“Economic Law” versus Catholic Social Teaching, Part II
A friend e-mailed yesterday to say that he didn't understand the crux of my disagreement with Tom Woods. As he sees it, Tom is simply concerned with government intervention into the economy, confiscatory taxation, coercive laws and regulations, and the welfare state, all of which (he quite rightly points out, as Chronicles has for over 25 years) have been largely destructive. But these destructive things, my friend goes on to claim, have been central to Catholic social teaching.
This is a common misconception, which even a close reading of Tom Woods' article can help to dispel. For instance, Tom is reduced to talking about "individual bishops, theologians, and lay defenders of the Church's social teaching" and "the implied conclusion of Catholic social teaching" in order to make the argument that Catholic social teaching is primarily about government intervention. But since only the Magisterium can teach authoritatively, those are straw-man arguments. The closest Tom comes to making an argument that papal encyclicals endorse the modern welfare state is his claim that "Most people, including numerous recent popes, take for granted that the government must enact legislation governing working conditions." Significantly, however, he offers no citation to support this claim, even though he quotes liberally from papal encyclicals elsewhere in the article.
This is not surprising, and, in fact, it gives me some hope for Tom's book, because I take it to mean that he has grappled seriously with the social encyclicals and has not approached them with particular preconceptions. There are two common misconceptions that many people—both Catholic and non-Catholic—hold regarding the Church's social teaching. First, that the Church has only recently (since Leo XIII's Rerum novarum in 1891) discussed such matters or claimed teaching authority over them; second (and flowing from the first), that the Church's teaching has been developed in the context of the welfare state and, therefore, is concerned with expanding (or at least shaping) the welfare state.
The first misconception is pretty easy to dispel, and anyone who has seriously studied the Church's social teachings knows that they (and the claim to teaching authority on this issue) extend as far back as the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of St. Paul. In fact, the writings of St. Basil the Great (329-379) and St. John Chrysostom (347-407), both Doctors of the Church, remain some of the most forthright and vigorous expositions of the Church's consistent social teaching.
The second misconception vanishes whenever someone actually reads, say, Rerum novarum or Quadragesimo anno (1931). For instance, in a recent article in Chronicles ("Consumption Taxes, Property Rights: Notes Toward the Restoration of Property," Views, January 2004), I quoted the following from Rerum novarum:
No one, certainly, is obliged to assist others out of what is required for his own necessary use or for that of his family, or even to give to others what he himself needs to maintain his station in life becomingly and decently . . . But when the demands of necessity and propriety have been sufficiently met, it is a duty to give to the poor out of that which remains. . . . These are duties not of justice, except in cases of extreme need, but of Christian charity, which obviously cannot be enforced by legal action.
The Church has always been keenly aware of this point, namely, that charity under duress, legal or otherwise, is no charity at all. This, it seems to me, is the most damning of all possible arguments against legally enforced redistributism. Leo, however, is also perfectly clear on what Christian charity demands, and this is where problems start to arise for adherents to the "science" of Austrian economics:
But if the question be asked: How ought man use his possessions? the Church replies without hesitation [in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas]: “As to this point, man ought not regard external goods as his own, but as common so that, in fact, a person should readily share them when he sees others in need. Wherefore the Apostle says: ‘Charge the rich of this world . . . to give readily, to share with others’.”
Here, Leo echoes the teaching of St. Basil the Great, who wrote (and I'm paraphrasing, since I don't have the quotation in front of me): "The food that you do not eat is taken from the mouth of the poor; the shoes that you do not wear are taken from their feet . . . " Briefly put, the problem for the Austrian is that that food and those shoes are capital, which the Austrian believes will be best put to use not as a "handout"—what the Church calls "almsgiving"—but reinvested in "the economy," where that capital can increase productivity, benefitting, in his mind, both labor and capital.
The question, then, is: Does the Church have the authority to bind men's consciences on economic issues (broadly or narrowly speaking)? Tom's answer seems to be "no," at least as long as the Church says anything that may contradict "economic law." But the Church, despite the misconceptions usually held by those who oppose Catholic social teaching, has claimed that authority from the beginning. Leo XIII is not starting from scratch; he is standing in a long line of consistent teaching—a line that goes back much further than the Spanish Jesuits that the Austrians love to cite. If that teaching contradicts the "laws of economics," then, from the standpoint of the Church, it is the latter that must be rethought.
Which brings us to my second major disagreement with Tom. I wrote in my earlier post that "Catholic social thought does not regard economics as a hard science, like mathematics." My friend objected that many libertarians would agree with that statement. I'm not sure that is true, but on the specific question of what Tom Woods thinks, here are some selected phrases from his LewRockwell.com essay: "we see the logical problem with applying moral analysis to a value-neutral, scientific discipline"; "the nature of economics as a positive science possessing an internal coherence of its own"; "if economics is just as legitimate and internally coherent a discipline as mathematics"—this, right after the remark "Had a series of popes said that two and two make five, it would be unreasonable to call someone a 'dissenter' who argued that in fact they made four . . . " On this matter, I'm only doing Tom the courtesy of taking his words—and, thus, presumably his argument—seriously.
Tagged as: Catholic Social Teaching, Cultural Revolutions, Economics, Thomas Woods
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