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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 3

September 23, 2022  | 1,151 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion   

A Brief History:  Part Three



My goal in assembling this very amateur and oh-so-brief history is three-fold.  To disabuse everyday conservative Catholics (my friends and neighbors) of the notion economics has nothing to do with morality.  To challenge the contention of intellectual conservative Catholics (the scholars I have been reading for the last thirty years) that free market capitalism is inherently moral.  And lastly to assure both groups (and any other readers who may wander in) that I am not suggesting any form of socialism as an alternative.


Let me also add that while I greatly admire the work of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc from the first half of the 20th century, I am not recommending their pet economic project “Distributism” as an alternative to capitalism.  Mainly because I haven’t the faintest idea how that sort of do-it-yourself program would be applied in today’s world of multi-national conglomerates.


I hope this modest critique does not paint me as an anti-capitalist, since that would be biting the hand that feeds me.  Capitalism, my friends, has been very, very good to me.  But on those rare occasions when I do manage to lift my face out of the bowl of spaghetti, I can’t help but notice it hasn’t been especially good to many of the people around me who are not quite as clever or advantaged as I am.


The fatal flaw in our communal thought process seems to be the widely-held belief that economics is a “science,” with its inner workings guided by “immutable laws.”  Economics is therefore thought to be empirical, like any other science, operating outside the bounds of moral consideration.  But this is a bit of a misnomer when applied to economic behavior.  Any human action that is more than a simple reflex, such as combing one’s hair or shaving one’s beard, is an expression or function of will.  And any act of the will is naturally going to be subject to an evaluation of its impact on others, which constitutes its moral import.  That’s a rudimentary explanation of Thomas Aquinas’ (1225-1274) view of economic behavior.   


Adam Smith (1723-1790), a Scottish moral philosopher by trade, surely had the best of intentions in writing The Wealth of Nations (1776).  But his contention that pursuing self-interest always and everywhere results in societal benefit has proven to be overly optimistic.


It’s not that Smitty’s three basic laws of economics (supply and demand, self-interest, and competition) have been found wanting.  Far from it.  In the two hundred plus years since they’ve been unleased on the world these laws have succeeded in generating an avalanche of economic activity, and been responsible for an unprecedented improvement in the material circumstances of many.  But they don’t tell the whole story.  And libertarians have sort of hid behind these laws to cover their sometimes less-than-stellar behavior.  As Mort Zukerman, the billionaire real estate investor and editor of U.S. News and World Report, stated so blithely on a Sunday morning television panel show a few years back: “We don’t call it greed anymore, we call it self-interest.”


Well, Mort, some of us are still calling it greed.



From my perspective the challenge we face as a society is finding a way to infuse our late-stage version of free-market capitalism with a healthy dose of Christianity.  Or a healthy dose of whatever intellectual tradition you may wish to invoke, provided it has a comparably long history of concern for human dignity and social justice, as expressed in the realm of commerce.  And an equivalent track record of sticking its nose into economic affairs, where most of our movers-and-shakers think it doesn’t belong.


This is exactly what the Catholic popes have been doing non-stop, since 1891.  It’s worth noting their passionate advocacy and running commentary have never risen to the level of an outright condemnation of capitalism.  Instead, they’ve been patiently exploring how capitalism might be made to function more equitably for all concerned.  And they’ve been doing it in what might almost be called a bi-partisan fashion.


Of course, it’s not just popes who have been mining this particular vein. A wide range of thinkers from across the philosophical spectrum have been pondering this very subject for quite some time.   I suppose I am inclined to talk up the work of recent popes in this area for two reasons:  It is now the essence of my faith, the reason I became a Catholic again, at age forty.  And because so few Catholics are aware this extensive body of knowledge even exists.  It’s what might be called the final frontier.


Since it first emerged in 1891 as a response to the rise of capitalism, socialism, and industrialization, modern-day Catholic social teaching on economic justice has always had a broad application.  And it continues to develop as a rich body of doctrine that sets forth a truly Catholic response to modern conditions.  But before we can expect the secular world to pay any attention to what recent popes have written on the subject, Catholics themselves should be expected to tune in. 


Starting with my target audience for this essay:  conservative/libertarian Catholics.  Both the everyday 

parishioner and the ivory tower scholar.  Each are enamored of – or at least far too willing to accept at face value 

– the economic status quo.  These folks are in need of a serious conversion experience when it comes to how the 

economy should operate.


The thoughtful First Things people must cease and desist pretending our economic system is already living up to the demands of papal teaching.  The earnest souls who swear by The Wall Street Journal must get around to finally reading Centesimus Annus (1991) for themselves.  There they will find Pope John Paul II does not give unfettered free-market capitalism his unequivocal blessing, as they have been led to believe.


The humble Benedict Option folks, too, must open themselves up to this important component of papal teaching, and integrate economic behavior into their understanding of what constitutes the moral order.


There are any number of detailed academic accounts from across the philosophical spectrum that can introduce an interested reader to an alternative way of doing economics, while still operating within a capitalist framework.  If you happen to be Catholic, or curious about the Catholic take on the matter, you might want to check out An Economics of Justice & Charity: Catholic Social Teaching, It’s Development and Contemporary Relevance.  Written by Thomas Stork, it was published in 2017 by Angelico Press.  


This very useful book is intended to give readers who have little or no acquaintance with modern-day Catholic social teaching a general overview of its basic documents.  Those include the chief papal social encyclicals and other related works, as well as the social teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).



It’s the kind of comprehensive reference work that can help educate our conservative/libertarian brothers and sisters about authentic Catholic thought as it relates to economic behavior.  



Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 23, 2022

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