The Limits of Economics

Actually, to say that Woods replies is a bit of an overstatement; he cranked out 2,078 words overnight (a feat for which Lew Rockwell praises him), but very few of those words address the arguments that Storck raised. In fact, he includes only one quotation from Storck, which he uses to set up a straw man that he can knock down. The rest of the article avoids engaging Storck’s very well-thought out critique. It is evident that Storck read Woods’ article very closely and took Woods’ argument quite seriously; the least Woods could have done was to return the favor.

Instead, Woods begins by complaining that people have taken his argument seriously enough to respond to it:

There are few things more frustrating than writing a book, and then being confronted with a ceaseless stream of arguments you’ve already answered while you’re waiting for it to be published.

That’s an odd statement for a writer to make; presumably, Woods published his essay when he did in order to stimulate debate and discussion. After all, his articles are not papal encyclicals, which, by their nature, are meant to limit (or, in some cases, even preclude) further discussion. If Woods didn’t want folks such as Storck and myself to respond to “The Trouble With Catholic Social Teaching” until his book appeared, then there was a simple answer: Don’t publish the essay. If he’s frustrated because his book answers questions that his essay did not, then I’ll be happy to review the pre-publication manuscript (and I’m sure Storck would be as well). In doing so, we might even be able to help him improve his book.

In this latest essay, Woods reiterates his earlier argument—the Church has no special competence in economic affairs, and, therefore, She should not make pronouncements about what should be done in the economic sphere—apparently believing that Storck and I and others didn’t understand it the first time. The problem, however, is that we did; we simply disagree. (Readers might legitimately wonder why someone who received his degree in history has a greater insight on economic matters than a pope; apparently, as an advisor, the Holy Spirit is a bit more fallible than Lew Rockwell.)

Woods bases his argument on his belief that economics is a science, which, in this and in his earlier article, he has compared to architecture and mathematics (while, paradoxically, insisting that Austrian economists “criticize the attempt to fashion economics along the model of physics and the hard sciences.”) He writes:

If things work a certain way, no Church pronouncement can make them work another way. That is the crux of my argument. “What was wrong with Catholic social thought in the nineteenth century,” writes Fordham University’s Fr. James Sadowsky, “was not so much its ethics as its lack of understanding of how the free market can work. The concern for the worker was entirely legitimate, but concern can accomplish little unless we know the causes and the cures for the disease.”

Father Sadowsky’s point seems perfectly obvious to me. My position, therefore, in no way involves the claim that the sciences per se, including economics, are exempt from moral evaluation. They are, however, exempt from technical critiques on the part of the Church, since churchmen may speak only as individuals on such questions and not for the Church as a whole.

But who determines what works, and—more importantly—who determines the criteria by which we determine whether something is working? That is the crux of this debate. Even Father Sadowsky, in the quote above, doesn’t make the kind of absolutist statement that Tom Woods makes—Father Sadowsky criticizes 19th-century Catholic social thought for failing to understand “how the free market can work” (an ideal) not how it does work (a reality).

To illustrate the point, let’s take an example from Woods’ latest article:

It is all well and good for churchmen to say that churches should be built with the sturdiest materials in order that they might remain standing for as long as possible. But they go beyond their competence as churchmen and their ability to bind the faithful on pain of mortal sin as soon as they say, “The best building materials are A, B, and C, and the wisest techniques to use are X, Y, and Z.” A churchman qua churchman has been vouchsafed no particular insight into such a question.

Notice the artificial constriction of the role of “churchmen” and the concerns that they are legitimately (according to Woods) allowed to have. What Woods may not know, however, is that this example has a particular relevance. In certain ethnic Eastern churches (Catholic as well as Orthodox), there is a tradition of constructing church buildings entirely out of wood and fastening the boards with wooden pegs rather than nails. In recent years, some Eastern bishops have begun urging their parishes to return to this tradition; some, I understand, have even required it in their dioceses. Are they wrong to do so?

In Woods’ worldview, yes, because all they can possibly be concerned about is “that churches should be built with the sturdiest materials in order that they might remain standing for as long as possible.” Wood is clearly not “the best building material” for that task, nor is eschewing the use of nails “the wisest technique.” The funny thing is, these church buildings not only serve their purpose quite well; many of the Eastern Christians who worship in them believe that they serve that purpose much better than church buildings that are built using better materials and wiser techniques. For one thing, they are a living monument to their traditional Christianity; for another, they take much longer to build and therefore represent a greater labor of love than the concrete block churches of the West that may last longer but, alas, are less likely to be filled.

(By the way, what purpose can Woods possibly have in bringing up churchmen’s “ability to bind the faithful on pain of mortal sin” in this context, other than to set up a straw man? Since, in his article, church architecture is just an analogy for the Church’s social teaching, perhaps he can tell us which pope has claimed that one of his social encyclicals binds the faithful on pain of mortal sin. It’s hard to take Woods’ arguments seriously when he seems more concerned with winning points than with accurately representing the tradition—yes, tradition—that he’s arguing against.)

This, in the end, is what it all comes down to: What is the purpose of the market and of economic freedom? For that matter, what is the purpose of government? The Church has, for 2,000 years, offered a very specific answer to both questions. Here’s a hint: It’s not providing the maximum number of goods at the lowest cost to the greatest number of “consumers.”

(As always, we welcome your comments and discussion in the writebacks. Please, if you have the time, read both of Woods’ articles, Storck’s response, and the earlier discussion over on my weblog as well, and feel free to bring material into the discussion from those sources.)

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