Monday, June 29, 2009

Reclaiming Homo Economicus

However, certain concepts have somehow arisen out of these new conditions and insinuated themselves into the fabric of human society. These concepts present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations.

This unbridled liberalism paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by Our predecessor Pius XI, for it results in the "international imperialism of money."

Such improper manipulations of economic forces can never be condemned enough; let it be said once again that economics is supposed to be in the service of man.
(Populorum Progressio 26)

With the Pope's new encyclical signed and set to come out, debate rages over at Father Z.'s blog, and I must say I am not very impressed with any of the interlocutors at this point - neither in their display of tact and charity, nor in their argumentation.

The "camps" in the discussion are such as one might expect to find. There are those arguing something of a "collectivist" programme; and then there are standard free-market apologists waving the banners of Hayek and Novack. Both sides claim the body of Catholic Social Doctrine to support their claims. Accusations are made in either direction of "cafeteria Catholicism" and a "hermeneutic of discontinuity." Some hope that the Pope will provide specific policy directives in his new encyclical (and of these, some hope for more liberal economic advice, others for a collectivist sort), and there are still some who tremble that the specificity will resemble past statements (like the one quoted above) which still unnerve so many.

To all of this, I have simply to say: let's wait and read what the current Pope has said, and in the meantime, let's spend time going back and praying over what the previous Popes have said (yes, all of them, not just John Paul II). But whilst we study, we can try to continue discussion on some fundamental issues which seem to shape our understanding of what the Papal Magisterium offers us in this regard...

I will be working through a couple of the major philophical question which seem to be logically prior to any consideration of what the Pope might say, as they seem to condition us as to how we'll read and interpret what he does have to say. Put more simply, and to use an illustration: Michael Novack and I read Centesimus Annus very differently. And at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I simply will not defer to Professor Novack's greater learning and experience on this because I have read his reasoning as to why he reads that document how he does, and I see fundamentally different philosophical approaches. It is not a matter of greater or lesser understanding on different levels. It is a matter of ways of understanding. I hope to provide here over the next few posts suggestions of ways to read the Papal Magisterium on Social Doctrine.

So, please stay tuned, and chime in at any time.

And, oh yes, my title.... As I hope to demonstrate, the differences between the arguers on the post that has me so miffed lie deep down prior to any technical discussion of economic policy. The differences are philosophical: they concern what economics is all about, what the economy is, and what it is for. They concern how economics as a science should relate to other disciplines and questions. Anyway, at the end of all this, I will suggest that the Distributist position understands economics in such a way that, really, we might say that man is indeed homo economicus with no harm to the school. This is because economics is wider and interpenetrated with other concerns and "humanized" so to speak. And thus, perhaps the recovery of a true sense of man as an economizer (in our sense of the term) is precisely what is to be desired.

And so let us proceed.

(NB: The quote from PP at the top is not meant to relate substantively to this or any of the following posts, and I do consider this to be one of the many statements in the Social Magisterium that needs interpreting and careful consideration. In fact, I picked that quote as an intro precisely because it invites that question of "What do we do with this?" - discussion of which I hope can take place on this blog and elsewhere in the weeks to come.)


  1. I think it would be a good idea that you point out, for those who may be confused, that liberal economics does not mean the economics ascribed to by modern "liberals", and the same goes for conservatism. It's quite interesting how it depends on where and when you are that governs whether you're considered "liberal" or "conservative". Gilbert himself was certainly a "liberal" in his time.

  2. Fair point, Tim. Yeah, when I refer to "liberal economics," that should be distinguished from modern social liberalism. See here. That having been said, when GKC refers to himself as a liberal at any time, he's doing his normal thing of stretching expectations and associations with a word in some senses, although even in Gilbert I would argue one could see a progression from certain more "liberal" tendencies early on to a type of "conservatism" later in life.

    However, Gilbert's economics was Distributism and that sort of defies easy categorization. It is liberal in the sense that it wants a full share of liberty, such as from government interference in private affairs. It is conservative in its harkening back to tradition and its dedication to family values and the small endeavor.

    It is also worth noting while you can easily define "classical liberalism" in economic theory, this is not opposed per se to a school of "conservatism" but rather to tendancies of Socialism, collectivism, or the like. This highlights how the terms we use to speak about politics and political economy are sometimes easy to conflate. Also, while the theoretical lines are easily drawn, I would argue that there has been so much mixing in practice that the question has become more complicated that most practitioners are willing to admit. Classical liberals or neo-cons or libertarians will all blame Keynes for the "mixing," but the bloodlines weren't as pure before Keynes theorized as they make out. The State had not kept out of business, it was just that it favored the big money Capitalist so its interference was welcome. The small man has always, in the industrialized world, east and west, been pushed to the sidelines by the folks running the show.

    But now I'm on a tangent. I think we've cleared up the query, though?


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