New Distributism 2 — Mistakes To Avoid For Theologians Talking About Economics

I am writing a series of columns on Catholic social doctrine. Here’s all of them.

(Note: the series starts with criticism of the status quo, but it gets better, don’t worry.)

In my previous column, I articulated what in my view is the most important critique of most current Catholic thinking on economics : to put it simply, a lack of imagination. I maintain that to say this is the opposite of a surface critique—it is a fundamental critique. Why? Because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a sign of contradiction to all nations—and to all ideologies, economic and otherwise. The problem of Catholic social doctrine isn’t that it follows the wrong school of thought, it’s that it should follow any thought at all.

Today, I want to focus on another problem I too often see in theological and religious commentary on economics, and I would call it aestheticism.

Like it or not, economics is an empirical discipline.

Yes, yes, economics is not as empirical as many economists think. Yes, yes, the mathematical models of economics have many problems and they are certainly not the only valid mode of inquiry into economics. And yes, certainly, just like every other sapientia, the fact that economics is empirical certainly does not immunize it from moral or theological judgement.

But any fruitful engagement with economics must start with what economics actually is and must be aware of its terms—either explicitly superseding them, or engaging it in those terms.

Niels Bohr famously described a non-falsifiable scientific hypothesis as “not even wrong.” By this he meant that, because the hypothesis could not be either proven or disproven through experiment or other empirical means, it was beyond the remit of science, and thus not even wrong.

Now, it’s fine to make non-scientific claims when you are not making science. But when we mistake science for theology—and vice versa—we make mistakes. When some clerics disputed the heliocentric model of the Solar System on the basis of scriptural evidence, they were not even wrong. They were doing bad science and (even worse) bad theology.

In economic theology, this most often takes the form of what I’ll call aestheticism—in other words, giving economic warrant to certain arrangements not on the basis of either empirical determination or (I would argue) good theology, but rather a romantic, aesthetic feeling.

This might seem a little vague, so let me give some examples.

A good example would be John XXIII’s praise of government subsidies for agriculture, based on aesthetic rationale, even though one of the few topics on which almost all economists and other experts agree is that government subsidies for agriculture are a disaster. Now, maybe those experts are wrong—unanimous experts are more often wrong than we like, and the Gospel is the supreme authority. But this seems to be something the Pope isn’t aware of. Empirics shouldn’t be the end of the discussion, but it should be part of it.

But the key warning sign of “not even wrong” aestheticsm is the use of ill-defined, or not-defined terms.

For example, in Caritas In Veritate, Benedict XVI uses a well-worn (that lack of imagination again) dichotomy of the “real economy”, as opposed to the world of finance. I would argue that there it is impossible to draw a distinction between those two things. But Benedict doesn’t even try. What we have here, I would argue, is an aesthetic distinction. The “real” economy of tangible stuff is seen as more worthy than the supposed economy of intangibles because one simply feels prettier.

The Pope Emeritus also warns against a “speculative” use of economic resources. What is speculation ? How do we distinguish it from—presumably worthy—investment? For once, this most keen of thinkers neglects to even try to define his terms.

Most religious preaching on economics is filled with this stuff. We often hear an excoriation of short-term profit-making as opposed to long-term profit-making—okay, fair enough, but why? And where do you draw the line? There might be good answers to these questions, but they are almost never asked, let alone answered.

It seems that if you’re a Christian trying to apply a moral lense to economic actions, you are left with Justice Potter Stewart’s famous porn rule: you know immorality when you see it.

This is not enough. It’s bad economics and bad theology. The Church should either engage economics on its own terms or criticize it in a properly theological sense—what I call the prophetic voice. When St Basil the Great told his rich parishioners that their bread belongs to the poor, he was not doing economics, either good or bad, but he was preaching the Gospel, and that is of much higher value.

But what I call theological aestheticism tries to do both at the same time and, in the end, fails at both.


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