Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Man, State, Economics

by Fr. Kenneth Novak



Economics begins with the "management of the household" and deals primarily with the family. Only secondarily is it concerned with "Political Economy," that is, the relation of the family to external goods, with the wealth of the nation and how that wealth is produced, distributed, exchanged, and consumed. The modern economist holds Political Economy to be a physical or natural science with rigid laws, comparable to physics or geometry, which can be methodically studied and empirically tested. The point for these moderns is that the "natural" law which governs economic science is not normative (i.e., consisting of moral laws that govern what man ought to do in this or that situation) but it is rather analytic (i.e., based simply upon conclusions drawn from observation and analysis). But, believing that Economics works the same as gravity works is nuts. The law of gravity is a property of physical nature that cannot be denied without serious consequences. "Laws" of economics which demonstrate that the big firm "must" always swallow the small firm may seem irrefutably true in a society in which laissez faire (literally, "let people do [as they please]") is the law of the land, but the idea that I must conform to a "law" of this kind simply because this observed "swallowing phenomena" is likely to repeat itself—barring any moral, customary, or legal restraint—is nuts, too.

The "scientific" approach to Economics is based upon basic truths and observed behavior. Well and good, so far. For instance, it is not "economical" to undertake a productive activity if it consumes more wealth than it produces, or, men stranded on an island will immediately look to build shelter. Catholics often conclude, however, from considering this "scientific" aspect of Political Economy, that Economics is a science like math and chemistry are. But thinking of Economics only in this way leads Catholics to forget that Economics is governed by laws of justice and morality. No Catholic who understands Economics in a Catholic way would say selling pornography is an "economically valuable" activity any more than it was a moral one, or that just because America can be efficiently stocked with slave-produced Chinese junk (49 hours a week at 30-40 cents an hour), it is therefore "economical" that Wal-Mart be allowed to run every family retail and craft shop out of business.

Modern economists come to their "economic" conclusions by saying that they are "compelled" by "economic law" to argue for this and that proposition. Hilaire Belloc says that if Economics as a science is truly independent of morality, it cannot propose certain courses of action but only explain how the economic process works.

The Science of Economics does not deal with true happiness nor even with well-being in material things. It deals with a strictly limited field of what is called "Economic Wealth," and if it goes outside its own boundaries it goes wrong. Making people as happy as possible is much more than Economics can pretend to. Economics cannot even tell you how to make people well-to-do in material things. -Economics for Helen


Belloc writes that "economic law" provides no excuse for violation of the moral law, because though the two are independent one is subordinate to the other. Economics must be kept in its place in order to prevent its trumping the moral law:

The only difficulty is to keep in our minds a clear distinction between what is called economic law, that is, the necessary results of producing wealth, and the moral law, that is the matter of right and wrong in the distribution and use of wealth. Some people are so shocked by the fact that economic law is different from moral law that they try to deny economic law. Others are so annoyed by this lack of logic that they fall into the other error of thinking that economic law can override moral law. (Ibid)


Laissez faire Economics is practically laissez faire morality.

Moral philosophy is a "science" no less scientific than the next. Modern Catholics tend to think, however, of "science" as based upon natural observation and physical fact, and some other discipline as telling us how to behave. On the contrary it is very "scientific" to understand, based on first principles, how normative laws governing human action regulate not only private activity but also the public pursuit of wealth.

Knowing to what degree the science of wealth creation is ultimately subordinate to moral science would help clear up the confusion perpetuated by writers—among them even traditional Catholics—who refer to Economics as an exclusively "positive science" which is a "value-neutral, scientific discipline" and not the normative one of Political Economy which regulates human conduct. Once we skate on Economics as "value-neutral," we are on thin ice. Whereas Fr. Denis Fahey explains, "As the Mystical Body of Christ was accepted by mankind…economic thought and action began to respect the jurisdiction and guidance of the Catholic Church" (The Mystical Body of Christ in the Modern World, 5), we hear a woodpile of Catholic thinkers today deliberating that Church teaching of cardinal points of doctrine on man, society, and economic life are "an indefensible extension of the prerogatives of the Church's legitimate teaching office." On the contrary, it is from moral and social philosophy itself that economics as a social science must derive its essential concepts (Fr. Heinrich Pesch, Ethics and the National Economy)! From this foundation certain principles of moral rectitude in economic practice (beyond just theft and dishonesty) can be derived that are not the less true because the Magisterium has sought to authoritatively teach them for the common good.

On "Economics," the Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) says:

The best usage of the present time is to make political economy an ethical science, that is, to make it include a discussion of what ought to be in the economic world as well as what is. This has all along been the practice of Catholic writers.


Happily it also remains the practice of writers Christopher Ferrara and Dr. Peter Chojnowski. In this issue of The Angelus, they explain why we should reject modern schools of economics which fail to take root in a truly Catholic understanding of what justly guides and limits economic thought, namely, the moral and social philosophy that is the patrimony of the Church and her scholars. Actually, let me now pass the buck to them.

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