Common Good Capitalism and Democracy: Thomas Spragens’s “Capitalism and Democracy: Prosperity, Justice, and the Good Society”
Thomas A. Spragens. Capitalism and Democracy: Prosperity, Justice and the Good Society. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021.   Professor Spragens specializes in modern political thought and theories of liberal democracy and is the author of many noteworthy books. His outstanding oeuvre includes Understanding Political Theory (1976); The Irony of Liberal Reason… The post Common Good Capitalism and Democracy: Thomas Spragens’s “Capitalism and Democracy: Prosperity, Justice, and the Good Society” appeared first on VoegelinView.




Thomas A. Spragens. Capitalism and Democracy: Prosperity, Justice and the Good Society. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021.


Professor Spragens specializes in modern political thought and theories of liberal democracy and is the author of many noteworthy books. His outstanding oeuvre includes Understanding Political Theory (1976); The Irony of Liberal Reason (1981); Reason and Democracy (1990); Civic Liberalism: Reflections on our Democratic Ideals and Getting the Left Right: The Transformation of American Liberalism (2009). Capitalism and Democracy is a very thought-provoking contribution to the broad themes of ‘prosperity, social justice, and democratic ideals’ [vii]. Spragens’ intended audience is ‘the educated public’ and ‘college-level students.’ He believes readers will encounter the issues discussed in courses they may take in ‘economics, political science, moral philosophy, and public policy.’ The text is very readable and throughout the author provides highly useful summaries of the arguments as the investigation unfolds. Indeed, it is quite clear that this work is the fruit of many years teaching in the trenches at the ‘class-front.’ So, his questions and issues are easily identified as coming from his rich experience with students and an educated readership.
At the outset, as I began reading the text, I thought immediately of Michael Novak’s seminal The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism written in 1982. Novak’s perspective was that ‘democratic capitalism’ comprises three fundamental dimensions, three spheres of liberty which are the economic, political and moral-cultural aspects. When we speak of a commercial system or process, we are not just talking about a form of economic life. Indeed, Novak spoke of ‘the silent artillery of our time’ meaning that democratic capitalism’s significant material success is also one of its greatest dangers. It is its Achilles’s heel, meaning that the question is not only one of economic efficiency. The challenge is actually ‘existential.’ So, Spragens’ study sets out to investigate somewhat comparable questions and issues concerning what he terms as ‘laissez-faire economics’ [21]. Naturally, he discusses contemporary problems and outlines some of the approaches and economic policies of former American presidents like John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump. He also mentions, for example, how Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair envisaged the promotion of ‘a “third way” political economy’ as the main task of government administrations [4]. Even the views of the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and his endorsement of ‘democratic socialism’ are noted [8, 30, 118, 155].
In the Introduction, Spragens saliently mentions Kennedy’s Commencement Address given at Yale University in 1962. Kennedy identified the major tasks facing governments then as merely ‘technical problems’ rather than political or ideological concerns [2]. Kennedy and others saw ‘the great debate between laissez-faire capitalism and Marxist-style socialism’ as being essentially over [3]. Of course, in 1992 you also had the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man which Spragens sees as an example of ‘the ascendance [and victory] of a mixed economy run by technocrats’ over Marxist socialist interventionism [3-4].  Fukuyama’s book came hot on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Even today, in the case of China, we equally see the emergence of the debate about what is often termed ‘Capitalism with Chinese characteristics.’ Unlike others, Spragens believes that the debate, in fact, is not over at all. The ‘end of ideology’ approach has in his view ‘had a bumpy ride’ [3]. What is more, Kennedy’s characterization of the issue as just ‘technical’ and not moral and ideological is, he believes, more ‘a wistful hope than an accurate depiction of what is at stake in these debates’ [9]. So, it is this fundamental leitmotif of the need for continued debate on the conditions and limitations of capitalism and democracy which essentially runs throughout this book. Moving on from analysis to assessment, the author argues that questions regarding whether free-market economies and democratic ideals bring about prosperity, are morally acceptable and lead to the overall ‘good society,’ are not easily answered. Using a basketball analogy, Spragens says ultimately there are ‘no slam-dunk answers’ to this whole discussion [164]. Indeed, the writer is to be praised for clearly setting out the ongoing and debatable issues for the contemporary reader. Spragens is aware his academic colleagues will not necessarily find ‘anything new within their own field of expertise’ still they may learn, he hopes, something about the issues and arguments discussed in ‘adjacent fields.’[1]
Chapters One to Four are a thorough-going exploration of important economic, moral, political questions and concerns surrounding ‘capitalism’ and ‘democracy.’ In the first chapter Spragens sets out what he calls the ‘political economy debate’ and asks ‘what brings prosperity?’ In the second chapter he examines the moral issues arising asking: ‘are market outcomes’ morally acceptable? Spragens as a political theorist, in the third part of the study, examines the ‘different democratic traditions that have shaped our understandings’ of what democracy is [108]. He says, we may think ‘we know and generally agree what democracy is’ yet that is not necessarily true [107]. This is likewise true regarding our appreciation of the free-market process. So, Spragens gives a succinct and very insightful survey of varying conceptions of democracy [109-149]. In all, five conceptions of democracy are reviewed. They are civic republicanism, Lockean or Reformation liberalism, Enlightenment liberalism, perfectionist liberalism and the libertarian interpretation of ‘classical liberalism’ [150].
Earlier in Chapter One he sketches out different perspectives on ‘free market economics.’ He says, there is the viewpoint that once you ‘create a free market, establish and enforce protection of property, leave economic enterprises and transactions to voluntary actions and agreements of private citizens’ then good things will only follow [20]. According, to this school of economic thought, these conditions give rise to the ‘magic of free markets’ [21]. In the text Spragens repeats the phrase summing up this approach as: ‘the market is wise, government foolish.’ It is attributed to Richard Armey a former Republican House Leader and libertarian economist [21]. The slogan seems to be a reversal of John Maynard Keynes’s mantra that ‘the state is wise and the market stupid.’ The former mantra is, of course, an enormous simplification of the free market process. Spragens perceptively talks of ‘the blackboard dream world’ that academics on both sides of the debate often inhabit [31]. We should, he says, be honest in acknowledging that the ‘perfect marketplace’ with all the necessary conditions exists ‘nowhere.’ This is because ‘real-world complications’ enter in [35]. And here the author brings the reader through an insightful analysis of the shortcomings of the ‘rational market theory’ [29ff.]. Spragens reminds his readers how in the ‘real’ world we all make mistakes of judgment. This already questions the assumption about ‘proper market functioning,’ that is, the view that ‘economic decision makers [human beings] behave rationally’ [35]. They simply do not. Thus, there is a need for a wider viewpoint. I call this imperfection the ‘o-s’ factor, that is, ‘original sin.’ This is not just a religious belief but there is the unshakeable reality, true of human persons, that we can be mistaken in the choices we make. It equally applies to human action in the marketplace. Indeed, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago reminded readers how ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’ and not ‘through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties.’
Spragens’ view is that this imperfection necessarily requires ‘government regulation or intervention’ because of the ‘myopia created by our own natural passions and cognitive limitations.’ Thomas Hobbes even intuited this, he argues, famously saying that ‘all men are by nature provided of notable multiplying glasses’ increasing their selfishness. But they are bereft of ‘prospective glasses [telescopic lenses] …’ allowing them to see ahead and avoid ‘the miseries that hang over them’ [36]. Interventions in the market economy are not, Spragens says, ‘some “socialist” desire to supplant private markets.’ They are made to remedy ‘market failures caused by the inability of the real world to provide the necessary enabling conditions for the markets to function in practice in the way they should in theory’ [56]. Capitalism and Democracy discusses the different protagonists involved in the discussion about which approach works best in the economy. Spragens admits that he does not have ‘either the space’ or that there is a need to enter ‘macroeconomic theory.’ He mentions classical liberal laissez-faire economists such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and writers such as Ayn Rand; Marx and his followers, the New Deal ‘reform economists such as John Maynard Keynes, and contemporary American economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz’ [59ff.]. In a discussion on the morality or otherwise of market outcomes Spragens surveys the viewpoints of some economists from the Austrian School and its ‘utility-based moral justification’ of free markets [91]. American philosopher Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard—another American of the Austrian School’s outlook—are also discussed in detail. Citing Rothbard’s For a New Liberty Spragens notes how, according to this approach, it is vitally important for each person’s survival that ‘he be free to learn, choose, develop, his faculties…This is the necessary part of human nature. Violent interference with man’s learning and choices is therefore profoundly antihuman: it violates the natural law of man’s needs’ [95].
So, the author gainfully sketches out for the reader the ‘ultimate goals and defining norms’ of these varying traditions [108]. As a rejoinder, he readily admits, that these outlines are ‘somewhat rough-and-ready sketches and that other political theorists might present different ‘ideal types’ [109]. The subheading for Chapter Three is ‘Markets and the Good Society’ [107] and so Spragens wants to examine what are the implications of different democratic ideals for ‘political economy’ [149]. The questions he poses are like ‘mental-tin-openers’ opening the contents of the whole debate. This is an indispensable contribution in itself. He also uses examples of what is at stake throughout the study. Early in the book there is a discussion of ‘The Logic of Laissez-Faire- Markets and their Magic.’ As we have seen he sums up the perspective saying ‘the market is wise, government foolish’ [27]. Examples are given of what he claims are ‘free-market’ fundamentalism, as in the Republicans’ ‘adamant obstruction and continual attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act’ [28]. Readers of this book may very well disagree with Spragens’ views which clearly emerge throughout the text, but at least he gives plenty of practical instances of what he is talking about and shows good powers of summary for his readership.
It is in the final two chapters that Spragens moves away from the various arguments concerning different notions about democracy and their economic consequences to his own assessment of the controversies. His contention is that when it comes to questions about ‘prosperity, justice, and the good society’ there can be ‘no final and definitive judgments’ [11]. The final chapter is: ‘Conclusion: Toward Reasonable Judgments’ [189-234]. In a very broad discussion, he outlines how ‘capitalism benefits democratic societies;’ discusses the ‘political benefits of free markets,’ but he also examines the ‘important economic and social goods that markets’ cannot simply supply [216ff]. Examples here are ‘infrastructure investments’ which ‘protect the lives, liberties, and property’ of citizens. It is the responsibility of government and local authorities to provide these ‘positive externalities.’ These are the conditions upon which free economies are based. Military, law enforcement and transportation expenditure would be instances of such goods. But Spragens notes how ‘the most important part of a country’s infrastructure is the capabilities of its people’ which is called ‘human capital’ [219ff.].  He observes that ‘free markets can and do play a significant role in achieving…democratic goods. But they cannot do it on their own’ [222]. In his final words, he says, that he would argue that ‘a “mixed economy” –strong markets, strong government –provides the best institutional framework for synthesizing the best parts of the several democratic traditions that have shaped contemporary democratic liberalism’ [227].
Spragens stated in an authorial interview with Notre Dame Press that he hopes we can learn from each other even though we come from differing traditions and perspectives. It is his hope that ‘a political economist could, for example, conceivably learn something he or she did not know about certain debates within moral philosophy or democratic theory.’[2] Indeed, I am reminded of Friedrich Hayek’s saying how ‘nobody can be an economist who is only an economist.’ Hayek went on to say: ‘I am even tempted to say that the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.’ Spragens claims his book is modeled on Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman’s study began as a series of lectures at a liberal arts college and so did Capitalism and Democracy. It is Spragens’ wish that the text ‘can be a valuable classroom resource’ while also being ‘an engaging evening read.’[3] It is certainly all these things and much more.
Obviously, there are growth areas for further development in the whole discussion. This is unsurprising since Capitalism and Democracy attempts to cover so much ground in its helpful analysis and assessment. The German economist and social critic Wilhelm Röpke is, I believe, worthy of mention in the whole debate. His early study A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market [1960] opened the hood of the car of the engine on economic life discovering that its foundations are basically ‘person-centric.’[4] The free-market process is ultimately based on the reality of who we are as human beings. The free economy is not an ‘instrument’ but a ‘process’ which allows the ‘flourishing’ of the human person. Despite great challenges there is the ‘hidden stream’ of the truth of the human person at work in economic action. Röpke famously wrote about the necessity of adopting a philosophy of ‘rendering unto the market the things that belong to the market… [but also rendering] unto the spirit what belongs to it.’ He believed that both movements should merge into ‘a new humanism in which the market and the spirit are reconciled in common service to the highest values.’ Thus, Professor Spragens’ study is a most worthwhile contribution in this ongoing discussion. Indeed, in a postscript he observes how ‘the supreme social virtue is “caritas,” the disposition to care about and actively care for our neighbors, whom we are admonished “to love as ourselves”’ [233]. This, indeed, is a perspective taking cognizance of the conditions, limitations and new horizons of meaning in terms of the free economy and its democratic and anthropological import.


[1] An Interview with Thomas A. Spragens, Jr., author of “Capitalism and Democracy,” 24 February, 2021, Notre Dame Press. <>
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] See Wilhelm Ropke, A Humane Economy (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960). Accessible in PDF: <>

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