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Catholics & Capitalism

June 12th, 2014 - 7:21 am

David Hume used to extol “the calm sunshine of the mind.” It radiates a gratifyingly clear and uplifting nimbus, that cognitive luminosity, all the more precious on account of its rarity. My friend Kevin Williamson has been a conspicuous source of such refreshing clarity, and his essay “Catholics Against Capitalism” at NRO is a work of particular scintillation. 

The occasion for Kevin’s piece was the meeting in Washington, D.C., last week of some Catholic intellectuals and clergy under the leadership of the Honduran cardinal, His Eminence Oscar Andrés Maradiaga. The title of the conference was “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism,” though as Kevin points out, the real object of criticism was not libertarianism particularly but free market economics generally. And as Kevin also points out, the Church has no special grace to pronounce authoritatively on such secular matters and, in the case of its reflections on matters economic, “the best that can be said of the clergy’s corporate approach to economic thinking is that it is intellectually incoherent, which is lucky inasmuch as the depths of its illiteracy become more dramatic and destructive as it approaches coherence.”

Kevin’s longish essay is worth reading carefully, for it is full of wisdom and is expressed with patient brio. The basic position of Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga is the familiar leftist litany: “Capitalism” is bad because it creates great wealth, while it also “destroys wealth, value and jobs. Those ‘wondrous technologies’ also manifest as wrathful deities, efficiently eliminating or reducing the need for labor.” (Kevin quotes from a truly obtuse review of Conscious Capitalism, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s book,  in Tricycle). “The implicit economic hypothesis here,” Kevin points out, “is that producing a certain amount of goods more efficiently — in this case, with less labor — makes the world worse off. . . . 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.”

Here’s the bottom line: Capitalism is the greatest engine for the production of wealth the ingenuity of man has ever invented. Are you interested in helping the poor? Embrace capitalism. Do you want to help clean up the environment? Embrace capitalism. Are you interested in obliterating the scourge of malnutrition or some ghastly African disease or illiteracy or [fill in your personal do-good desideratum here]: yep, embrace capitalism. The global poverty rate, Kevin reminds us, has been cut in half  in the last 20 years. Think about that. Then think about the sorrowful history of our species up to about 1830.  How much progress against widespread — really, near total — poverty had there been from the beginning of time until then — until, that is, capitalism started to take off? Not much.

Like Barack Obama (indeed, like Karl Marx), Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga believes that the fundamental problem of economics concerns the redistribution of wealth. In fact, the fundamental economic problem concerns the production of wealth, the more, the better. “The question of how certain goods are “distributed” in society,” Kevin observes,  “is a second-order question at best; by definition prior to it is the question of whether there is anything to distribute.”

Exactly. But this is a truth that, for reasons I do not fully comprehend, the Left finds it impossible to take on board. Kevin gets to the nub of the issue with gratifying incisiveness:

Those who put distribution at the top of their list of priorities both make the error of assuming the existence of some exogenous agency that oversees distribution (that being the Distribution Fairy) and entirely ignore the vital question of what gets produced and by whom. Poverty is the direct by-product of low levels of production; the United States and Singapore are fat and happy with $53,101 and $64,584 in per capita economic output, respectively; Zimbabwe, which endured the services of a government very much interested in the redistribution of capital, gets to divide up $788 per person per year, meaning that under circumstances of perfect mathematical equality life would still be miserable for everybody. Sweden can carve up its per capita pie however it likes, but it’s still going to be 22.5 percent smaller than the U.S. pie and less than two-thirds the size of Singapore’s tasty pastry. You cannot redistribute what you don’t have — and that holds true not only for countries but, finally, for the planet and the species, which of course is what globalization is all about. 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.

“You cannot redistribute what you don’t have,” and in order to acquire more stuff to distribute you need to embrace that fantastic engine of prosperity, capitalism.

Top Rated Comments   
Capitalism, it must be pointed out, is not the same as the current nexus of corporate oligopolies and political power which hinders capitalism.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, in point of **fact**, we will always have the poor with us, because "the poor" is a group deliberately left undefined except as less-well-off neighbors to the not-poor. So each generation has "poor" by some standard, even if that standard bears little relation to those of generations before it.

That having been said, let it be admitted that Catholic clergy, starting roughly with Paul VI, have adopted the notion of a "preferential option for the poor" without bothering to ask the most important questions about such an exhortation to limitless, uncritical material generosity: Is It Helping Or Harming Its Supposed Beneficiaries?

Yet another case of counsel issued in stentorian tones by persons who will pay no costs for its perverse consequences, which is why so many American Catholics feel free to disregard the rantings of the American Council of Bishops et alii.

10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Folks, a bishop is not the Church. Even Jesus had to put up with Judas and ten cowards who left him when the chips were down. Don't simplify. There are plenty of cassock'd idiots who should be preaching about Jesus and stop talking about things they don't know nothing about.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (54)
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To be fair, the protestant churches haven't exactly been excluding Caesar's domain from their spiritual teachings either. Which is why several protestant denominations have been going the way of the Shakers. As for the Catholics, their liberation theology is mainly a defense mechanism against South American communists and secularists. If you can't beat them ....
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think one reason why catholic clergy from S America are so hostile to capitalism is they have so rarely seen it, since most "capitalism" in S America was instead corporatist fascist style crony capitalism (basically what the so called privately based Obamacare is now in the US), which is just as bad as socialism. I wonder, since Chile now is one of the few countries in S America that has real free market capitalism, and is prospering because of it, are the Catholic clergy from there are as hostile to capitalism as oher S American clergy seems to be.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
It seems to me that the commandment to help the poor was never so much about helping the poor as it was about the emptying of the self through love. It is not the material effect but the spiritual one that matters. That is why the penny from the widow was more meritorious than the many talents of the rich. The donation was practically worthless, but she gave everything she had out of love.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Real Christian charity and compassion, given voluntarily, is noble. But phony leftist compassion, cooerced from people, is just theft. Jesus demanded his followers voluntarily give their own resources to the poor, he did not call for a welfare program from Rome, as a leftist would have done.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree, but for this purpose improving the material condition of the poor by creating excess wealth is equally futile.
10 weeks ago
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blah blah blah blah.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Kimball makes the same mistake as Williamson in NRO or Ed Krayewski in "Reason.com"; (June 4), that is, all take"RE-dlistrubution" to be the central interest of Pope Francis. I disagree. What is of prime interest is simply "distribution". RE-disrtirubition of wealth implies a disparity of wealth or, more precisely, an "inequality". INequality? How to explain myself?

Since Pp Francis appeared I have played a "dot" game, i.e., collecting statements and deeds (e.g., wearing a ""Rainbow bracelet" and not wearing normal papal attire) and comments by the Pope along with some comments upon him by others and, then, by seeking to connect the dots to arrive at a coherent outline. I will offer a couple of tentative ideas.

1. David Goldman in "Francis I's Theology of Universal Salvation" concludes that the Pope, instead of saving souls, wants to "intervene and transform the world", viz., save the world (and, I note, in worldly terms). 2. Thomas Seiterich in "Publik-Forum", June 4, summarizes the mission of the Pope as "turning to [Hinwendung] to the people on the outskirts [of society] and outside of the Church or society", i.e. not to sinners, rather to the "poor" (not of spirit per se, rather economically unequal). 3. "Inequality is the root of social evil", April 28 Twitter by Pope Francis

If "inequality" is at the root of social evil, it logically follows that "equality" (however non-economically defined) will rid the world of evil. Any time two people interact, we have sociality. So, I conclude that, with full equality, two or more individuals socially interacting will not in anyway treat each other with evil (dare I say "sin", as the Pope does not say THAT word). The Pope's twitter literally speaks volumes. Let me compare him with Marx.

In his "Critique of the Gotha Program" (1875?) Marx takes up distribution in a all worker society producing according to a "common plan". Well, some individuals are smarter, stronger, etc. than others such that they wiill contribute more and deserve more in the distribution. Then there are people with needs, low producivity, all who would be in trouble according to a distirubution principle of earning (which is really "bourgeois"). Marx calls "unequal individual endowment" as the false "right of inequality". Here Marx and the Pope meet, both disturbed by inequality and both acknowledging its causing "evil". So, what is the principle of "DIStribution" designed to avoid inequality? Marx writes: "After ... all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society [can] inscribe on its banners: From each according to this ability, to each acccording to his needs". I suggest that effectively Marx' principle of distirubution to avoid inequality is that of the Pope and his Latin American side-kicks. Certainly Pope Francis is no "bourgeois". God forbid!

In conclusion I suggest that economic questions are of no real interest to the Pope and the critics of "Libertarianism", i.e., captialism as understood by von Mises and Hayek. To state that capitalism produces wealth that improves greatly the economic poor is indifferent because capitalism produces "inequality" that even redistribution cannot fully equalize--and that is evil. In his depths (and probably not known to him) the Pope has accepted a primal moral value of Marx (not his matrialism). The arguments of Kimball, Williamson and Krayewski simply to not confront the Pope on his own level, that of his messianic universalism. Alas, the Pope & Co have no idea of what human action is in the economic field. Why should economics bother a man who revels in charismatic emotionalism of a pentecostal type? He's got the spirit.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am not so sure. I think Pope Francis needs to make the crucial distinction between noble voluntary christian compassion, and phony destructive cooerced leftist compassion. That would clarify his message, and prevent the leftie MSM from hijacking it.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Remember the MSM always apply a left-leaning distortion to anything the Pope or some important figure of the Church says. Just a caveat. Now, for those who talk about "selling the Church property" etc. let me remind you that the Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization on earth and that they always close their year ledger in the red. The Church owns some treasures like La Pietá or The Sistine Chapel. If there was someone with enough money to pay for those treasures of mankind I am sure they would sell them, they have sold valuable things before. Ask the question: How many poor were fed by the International Socialist last year. The Catholic Church spent about 8,000 BILLION find out by yourselves. Those numbers are not secret. That does not include providing healthcare, that is food and clothing ALONE.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
This article (didn't read the linked one, sorry) demonstrates a lack of awareness about the how the Catholic Church operates. "Some cardinal in Honduras" apparently doesn't have much of an idea about how economics works. It's not surprising since Central America economies don't function as well as North American ones. But he has as much right to opine on economic matters as I do, or a famous Hollywood actor. Even the "Catholic Al Sharpton", Bill Donohue, has a right to run his mouth. American Catholics have a pretty good idea who to listen to, who makes sense. Benedict addressed capitalism in one of his early encyclicals (I'm afraid I don't remember which one) which showed he has a good grasp of economics. Papal encyclicals also carry more weight, theologically speaking, than "some Honduran cardinal who ran his mouth".
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Jeannette: unfortunately some have a mouth but lack brains. Some of them do not even practice the faith that was taught to them. It is a crying shame.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Dorothy: "How can you talk if you haven't got a brain?"
Scarecrow: "I don't know. But it seems to me that some people without brains do an awful lot of talking."
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
i just wish that those Catholic guys, from the Pope on down, would keep their noses out of the temporal and the political.

Let's talk about financial corruption in the Catholic hierarchy, a longstanding scandal, the Pope just last week fired 5 more of those guys administering the Church's finances.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Seems to me that the Pope has passed the talking phase and has moved on to action on that front.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Francis and Oscar: sell all the Church has and then follow Him.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
So Cardinal Maradiaga supports Pope Francis' support of "the legitimate redistibution of economic benefits by the State", huh? So if I, an otherwise peaceful person but refusing to pay my share of such a redistribution, would be set upon by armed agents of the state, who would kick in my door and drag me off to prison, that's an acceptible outcome for these two men of the cloth? Forced contributions to the state for the state's graft-ridden "poverty" programs? Its not a stretch to say that Jesus would be against such a form of redistribution.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, they are undermining Christianity by associating their flawed comprehension with Christianity.

As a writer from 1886 observed:

"Christianity, as a late writer has pointed out in words well chosen,* is the only system of socialism which commends it self as having a rational basis, and its founder the most practical teacher of it that the world has ever seen. " The aim of all socialism is the securing of equality in the social condition of mankind, and if equality is to be secured at all it will be secured only by changing the hearts of men, and never by setting to work, in the first instance, upon the conditions." But the present impulse of socialism is not Christian, but rather one willing to put an end to Christianity. And it is a system of machinery, like the kingdom of a tyrant, not of souls, like that of Christ. Now the Christian system did not rest on force at all. It was communistic, but not socialistic, as the word is properly used; for its very essence was the freedom of the individual will. "

If they wish to remain valid they should return working to change the hearts of men than seeking to support the tyrants and the use of force to achieve their ends.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
Pope Francis grew up in the Marxist stew of Argentina. I doubt if he has read Bastiat or Hayek. I doubt if he has a clue about voluntary exchange between individuals, the basis of the free market system. He certainly is not an intellectual or he would know better than to pray by a "kill the Jews" wall slogan on his visist to President Abbas a few weeks ago.

Clerics are people, no better, no worse in understanding of economic principles than average, probably worse than average since they get paid by their constituents no matter what, rather like government employees. An American bishop can extol "family reunification" of illegal immigrants without offering one cent to pay for the groceries, rent, medical expenses etc of these law breaking foreigners. Somehow, they think this money comes from the tooth fairy.

I have a hard time going to receive the sacraments from my home church: Catholicism, because of the many ignoramuses and hypocirtes in the leadership speaking out about topics they are ignorant of, and willing to bankrupt the country for their social justice utopia.
10 weeks ago
10 weeks ago Link To Comment
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