How is Professor Epstein unlike the Pope?

Richard Epstein has an online piece entitled How Is Warren Buffett Like the Pope?

It seems that on the way to Spain for World Youth Day the Pope said that the economy “cannot be measured by the maximum profit but by the common good,” and that it “cannot function only with mercantile self-regulation but needs an ethical reason in order to work for man.” Epstein has major problems with that.

Putting aside complaints about socialism that don’t have much to do with what the Pope said, his argument seems to be that the common good reduces without remainder to maximum profit: it’s the good of the persons who make up the community, and the good of those persons (it seems) is simply the sum of their profits. From that it would follow that “ethical reason” and the invisible hand of “mercantile self-regulation” are the same, since both are a matter of maximizing individual profits, so it makes no sense to claim the latter falls short of the former.

Isn’t there some sort of fallacy of composition here? And is it really true that all goods have a price tag? Suppose, for example, the economic system produces lots of profits for everyone, but also makes people crude, rude, anxious, grasping, misanthropic, and bored. They all end up hitting the bottle, watching reality TV, or worse. Or suppose it makes people hate each other, so they can’t live together peacefully and spend their spare time figuring out how to stick it to each other.

If that should happen—the degree to which it does is not really the issue, since Epstein seems to be making a conceptual point—the Pope would no doubt scratch his head and say something must have gone wrong somewhere. He might go so far as to say that maximum aggregate financial success is not the common good, since it’s quite consistent with everyone being miserable and leading a cruddy life, and that our life together needs to be guided by a viewpoint that is more comprehensive than the mercantile one.

Epstein seems to think that would be out of bounds. That’s puzzling. Maybe the explanation is that he thinks he can make more money saying that. The business of selling words is after all a business, and by conceptual necessity maximum profit means maximum benefit, so it would be irrational and indeed wrong for him to say anything for any other reason. Why should the business he’s in be different from any other?

In fact, though, it seems more likely that the good professor is a hypocrite who in spite of his professed principles has a secret interest in what’s true and what makes for a better life for everyone. That, I suspect, is the actual shameful motive that guides him in what he says. If so, he might reflect that ultimate goals are not the same as particular arrangements intended to advance those goals in some respect, so denouncing a purely profit-oriented view of things is not the same as proposing the abolition of profit as a recognized legitimate standard for decision. Which is what his piece seems to suggest.

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