Tom Woods has a piece at LewRockwell.com on Catholic social teaching discussing the relation between (resolutely free-market) Austrian economics and various papal pronouncements of the past century, and why orthodox Catholics who also like Austrian economics should follow what their economic theories say alleviates poverty or whatever rather than take the Pope’s advice when the two conflict.
It’s an important issue. Those who speak for the Church ought to be intelligent about things, but when it comes to economics they usually aren’t. Also, being stupid about economics helps the project of turning religion into a collection of this-worldly social goals, which is a bad thing.
Tom’s discussion raises a couple of questions, though:
- Why is ignoring the literal meaning of repeated papal teachings on social justice because of what an economist says wholly different from ignoring the literal meaning of repeated papal teachings on sexual morality because of what a psychologist says?
- What makes the terms of agreement between the parties the sole legitimate legal criterion in employment but not in other important personal relationships?
His argument is that moral dogma should respect the autonomy of the sciences and accommodate what they tell us about how the world works. Economics studies human conduct of a certain type as a system that operates in accordance with principles that can be uncovered by objective and (he says) value-free investigation. Moral doctrine should accept that the system works as it does. Its task is then to make recommendations as to outcomes to be promoted (e.g., greater well-being for the poor) and conduct within the system (e.g., no stealing or cheating, because they interfere with the system’s beneficial functioning and so are bad).
The effect is that if the Pope says “Yay for minimum wage laws” the doctrinal part of what he’s saying is “Yay for measures that reduce involuntary poverty,” and the rest is his (contestable and indeed false) theory about how to bring that about. Austrian economics tells us that the real practical application of the doctrine in question is “Yay for getting rid of minimum wage laws,” because that will maximize economic well-being not only generally but even for the poor. Catholic scholars have the right to point that out, and Catholic voters and lawmakers have the right to believe and act on that interpretation of the real import of Catholic moral doctrine.
It’s an impressive argument, but the autonomy of the social sciences could also be applied to other sciences or alleged sciences like psychology. Morality includes very general principles (the Golden Rule) and more particular applications (no usury, no sexual relations outside a particular sort of relationship). If you say modern social science should connect the former with the latter you have to deal with the consequences. A psychologist might claim that the function of sex in human life is such that institutional and public acceptance of “gay marriage” would the best way to promote the psychological flourishing of those who are sexually attracted to persons of the same sex. He might claim that if you improve on traditional misconceptions of psychological and social functioning then it turns out that “sex is for marriage,” the traditional statement of Church doctrine, should really be understood to mean “sex is for committed long-term loving relationships that have a right to be socially sanctioned.”
Also, the proposal seems to be that for a broad range of human relationships—those classified as economic—arm’s-length contract should be the exclusive legal standard. Other consensual relationships like marriage can and indeed should be legally regulated on other principles. What makes the bright line between the two types of relationships plausible? Economic conduct can be bad for non-economic reasons. Even if making divorce lawyers part of an employee legal plan makes economic sense because people want the coverage and it helps minimize disruptions due to sticky personal situations, it would be bad from a Catholic standpoint because it wouldn’t respect a particularly important human relationship, and human relationships often matter more than immediate efficiency. Could the same be said about making it too easy to fire people, or terms and conditions of employment that make it very difficult to understand employer and employee as joint participants in a common enterprise with a consequent personal connection? The employer/employee relationship is obviously much weaker and more variable than the husband/wife relationship, but it’s still a human relationship people rely on that can become part of their idea of who they are. Is a standard based purely on economic efficiency the one people will always be best off living with, so that legal intervention based on other considerations can be seen to be wrong without further argument? If so, why do people hate that kind of standard so much?
I don’t think the objections are crushing, but they have to be dealt with so the argument will make sense to people and fit in with other things they understand and believe. A problem with arguments from free-market economics is that they seem altogether too clever, so people don’t trust them, and it’s sometimes not clear how they relate to other kinds of reasoning that also seem legitimate and necessary. Questions like these touch on very basic things—sex, family life, economics, making a living, the relation among doctrine, practice and various types of knowledge and theorizing—and I don’t think they have snappy demonstrative answers. You need Pascal’s intuitive mind and Newman’s illative sense to deal with them. I think the accumulation of distinctions does show that a very different approach makes sense when you’re dealing with sex and family on the one hand and employment and markets on the other. You get into questions like:
- How have Church teachings been presented—as generally applicable and definitive or as judgments regarding particular circumstances?
- What do they relate to—something general and innate to human life like sex or something that depends on particular and shifting circumstances and institutions like industrial organization?
- How stable, and how long and widely accepted, have they been?
- What is the status of the purported “science”—are there good reasons other than the proponents’ claim of expertise for thinking it’s reliable and adequate to the issues? Has it been found to work?
- And if it seems there’s something misconceived about a traditional teaching—the prohibition against usury for example—what were they getting at? Was it really just a matter of misapplying the principle that we should all be nice to each other, or is something actually wrong with the disaggregation of the various elements of economic activity that the practice of loaning money at interest creates?
Considerations like that are individually matters of degree, though, and that makes things messy. It means if someone wants to object he can find ways of objecting forever. Such is life.