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Hayek, Catholic social teaching, and social justice

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Last week David Deaval, Visiting Professor at the University of St. Thomas and 2013 Novak Award winner, wrote a very thoughtful essay on Fredrich Hayek, the question of social justice, and Catholic social teaching at the Imaginative Conservative. Deaval begins by noting the increasing tendency among some in the American conservative movement to  devalue and dismiss free market ideas:

One of the places this has come out most strongly lately is in the hostility directed at “libertarians,” “libertarianism,” and indeed “free market” thinking. I put these terms in quotation marks because like “conservative” and “liberal” and many other important terms, the devil—and the angel—is in the details. There is no magisterium of libertarianism or free market thinking with which to judge what are the true dogmas and who are the orthodox practitioners of them. Nevertheless, the general tenor of conservative discourse has tended of late to cast cold water on certain aspects of free market thinking and economic thinkers who played a part in the conservative mind over the last half-century or more.

Deaval points to recent arguments made by Ed Feser, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College, linking Hayek’s embrace of subjective value theory in Economics to an alleged relativism in his social thought. Drawing on the recent work of Philip Booth and Matías Petersen, “Catholic Social Teaching and Hayek’s Critique of Social Justice,” Deaval complicates the dismissive critique of Hayek and points us to the ways in which Hayek can assist us in thinking through questions of social justice:

Drs. Booth and Petersen acknowledge that Hayek does not have an “objective notion of the good as such” when it comes to the substance of a society (or at least a large and complex society). But it is not clear he was entirely subjective about justice or even that he would necessarily limit it to the personal sphere. Even with regard to the distribution of goods, he is not averse to the idea that there are “smaller scale orders in which it is possible to distribute goods on the basis of various interpretations of justice, taking into account effort and need.” They argue that Hayek did have a conception of an objective nature to justice in the personal and even business realm, explaining, for instance, how “an employer should determine employees’ wages according to known and intelligible rules and that it should be seen that all employees receive what is due to them.” Drs. Booth and Petersen’s challenge to Hayek and his followers is to ask themselves “why they cannot define a category of justice that relates to actions in the social and economic sphere within nonstate groups that make up the extended order and the great society such as businesses, families, civil society organizations, and so on.” They note that this is an important task since Hayek’s own incompleteness reinforced the “popular view that he is promoting an atomistic society rather than a society rich with social institutions.”

Thoughtful criticism is always needed but the tendency to devalue and dismiss market oriented thinkers by the illiberal right breeds misunderstandings while inhibiting what could be fruitful engagement and development:

If Hayekians could extend their master’s thought, Drs. Booth and Petersen argue, then they could not only defeat such popular views, but enter into the dialogue their master was not able to enter because of his misunderstandings. And they could provide challenges to those who have extended the ideas of state action in ways that are imprudent. While the Catholic Church does not think the state is the lead actor, many have advocated this position. Hayekians who acknowledged a fuller view of social justice could still help Catholics—and those who have opposed the dead consensus—think more realistically about the difficulties in thinking about justice in the large scale and especially with regard to state actions.

The entire piece is well worth reading!

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Dan Hugger Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.