Faith and the Dismal Science

Our old friend Tom Woods has painted himself into a corner. Portraying himself as an uncompromising ultratraditionalist who will have no truck either with the Novus Ordo or with anyone who does not condemn the Orthodox to Hell, he nonetheless takes it upon himself to contradict the Church’s fundamental teachings on morality and society. Woods’s attempt to limit his attack to the encyclicals of Leo XIII and his successors is at best disingenuous, since the Church has spoken with one voice on our responsibility, both individual and collective, to provide for the poor and to practice economic justice. The voice was and is the voice of Christ. Woods is not rejecting merely this or that Pope or even the traditions of the Church: He is rejecting the teachings of Christ. If he or his libertarian friends dispute this statement, let them cite the Scriptural passages and authoritative Fathers and theologians who can refute it.

And for what mess of pottage is young Thomas selling his Catholic and Christian birthright? For the economic theories of the Austrian school, which he regards not simply as theories but as scientific truths as rock-solid as the Pythagorean Theorem or the formula for DNA. Let us set aside, for the sake of argument, the authority of the Church or of Christ Himself, and look only at this assertion. Since Adam Smith, there have been many economic theories, some of them more probable than others, and on certain questions there is broad—though hardly universal agreement; on others none at all. Even major economic thinkers on basically the same side—say Friedman, Rothbard, and Stigler—disagree on many things. How does a non-economist—like Woods, his mentor Lew Rockwell, or me—decide which of their writings is Holy Writ, which is apostolic apocrypha, and which is arrant heresy? I don’t know and neither do they.

Science is a slippery term because in English we use it primarily to mean a hard science like physics and chemistry or microbiology. Sociology and economics are only metaphorically sciences in this strict sense. Of course any disciplined body of knowledge is also a science, as theology and literary criticism are sciences, but these looser sciences do not presume to dictate absolute rules on the order of 2+2=4. Aristotle settled this question long ago, and it is one of the prime mistakes of the modernists since Descartes to pretend that there can be an absolute science of human behavior or society. If Woods were consistent in his logic, he would have to set all the teachings of the social sciences against the teachings of the Church. He would of course argue that economics is somehow different, but who would agree with him?

In championing the social sciences over the magisterium, Woods is adopting an old, though discredited line of thought going back to the Averroists, namely, that revelation and philosophy are independent of each other. The Church rejected this reasoning a long time ago, if only because it implies that the teachings of the Church are incompatible with the truth as discovered by reason. One may, of course, declare the Church’s traditions to be hogwash, but one cannot at the same time claim to be Catholic.

One of the sources of Woods’ confusion is that he does not distinguish between economics as an analytical tool subject to verification and economic philosophy, which is a branch of ethical and political theory. These are quite distinct, just as distinct as evolutionary theory and social Darwinism. I might generally endorse Adam Smith’s analysis of markets, as I do, while repudiating his moral philosophy (The Theory of Moral Sentiments), as I also do. Put simply, a mathematician has the right to instruct the Church on the rules of geometry, but he has no right to tell the Pope how those rules are to be applied, for example, in the construction of a Church. To take a trivial example, the sphere might be a perfect shape, mathematically considered, but it is hardly the right shape for a Church.

Let us then for the sake of argument assume that the school of Mises and Hayek and Rothbard is entirely right in its economic analysis of how markets and business cycles work—though not even the most scientific discipline has arrived at such absolute truth. If they are correct, they can predict the results of political decisions that constrain the market—zoning restrictions applied to the centro storico of Rome and the Borgo Pio (the neighborhood beside the Vatican). What they cannot do—as a real advocate of the free market is supposed to understand—is dictate our preferences. What if I prefer to see the Campo dei Fiori as it is and do not want the monument to the burned heretic Giordano Bruno to be torn down and replaced by a McDonald’s or the ruined Theater of Pompey turned into a Wal-Mart? How can an economist presume to tell me I am wrong?

Who made Mises or Rockwell or Woods the moral and aesthetic dictators of the human race? Of course, they would respond that they don’t care what our moral or aesthetic preference might be, so long as we do not impose it by the government. I realized the childishness of this argument long ago, when I proposed a solution to the censorship problem. “Let’s take government out of the picture,” I suggested. You can sell any kind of pornography anywhere you like and I can burn down your store—it will be up to you to defend your premises. Oh, but protection of private property is a sacred duty of government. Really? More sacred than protecting the innocent? When push comes to shove, the libertarian always invokes the power of the state to protect what he wants, and he sees no contradiction when other leftists want to use the state to protect what they want. Yes, other leftists.

Let us be clear what the argument is and is not about. Neither I nor my colleagues are collectivists or socialists. We utterly condemn and repudiate Marxism in all its forms. We also seek to limit rather than to expand the power of the state. As I used to say to my old friend Murray Rothbard: Let us agree on dismantling 90% of what the US government does, and until we succeed, let us postpone all argument about the other 10%. I have also argued, far more explicitly and coherently than the Austrians, against the welfare state that is a mockery of Christian charity up to and including Social Security. What Woods and Rockwell are arguing for, however, is not merely the limitation of the state to protection of their interests. No, they are explicitly denying the moral order and, because that argument has limited appeal, they attempt to fool their followers by pretending to champion economic freedom against its enemies, whether those enemies are Marxists or collectivist Catholics. To imply that Leo XIII—or any Pope before Paul VI was any kind of socialist—is dishonest.

Yes, Popes have made mistakes and Church Councils have gone astray and received correction from later Councils, but the Tradition of the Church is infallible. And, to give no offense to our sincere Protestant friends, I am happy, for the sake of this argument, to stipulate any reasonable cut-off date—say A.D. 1000 or even 600—because the catholic and orthodox traditions of the Church have spoken with one voice, not only on the nature of the Trinity but also on man’s moral responsibilities.

The Church has always repudiated both Communism and Liberalism (that is, the free-market individualism preached by Smith and Mill). In advocating social responsibility for employers’ and governments, 19th- and 20th-century Popes were simply confronting the challenges of their own age, just as the earliest Popes confronted the challenges of Arianism and Monophysitism, Goths and Lombards. If Tom Woods and his libertarian buddies want to preach a different social gospel, they would do well to look for another religion. What is the point of clinging to the formalities of a Latin mass, whose language they do not know, if they are willing to jettison the teachings of Christ and his Church on which their hope of salvation depends? Of all the heresies the Church has faced in its history, the Austrian heresy must be the pettiest. Give it up, friend Thomas, and return to the Church.

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