Economics & The Common Good

Now that I’ve looked at a core dispute between libertarians and “progressives”, I want to address my traditionalist friends. By “traditionalist” I do not mean liturgical or doctrinal traditionalist – I am one of those myself. I mean instead people who resist the changes to society brought about by modernity in general, and who resist “liberalism” in particular. Some disclaimers are in order: first, I am most emphatically not one of those libertarians who believes that the world was a dark, oppressive place until the “Enlightenment” came along.

I do not see, for instance, the Declaration of Independence as a sole or even primary product of the “Enlightenment”, but rather as the product of Christian natural law tradition. That isn’t to say that there is nothing new in the American experiment, but it is not the total novelty that others make it out to be either. American civilization stands on the shoulders of Christendom, whether the anti-Catholic prejudice of the American founders could appreciate it or not. I also make very sharp distinctions between the Anglo-American and Continental “Enlightenments.” The French Revolution created a horrific and monstrous tyranny that Catholics were right to resist, and sowed the seeds for an even worse tyranny in the form of communism.

But some changes were bound to happen. Our societies and our beliefs will always be shaped by the way we live our lives, and the way we live our lives has been radically transformed by technology, by the industrial and information revolutions of the past two centuries. As a result of these changes, Catholics have been forced to distinguish in a new way between what is timeless and absolute and what is largely the product of culture.

In my view, the encyclical Rerum Novarum was an acknowledgement of what had been understood by classical liberal economists since Locke: that the growth of the global economy and later, the development of industry, required a fresh look at private property rights and political liberties that would not have been called for in more static and predictable times. Prior to Rerum, what Aristotle had to say about private property through Aquinas might have been the final word. But through Rerum, Locke now enters the picture.  The acquisition and use of private property is no longer merely a preferable arrangement to communism, as it was in Aristotle’s Politics, but is in fact a natural right belonging to each individual that precedes (morally, if not historically) the creation or interest of any political community. A society that respects this natural right will, as a matter of course and not any additional policies, develop a free-market economy based upon voluntary, mutual exchange.

It then becomes the task of economists to understand how such economies work and to offer an objective account of the advantages that they bring about. But here we run into a massive stumbling block with many traditionalists and many leftists as well. Most of them simply accept the Marxist narrative of capitalist development, which sees nothing but a bloody and (oddly enough for leftists who reject objective morality) evil history of expropriation and exploitation. Of the tens of millions of lives that directly benefit from the mass production of higher quality goods and services, we generally hear nothing. When we do hear about mass consumption, it is to inveigh against the “brainwashing” of advertising, which wouldn’t sit so well if one considered the countless businesses that have been forced to shut down because they couldn’t convince people to buy their products.

A common refrain I hear from both traditionalist and leftist “social justice” Catholics is that the field of economics does not pay sufficient attention to the moral dimensions of the economy. This is one of the most ignorant and unsupported claims I have ever heard, though. The economists of the Austrian school, for instance, spend a great deal of time discussing the moral dimension of economics because they hold certain principles, such as the inviolability of private property rights and the non-aggression principle, as sacrosanct. That some may do so as agnostics or atheists is certainly a problem for those individuals, but it doesn’t change the substance of their work. They are also concerned with the real and actual common good, which they argue is best served by a free market economy. This is far from the picture of indifference and doctrinaire individualism that is often associated with libertarianism.

The righteous protest against Wal-Mart, for instance, is often a series of grievances that emanate from very narrow constituencies; weighed against the tens of millions of individuals and families, most of whom are of poor or average means, who benefit directly from Wal-Mart’s low prices, it is not hard to see where the common good actually lies. It is time to stop conflating the narrow interests of workers whose skills are becoming obsolete or small businessmen whose products are noncompetitive with “the common good”, and start calling them what they are: special interests lobbying a coercive institution to arrest the free development of the economy and invalidate the choices made by consumers. Even if such lobbying could be morally justified in itself, the irrationality of using force to override the rational decisions of consumers will create economic problems that cause far greater harm.

To create the kind of society we want to see, we must ultimately persuade people. This is all most businesses engage in (when they aren’t relying on the state), and it is what our own religion teaches. The early Christians did not need a king to force everyone to become a Christian. They won hearts and minds by way of example. Nothing in a free market economy prevents people from deciding, on their own, to pool their resources and commit to a certain way of life. We might call this “voluntary collectivism”, to which no libertarian can possibly pose a moral or legal objection. No one has to be some sort of individualist, a doctrinaire Objectivist who despises the poor and dies miserable and alone after a lifetime of hate.

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  • Teresa Rice  On April 6, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Spot on!! I get so sick of people complaining about the so-called ill treatment of employees at Wal-Mart. If people weren’t treated well to a certain degree no person would want to work there. Plus, they are unskilled laborers so to expect earning above a certain wage is unreasonable.

    God Bless.

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