Category: Publications

Rediscovering Political Economy is the title of a book recently published by Lexington Books, edited by Joseph Postell and Bradley C.S. Watson, and including an essay by Fr. Robert Sirico. The Spring 2012 issue the Journal of Markets & Morality will feature a review of the book by Tim Barnett, an associate professor of political science at Jacksonville State University. Since that’s too long to wait for Prof. Barnett’s astute observations, we post here an edited and abridged version of the full review.

It is not easy to find a book on political economy that starts as well as this one does, with real insights on themes that matter!
The book rises from ten papers presented by notable economic thinkers at a conference co-sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Political and Economic Thought (at St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA). Allegedly, each essay aims to contribute something to the reuniting of economics with political and moral principles, especially in the context of the U.S. Constitution. This is an admirable goal. Still, as the book’s organizers point out, economics as a discipline has little capacity to adjudicate between competing presuppositions that underlie the political economy discourse. There is little in the text to suggest that such capacity has suddenly grown. Nonetheless, it is good that the conference participants have provided interested parties an opportunity to evaluate the observations, rationales and assumptions that inform their endeavor to reseed the logic of moral principles into the field of political economy.

Robert Sirico begins the book’s first chapter by observing an instability in the social order arising from a defense of liberty on the ground of efficiency rather than a legitimate normative basis. He argues that the management of a libertarian society without reference to morality will ultimately prove injurious to the liberty itself (4). While Sirico does not reference Theodore Roosevelt in this context, the idea calls to mind President Roosevelt’s famous dictum that sweeping attacks upon all men of means, without regard to whether they do well or ill, become inevitable if decent citizens permit rich men whose lives are corrupt to domineer in swollen pride.

Sirico then dissects political economy’s torn sinews with the dexterity of a surgeon. He declares, “In any market, the kinds of goods and services producers provide reflect the values of the consuming public” (4). In other words, the free market model is not inherently good or evil: It is as good and wise as the minds and hearts of those who create market demand and consume the supply. Sirico continues, “That is both the virtue and the vice of the consumer sovereignty inherent in market transactions where the consumer is king. Where the values of the buying public are disordered, the products available in the market will be disordered as well” (4).

The argument to this point is splendid and the core ramification inescapable: Where cultural drift results in foolish consumer demand, an economy and polity will sink as a consequence. Casting Sirico’s argument as a baseball game, two runners are now on base with no outs. Unfortunately, Sirico’s batting line-up does not bring these particular runners home, at least in my reading. Instead of arguing that regulatory guardrails must be erected as a lesser evil when sobriety is no longer behind the wheel on the free market highway of life, Sirico moves to a discussion of other matters such as rights versus privileges–useful corollaries but not the same thing as scoring the runners on base. Happily, Sirico scores a lot of other runners in ensuing innings. The result is a chapter brimming with worthwhile reflections and artful prose.

The second chapter, by John D. Mueller, involves an exploration of the notion that natural law’s teachings are sound enough to ensure that neoscholastic economists will win the political economy debate in the end. Empirical observations will build the case for Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas (35). As a result, the idea that economics can be efficient without a moral compass will decline.

In chapter three, Alan Levine examines the historicity of the debate over the merits of commerce. In the following chapter Samuel Hollender argues that Engels and Marx never provided an adequate exposition of their vision of a communist organization. Many readers are likely to find Hollender’s interposition of Adam Smith the more interesting part of his essay, as Hollender has Smith addressing the moral hazard that arises from interest rates kept artificially low for too long – a matter of continuing salience.

Chapter five finds Bruce Caldwell extolling the wisdom of Hayek, Austrian insights represented as potentially curative for what ails us in these trying times. Readers are reminded that markets are dynamically self-adjusting, so government is best kept small–a point I would much rather dine with than the idea that positive unintended benefits arise in the aftermath of ‘markets gone wild’ (my indelicate phrase, not his).

Chapters six and seven (Richard Wagner and Thomas West, respectively), show the prospect of integration with Robert Sirico’s chapter. In explaining how leveling (egalitarianism) puts the general welfare at risk, Wagner posits “raising” as a superior alternative. One could argue that the connectivity between Sirico and Wagner is found in the idea that free markets arising from prudent culture will be morally fair markets, thus raising by a natural dynamic those who contribute appropriate value to the sustainable public good (i.e., the centerpiece of a virtuous national ethos). The outcome justifies fewer resources for program driven redistribution; hence, a smaller government footprint. Arguably, West’s examination of the Founding Era undergirds this theme with the observation that sound government protects people’s right to acquire property, not merely to hold it.

In the three chapters that close out the book Peter McNamara seeks common ground between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians; Joseph Postell justifies a limited government superintendency over the economy; and Larry Schweikart warns that America’s fiscal and monetary policies will bring a day of reckoning.

The collection of essays is best viewed as a road toward the rediscovery of political economy. One travels the road and gains some understanding of the ideas that will belly up to the negotiating table when it comes time to put the national Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Until then, one should occasionally dust off a copy of David Ricci’s 1984 The Tragedy of Political Science, and console oneself with the realization that a political economy lacking suitable morality is an invitation for eventual replacement by a better one. Granted, the way higher will have detours and not be easy. Still, days of rebuilding usually follow days of collapse. Rediscovering Political Economy is a useful book for understanding the polity’s ongoing demise as well as its prospects for eventual rebirth.

“You’ve lost a good opportunity to shut up.” So said French president Nicolas Sarkozy to UK prime minister David Cameron as an instance of what BusinessWeek has dubbed “Europe’s Insult Diplomacy.” But it’s a retort that strikes me as equally relevant for the pontifications that pour forth from ecumenical officials in Geneva on almost every topic under the sun.

The latest instance of imprudence in the cause of desperately seeking relevance is the claim from Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), that the reformer John Calvin “would have been in the streets of New York or London with a placard,” joining the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I explore the dynamics of what I call the “ecumenical-industrial complex” in my book released last year, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. One of the points I make in the book is that ecumenical officials like Nyomi cannot seem to resist the opportunity to weigh in on contemporary political and economic issues as if there is a single, univocal, and absolute Christian position.

The claim that Calvin and OWS are kindred is precisely the kind of obfuscatory rhetoric that we don’t need from ecclesiastical representatives, whether at the congregational, denominational, or ecumenical level. On the constructive side, in Ecumenical Babel I make the case that the ecumenical movement, rather than making absurd claims akin to that of Calvin and OWS, might “decline to issue doctrinaire and casuistical proclamations about this or that particular policy. Instead, the ecumenical movement would understand its role in this sphere to provide broad guidance rather than particular judgments.”

The upshot of such a change would be that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness would place correspondingly less emphasis on direct political engagement and advice…and correspondingly greater emphasis on providing moral guidance to the church.” As opposed to saying that JC (whether John Calvin or Jesus Christ) “would have been in the streets of New York or London,” as Nyomi claims, instead “the character of ecumenical statements on social issues…would be far more restrained and chastened than we find today.”

But as long as the mainline ecumenical movement continues to conflate unity with unanimity on particular social questions, don’t expect reform to happen anytime soon.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
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In this week’s commentary, I draw on some of the insights contained in the forthcoming translation of a section of Abraham Kuyper’s work on common grace, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, to discuss the relationship between work and the natural world after the fall. (You can pre-order Wisdom & Wonder today and be among the first to get the book when it is released next week.)

I found especially pertinent the insights offered by a Michigan fisherman Ed Patnode, who describes his entrepreneurial turn into the charter fishing business:

He decided to start running a charter boat about six years ago. Back then, he used to go fishing every weekend with a group of friends.

“It got to be expensive each weekend going. And so we were just trying to see ‘Hey, how can we cut our losses.’ It was really, really how do we get out there and get other people to help us pay?” (laughs)

And with a lifetime of experience, maybe even obsession, with catching fish, he certainly knew enough to do it.

The bit I used in this week’s commentary, “Work, the Curse, and Common Grace,” is what Ed says next:

But as much as he knows about fish, there’s still more he wishes he could know.

“You know we’d be rich if we could tap into the mind of a fish, just get that fish to talk and tell us why do you like pink, or can you tell us what days you’re going to bite pink on and what other factors are influencing your decision to bite this pink lure today.”

I bring in Kuyper’s musings about how this kind of insight into the nature of animals was something we lost in the fall. Common grace works to provide us with some way to learn about things in this world, so we are not completely blind or helpless. But even so, things are not the way they were or the way they will be after the Christ’s return and the consummation.

This is a perfect occasion to tell my own “big” fish story. As a boy I would visit my dad and step-mother during the summers here in Michigan, and my step-mom’s family had a cottage on a small lake. Early one morning my dad and I took the small rowboat out to the other side of the lake, where the mist was still coming off the water. As we neared the other shore, I readied my first cast of the day. As soon as it hit the water, BANG! I got a hit.

I was so excited, but I didn’t really know what to do, but I remember working that fish back and forth to the boat. It seemed like it took forever, and my arms sure were tired. But when we hauled that fish in I couldn’t believe it. It was a 4.5 pound largemouth bass, somewhere in the range of 20″, as I recall. I was so happy that I wanted to head right back in and show everyone. Wiser heads prevailed, as it was still very early in the morning and no one else was awake. Even so, as far as I was concerned my fishing day was done after that first cast, and I probably scared all the other fish away with the excited tapping of my legs, waiting for time to pass so we could go back with the fish. To this day that’s the best fish I ever caught.

In an editorial in a previous issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), I examined developments in research methodology, particularly with an eye toward digital research tools. One of the tools I highlighted was a project that I had some involvement with, the Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL). The PRDL has launched a new version today at it’s own website, and includes a substantive move from bibliography to database, as well as expansive coverage of over 1,900 authors.

I participated in a roundtable discussion yesterday at the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, where we talked about some of the trends and challenges involved with digital tools. The PRDL was very useful to me recently as I was working on editing a new publication of a translation of a text by Juan de Mariana (1536-1624), A Treatise on the Alteration of Money. The original translation was undertaken some years ago by Fr. Brannan, and I did not have a copy of the treatise by Mariana easily at hand to do some comparison. So naturally I went over to PRDL to see if the original was listed among the site’s contents.

Mariana’s treatise, De Monetae mutatione, was one of seven treatises (treatise #4, actually) published together in 1609 in Cologne. Via the PRDL I quickly found a version available from Google Books and downloaded it. As I opened the document, however, I found that the pages of the fourth treatise seemed to be missing from the PDF. When I looked at the title page, I found that the contents listing for De Monetae mutatione was crossed out, and there was in fact a signature affixed to the document noting that the treatise had been expurgated.

As Stephen Grabill observes in his annotations to the new translation, Murray Rothbard recounts the “fascinating saga surrounding Mariana’s De monetae mutatione” in his Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. As Grabill writes,

Mariana’s tract, which attacks King Philip II’s debasement of the currency, led the monarch to haul the aged (seventy-three-year-old) scholar-priest into prison, charging him with the high crime of treason against the king. He was convicted of the crime, but the pope refused to punish him. He was released from prison after four months on the condition that he would remove the offensive passages in the work, and would promise to be more careful in the future.

King Philip, however, was not satisfied with the pope’s punishment. So the king ordered his officials to buy up every copy they could find and to destroy them. After Mariana’s death, the Spanish Inquisition expurgated the remaining copies, deleting many sentences and smearing entire pages with ink. All non-expurgated copies were put on the Spanish Index, and these in turn were expurgated during the course of the seventeenth century. As a result of Philip’s censorship, the existence of the Latin text remained unknown for 250 years, and was rediscovered only because the Spanish edition, which Mariana himself had translated into Spanish, was incorporated into a nineteenth-century collection of classical Spanish essays.

Unfortunately for me, the censorship would have lasting effects, as the copy first available to me from Google Books was one of those that had been expurgated. I was relieved when PRDL alerted me to another copy digitized by Google. I went to the site and found the listing on the table of contents intact. So again I downloaded the file, assured that my efforts had met with success. But as I examined the file, I found the same set of pages to be missing again. As I looked back at the front matter, I found that a similar note was appended on the verso side of the contents page, noting that the treatise De Monetae mutatione had been expurgated in 1632. The text was expurgated and I was exasperated.

But fortunately I did know that Google Books has some quirks, and so I went to the book’s “About” page and located yet another digitized copy under “other editions.” While the other two originals were from Spanish libraries, this third file was held by the Austrian National Library. Lo and behold, this third time was the charm, as the Austrian library’s copy had not been mutilated.

This is just one instance of the promise that digital research tools and methods allows us, in many cases recovering long-lost texts, or undoing the machinations of long-defunct political regimes. The fruits of this labor can be found in the current and future generations of scholarship, which have the task to make full and responsible use of these possibilities. To do your part to make sure that Philip II doesn’t get the last say in mutilating both money and Mariana’s text, purchase a copy of A Treatise on the Alteration of Money, the first installment of our new Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law series, today.

This past Sunday one of the songs in our worship service was the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”


Here’s the first stanza:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

If the new translation of Abraham Kuyper, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, were to have a companion hymn, this might well be the perfect candidate.

Religion & Liberty’s summer issue featuring an interview with Metropolitan Jonah (Orthodox Church in America) is now available online. Metropolitan Jonah talks asceticism and consumerism and says about secularism, “Faith cannot be dismissed as a compartmentalized influence on either our lives or on society.”

Mark Summers, a historian in Virginia, offers a superb analysis of religion during the American Civil War in his focus on the revival in the Confederate Army. 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict. With all the added attention the conflict is receiving, a piece focusing on faith is especially poignant. “The Great Harvest” by Summers notes that the revival was “homespun,” meaning one that was organic in nature and spread among the common soldier.

I offer a review of Darren Dochuk’s new book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. Dochuk tells the tale of the great migration from the American South to Southern California. This development ultimately transformed evangelicalism and national politics. It also helped in wedding many religious conservatives to economic conservatism.

“The Separation of Church and Art” is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art by Abraham Kuyper. Available for the first time in English, Christian’s Library Press will publish Kuyper’s work in November. The Acton Institute has played a tremendous role in the translation project. You can find out more about that role here.

The “In The Liberal Tradition” figure is American Founder Oliver Ellsworth. Ellsworth, a strong proponent of federalism was instrumental in the shaping of our Republic. American President John Adams called Ellsworth “the firmest pillar” of the federal government during its earliest years. In a new biography about Ellworth, author Michael C. Toth argues that Ellsworth’s Reformed faith not only shaped his personal life but the model of federalism he supported also had deeply religious roots within Connecticut.

There is more content in this issue. Past issues of Religion & Liberty are also available online.

In the latest issue of Religion & Liberty, Acton Institute executive direct Kris Mauren answers the question, “Why does the Acton Institute publish the Journal of Markets & Morality?”

For more, check out my interview with Micheal Hickerson of the Emerging Scholars Network.

You can support the work of the journal by getting a subscription for yourself or recommending a subscription to your library of choice.