Kevin Williamson has an article over at National Review that expresses many of the feelings I’ve had regarding some of the more hostile, self-righteous religious critics of capitalism. The article discusses the recent “panel of Catholic intellectuals and clergy, led by His Eminence Oscar Andrés Maradiaga,” that 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…” But as Williamson notes, “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.” But then he just lays it out:
The implicit economic hypothesis [of the panel] 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.
Production and resources are important. “If the Good Samaritan had been the Poor Samaritan,” explains Williamson, “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.” The fact 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.” What is really happening is this: “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.”
It boils down to “how you intend to fulfill the Lord’s command to feed His sheep — with rhetoric or with bread…”
4 thoughts on “Catholics Against Capitalism”
This author article drips with arrogance disdain for the Catholic clergy. Many Catholics go about trying to set the entire church right with their own brand of reality. I really shouldn’t be surprised. That being said, I know there are crazy groups of Catholics out there, spouting all sorts of nonsense. I’m actually inclined to group this author in with them, because he appears to chastise all Catholic clergy and most of the Church, not just the pockets or individuals in question.
A few things that really bother me: The author may or may not be right about Cardinal Maradiaga, but he never quotes the cardinal. He quotes a Buddhist and then goes on a tirade about “intellectually cloistered lives of religions professionals” and their supposed uniform incompetence.
He does quote JPII and — wow — this guy knows nothing about JPII. He takes one excerpt and then launches an attack on that excerpt regarding the capabilities of the state. JPII lived extensively under Nazi and communist regimes, among others, was instrumental in defeating these oppressive regimes with cultural counter resistance, and he was quite learned in the capabilities of the state and hardly naive about abuse of power. JPII hated politics but, if he has something to say about it, I would listen closely and be very slow to jump all over his words, especially as those words are often misunderstood when framed in American political speak of the day. He chose the wrong guy to attack here. Catholic homilies didn’t cut the poverty rate? I beg to differ. JPII’s homilies and cultural resistance were key to toppling oppressive governments. Did that not do something significant for both material and spiritual poverty worldwide?
If you want a general Catholic objection to libertarianism, read Deacon Keith Fournier. He is a constitutional lawyer. No, that doesn’t make him an economist. Catholics don’t compartmentalize everything — So the objections largely aren’t economic. We won’t sell our souls in our efforts to benefit the poor, which means we might reject a superior economic model. (For an extreme example, we won’t agree to legalize abortion as a method of economic relief for poor women.) We want to maximize benefits to the poor, but the method must pass certain morality tests. Mainstream conservative Catholics take issue with Libertarians over this. Libertarians are quite free to disagree, and I encourage further debate and dialogue. This stuff is not dogma and, if Libertarians can convince the Church that their brand of economics and politics is both moral and effective, then they might have something for Catholics. An older piece from 2000: http://www.alliancenet.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID5339_CHID24_CIID121780,00.html
By the way, tirade is probably too strong a word. But, good grief, this guy really irked me if that wasn’t obvious :).
I didn’t even take into consideration that this article might come off as anti-Catholic or anti-clerical. I certainly didn’t intend that, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of sensitivity. I didn’t personally read it as anti-Catholic, merely anti-political-ideology-posturing-as-religion. But that could be due to my economic approach, which I focused on. Nathaniel and I have published a paper on economic freedom and global poverty, which looks at it from a Mormon perspective. Many Mormon intellectuals find capitalism abhorrent and anti-Christian. “Caring for the poor” is often conflated with state-sponsored wealth redistribution or some kind of Marxist socialism. *That’s* what I was thinking of when I read this and I think the original author had similar things in mind.
I’ve written elsewhere about the pre-Protestant roots of capitalism, which developed in the Catholic West. And I’m personally very fond of Catholicism (I often say to my wife that if I were to leave Mormonism, I’d likely become Catholic). So certainly no ill-will towards Catholics here.
Nonetheless, I too am irked when I think someone publicly misrepresents my church’s beliefs, leadership, and the like. If this did so, I apologize.
Walker, I am not offended by you or your thoughts on the matter. No need for apologies on your part! We clearly did not get the same messages out of that article. I agree that many adopt socialist ideas out of misguided Christian charity, and there are clergy and laypeople alike who do this. I encourage thoughtful discussion on that. I just thought this author’s approach was really bothersome…and odd. There are many Catholics he could easily and justifiably pick on :). JPII is pretty much the last one I would pick. And the Buddhist. He seemed to highlight those two to illustrate a deficiency in essentially all clergy (even a “conservative”), especially with the lines about Buddhist mindfulness and Catholic homilies and “intellectually cloistered religious professionals”. Each religion has its own way of saying things , and most Catholics would read that as hostile wording. The author does identify himself as Catholic, and maybe that’s why he feels so comfortable publicly blasting the Church? I don’t know. He shows a real lack of insight into the human condition, though, even if he does know a thing or two about economics.
As far as political ideology mixing with religion, Catholics have a holistic view of reality and are going to have an opinion about everything. We leave nothing untouched. So I guess that in itself never bothers me. These areas are usually open for intense debate. Devil’s advocate stuff. I know many religious who are very insightful, learned, with varied backgrounds, and interested in exchanging ideas. Religion will always weave into it. I only worry when someone insists that an economic system or political ideology will save the world, essentially replacing God, or if church leaders back a corrupt government for personal gain.
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