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.