God, Guts, and Granola

A manifesto for "crunchy conservatives" forgets why self-interest is important.


Historians may some day look back on 2006 as the year of the Great Conservative Freakout. Former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett wrote a book declaring that Dubya is no conservative. The Republican Congress mutinied against the White House. And leaders of the religious right were implicated in the scams of a casino lobbyist.

Into this right-wing meltdown steps Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher, with Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party) (Crown Forum), a book remarkable in several ways, not least of which is a subtitle so long I should earn $10 just by repeating it in this review.

But see? There I go again, thinking like the greedy materialists of the "GOP mainstream" who are the chief objects of Dreher's scorn, to wit: "The tragic flaw of Western economics is that it is based on exploiting and encouraging greed and envy."

Absolutely. Right now, I'm envious of Dreher, whose anti-materialist conservative book is selling like crazy at Amazon.com. But I'm exploiting Rod by reviewing his book for the greedheads at Reason, so that's cool.

What is a crunchy con? Dreher provides a "manifesto" describing those "who stand outside the conservative mainstream" and therefore "can see things that matter more clearly." According to Dreher, "Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character."

I've got no problem with much of Dreher's crunchy agenda. If he wants to eat free-range chicken and organic vegetables, more power to him. Scorn exurban "McMansions" and buy a century-old Craftsman house in a hip in-town neighborhood? No problem. (I can't afford any of that stuff myself, despite my greed.)

Heck, I'm a fundamentalist father of six homeschooled children—the very epitome of crunchiness, according to Dreher. Yet because I believe in economic freedom, he says I don't even exist. Crunchies "orient their lives" toward "serving God, not self," Dreher writes. "By way of contrast, a libertarian conservative sees the point of life as exercising freedom of choice to serve his self-chosen ends."

Look, Rod: My kids have to eat, our minivan needs a new transmission, and my daughter wants to go to college in the fall. Unfortunately, the grocer, the auto mechanic, and the university registrar seem to be libertarians who expect payment in something more substantial than spiritual bliss. So I write for money, not because these are my "self-chosen ends," but because God cursed our mutual ancestor Adam: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread" (Genesis 3:19).

Others have chastised Dreher for praising Hillary Clinton's mantra "it takes a village," but I'm more disturbed by his economic views. Crunchy Cons mentions neither Ludwig von Mises nor F.A. Hayek, and it seems entirely possible that Dreher has never read anything by the free-market Austrian economists or their successors. Instead he relies on Small Is Beautiful author E.F. Schumacher, practically the only economist mentioned in the book.

This is a telling choice. As the economist Mark Skousen has pointed out, Small Is Beautiful has a substantially Malthusian message that "enslaves everyone in a life of 'nonmaterialistic' values." For Skousen, Schumacher's Buddhist economics was a primitive mysticism that "clearly results in a primitive economy." Dreher, no doubt, would dismiss Skousen as a soulless libertarian.

National Review's Jonah Goldberg concluded an anti-crunchy jeremiad by voicing the suspicion that Dreher might eventually follow the leftward footsteps of ex-righties such as Michael Lind and David Brock. I think Goldberg's wrong. Dreher is Catholic, and his anti-market mood echoes the economic gnosticism of encyclicals like Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Dreher might trust the Vatican with his soul, but he should seek economic insights elsewhere, and not from Buddhist economists. I'd suggest starting with St. Leonard Read's gospel of "I, Pencil," the 1958 parable that explains the spontaneous nature of economic order.

Hate the sin, but love the sinner. I'm praying for Dreher, who, thanks to the Invisible Hand, gave me the chance to write this greed-motivated review. God bless you, Rod. Go in peace.