The past couple of weeks have seen an interesting renewed interest in what the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, and some of his close advisors have to say about economics and libertarian ideas of government. In response to what might be characterized as a broadside against capitalism and libertarian ideas presented by Cardinal Maradiagas at the Catholic University conference mentioned at that article linked above, there have been a number of thoughtful and well-written pieces from conservative/libertarian writers. Folks as diverse as Kevin Williamson at National Review, Tom Woods, Jr. at LewRockwell.com, and Ed Krayewski, an editor at Reason.com. Equally amusing has been the folks eager to rush to the Cardinal’s defense – a strange mix of liberals and trads who for one reason or another don’t like capitalism or more fruitfully in my opinion, want to make sure Catholics understand the ethical and philosophical implications of Catholic social teaching.
What The Cardinal Gets Right
It should surprise no one at this blog that I think Cardinal Maradiagas is deeply and profoundly mistaken about capitalism and market economies. But I think it is worthwhile to pause first and note that I do agree with the Cardinal about his broader critique of libertarian philosophy. At Catholic University, he said the following:
The worship of the golden calf (Ex 32, 1-15) today is demonstrated by the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an economy without a human face, lacking a real human purpose (cf.55). He denounces the unbridled greed for power and property as well as “ideologies that defend the absolute autonomy of the market and financial speculation” (cf. 56). This denies the state’s right of control, whose intrinsic task is to protect the common good. The idolatry around the market concentrating on the increase of profit, disregards all that is weak and equally disregards environment (cf. 56). Money must serve, not rule (cf.58).
To bring about such change of mindset in economy it needs entrepreneurs practicing solidarity. Such acting Francis designates as “noble work” (203). Thus the Church does by no means despise the rich, as critics from economic circles argue against EG. Francis is also not against the efforts of business to increase the goods of the earth. The basic condition however, is that it serves the common good.
In this connection Francis also talks of the role of politicians. Their work he regards “one of the highest forms of charity, in as much as it seeks the common good” (205). Here he sees- referring to Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate”- the “principle of love” put into practice. We are used to linking this principle of love to the micro-relationships, as friendship, family and small groups, but it must be extended to macro-relationships encompassing the social, economic and political relationships. Francis has a high opinion of politics in as far as it can be oriented towards overcoming the absolute dichotomy between economy and the common good, taking the poor’s needs seriously and guaranteeing fair access to the common goods (cf. 205).
Now I know some of my Protestant friends might object to a particular turn of phrase here or there, but the basic idea in Catholic Social Thought is that government and indeed property itself must serve what is known as the common good. I might agree with critics who argue that it is difficult to figure out how to define the common good, but that doesn’t mean we have an obligation to try (or that we know some basics; think of what the natural law tells us about individuals and families and their need for property, for example our old colleague Ed Feser had some wise things to say about the natural right to property). Indeed, one could argue that all of politics is really just an effort to figure out what the heck is the common good and enacting policies to help individuals and more importantly, families, achieve the common good in their respective polities. As another one of our former colleagues likes to say, there are no such thing as free societies. Which is why someone like Tom Woods, who tries to define libertarianism as the doctrine that “teaches that individuals should avoid violence when interacting with each other, and should resort to force only in self-defense”, makes no sense given that it is a utopian fantasy that we will never disagree with one another and never have to use force to resolve our disputes. Not to mention that Woods, who considers himself Catholic doesn’t adhere to Catholic Social Thought when it comes to the idea of the common good – sometimes we need to use force to ensure our vision of the common good is realized. Does this sound creepy and authoritarian? I agree it can; but that is just the nature of politics – and Catholic Social Thought has a lot of built in ethical and social ideas that help make sure individuals/families are protected as the government tries to work toward the common good (e.g. the idea of subsidiarity, basic natural law ethics – do good and avoid doing evil, etc.)
What The Cardinal Gets Wrong
So the real problem with the Cardinal’s speech is that he spends a lot of time attacking a straw-man version of capitalism and the free-market and gives only passing lip-service to the enormous benefits to the poor that have come about since the industrial revolution. In passing he acknowledges this criticism (i.e. “the number of people suffering from hunger and thirst is far smaller than some twenty years ago. The Pope would be naïve and unable to see that to overcome poverty, market economy and capitalism were absolute indispensable.”) only to quickly move on and dismiss it as not relevant to his argument! Here is what he goes on to say about “globalization” and free markets:
No to an economy of exclusion” (53). With this title Pope Francis already denotes the essential characteristic of today’s economy, which he rejects. He ties in with the Ten Commandments. The commandment “You shall not kill” (Ex 20,13) defines a limit aimed at securing the value of human life. From this biblical view he says “no to an economy of exclusion and to inequality in income” (53). And Francis describes this in concrete terms very clearly: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.” And I think each and any of you may know of similar fates from people in your country.
As a pastor in a very poor country I know how much of daily insecurity is connected with this situation of poverty - insecurity for the children in particular, but also big worries for mothers and fathers that do not know how to get drinking water, food, medical care or school education for their children. Global economy under the conditions of libertarianism excludes such people. Since their point of view a human being is a consumer. If she or he is incapable of consuming this type of economy does not need her of him, can do away with her or him. From this, Francis concludes: “It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underclass or its fringes or its disenfranchised- they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but waste, “rubbish” (53).
There is only one major problem with these incoherent thoughts (besides the fact that they are incoherent): they are utopian. In other words, the Cardinal is not happy that all suffering is eliminated around the world today, right now – in this he sounds just like your standard left-wing, Marxist social planner. Indeed, when he quickly moves from the tangible and real accomplishments of capitalism to such utopian dream you know the game is rigged – the Cardinal is no longer interested in how to promote flourishing for the world’s poor but he is unhappy with the “global economy” and believes (wrongly) that it has resulted in the ills he sees around him in his native Honduras. Here is where the data that folks like Woods and other libertarians marshals is particularly useful – what was the world like 100 years ago for the average man? 200 years ago? Was there more or less health, wealth and flourishing for the typical family around the world? Woods:
The statistics are there for everyone to see: as economic liberalization spread throughout the world, poverty declined. In 1820, 85 percent of the world’s population was living in “extreme poverty.” That had fallen to 50 percent by 1950, 33 percent by the early 1980s, and 18 percent by the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Now I could pick apart more of the Cardinal’s speech, which is full of attacks on silly straw men (hint: no markets around the world are truly free – the United State, Singapore and even Hong Kong tax income and regulate trade and investment – they just have fewer taxes and regulations than a place like Venezuela or France or Egypt), ignores data that would complicate his argument, and based on past experience relies on suspect thinkers.
How to Think About Political Economy from a Catholic Perspective
If the Cardinal is deeply mistaken and indeed if the whole project at Catholic University attacking “libertarianism” is nothing more than a stalking horse for left-wing thinkers to rehash their biases against the market economy, how should we as Catholics think about economics and public policy?
A decent start might be something like Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget – which I can only fault for (a) not going far enough in scaling back the scope and reach of the federal government and therefore restoring power to state and local governments to deal with problems as they see fit and (b) not dealing with the serious ways in which tax policy and other federal programs are hurting rather than helping family formation. Indeed, it is said by many conservative scholars that the best poverty fighting program is a stable two-parent family – does the Cardinal (or the Pope for that matter) discuss the rise of out-of-wedlock births as the key to a “broken economy” – which should be of particular concern of the Church given the moral implications of marriage? If not, we should ask why. Perhaps the Pope and Cardinal Maradiagas just need some basic lessons in economics and the virtues of limited government…it looks like the Acton Institute is running a nice education series right now!
Let me close with some particularly wise words from Professor Feser, who elaborated on his ideas about natural law and property rights in a longer paper he wrote for the journal Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation (2010):
First, what classical natural law theory strictly requires and strictly rules out in the way of practical policy is much less than many partisans of various political persuasions would like. What it strictly requires is a system of private property rights that are robust but not absolute. What it strictly rules out, accordingly, are socialism at one extreme and laissez-faire libertarianism at the other. Between these extremes, though, there is wide latitude for reasonable disagreement among classical natural law theorists about how best to apply their principles, and these disagreements can largely be settled only by appeal to prudential matters of economics, sociology, and practical politics rather than fundamental moral principle.
Second, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that a classical natural law theorist ought always to favor policies that fall exactly midway between these extremes. As any good Aristotelian knows, although any virtue is a mean between opposite extremes, one extreme can sometimes be a more serious deviation from virtue than the other is. Natural law theory takes the family to be the fundamental social unit, which puts it at odds with both the excessive individualism of the libertarian and the collectivism of the socialist. But the family is obviously closer to the level of the individual than it is to the level of the “community” or “society” as the socialist tends to understand those terms, namely, as referring to the entire population of a modern state. Furthermore, while classical natural law theory is concerned both with affirming the right to private property and with meeting the needs of those who lack resources of their own, there is a clear sense in which the former concern is analytically prior, at least where questions of justice (as opposed to charity) are concerned. For the theory starts by affirming the right to property and only afterward addresses the question of how that right might be limited. There is a presumption in favor of a person’s having a right to what he owns even if that presumption can sometimes be overridden. In these ways, it seems clear that the classical natural law approach to property rights is at least somewhat closer to the libertarian or individualist end of the contemporary political spectrum than it is to the socialist or collectivist end.
Third, it needs to be emphasized that the sort of assistance through taxation that I have countenanced here essentially involves emergency aid to those in distress, not only in cases where the Natural Law Proviso strictly requires such aid (e.g., for someone in danger of death by starvation) but also where it merely allows it or where the “public good” functions of government kick in (e.g., for someone unable to afford education or health care). It does not follow from this that government could legitimately provide education and health care to its citizens in general, either through cash payments funded via taxation or (even less plausibly) by directly providing educational and health services itself. While the issues involved here are complex, it seems clear that given its emphasis on private property, the independence of the family, and subsidiarity, there is at the very least a strong presumption implicit in classical natural law theory against the social democratic approach to these matters and in favor of private enterprise. [pages 50-51, footnote omitted]