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea. His most recent TOS article is “Liberal Education and the Quest for Truth, Freedom, and Greatness,” in the Fall 2016 issue.

Thanks for joining me, Brad.

Bradley Thompson:My pleasure, Craig. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and your readers at The Objective Standardabout our work at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism.

Biddle: Given the worsening political environment in America—as evidenced by our alternatives in the impending presidential election—advocates of free minds and free markets are as alert as ever to the urgency of educating Americans about the nature and value of capitalism. We need to make capitalism a known ideal. The Clemson Institute is one of the few organizations dedicated to this cause. So I’d like to give our readers an overview of the Institute and its programs.

What is the CISC? How did it come to be? And what is its mission?

Thompson: The Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism was founded in 2005 with a generous start-up grant from BB&T, under the direction of its then chairman and CEO, John Allison.

At the time, I was a visiting scholar at Princeton University and was offered the position to serve as the Clemson Institute’s first executive director. I was impressed with the vision for the program as presented by John Allison and the people at Clemson. There were, however, two potential risks for me in taking the job. The first was that the job did not come with tenure, or even with the promise of tenure. (At the time, I was a tenured, full professor at Ashland University in Ohio.) The second risk was that the “Clemson Institute” did not yet exist; it was simply a budget line at Clemson and had no official status on campus. There was no guarantee the university would approve its creation. Still, given the potential I saw, it was an easy decision for me. And I’m pleased to say it was the best professional decision of my career.

My first job when I arrived at Clemson was to usher what was then called the “Clemson Capitalism Initiative” through the approval process to become an officially recognized institute. I spent my first few months at Clemson introducing myself to faculty and administrators and explaining to them what we were hoping to create with our program.

I made three things clear to everyone I spoke to: first, our program would adhere to the highest academic standards possible; second, we would create a marketplace of ideas free of indoctrination and dogmatism, where the best ideas and the truth would be allowed to win in the battle of ideas; and third, we would not be “ghettoized” or shunted to a dark corner of the university. I insisted that our program be fully integrated into the intellectual life of the campus.

My plan and requirements were well received. A faculty committee, the CU administration, and then the board of trustees approved unanimously what would soon become the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. Since then, Clemson University has proven to be a wonderfully supportive environment for the CISC, which is remarkable given the state of higher education today. And the university’s support has enabled the CISC to blossom into America’s premier university-based teaching and research center dedicated to exploring the moral foundations of capitalism.

To that end, we run a variety of programs. During the course of the year, we run a major lecture series that is probably the best attended on campus. Typically 200 to 250 people attend these lectures. The highest attendance to date was more than 700, for George F. Will’s lecture last year.

We also host two conferences every year. The first is our student conference, which we cohost with the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in May. We bring seventy to eighty top-flight college students from around the United States, and around the world, for a three-day conference on the moral foundation of a free society. In the past, Yaron Brook, Onkar Ghate, Eric Daniels, Andy Bernstein, Richard Ebeling, you [Craig], and many others have lectured at the conference. For the past eleven years, we’ve also hosted what we call our “professors’” conference, which is a two-day event for professors and administrators on the ideas and institutions of a free society. We also have a visiting scholar program, in which either junior or senior scholars spend a year at Clemson teaching and writing.

In addition, Clemson Institute faculty members teach fourteen to sixteen classes every year in the political science, history, and economics departments, and in the Honors College and the Great Works Program.

Finally, the Institute has a robust publishing program. In addition to my own work, CISC faculty and staff are publishing a boatload of books, pamphlets, and articles. Among these is a pamphlet titled Capitalism Defined and Defended, which is an excellent overview of what true capitalism is and is not; and a wonderful volume by Eric Allison, associate director of the Institute, titled Economic Morality: Ancient to Modern Readings.

Biddle: What differentiates CISC from other organizations that advocate free minds and free markets?

Thompson: I don’t think many organizations in the United States focus on free minds (with the obvious exception of the Ayn Rand Institute), but scores if not hundreds of university- and nonuniversity-based organizations study or promote free markets.

Virtually all of these organizations are run by and for economists. They all argue that capitalism is the best economic system because it is the most productive and efficient system. This is, of course, true. In fact, it’s so clearly true that even Karl Marx, the intellectual godfather of socialism and communism, felt compelled to admit it. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx says exactly that—that capitalism is the most productive and efficient economic system ever invented by man. The problem with capitalism, according to Marx, is that it’s unjust because it creates inequality and immoral because it’s based on self-interest.

And that points to the problem. Over the past 150 years, Marx’s intellectual and political descendants captured the moral high ground, whereas the defenders of capitalism captured only the economic high ground; and in any battle of ideas, moral principles always win over economic principles in the long term. This is why this country has been going down the road to socialism for almost a century.

The most important difference between the CISC and most other organizations is that we focus on the moral and political foundations of a free society, which, in the context of a university we take as an open question. Our mission is to explore those foundations, which means we expose our students to the best arguments for—and against—a free society in a historical context.

In recent years, we have become increasingly focused in our teaching and research on the relationship between moral character and a free society. It’s our belief that you cannot have a free society made up of moral reprobates. We think it’s important to think seriously and deeply about what moral character is, why it’s important, and how to build it.

Biddle: Why do so many organizations focus on teaching youths about the economic practicality of capitalism, but so few focus on its moral foundations?

Thompson: I think this problem manifests in what we might call the broader “liberty movement.” The modern American liberty movement has been around for sixty some years, and it has, in my view, become tired, stale, and ossified. The movement has its own establishment—its own orthodoxy—that I think distorts the nature of freedom and, in some ways, retards its growth in America.

The problem is the focus almost exclusively on the academic discipline of economics. This discipline holds an artificial monopoly within the movement.

To be sure, I am a fan of the great work done by my free-market economist friends. They have met left-wing economists on the battlefield and crushed them. Two cheers, then, for the economists. But I withhold the third cheer. The ideas represented by that missing cheer, the moral and philosophic foundations of freedom, are a major focus of my work and of CISC.

Ironically, the liberty movement has been corrupted by distorted incentives. As one example, consider the emphasis placed on the study of economics, as represented by the Nobel Prize in the field. Many great free-market economists, including Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan, have won the Nobel Prize. And they are rightly celebrated for it. The problem is that their approach to defending free markets—the economic approach—is treated as the heart and soul of the liberty movement. This inverts the intellectual hierarchy. It elevates economics above the disciplines that are more fundamental to the defense of liberty—namely, philosophy, history, political science, and even literature. (On that last count, what has interested more people in liberty and helped more to understand its preconditions than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged?)

Interestingly, even Hayek and Buchanan knew that the philosophic defense of a free society is most important and most needed. Imagine if there were a Nobel Prize in philosophy or history as applied to the nature of social systems—or a Nobel Prize in political science. Imagine how that would change the incentive structures within the liberty movement.

It gives me no pleasure to say that my free-market economist friends have become a tad smug and self-satisfied. The fatal conceit of the intellectuals and think tanks that shape the modern liberty movement is their view that economics is—and should be—the soul of the movement. These thinkers and think tanks have churned out hundreds if not thousands of op-eds and white papers using economic analysis exclusively on a variety of public-policy topics in order to influence Capitol Hill staffers and bureaucrats. How has that worked out for them? Does the world really need another economics white paper from the ABC Institute or the XYZ Center on transportation policy or the minimum wage? To quote Hillary Clinton, what difference at this point does it make? I think it makes very little difference.

The economics-focused liberty movement does not fully understand the nature and value of liberty. It does not, in my view, grasp the true soul of classical liberalism, or the nature and processes of social change. It doesn’t understand the role that philosophic and related political ideas play in social change. Thus it doesn’t grasp the nature of the crisis we face.

The fact is that economics is downstream from politics, which is downstream from culture, which is downstream from the ideas taught in humanities departments in our universities. Many in the modern liberty movement don’t get this. They don’t understand that the most important battleground is not on Capitol Hill or in state legislatures but in our universities—and not merely in economics departments, but also, and more fundamentally, in the humanities and liberal arts departments.

Over the past twenty years, advocates of free markets have given tens of millions of dollars toward developing free-market economics programs. This has done much good, but in my view, we’ve reached a saturation point. Educating more people about free-market economics at this point will make relatively little difference. I submit that if every economics department in America were pro free market, the radical left would still win crucial arguments about economic policy. This is because the left controls the heart and soul of our universities: the humanities departments. So long as students learn philosophy, history, literature, and the like from professors who are hostile to free markets, few will come to embrace free markets.

As Bastiat said, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be artfully criticized, but to be ineptly defended.” Just so. Liberty defended apart from the humanities is liberty ineptly defended. Number-crunching technicians are not equipped to fight the battle for freedom—especially not in the universities.

We don’t get to choose where the main battlefield in this war of ideas is. The main battlefield is in the humanities departments, and we ignore that at our peril. If we want to succeed in our mission to create a free society, we must go to that battlefield, and we must bring the right ideas. We need more philosophers, historians, political scientists, and literature scholars in the liberty movement—and we need them ASAP.

Not to be overly dramatic, but for those of us who are defending a free society on that battlefield, it feels like we’re the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae while the supplies and reinforcements are being sent to North Africa.

Biddle: I think that’s a perfectly apt analogy—except that nowhere near three hundred are fighting with you. Your war involves not only fighting the enemy, but also generating intellectuals who can help you fight the enemy.

Toward that end, tell me about the Lyceum Scholars Program and its part in the CISC. What’s the purpose of the LSP? And what’s involved in the program?

Thompson: The Lyceum Scholars Program, which draws its name and inspiration from Aristotle’s Lyceum School, is a relatively new project of the CISC. It is a four-year undergraduate scholarship program that uses a Great Books approach to studying the history of liberty and capitalism, the principles of the American founding, and the importance of individual moral character to life in a free society.

Each year, the CISC awards ten scholarships to incoming freshmen, who are required to take eight classes as a cohort over four years. These classes include “Wisdom of the Ancients,” “American Founding,” “Constitutional Rights,” and “Political Theory of Capitalism.” In just two years, the LSP has received 590 applications from students in forty states.

Each Lyceum Scholar is assigned what we call a “Socratic tutor” from the faculty members connected to the program. The tutors meet one-on-one with their students each week to discuss ideas and projects. The special emphasis here is cultivation of excellence in the students’ moral character. The tutors encourage and inspire students to think seriously and deeply about how they live, how they choose and pursue their goals, how to be upstanding people, and how all of this relates to freedom. We believe there is an intimate connection between moral character and a free society, and one of our goals at the CISC, and specifically in the Lyceum Program, is to underscore this connection and help students build good character.

Student interest in this program has been tremendous. In our first year, we received 193 applications from students in twenty-two states. Seventy of those applicants had SAT scores over 1400. In our second year, we had almost four hundred applications from students in thirty-five states. Demand for the Lyceum Program has been so great that we’ve added a second track called the Lyceum Fellows Program. This nonscholarship track requires students to take six of the eight courses required of the Lyceum Scholars. The Fellows track will allow us to scale up with the aim of having hundreds of students in the program each year.

The extraordinary response to the launch of the Lyceum Program tells us that America’s young people desperately want this kind of education. American students have a genuine desire to study the ideas and institutions that made America great—ideas that are now disappearing from our college campuses. Imagine your children or grandchildren receiving an education modeled on the education received by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Imagine how America would be transformed by a generation of young people reading Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Smith, Hayek, and Friedman.

We regard the CISC and our Lyceum programs as a new model for reforming and rebooting American higher education. And we aim to spark and foster an educational revolution.

Our long-term goals are to: 1) train thousands of students in the ideas and institutions of a free society; 2) produce top students who will go on to Ph.D. programs in history, political science, philosophy, and economics; 3) train the next generation of thought leaders, including teachers, policy analysts, and journalists; 4) replicate the Lyceum model at other colleges.

Biddle: How far do you think we are from making capitalism a widely known moral ideal? And what happens if we fail to achieve that? How grave is the situation?

Thompson: The Washington Post recently ran an article titled “Millenials Have a Higher Opinion of Socialism Than of Capitalism.” The article reports that in a YouGov survey, respondents younger than thirty were the only age group to rate socialism more favorably than capitalism. Whereas 43 percent of this age group preferred socialism to capitalism, only 32 percent preferred capitalism to socialism. Such data should concern us deeply.

We are witnessing nothing less than an intellectual and moral sea change in American culture. This shift has not occurred because we’ve lost the battle of ideas in think tanks or in economics departments. It has occurred because we’ve lost the more fundamental battles in the humanities and liberal arts departments.

It is imperative that we face up to this cultural shift and ask ourselves the following question: How has this intellectual/cultural shift occurred despite the efforts of the liberty movement—including all the think tanks and economics departments—that has been funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over the past thirty years? Everyone involved in the liberty movement needs to look in the mirror, to reevaluate the nature of the crisis we face, and to rethink our strategies and tactics going forward. This much now seems certain: If the liberty movement is unable or unwilling to pivot and redirect its energies and resources to the battlefield—the humanities and liberal arts departments in the universities—we will lose this war.

I, for one, am not willing to raise the white flag.

Biddle: That is abundantly clear from everything you are doing. And I wish you great success in expanding your reach through the CISC and its various programs.

Let’s wrap up with an indication of where you are in your own research and writing. What are you working on now? And what are your long-term projects?

Thompson: I’m currently writing and relatively close to finishing two books. I’m in the final stages of completing a project on the Declaration of Independence that I started this past summer. I’ve been working on it just about every day since June. Its working title is “America’s Revolutionary Mind: Understanding the Declaration of Independence.” I also have a long-promised, three-quarters finished book manuscript on “The Ideological Origins of American Constitutionalism” that I hope to turn to after Christmas.

After that, I’m hoping to complete two books that are partially written. The working title of one is “Political Philosophy in the Age of Revolution,” and it focuses on the great modern thinkers of revolution, such as Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Burke, Paine, and Tocqueville. The second is on “Our Killing Schools: How America’s Government Schools Are Destroying the Minds and Souls of our Children.”

If I get through all of that, and if I feel wise enough—or foolish enough—I’d like to write a book on the nature of honor and moral character.

Biddle: Well, I’d like to read all of those books—emphatically including that last one. And I suspect you’re more than up to the task.

Thank you for speaking with me today, Brad. And best success with everything you’re working on.

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