I would like to illustrate a point about Catholic social teaching and Libertarian economics by tweaking a particular quote from Pope Francis:
In the first case the Pope has some harsh words for the geological sciences:
“The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of geology and the dictatorship of an impersonal understanding of rock formation lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting coal mines and the people who work them lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: the study of rocks.”
Next Papa Francesco leans in on Biology:
“The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of evolution and the dictatorship of an impersonal development lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting biologists and their assertions lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: single celled amoebas.”
In case you were wondering what his quote in context actually was:
“The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”
The Hard Science of Economics
What I am trying to show is the pope would not make such an assertion about “golden calf worship” surrounding any other area of study and yet he does not think twice about this kind of polemical statements regarding the market economy. The libertarian Catholic Tom Woods is intimately familiar with this line of argumentation, and has had much to say on Catholic social teaching and economics. To boil down his position, one can find the essence of three fundamental conclusions:
A) Market economics is a science.
B) The Pope does not attempt to speak authoritatively on any other empirically sound matters.
C) The free market is the best at fulfilling the material needs of the vulnerable.
The Magisterium most certainly would not intend to suggest the student of any other hard science can be accused of idolatry. The Pope is the moral leader of the church, but this does not grant him a sort of mystical ability to change human behavior concerning the economy. This is the gist of Dr. Woods’ rebuttal to the constant barrage of Catholic intelligentsia asserting their two cents on the makeup of a just society regarding the free market. He goes to great lengths to show how a free economy is one that best accomplishes the moral responsibilities, on the behalf of the poor, on which the Pope speaks authoritatively.
Do Unions and Wage Laws Help or Hurt?
For instance, in this speech at Mises Institute, Dr. Woods explains how both minimum wage laws and labor unions undermine the citizens which we are morally obliged to help. In fact, not only do the laws ultimately hurt the most vulnerable, they were actually first imagined by progressives to create an exclusive job market for white people. One can see the result of the minimum wage laws in real time in Seattle whose #fightforfifteen is excluding low skilled workers from their job market. And can you imagine a more dehumanizing term than “scab” when referring to a human being who would rather work than be on team union? Again a labor union isn’t interested in work for all, they are interested in creating an exclusive club for a minority of connected people.
When having a conversation on economics, in relation to the role of the Catholic Church, this prudential question should arise: “Is economics an empirical science?” Tom Woods, Jeffrey Tucker, Samuel Gregg, Michael Novak, Edward Feser, and the Spanish School of Salamanca among other modern Catholics would hold that it is. And if it is indeed a hard science then we break its basic principles to the detriment of society.
The Effects of the “Invisible Hand”
This is the foundation to Austrian economics, and it has the better part of a hundred years as proof of its empirical nature. Consider Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” a move to make capitalism more compassionate (because we all like compassion), that implemented Social Security, federal regulations over the economy, bank bailouts, and protections for unions. As Jim Powell has written, it has ultimately managed to harm the people it presumes to help by taking money out of their pockets and then turning around and offering it back to them under the guise of public service. In return for these federal programs, we have the results of less job growth, less money to circulate in the economy, an immorally huge national debt, and higher taxes across the board.
One does not need a PHD in economics to understand how problematic the “New Deal” has been. For that matter, as a more recent example, look at how the Affordable Care Act distorted the insurance markets to the point of slow implosion. Of course we want to make society more just for the most vulnerable, but any government solution invariably weakens the whole system and ultimately hurts the people we want to help the most. So if we are to suggest that the free market exists as an extension of human nature rather than something that is designed or invented—a Thomistic proposition if there ever was one—then what must be understood is we can no sooner alter it than we can the laws of thermodynamics.
The Anthropology of Capitalism
To further illustrate the anthropological aspects of capitalism, let us take a look at the theory of spontaneous order that Frederick Hayek developed for business. It holds that members of a community will organize around their cumulative needs and various areas of specialization will emerge naturally, not by design, but as a result of human action. People will voluntarily form relationships, associations, and other mutually beneficial arrangements that—left alone—will burgeon into a local economy. In fact, this organic ecosystem which comes into existence through uncoerced affiliations among neighbors is not only desirable, but should be full-throatily endorsed.
Similar principles are held in the development of liturgy where a combination of ancient ritual and time has conceived some of the most beautiful forms of worship, but in the case of Vatican II the liturgy was quite suddenly altered through a bureaucratic act of which we are still experiencing the fallout. This is precisely what it looks like when the custodians, whose responsibility it is to protect the system from outsider manipulation, attempts to cast it in his image and likeness. This example does happen to help elucidate the psychology of our reigning Pope, a man who has been to rumored to intend on invoking the fullness of his authority in order to “ghettoize the Traditional Latin Mass“, and his seeming bombastic view as Vicar of Christ. As Cardinal Mueller explains, “Now, the fullness of apostolic authority does not imply an unlimited fullness of power in the secular sense.” The Pope, who cannot materialize first truths through some magical incantation, is both bound by Christ and by the laws of nature that are built in to the system by our Creator.
Where Does Economic Authority Rest?
The Vicar of Christ’s authority is best exercised by protecting truth against manipulation, not in attempting to engineer new ones. This is the conglomeration of Tom Wood’s point, and the point of other Catholic economists who look to the Austrian school as a guide, that the economy runs best—and most completely meets the needs of everyone—the less it is manipulated by outside forces. They maintain there is an empirical nature to the economy that is no more subject to the whims of the President, Pope, Congress, Arch-Bishop, as it would be to the local mailman. To seek justice through altering its processes is ultimately harmful to everyone, but most specifically the people we wish to help.
This is an important matter to me, because it seems clear that in 2018 our federal government has done more harm to us all through market manipulations and social programs than it ever could have by enforcing general rules for all participants and otherwise leaving us alone. Speaking of Government intervention, this conversation should invariably lead into the deeply problematic issues which surface once its invisible hand enters the market. The advancement of self interest through bureaucratic means is most often the rule whether by keeping the uneducated out of the workforce, cronyism, manipulation of the pharmaceutical industry, or by simply offering handouts to people who would otherwise be willing to help themselves. We must take into account how severely corruptible human nature with power is corrupted.
Holy Mother State
Even all of these issues seem minor in comparison to the ways government programs foster a psychology in its citizenry of the State as humanity’s great savior. This role is one that government does not shy from as “giver and taker away.” While the “giver” part of government intervention should make us pause when we consider its long term effects, it is most certainly the “taker away” part which shakes me down to the core of my being. Once it is afforded that kind of authority then, as history has proven consistently, humanitarian nightmares are surely on the horizon.
So while Pope Francis warns of the “golden calf of the free market,” the only idol being cast today which he should pause to consider is the one of Holy Mother State. The rabid statism on display throughout the West, in itself, is a huge milestone for that legion of socialists interested in overthrowing the existing order. The economy is not static. This means it is always moving in one direction or the other, and it has been incrementally moving towards a Marxian vision for some time.
The Experts Have Weighed In
It is true some Papal encyclicals have been more skeptical of the merits of free markets than others, but if Michael Novak had only read Quadragesimo Anno and thought “well that’s that on free markets” then he would have never written the Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. If he never writes that book, then Saint Pope John Paul II would never have taken the most liberal tone towards a market economy of any Pope that preceded him (or our current Pope). In other words, the Papacy does best in forming views of the common good by looking towards the experts, and economics is as scientific as any other discipline that the Magisterium would never consider accusing of “creating golden calves.”
Advocating for free markets is not an appeal to forget those in society Jesus demands us to assist. It is just the best the hard sciences offer in empowering the vulnerable to help themselves, and tweaking it most often creates conditions that hurt the people the tweakers presume to help. Free economies also offer a solution to the problem of the tyrannical nature of a leviathan government by rendering it unnecessary. Church, community, and family have been the best at catching the others who fall through the cracks. This is the core of the principle of subsidiarity.
‘Yes’ to Free Market and ‘No’ to Leviathan
Since the New Deal, the unholy marriage of State and Public welfare has only led to a decreased dependence on local institutions, who address both material and spiritual needs, by deforming the public’s relationship to the state. This has all been accomplished while doing little to help the plight of its weakest citizens, and this system undermines the obvious need for public virtue by subsidizing self destructive behavior. So, though we are warned of the “golden calf of the free market” I am much more worried about the idolization of the only entity that can give and take away what is rightfully mine– up to and including my life.