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.
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.
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.
Which brings us to our fundamental problem: The errors of the Catholic hierarchy regarding the economy are the product of errors in its thinking regarding the state. Catholic thinking about the role of the state has evolved precious little since “render unto Caesar,” even though there is, especially in the Christian world, a blessed shortage of Caesars just now, and has been for some time. The Catholic clergy still operate under the Romans 13 assumption that “the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Paul apparently forgot to add “ . . . and the Electoral College.”) From the old royalist Right to the redistributionist Left, there is an implicit and sometimes explicit belief that the state is a channel for moral expression, whether that expression takes the form of entrenching traditional ideals about family life or or collaborating with the state in the seizure and redistribution of wealth. (Probably worth keeping in mind the clergy’s historical track record here: The last economic idea that it got itself exercised about was Marxism.) But the state is in fact no such thing. It is a piece of social software, a technology, a tool with no more moral significance in and of itself than a hammer. Like a chainsaw, its uses depend on whose will is controlling it — sometimes you get the United Chainsaw Carvers Guild (which, no kidding, exists) and sometimes you get Patrick Bateman. Having failed to reckon with both the epistemic challenges to the various economic-planning orders they dream of (without understanding “how little they know about what they imagine they can design”) and the public-choice analysis of state action, Catholic economic thinkers conclude that they can invent a chainsaw that can cut through wood but not their legs. (Which keeps going wrong and wrong and wrong.) Enthralled by the power of selecting among the millions of choices about what the state should do, they never consider the relatively restricted and plebiean question of what the state actually can do.
This is true even among the so-called conservatives. Consider John Paul II writing on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum:
If Pope Leo XIII calls upon the State to remedy the condition of the poor in accordance with justice, he does so because of his timely awareness that the State has the duty of watching over the common good and of ensuring that every sector of social life, not excluding the economic one, contributes to achieving that good, while respecting the rightful autonomy of each sector. This should not however lead us to think that Pope Leo expected the State to solve every social problem. On the contrary, he frequently insists on necessary limits to the State’s intervention and on its instrumental character, inasmuch as the individual, the family and society are prior to the State, and inasmuch as the State exists in order to protect their rights and not stifle them.
But the state in fact has no way of knowing to any practical effect what the common good even is or how its policies might affect priorities relating to it. The “common good” may seem like a relatively straightforward thing when your theater of operations is the general moral intuition of a saint, but it’s something else when you’re working with 20,000 pages of Affordable Care Act regulations — and that, not refined sentiment, is the realm in which the state operates. Meanwhile, he also expects the state to determine just wages and union work rules, to administer unemployment insurance, to calculate the economic consequences of immigration, and a hundred other things that the state has no capacity for doing. Like Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga and others, he assumes that the state will act in the cause of justice for the poor rather than being the most ruthless and pitiless exploiter of the poor, as history, including the history of this country, very strongly suggests that it will be. “The relevance of these reflections for our own day is inescapable,” the sainted epistolist writes, saying perhaps rather more than he meant to. Put not your trust in princes. Expecting them to deal rationally — to say nothing of morally — with systems of incomprehensible complexity is an error.
“The case against libertarianism”? As usual, the most important part of the question goes unstated and unanswered: “Compared with what?” You can have free trade or you can have trade managed by politicians; you can have free markets or you can have capital managed by politicians; you can have real prices or you can have shortages, waste, and chaos; you can have a society in which people are free — free, among other things, to follow the Gospel to a higher kind of freedom — or you can have . . . something else. “Can you be Catholic and libertarian?” the Washington Post asks. I suppose that it depends on how you intend to fulfill the Lord’s command to feed His sheep — with rhetoric or with bread — and how much faith you put in the proposition that “deep within his conscience, man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.” And it must depend very heavily upon how you feel about the peaceful, cooperative, egalitarian, collaborative, poverty-pulverizing economy that we built when Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga wasn’t looking, the billions it has saved from poverty, and the billions more that it will save. Can you be Catholic and celebrate that? How could you be Catholic and do anything else?
I myself first felt the pull of the Church in a very, very poor place — India, as it happens — that was at the time engaged in the humane project of making itself a considerably less poor place, largely by ignoring the advice of the Hindu versions of Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga. I am grateful to our clergy, and if my criticism herein seems unduly uncharitable to these princes of the Church, it is only because their backward views on capitalism are doing real, material, irreversible damage to the world and especially to the lives of poor people, who are most in need of what only capitalism has to offer. His Eminence may not entirely understand it, but the banks and boardrooms are full of men and women doing more in real terms for the least of these than he is — more, in fact, than he would even understand how to do — and what he proposes mainly is to stand in their way. For God’s sake, stop it.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.