Something strange happened in Washington last week: A panel of Catholic intellectuals and clergy, led by His Eminence Oscar Andrés Maradiaga, was convened to denounce a political philosophy under the headline “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism.” The conference was mainly about free-market economics rather than libertarianism per se, and it was an excellent reminder that the hierarchy of the Church has no special grace to pronounce upon matters of specific economic organization. The best that can be said of the clergy’s corporate approach to economic thinking is that it is intellectually incoherent, which is lucky inasmuch as the depths of its illiteracy become more dramatic and destructive as it approaches coherence.
The Catholic clergy is hardly alone in this. There is something about the intellectually cloistered lives of religious professionals that prevents them from engaging in anything but the most superficial way with the 21st-century economy. Consider Tricycle, the American Buddhist review, which periodically publishes hilariously insipid economic observations — e.g., the bracingly uninformed writing of Professor Stuart Smithers of the University of Puget Sound religion department, whose review of Conscious Capitalism by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and Raj Sisodia contains within it a perfect distillation of fashionable economic antithought. Like Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, he writes about the “structural” problems of capitalism, but gives no evidence at all that he even understands what that structure is. Unfortunately, relatively few do.
“As Marx pointed out,” Professor Smithers writes, “capital is full of contradictions. Capital not only creates wealth, value, and jobs — it also destroys wealth, value, and jobs. Those ‘wondrous technologies’ also manifest as wrathful deities, efficiently eliminating or reducing the need for labor.” The implicit economic hypothesis here is that producing a certain amount of goods more efficiently — in this case, with less labor — makes the world worse off. (“Why not use spoons?
”) The reality is the opposite, and that is not a matter of opinion, perspective, or ideology — it is a material reality, the denial of which is the intellectual equivalent of insisting on a geocentric or turtles-all-the-way-down
model of the universe.
The increasingly global and specialized division of labor and the resulting chains of production — i.e., modern capitalism, the unprecedented worldwide project of voluntary human cooperation that is the unique defining feature of our time — is what cut the global poverty rate in half in 20 years. It was not Buddhist mindfulness or Catholic homilies that did that. In the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, neither of those great religious traditions, nor anything else that human beings ever came up with, made a dent in the poverty rate. Capitalism did. One of the great ironies of our times is that so many of the descendents of the old Catholic immigrant working class have found themselves attracted to an American Buddhism that, with its love of ornate titles, its costumes, its fascination with apostolic succession, and its increasingly coddled professional clergy, is a 21st-century expression of Buddhism apparently committed to transforming itself — plus ça change! — into 15th-century Catholicism. Perhaps it should not be entirely surprising that it has embraced the same intellectual errors.
Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga and likeminded thinkers, stuck as they are in the hopelessly 19th-century distributist model of economic analysis, apparently are incapable of thinking through the implications of their own dogma. The question of how certain goods are “distributed” in society is a second-order question at best; by definition prior to it is the question of whether there is anything to distribute. To put it in Christian terms, all of the great givers in Scripture — the Good Samaritan, the widow with her mite, Joseph of Arimathea — had something to give. If the Good Samaritan had been the Poor Samaritan, with no resources to dedicate to the stranger’s care, then the poor waylaid traveler would have been out of luck. All the good intentions that we may muster are not half so useful to a hungry person as a loaf of bread.
Those who put distribution at the top of their list of priorities both make the error of assuming the existence of some exogenous agency that oversees distribution (that being the Distribution Fairy) and entirely ignore the vital question of what gets produced and by whom. Poverty is the direct by-product of low levels of production; the United States and Singapore are fat and happy with $53,101 and $64,584 in per capita economic output, respectively; Zimbabwe, which endured the services of a government very much interested in the redistribution of capital, gets to divide up $788 per person per year, meaning that under circumstances of perfect mathematical equality life would still be miserable for everybody. Sweden can carve up its per capita pie however it likes, but it’s still going to be 22.5 percent smaller than the U.S. pie and less than two-thirds the size of Singapore’s tasty pastry. You cannot redistribute what you don’t have — and that holds true not only for countries but, finally, for the planet and the species, which of course is what globalization is all about. That men of the cloth, of all people, should be blind to what is really happening right now on the global economic scale is remarkable, ironic, and sad. Cure one or two people of blindness and you’re a saint; prevent blindness in millions and you’re Monsanto.
Unless His Eminence et al. have come up with a way to apply something akin to a literal loaves-and-fishes model to the global economy — and I’m going to go ahead and predict that that isn’t happening, no matter what color the alleged economist’s hat is — then production precedes consumption. “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said, but in the capitalist world, that simply is not true — there is no poverty in the capitalist world comparable to poverty in the early 18th century, much less to the poverty that was nearly universal in Jesus’ time. Our people are clothed, fed, and housed, and the few shocking exceptions, as with the case of the neglected mentally ill, are shocking because they are exceptions — and those are not economic failures but political failures.