It seems that whenever the Church speaks out on issues of social and economic import, a host of voices unhappy with the message object that the Bishops are ignorant regarding the topic in question and unqualified to discuss it. This seems to be the case whether the issue is abortion, capital punishment, war or the economy. Breathless media coverage that quickly tries to shoehorn the issue into contemporary American ideological categories doesn’t help matters.
The recent message of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace regarding the global economy and the current crisis evoked this familiar reaction. But on reading the “reflection” – offered “in due respect for the competent civil and political authorities” – I did not see a Council presuming an expertise in economics. What I read was an attempt to explain the limits of the free markets and the necessity of ethical judgments informed by a Christian conscience.
Adam Smith famously taught us the social logic that governs the marketplace. “Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want… it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Humans seem to have a ceaseless desire for more goods, and the market is a marvelous tool for harnessing that desire and turning it to economic growth. But even if we should grant that this desire is on the whole an excellent thing, Christians – who are called to benevolence – should immediately perceive that there is something lacking in this logic.
Catholic social teaching is not premised on economic expertise but on the ability to adopt a standpoint outside the market and offer criteria for judgment. We cannot be satisfied with what the Council calls a “system of thought that sets down a priori the laws of market functioning and economic development, without measuring them against reality.” The Council continues, “The inequalities and distortions of capitalist development are often an expression not only of economic liberalism but also of utilitarian thinking: that is, theoretical and practical approaches according to which what is useful for the individual leads to the good of the community. This saying has a core of truth, but it cannot be ignored that individual utility -- even where it is legitimate -- does not always favour the common good. In many cases a spirit of solidarity is called for that transcends personal utility for the good of the community…..”
Is the market economy providing a just wage and a fair distribution of wealth, both among the social classes and the world’s peoples? Unless we are to accept market evaluations a priori as a measure of justice, we need a moral perspective outside the market to evaluate its performance and set appropriate boundaries for economic behavior.
The market economy has many positive features, but it cannot judge itself – nor does it offer a forum for collective deliberation and action. An individual who hews too much in the direction of benevolence in the conduct of his enterprise seems sure to be unhorsed by shrewder, more conventional market actors. It seems evident that if we are to come together to determine criteria of justice for the global economy and to put them into action we will need institutions of some sort. I’m not sure you need to be an economist to draw that conclusion, and I am not sure the Pontifical Council said more.