[Alexander Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, and an associate editor of the Journal of Private Enterprise. He is a senior fellow at the Sound Money Project and a senior contributor to Young Voices. His first book, Money and the Rule of Law: Generality and Predictability in Monetary Institutions was published by Cambridge University Press in May 2021. John C. Médaille is the author of The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace and Towards a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More, and an instructor at the University of Dallas. He writes and lectures frequently on economics. Médaille has more than thirty years’ experience in management at large corporations and as a small businessman, and he served five terms as a city councilman in his hometown of Irving, Texas. The following transcript has been edited for space and clarity.]
The American Commons: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us – even in this somewhat truncated format. Now, although your academic specialties lay outside the realm of international conflicts and foreign policy, you have consistently demonstrated through your published works that you are remarkably adept thinkers. Your approaches are often inter-disciplinary. We would love to pick your brains, as interested observers, regarding the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
In the simplest possible terms, how might you summarize the present Ukraine-Russia Crisis to a young child?
Médaille: That’s an interesting way to frame the question. Normally, one would like to use such a question to display one’s deep expertise on matters historical, geopolitical, military, theological, etc. But I think in this case, the simplest explanation, the explanation that even a child could understand, is the best: Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine and will do anything to get it. It really is that simple.
Of course, one can certainly cite “causes” such as the shared history of Russia and Ukraine or the advance of NATO into Eastern Europe, and many other things besides. However, I believe all of these things function as excuses rather than as “reasons,” for the simple reason that none of the reasons cited can make this war reasonable. A free Ukraine poses no more threat to Russia than does a free Poland or a free Romania; the very idea that Ukraine could “threaten” Russia is preposterous.
If we really want to understand the war, I would not look to history or geopolitics, but to psychology. Vladimir wants to be remembered as the monarch that restored the old Imperial boundaries or the Soviet Empire. He wants history to record him as another Peter the Great, but he is more likely to be remembered as another Ivan the Terrible. Or even, given the lack of restraint displayed by the Russian army, another Vlad the Impaler.
The American Commons: From your vantage point, how do you anticipate the sudden onset of war between Russia and Ukraine to affect life for North Americans?
Médaille: Again, this is an interesting question. The last war that really “affected” America was the Vietnam war, which ended almost 50 years ago. America has fought many wars since then, in fact, we have been at war someplace the entire time, with most of the “wars” failing to get much airtime. And the ones that did get airtime did so mainly as theater rather than as requiring a real national commitment. But Vietnam was the last war fought by the nation, in the sense that every young man was subject to being drafted to fight the war, and so it was a constant subject of “conversation” for the men and women of my generation; not a day went by when we didn’t debate the war. We had reasons to do so; about 25% of the army in Vietnam consisted of men drafted for the task, and many more enlisted rather than be drafted, as that allowed you to have a choice of both branch and specialty. Now, our wars are fought by a small, professional army of volunteers, whom we often praise but mostly forget. I very much doubt that most of my students spend much time debating Afghanistan or the now forgotten war in Iraq (both of them).
But this war might be different, for the simple reason that Putin has a lot of support among those, mostly on the Right, who have become disenchanted with the tedium of politics and look to “strong” leaders like Trump, an admirer of Putin, to “solve” all of our problems by the force of personality. Indeed, there is a political movement, called “integralism” (among Catholics) or “dominionism” (among Protestants), which looks to a “strong executive” ruling by decree. The foremost proponent of integralism in the United States is the Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule, who argues in books such as The Executive Unbound and Law and Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State, that America can only be saved by a dictatorial government dedicated to restoring “Christian” values.
Hence there are effects on our domestic politics, effects that can only be exacerbated if, for example, we are called upon to pay even higher prices for energy – or if, God forbid, we are called upon to fulfill our NATO obligations. Indeed, there is every possibility that Trump, or a Trump-clone like DeSantis, could be the next president. And given that periodic financial collapses, like 2008, are a constant feature of capitalism, such a collapse could well serve as an excuse for a Putin-style dictatorship, especially if Putin is successful in Ukraine, which he is certainly likely to be without Western intervention.
The American Commons: We often talk about the “hidden costs of war” – given your own field of study, do you foresee any surprising consequences stemming from the conflict?
Salter: Unfortunately, the costs will be quite visible! Energy prices are already going up and will probably continue. It doesn’t matter that a small fraction of U.S. oil imports is from Russia. Oil prices are set in global markets. When one source of energy gets more expensive, people readily switch to cheaper sources. But that boosts demand for cheaper sources. Result: some energy prices going up results in all energy prices going up. Expect this to make our ongoing inflationary episode worse.
Médaille: The defining characteristic of “surprise consequences” is that they are unforeseen. Still, one can imagine some possibilities. For example, one can see the rise of an alternative trade currency as the West’s reaction drives Putin to align with China in a new financial union based on the Renminbi. Or perhaps a victory in Ukraine will encourage an attack on Taiwan, facing the West in general and America in particular with an opportunity to either demonstrate the determination to defend the current world order, or to abandon it to newer forces.
And of course Russia is a petro-state; that is its main source of income. A block on Russian energy could have severe consequences to Western economies. Or, they could spur the conversion to alternate sources of energy and more modest lifestyles. That would certainly be a “surprise” consequence.
Further, there is the possibility that a successful Putin will move to absorb other former member of the Soviet/Tsarist empire, especially those outside the protection of NATO, like Moldova or the Republics between the Black and the Caspian Seas.
The American Commons: How do conflicts like this typically effect money markets, currency stability, etc?
Salter: The dollar and euro markets will be okay. I don’t envy the Russian financial sector right now! They’re going to have to find an alternative payments system. Short-run, this is going to hurt them lots. Longer-run, they now have a stronger incentive to work with e.g. China to develop payments systems that are relatively insulated from Western sanctions. If they’re successful, the Western nations will lose an arrow in their quiver to discipline authoritarian abuses.
The American Commons: How do conflicts like this typically effect the business world?
Salter: Energy, transportation, and other crucial input costs will rise. Stuff will get even more expensive, because it’s become even harder to produce. Will this be enough to swamp our ongoing economic recovery? I doubt we’ll go completely off the rails. But businesses already have a tough time sorting out logistical problems and finding workers. It’s not going to get easier very soon, sadly.
The American Commons: Your Christian faith has notably influenced your approach to scholarship in your field. In what way does the Christian tradition change the way we should think about the Ukraine-Russia conflict?
Salter: As an Orthodox Christian, I can do no better than quoting the Great Litany of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.”
Médaille: We are so in the habit of separating faith and politics that the question itself becomes problematic. However, the “separation” is impossible; what we think about political, social, and economic order is necessarily grounded in some “faith”; it can never be reduced to political or economic “science.” However, most of us draw our political and economic “faiths” from Liberalism, which has become the default position, even (or especially) among Christians. This is not entirely a bad thing, since Liberalism, as I have argued elsewhere, is largely a development of Medieval Christian polity that has become secularized. But to the question of how we should think about it, I think it should be framed entirely within the “just war” tradition.
The American Commons: You have written extensively about an approach to economics often referred to a “Distributism.” Perhaps the question sounds angular, but how do the principles of Distributism shape the way that we think about the Ukraine-Russia conflict?
Salter: Distributism is motivated by Catholic social teaching. That means for distributists, the dignity of the human person and the common good are non-negotiable. “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken” (Micah 4:4). Whatever the allure of national greatness, wars of aggression cannot be reconciled with humane living. No man is secure in what is his by right when we choose the way of violence over the way of peace.
Distributist principles are a threat to grand political projects of all kinds. As Chesterton said, “Ahab has not his kingdom so long as Naboth has his vineyard.” Ambition favors Ahab. Justice favors Naboth. The LORD is just.
Médaille: Briefly, the question is whether the war is a violation or a restoration of subsidiarity. Distributism pushes most economic and political decisions to the lowest level possible, but sometimes the “lowest” proper level for a decision is the national state, international authorities, or even imperial ones. In each case, the higher level must perform some function necessary to the lower level which that level could not reasonably perform on its own. For example, I don’t think my city can bear the brunt of national defense or the maintenance of a continental highway system, so it must rely on higher levels. So the practical question, from the standpoint of the Distributist, is whether Putin can provide some function for the Ukrainians that they could not provide for themselves.
I very much doubt that the answer would be in the affirmative. And if it fails the test of subsidiarity, it will certainly fail the test of solidarity.
The American Commons: What are some questions that you feel should be asked, but you have yet to see addressed in the mainstream of the Ukraine-Russia discourse?
Médaille: It may seem like a contradiction to everything I’ve said, but Russia does have some legitimate in interests in the Eastern part of Ukraine, and in the Crimea. The West acquiesced in the occupation of the Crimea, and the situation in the East requires some sort of international resolution.
The American Commons: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today!
[You can read our interview with David Koyzis here.]