On Sept. 8, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg appeared live on the EWTN network to discuss “St. Thomas More: Saint, Scholar, Statesman, Martyr.” The show was hosted by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
Forgive the blunt title of this blog post, but the point needs to be made in no uncertain terms.
The Zenit News Agency has interviewed John Medaille, author of Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More, which calls for a direct if brief (more later, perhaps – I have yet to read the book) response from this Catholic defender of the market economy.
Whether or not Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate is a boon to “alternative economics” as the Zenit interviewer claims, the market economy has come under attack from just about every corner since the global financial crisis of 2008. It’s easy enough to kick a system when it’s down, even when there’s plenty of blame to go around. Some critics, however, have been suffering through many decades of capitalist triumphalism to get their revenge. Among these are the distributists.
As I’ve noted in some recent blog posts, distributism has its origin in the writings of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc who, for the brilliant Catholic apologists they were, seem to have known very little about economics. As the Zenit interviewer remarks, “many are skeptical, and believe distributism is simply romantic agrarianism, or worse, just an aesthetic sensibility, without any real practical solutions.”
Identified as a “neo-distributist,” Medaille wants to make up for the deficiencies of his fathers. He takes economics more seriously and argues that distributism is the “truly” free-market system compared to capitalism or socialism, though it should be remembered that Chesterton and Belloc also supported distributism in the name of economic liberty, private property and less interference from the state. Be that as it may. The question is ultimately whether distributism, neo- or paleo-, lives up to its claims as an “alternative” or “third-way.”
Medaille starts by critiquing the related notions that economics is a physical, rather than a human, science and that economics has nothing to do with ethics, especially justice. I don’t know who he is debating here. When I studied economics as an undergrad at a large secular university and worked as an international economist for the U.S. government, I may have come across such types, though no one was so brash to say that ethics didn’t matter. But it definitely does not describe those of us who appreciate Austrian economics and promote a Catholic understanding of the market economy.
More to the point, the question is how economics as a human science is to “practice” justice. How exactly can an economic system ensure justice between a buyer and a seller who come to a common agreement? Doesn’t the virtue of justice require just persons? And isn’t legal justice the purview of the state that legislates against force, fraud, theft, etc.?
For an example, Medaille says that, in matters of trade, foreign financing of domestic consumption is impoverishing to both parties and presumably unjust. While I could be convinced of its imprudence or undesirability in certain situations, I fail to see why or how such financing is always and everywhere unjust and therefore deserving of a blanket condemnation.
Medaille then states his case for distributism as the truly free-market system compared to capitalism and socialism. He makes the obvious point that any system that concentrates power is bound to leave individuals worse off and less free. Socialism is clearly guilty as charged but does capitalism necessarily lead to greater concentrations of economic power? The problem of concentrated power mainly occurs when corporations and the state work together – a.k.a. corporatism – which hardly describes a market economy worth defending and may even resemble the distributist model.
A truly free-market economy must allow free competition; it is only when capitalists collude to restrict competition that power is concentrated and freedom restricted. Yet this is precisely what guilds seek to do. Or have the neo-distributists distanced themselves from Chesterton and Belloc’s defense of guilds and critique of competition and advertising? I cannot tell.
Medaille is on firmer ground when he reminds us that the government should be doing less and that government interference often leads to the concentration of power. But he then ruins his case by looking to the state and trade associations to collude, which seems to be acceptable so long as it all happens at a local level.
Medaille explicitly proposes using tax policy, property law, licensing authorities and other political means to the advantage of some over others. But how is local government somehow exempt from draconian or overly restrictive interference? In fact, the history of republican government is full of such examples, especially in cases where an obstinate minority asserts its rights against the majority. The concentration of power often begins “small”, “locally” or “popularly” and grows from there; see Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom for a well-known demonstration of the phenomenon.
In the end, I am left wondering just what the distributists think is so good about economic freedom. As far as I can tell, it is not about using our God-given skills and talents through the division of labor for the benefit of all, and I see absolutely no mention of poverty reduction, longer life expectancies, medical and technological advances, the social virtues encouraged by commerce, and other goods brought about by economic freedom. The distributist vision of economic liberty and private property seems to feed a misguided notion of self-sufficiency and pride that is as antithetical to Catholic social teaching as materialism and consumerism.
Furthermore, the neo-distributist case for free markets is riddled with the same contradictions and problems that plagued its predecessor. Making the case against socialism and a mythical laissez-faire state of affairs is simply not good enough these days. Instead of urging serious Catholics and others who take ethics seriously to seek new economic models or “lifestyles,” why not encourage them to understand how markets work and what moral freedom and responsibility require from us as citizens and in the marketplace?
In an audio commentary produced for Ave Maria Radio and Catholic Exchange, Paul Kengor says it is “incumbent among Catholics to learn more about this blessed concept of subsidiarity.” As part of this education, he recommends “The Principle of Subsidiarity” by David A. Bosnich in Acton’s Religion & Liberty quarterly.
Here’s some of what Kengor, a professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, had to say:
I’m convinced, from study after study, and years of observing public policy, from the New Deal to the Great Society, that addressing poverty in the narrow federal, collectivist way preached by modern progressives—in the language of “social justice”—is counter-productive, fostering rather than lessening dependency.
In fact, the long experience of economies shows that those titled toward collectivism—to a single central government—become so unproductive and lacking in prosperity that they can’t produce the very wealth that progressives want to redistribute in the first place. That’s the self-defeating danger that social-justice engineers face as they shift private charity to a federal collective.
Listen to Kengor’s audio commentary, “Subsidiarity Over Social Justice,” and access the transcript, at Catholic Exchange.
When it comes to the sophistication of its coverage of religious affairs, the Economist is better than most other British publications (admittedly not a high standard) which generally insist on trying to read religion through an ideologically-secularist lens. Normally the Economist tries to present religion as a slightly more complex matter than “stick-in-the-mud-conservatives”-versus-“open-minded-enlightened-progressivists”, though it usually slips in one of the usual secularist bromides, as if to reassure its audiences that it’s keeping a critical distance.
His Eminence George Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, who delivered the keynote address at Acton’s 2004 annual dinner (full text here), has recently produced two notable commentaries: the first on global warming, the second on the Christian foundations of modern Western Civilization.
By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney
18 July 2010
Humanly induced climate change was once “the greatest moral challenge of our age”. No longer. The hullaballoo is much less.
A politician referred my February article on global warming to the Bureau of Meteorology for comment. In a roundabout way they conceded the truth of most of my factual statements, but ducked the issue of Roman warming and claimed that “all available hemispheric to global scale analyses” suggest recent decades have been warmer than in the Middle Ages. This is misleading.
Professor Ian Plimer, in Heaven and Earth: Global Warming the Missing Science (Connorcourt, 2009) cites the scientific evidence from pollen studies, drill cores and lake sediments to show that temperatures were 2 to 6°C warmer around the world in the period from 250BC to 450AD (the Roman Warming). Records from the time report citrus trees and grapes being grown in England as far north as Hadrian’s Wall, and olive groves on the Rhine. It was wetter and warmer, but sea levels were also lower. Areas which are now either forests (because it is cooler) or deserts (because it is drier – for example, the Roman provinces of North Africa) were growing crops.
Professor Plimer also cites scientific evidence from the Middle Ages. Tree rings, boreholes, sediment cores from oceans and flood plains, pollen studies, peat bogs, ice cores, fossils and carbon chemistry show that temperatures were warmer throughout the world during 900-1300AD than they are now, by 1-2.5°C in different places. The amount of land used for agriculture increased. In Greenland, cattle and sheep were run and crops like barley were grown. Grapevines were grown in Newfoundland, and vineyards in Germany were grown 220 metres higher than the maximum altitude today. Roots and stumps in the Polar Urals suggesting the tree line there was 30 metres higher in 1000AD. The North Atlantic was free of ice, allowing the Vikings to travel to North America.
Warmer temperatures and higher rainfall during the Medieval Warming enabled societies and economic life to flourish. In Europe it saw the growth of cities, the establishment of universities, and a boom in cathedral building. China’s population doubled in the course of a century and records from China and Japan also indicate that they experienced warmer temperatures. The Medieval Warming also brought higher levels of water in lakes and rivers.
There was no industry in Roman or Medieval times.
Why were the temperatures higher? What were the causes then and now?
Next are remarks delivered at a recent program of the Institute of Public Affairs, a prominent Australian think tank. Here, Cardinal Pell reminds us that the heritage of Western Civilization comes from its uniquely Christian character:
The Heritage of Western Civilization
Remarks at the launch of the Institute of Public Affairs’
Foundations of Western Civilisation Program
Stonington Mansion, Melbourne
By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney
It is a privilege to speak at the launch of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program tonight, and I propose to begin my few words on “The Heritage of Western Civilization” by speaking about China. This is not because I believe that China must achieve economic supremacy (twenty years ago we were ascribing that honour to Japan) but because China is a radically different culture, nourished for two thousand years by the teachings of Buddha and Confucius before the destructive barbarism of Mao and the Red Guards; a nation which is now searching for the secrets of Western vitality and for a code or codes to provide decency and social cohesion that is compatible with economic development.
Let me give two examples, admittedly only two straws in an vast cyclone. (more…)
When in Krakow, Poland, for Acton’s recent conference, I was interviewed by journalist Dominik Jaskulski for the news organization Fronda. Dominik has kindly allowed us to publish excerpts from his translation of the interview.
Father Sirico, tell us why your conference, organized with the Foundation PAFERE, is important for Poland.
Today, many people in the world are in a situation of transition. If you do not respond well in such conditions, you may see a repeat episode where – as you had here in Poland — people turned to socialist and communist ideas. I think it’s very important that people understand what culture is and how dynamic it is. With the foundation of a moral framework, it is much easier to choose the proper path of development. In that framework, we want above all to respect the dignity of the human person.
In Poland, we often see a discrepancy between the views of younger people and their elders about the nature of the transformation that occurred. Older people often talk about the loss of state benefits.
It’s quite funny, because less than 20 years ago, when I first came here, I gave an interview in which I was asked about how I thought things would go in the next few years. I said something like this: When the Israelites were leaving Egypt, it took them 40 years to arrive at the Promised Land. That’s mainly because Egypt was still in their hearts. In the Bible, the Israelites constantly asked, “Where is the land of milk and honey? When we were in Egypt, at least we had the dates and other food.” It took a whole generation to accept the changes that occurred.
What about unemployment? Under communism, we all had jobs. Currently, unemployment exceeds 10 percent. A few years ago it was even 20 percent.
Well, I think what the case was in the past in Poland is that everyone seemed to have a job. Authentic work, in which everyone is responsible for that work and understands its purpose, is productive. Many people were employed in Poland, which was not free, but many of these workers had no purpose and were unproductive. And, at the end, it led to massive poverty. Poverty, not wealth, was socialized. If we could measure the level of satisfaction and happiness then and now in Poland, I would be surprised if it isn’t now much higher. Yet it is true that some people find themselves in a difficult situation during the transition. We will discuss this during the conference.
Economics, as we know, has its cultural consequences, just as culture has economic implications. How you assess economic and cultural changes in Poland?
I must say that from all countries historically affected by communism, Poland and the Czech Republic were the most successful in their transformation. In Poland, largely thanks to the Church, the local culture remained intact. Of course, questions about the transformation continue to occur. This indeed was a dramatic shift because this country escaped one of the most horrific, depraved systems in human history. There is a cost, which we had to go through. We just have to understand that this transformation brings together a number of costs. (more…)
A while back, Bevan Sabo and Ariel Goldring at Free Market Mojo interviewed me on a wide range of subjects. They’ve kindly granted us permission to post some excerpts:
FMM: Capitalism requires a large degree of selfishness. Though there is certainly room for charity in a free-market system, individuals and firms must pursue their own selfish interests in order for an economy to thrive (or even succeed). How does a Christian love his neighbor as himself and still function as a capitalist?
Father Sirico: I do not share the use of the word selfishness in the way that it is employed in this question. A proper self regard is based on the belief in my own inherent dignity and this requires “self love” but not an inordinate self-love or self-preoccupation which is willing to subordinate others to my own ends, either coercively or in a manipulative manner which disregards the same dignity of others. The word selfishness as it is used in common parlance does not reference rational self-interest but rather a self preoccupation and disordered priority.
From a Christian anthropological point of view the human person (who is much more than “the individual”) is a combination of his individuality and his sociality, his autonomy and relationships. From the first moment of our existence we are simultaneously autonomous (in that we are genetically distinct from our mothers), yet in relation to her while in the womb. The whole of our existence following is a working out of this interplay of our autonomy and our social nature. A Christian’s love for his neighbor is rooted in solidarity which is the recognition of a profound connection between human beings. It is, in a sense, a recognition of myself in the other. Because all human beings share an intrinsic dignity we ‘love our neighbors as we love ourselves’. Capitalism, which is only the economic extension of this anthropological truth, can be lived out from this perspective, but in order to be secure, just, and enduring, it needs to rooted in the historical development of such an anthropology.
FMM: In July of last year, the Guardian reported on Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, entitled Charity in Truth. For me, the following is a particularly disturbing paragraph from the article:
The pope today called for a “profoundly new way” of organising global finance and business, calling for a new social and ethical dimension to capitalism and arguing the case for a new world political authority to help champion “the common good”.
The idea of the “common good” goes against the spirit of individualism that is an essential part of capitalism and any proper government. Can you discuss Charity in Truth, particularly, its ramifications for those who consider themselves both Christians and capitalists?
Father Sirico: If one is going to really understand papal encyclicals one must understand the tradition and theological milieu from which they emerge and attend to the precise definitions that are given to various specific phrases or concepts. In the case of the latest encyclical Caritas in Veritate many have asked questions about what the pope was addressing when he called for a “New World political authority”. I very much doubt your readers want from me a full exegesis of this section of the encyclical, but let me summarize by saying that this phrase is used in context with the references to subsidiarity elsewhere in the encyclical (e.g., no. 57) which is therein described as “the most effective antidote to any form of all-encompassing welfare state.”
Thus it is explicitly NOT the pope’s intention to be calling for some kind if ‘super state’, but rather for a global solidarity and authority “which cannot be imposed by force” (cf., Mater et Magistra, no. 130). The encyclical also cites a number of other references it is drawing upon, all of which are noted in the critical apparatus of the encyclical itself and all of which repudiate any kind of ‘super global state’. (more…)
In another Acton Commentary this week, Research Director Samuel Gregg looked at Catholic dissenter Fr. Hans Küng, who recently published an “open letter” broadside directed at the Vatican. Küng’s letter includes the now discredited Malthusian warning about global overpopulation (see video above). The letter, writes Samuel Gregg, “shows just how much he remains an unreconstructed creature of the 1960s.”
Hans Küng’s Malthusian Moment
By Samuel Gregg
In April, the world received yet another global missive from the 82-year-old Swiss theologian, Fr. Hans Küng. Perhaps the world’s most famous Catholic dissenter from Catholic teaching, Fr. Küng’s “open letter” to the world’s Catholic bishops contained his usual critique of the papacy and his now-tediously familiar prescriptions for changing the Catholic Church.
Almost 31 years ago, Rome and Germany’s Catholic bishops stripped Küng of his license to teach as a Catholic theologian because, by Küng’s own admission, he does not believe in some central tenets of the Catholic faith. Some would say Rome’s action was merely an exercise in ensuring truth in advertizing. This has not stopped Küng, however, from continuing to exhort Catholicism to adopt the path followed by many mainline Protestant confessions in the West since the 1960s.
Background on the next Acton Lecture Series event:Join us on Thursday, May 6 to hear Mr. Joseph Morris’ lecture Alinsky for Dummies: His Persistent Influence and Its Meaning for American Society and Politics. Saul Alinsky might be called the “anti-Acton.” As Lord Acton warned that power corrupts, Saul Alinsky — the father of modern “community organizing” — rejoiced that corruption empowers. Decades after Alinsky’s death his ideas and teaching continue to shape the American political and social landscape. Barack Obama’s first job in Chicago was as an “organizer” for an Alinsky group; Hillary Clinton’s undergraduate thesis was written on Alinsky’s precepts; contemporary organizations from the notorious ACORN to the Catholic-Church-supported United for Power and Justice are among Alinsky’s progeny. This lecture will supply an overview of Alinksy’s thinking and show its application in current events. Luncheon participants are encouraged (although certainly not required) to read Alinsky’s short but seminal Rules for Radicals, widely available in inexpensive paperback editions, prior to the lecture. Mr. Joseph A. Morris, a graduate of the college and the law school of the University of Chicago, is a partner in the law firm of Morris & De La Rosa, with offices in Chicago and London, maintaining an active practice in constitutional, business, labor, and international law. He is a member of the bars of the Supreme Court of the United States, the Supreme Court of Illinois, and several other courts. Mr. Morris served under President Reagan as assistant attorney general of the United States [in charge of international affairs and director of the Department of Justice Office of Liaison Services. He has appeared on numerous national and local television and radio programs. He has served as an American delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. A leader in B’nai B’rith, he is also a member of the advisory board of Catholic Citizens of Illinois.
The lecture will take place at the Waters Building in Downtown Grand Rapids [map it]. Tickets are $15 for regular admission and $5 for students. To register, visit the Acton Lecture Series page or e-mail Melissa Burkholder at firstname.lastname@example.org
Catholic World Report published a roundup of commentary on the fifth anniversary of Benedict’s pontificate. I contributed a piece titled Retrieval and Reintegration and was joined by a number of outstanding writers whose work is indexed here.
Benedict’s efforts to let the past inform and guide the Church’s future
By Father Robert Sirico
On March 18, 2005, having been at the Vatican to speak at a conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, I found myself concelebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica with about 100 other priests. The principal celebrant was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I was at the far end of the line of concelebrating priests and was surprised when, at the Offertory, the Master of Ceremonies approached me (I was conveniently at the end of the row) to assist at the ablution rites at the altar.
I had not realized until I sat down to write this reflection in honor of Pope Benedict’s election that the cardinal for whom I effectively served as an altar boy would be pope within a month. Providence is sometime a sobering thing.
The priest with whom I concelebrated Mass that day in such close proximity is indeed the same priest I see celebrate the Sacred Mysteries as successor to St. Peter. His focus and intense devotion are the same. It is almost as though depth and continuity are written into the man’s DNA.
By now the idea of a “hermeneutic of continuity” is beginning to permeate the Church universal. Gone, or at least soon gone, are the days when Catholics sing of “calling a new church into being” with straight faces. Likewise, talk of a “pre-conciliar” versus a post-Vatican II Church seems dated. Benedict has shown us how to retrieve what is authentically ours by Tradition, how not to fear that past, and how to permit the ancient liturgy to inform, guide, and deepen our worship today.
Yet, it is not only in the realm of ecclesiology or liturgy that this Benedictine effort toward reintegration is felt. One sees at as well in his effective and tireless effort in reaching out to the Eastern Churches (admittedly a dimension of ecclesiology) and in his development of the Church’s social teaching, evident in each of his encyclicals, but most especially in Caritas et Veritate. All of this effort at retrieval and reintegration comprises what might be called the leitmotif of his papacy.
In each of these areas and others as well, one sees a very careful mind at work to rediscover and welcome disparate truths, skillfully bringing the parts together to demonstrate a deeper, richer whole.
And yet, Providence can also sometimes be cruel, as it might appear now, when Benedict presides as pope in a moment of great difficulty and pain for the Church, owing largely to past negligence in the protection of the innocent and in the clarity of Catholic moral teaching.
Here, too, we affirm that the Church does not need to reinvent herself to address these grave matters; she does not need a new discipline for her priests or new standard of morality to propose to the faithful. The Church simply needs to embrace that same faith that Christ taught to the Apostles and to represent it anew to a society—and at this time a Church—that seems in some places to have forgotten it.