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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Towards A Catholic Economic Anthropology (4) : Further Implications Of Market Co-Creative Service
The Scandal of Wealth vs the Scandal of Poverty
New Distributism 4 — Why The Church Needs A Prophetic Economic Voice
New Distributism 5 — Towards A Catholic Economic Anthropology (1) : Markets And Original Sin
  • Guest

    I’m glad that you insisted that this is the beginning of a larger thought structure on social doctrine. Where’s rerum novarum in all of this, BRO?

    • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      Heh. Well, in its praise of Medieval guilds, Rerum Novarum is not exempt from all aestheticism.

      • Paul S.

        Hehe good point! I’d like to hear you expound further on that, since I know the guilds are a favorite of “Renaissance-faire” Catholics.

        • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

          It’s in the plan. ;)

  • Allston

    Ah, that was Wolfgang Pauli, not Bohr. FYI.

    • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      I’ve seen it attributed to countless people.

      • brianmacker

        Really? Funny but I couldn’t even find it attributed to Neils Bohr except by you. A correct response to Allston might have been “I got confused”, or “I believed a bad source”. I’m not sure what caused you to make this false claim followed by a non-response, perhaps gullibility, perhaps pride, but I’ll leave it up to you to now give an honest answer instead of a flippant one. It’s ironic that you stumble on such minor ethical issues yet presume to be able to tackle ones of larger scope. If you are too lazy to get this minor issue correct why trust you on others?

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I like to start with a certain atheist comedian…When you start treating people like things, that is the beginning of evil.

    And that sums up Catholic CST rather well. Modern finance derivatives, for instance, of the sort that got the Bankers in trouble in 2007 and that Pope Benedict was writing about, divorce the lender from the borrower, and start treating the borrower as a thing instead of a person.

    Even such rotten ideas as agricultural subsidies sound great locally, but have a devastating effect in a global marketplace, when you separate farmer from eater.

    Centralization will produce evil, but only because it treats people like something other than people.

    • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      Derivatives might suck, or they might not. Being able to hedge against a drop in the value of your house, as Robert Shiller has proposed, sounds like a good idea. The problem with economics is that slogans only take you so far.

      • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

        Or to put it the way a web or database developer might- economics is a system that does not scale well.

        It’s that reason that I support the concept of distributed and decentralized markets. Human beings are incapable of having more than 1000 friends, and economic transactions stop creating good (or even movement) at 8 levels of redirection (as can be seen in the WheresGeorge.com data, which when analyzed shows that even the central planners in the New York Stock Exchange and Washington DC have failed to unify the United States into a single market – Money tends to stay within logical communities as it circulates).

        http://www.fastcoexist.com/1681677/a-new-map-of-the-us-created-by-how-our-dollar-bills-move

        In fact, I strongly suspect that naturally, about 8 million people make up a market- and that trade between markets should be strongly limited to provide more employment (economy of scale is the enemy of the working man almost as much as automation is).

      • KP

        The problem with economics is that slogans only take you so far.

        You’re too kind to slogans. In general, they only take you “so far, and that distance is measured in millimeters“.

    • Paul S.

      The biggest problem with the recent crisis was there was no accountability. Derivatives were not to blame, but rather bad practices that were not stopped which misused them. My economics professor, (he’s a liberal who prefers Keynes; while I took everything he said with a grain of salt, this made sense to me) showed us this interview with Brooksley Born, who said she was basically told to stand down when she tried to regulate some of these instruments. I don’t know how how accurate this is, but it’s thought provoking, and more logical than believing “all high finance is bad.”
      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/warning/interviews/born.html
      Then of course we don’t get accountability from DC because more than half of our elected officials don’t know anything about Finance… and anyone in the know realizes they need to cover their own asses. Iceland we are not.

      • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

        Bad practices start when you forget that those “instruments” are people’s lives. The entire intent of a derivative is to remove human emotion and fair dealing between a lender and a borrower- to sever the connection of friendship, the human relationship that might otherwise be there and allow for a more just market.

        These Credit Default Swaps wouldn’t be needed if there wasn’t a giant sucking sound towards New York City of all of the wealth in the United States, because there would still be enough local wealth to keep local markets moving.

        Once you’re sending off your mortgage payment out of state, or even out of county, you have sacrificed a major right to know your lender, or for that matter, the ability for the lender to personally know the borrower.

        • Paul S.

          I suppose I would generally prefer finance be more local, as per the principle of Subsidiarity. Another reason we need young Catholics to pioneer in the field and figure out a way to make it work. Finance is not going away, but how we use it is key. For this reason, I wish some of the Catholic colleges known for their theological/philosophical orthodoxy would establish finance/accountancy/entrepreneurial departments. It’s an ever growing field, and I don’t think you need a Theology degree to have a decent handle on Aquinas and Augustine. You should still be able to walk away from college with a set of business skills and be morally certain of their right uses.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            Sad to say, even my recent refi with a local credit union came with a clause that they can sell off my loan.

            I’m hoping they never do, that’s the reason I’m with them in the first place- in 2007, Chase took over my entire financial life. Good investment for them, it caused me to get my house in order and become almost debt free, except the mortgage. They’re now paid off and I’m never going to deal with an out-of-state bank again.

        • brianmacker

          “The entire intent of a derivative is to remove human emotion and fair dealing between a lender and a borrower- to sever the connection of friendship, the human relationship that might otherwise be there and allow for a more just market.”
          Really, care to support that? Actually, why don’t you try supporting all of your contentions here. I don’t personally know the people working at my local stores, or those manufacturing any of the goods I consume. It is in fact not important that I do given a framework of laws protecting individual rights. In fact, attempting to live by such a ethos of personal friendship and connection in my economic dealings would be impossible for me to manage, and extremely costly. Where on earth did you get this ridiculous belief (which almost sounds like Marxian alienation theory) that there has to be close personal meaning to economic transactions? The recent economic collapse had nothing to do with your concerns, and everything to do with governmental meddling in the free markets.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “I don’t personally know the people working at my local stores, or those manufacturing any of the goods I consume.”

            And the argument of Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, which inspired distributism in the first place, is that this form of modern economics, by its very anonymity, encourages injustice and abuse.

            “Where on earth did you get this ridiculous belief (which almost sounds like Marxian alienation theory) that their has to be close personal meaning to economic transactions?”

            Rerum Novarum discussed this in some length- including pointing out that the anonymous state of the Marxist scheme is actually worse than the anonymous marketplace of large scale capitalism.

            Economics does not scale, because man is Homo Fides, not Homo Economus, and anonymous price signals are not enough to insure a just market- only a free one, free from moral imperative. Catholicism is opposed to societies that are free from morality.

          • brianmacker

            Woosh, right over your head.

            “And the argument of Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, by its very anonymity, encourages injustice and abuse.”

            So what? He’s wrong. I could make the same argument that Pope Leo’s lack of knowledge of who exactly gave the donations he lived off “by its very anonymity, encourages injustice and abuse.”

            It’s just unreasonable, and actually economically unfeasible in terms of transaction costs to do what he proposes. The proof is in the fact that the church doesn’t bother with it either.

            Plus it is wrong because to a great extent it is the anonymity of the marketplace that works against bigotry. You can’t exactly shun a Catholic economically if you have no clue as to what goods he produced.

            “.. anonymous state of the Marxist scheme is actually worse …”

            Marxist dictatorships were anything but anonymous. The state (and the factories, and the banks) in fact knew way more about its “customers” than it should have. Their were spies everywhere getting to know your personal details.

            “Economics does not scale, because man is Homo Fides, not Homo Economus,”

            That’s economically ignorant nonsense. You have no clue what you are talking about. Economics obviously does scale, and beautifully. The reason why we have problems is precisely because the state, even in the US, has turned to central planning of the monetary system in order to achieve the kind of compassion that is not possible. Central planning never works. Compassion was the motivating factor behind Marxism also, which is why much of its ideological goals in economics sound like those of the Catholic Church.

            “and anonymous price signals are not enough to insure a just market- only a free one, free from moral imperative.”

            Poppy-cock. Price signals are about plan coordination. They send concentrated information about various peoples plans and set up the proper incentives to achieve those plans. Moral imperative is not something you can achieve with price controls. All you can achieve that way is shortages or surpluses, and thus more misery for everybody. You are talking like someone who expects that the can steer a car by grabbing hold of the car tire.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “So what? He’s wrong. ”

            And that’s why I say libertarians aren’t Catholic.

            “I could make the same argument that Pope Leo’s lack of knowledge of who exactly gave the donations he lived off “by its very anonymity, encourages injustice and abuse.”

            Well, by the time of Pope Leo XIII, that point had been made quite handedly by Victor Emanuel.

            “It’s just unreasonable, and actually economically unfeasible in terms of transaction costs to do what he proposes. The proof is in the fact that the church doesn’t bother with it either.”

            Except it does- every archdiocese is autonomous. Every decision is made by the least competent authority. This is referred to over and over in Canon Law- that the lowest competent authority, the guy closest to the situation that has the power to do so, makes the decisions. Subsidiarity exists all the way down to the parish level.

            “Plus it is wrong because to a great extent it is the anonymity of the marketplace that works against bigotry. You can’t exactly shun a Catholic economically if you have no clue as to what goods he produced.”

            Multiculturalism is an error in and of itself, when it fails to take into account real differences.

            “That’s economically ignorant nonsense. You have no clue what you are talking about. Economics obviously does scale, and beautifully. The reason why we have problems is precisely because the state, even in the US, has turned to central planning of the monetary system in order to achieve the kind of compassion that is not possible. Central planning never works. Compassion was the motivating factor behind Marxism also, which is why much of its ideological goals in economics sound like those of the Catholic Church.”

            Funny how you contradict yourself in this paragraph. You claim economy scales, but centralization doesn’t work. The reason centralization doesn’t work is precisely because economics doesn’t scale. Smaller markets are better, decentralization is better. Centralization and central planning never scale- for either governments or businesses.

            “Price signals are about plan coordination. They send concentrated information about various peoples plans and set up the proper incentives to achieve those plans. Moral imperative is not something you can achieve with price controls. All you can achieve that way is shortages or surpluses, and thus more misery for everybody. You are talking like someone who expects that the can steer a car by grabbing hold of the car tire.”

            It is, as we say in my industry, a lossy compression. That is, instead of concentrated information, you end up with abbreviated information, there’s no way to expand back out to the original information. But then once again, you contradict yourself and prove my point, you can’t transmit morals through prices and thus, you can’t have a just and moral society based on price signals alone.

          • brianmacker

            Me: “So what? He’s wrong. ”

            You “And that’s why I say libertarians aren’t Catholic.”

            So Catholics are wrong? I presume you identify as Catholic. Since Catholics are wrong I think we are done here.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            You’re the one who is claiming Catholicism is wrong. I’m saying that libertarians like you who have abandoned morality are wrong.

          • brianmacker

            No you were the one that claimed that Catholics were wrong via logical implication. I was just using basic logic to use facts and your assumption to deduce other facts. He is wrong. That’s a fact. If believing in his statement, believing in wrong, is required to be Catholic (as you have stated) then all true (by that criteria) Catholics are wrong.

            I’m not a libertarian. Obviously I haven’t abandoned morality since I can proclaim what a pope has done here to be morally wrong. It’s as morally wrong as not being an telling others that a bridge is safe when it isn’t and you are incompetent to make that judgment, for whatever reason.

            Your reasoning is poor and you think dogmatically. Reason is a moral value because it allows you to move from principles and facts to specific actions. It also allows one to deduce moral principles from facts. If one is doing that wrong then one is making moral mistakes.

            The reason I said we are done here is it is pointless to argue with a dogmatist. One can show why things are wrong all day long to one and it won’t change there mind one bit. I don’t even know why you and the pope bother to play act at using reason in the first place. You will never honor where reason takes you.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            Yes, I’m a Catholic, which means I’m a dogmatist. Until you can prove Jesus Christ wrong, you’re compelled to follow dogma and doctrine as well.

            All reason starts with principles, and one of my principles is dogma. Rejection of dogma is always irrational, so I see your version as being more irrational than the Pope- reason without faith is worthless.

          • brianmacker

            Just read the bible. Jesus is wrong quite often. One example is Mark 13:30.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            It didn’t. The fall of Jerusalem, and the diaspora, came in 70 AD.

            You’re going to have to come up with better than Biblical Atheist Proof Texting to convince me that Ayn Rand and her Austrian mathematicians were anything other than anti-scientific heretics.

          • brianmacker

            Oh, please. He was wrong. He didn’t come back within a generation like he claimed. Plus most of the bible, and most of Catholic doctrine was not written by him. You made the logical mistake of assuming that the dogma I just objected to by Pope Leo XIII was authored by Jesus. It wasn’t. You are just not very good at reasoning which is why you are making all these mistakes. You have to be a competent judge in the first place to judge whether dogma is correct. You aren’t.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            He did come back, and he’s here today. But I don’t expect an atheist to understand that.

          • brianmacker

            LOL, then why are so many of the religious confused and waiting for his second coming, or just don’t believe in it either. Oh, yeah, they don’t follow your dogma and therefore aren’t true Catholics or true Christians, or are other kinds of theists that don’t even begin to count in your mind. I have lots of Catholic friends. They are going to laugh when they here how they’re not Catholic because they don’t believe the second coming of Christ has occured already.

            In fact there is another dogmatist on line who’s claiming you are not a Catholic because you do not believe that Jesus “will be coming” future tense. His motto is “Not believing is not an option” and states “Scripture is clear, Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and no one knows the day or time!” You seem to know the date but he says you shouldn’t. Why don’t you go argue with him on what a true Catholic believes, as one dogmatist to another, since I don’t care.

            http://www.catholicessentials.net/secondcoming.htm

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “then why are so many of the religious confused and waiting for his second coming”

            It’s called fundamentalism, and it’s a heresy.

            “In fact there is another dogmatist on line who’s claiming you are not a Catholic because you do not believe that Jesus “will be coming” future tense.”

            Who said I didn’t believe that? I didn’t. I said that Jesus Christ has already come- and will be coming in the future. Why do you have a physics based sense of time?

          • brianmacker

            That section of the bible says the second coming would happen within a generation and it didn’t. He was wrong about that. A generation is not physics based, it’s human based. Your question, “Why do you have a physics based sense of time?” indicates you are willing to use any word twisting to maintain your self delusion.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            That section of the Bible is about the Fall of Jerusalem, not the second coming. But I’m not surprised an atheist would get that wrong.

            And a physics based sense of time is about not understanding the meaning of being outside of time.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            It is like: A short parable to promote vigilance.

            – Allegorically (St. Gregory the Great, Hom. in Evan. 9): the parable outlines the responsibilities of the Church before the Second Coming. The man signifies the human nature that Christ assumed in the Incarnation and took into the far country of heaven at his Ascension. Christ then imparts the Holy Spirit to his servants, enabling them to fulfill their duties in his absence. The pastors of the Church are the doorkeepers, guarding against the intrusion of the devil until Christ’s glorious return.

            Watch therefore: The command to be vigilant operates on several levels.

            (1) The earliest Christians, still worshipping in the Jerusalem Temple (Lk 24:52), must be prepared to flee the city before its downfall.

            (2) Everyone must be ready for his personal judgment by God.

            (3) The Church must persevere in holiness while awaiting Jesus’ Second Coming at the end of time. The Gospels elsewhere focus on similar themes of watchfulness and accountability.

          • brianmacker

            Are you talking about Austrian economists? Sorry to tell you this but they predated Rand and were not atheists. They are no more hers that the popes are Hitler’s because he said, “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so”. Rand isn’t even a libertarian, she’s an objectivist.

            This is funny and all, an admitted dogmatist asking to be convinced of something, but it’s just silly. Dogmatist are immune to evidence and reason. I’m not trying to convince YOU of anything at this point. I’m drawing you out so others can see the basis of your reasoning, and see how very wrong you are.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “Sorry to tell you this but they predated Rand and were not atheists”

            Ludwig Von Mises and Fredrich Hayek both were.

            You are posting on a Catholic website. The assumed paradigm is Catholic. If you can’t handle dogma, perhaps you should go to Somalia, where there is no dogma.

          • brianmacker

            So what? Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian school was a Catholic. If you are going to abandon scientific schools where atheists happen to be involved then you’d better chuck your computer out the window right now and move in with some Amish farmers.

            “If you can’t handle dogma, perhaps you should go to Somalia, where there is no dogma.”

            Why should I go to Somalia they have nothing in common with me. They’re theists, just like you. They have dogma just like you do. There are plenty of Catholic hellholes if you don’t don’t like their particular dogma.

            I don’t know where you are from but here in the US we don’t run our government on dogma. So perhaps it should be you who leave your country because last I checked most other first world countries are secular. Pardon me if you already live in Somalia.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            I like the Amish better than I like atheists. At least they still have some morality, unlike the people in Washington DC or New York City.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            Funny, this just appeared in my e-mail today (I’m subscribed to Flocknote’s “Read the Gospels in a Year” list), and here’s the problem- you read unidimensionally for a parable that is multidimensional (and only one verse instead of the whole chapter):

            It is like: A short parable to promote vigilance.

            – Allegorically (St. Gregory the Great, Hom. in Evan. 9): the parable outlines the responsibilities of the Church before the Second Coming. The man signifies the human nature that Christ assumed in the Incarnation and took into the far country of heaven at his Ascension. Christ then imparts the Holy Spirit to his servants, enabling them to fulfill their duties in his absence. The pastors of the Church are the doorkeepers, guarding against the intrusion of the devil until Christ’s glorious return.

            Watch therefore: The command to be vigilant operates on several levels.

            (1) The earliest Christians, still worshipping in the Jerusalem Temple (Lk 24:52), must be prepared to flee the city before its downfall.

            (2) Everyone must be ready for his personal judgment by God.

            (3) The Church must persevere in holiness while awaiting Jesus’ Second Coming at the end of time. The Gospels elsewhere focus on similar themes of watchfulness and accountability.

            He is Risen Indeed- and has been for quite some time- and the personal judgement will come personally to all of us. The question is, will you let the fire burn away your unbelief, or will you, when faced with the divine presence, claim that your possessions are worth more and go running away into hell to enjoy your money?

          • Paul S.

            I suppose the better takeaway from Rerum Novarum would be how to apply the principle of Subsidiarity to finance rather than a vague idea of “friendship.” I think Gregg is working on a book on finance from his unique Catholic free marketer perspective. It should be enlightening.

        • KP

          Once you’re sending off your mortgage payment out of state

          Oh good grief. Our local credit union, the original holder of our mortgage, didn’t transfer it to some NY institution under threat of rape and pillage from those far-off buccaneers–they sold the mortgage to another institution under completely open and honest terms, and we certainly weren’t harmed in any way that I can see since the terms of the mortgage were preserved down to the smallest jot and tittle.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            Except one- the ability to grab a sheriff and personally see your lender, if they suddenly and unilaterally change those terms.

            A rather important right, that one- and I for one will be refinancing again if they sell my loan.

          • brianmacker

            The local sheriff has no power to change the law. If the change in terms was legal it doesn’t matter where you loan holder is. Besides, what’s he, your brother? I don’t understand why you think you can just call in the sheriff for your civil disputes. Do you think that your ideas about friendship also apply to the sheriffs office? Does every cop have to befriend every person they deal withnincluding criminals? What if it turns out that the sheriff is friends with your local lender, now you are screwed if economics is based on friendship instead of law (which is advesarial).

            Mutual cooperation doesn’t need to be based on friendship, and in fact cannot be for anything but small groups. Limiting human cooperation to friends would set us back to the social organization level of chimps.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            ” I don’t understand why you think you can just call in the sheriff for your civil disputes. ”

            The banks do so all the time, it’s called foreclosure.

            “Do you think that your ideas about friendship also apply to the sheriffs office?”

            They do if the community is small enough. Which is another argument for ruralization rather than urbanization.

            ” Does every cop have to befriend every person they deal with including criminals?”

            A cop is a criminal’s best friend, when it comes to his immortal soul.

            “What if it turns out that the sheriff is friends with your local lender, now you are screwed if economics is based on friendship instead of law (which is adversarial).”

            I don’t see adversarial as a good thing. Perhaps that’s a flaw in my thinking.

            “Mutual cooperation doesn’t need to be based on friendship, and in fact cannot be for anything but small groups.”

            Bingo. That’s exactly what I want. SMALL government- SMALL markets- because SMALL is where the truth lies. Once you get beyond friendship, fraud is inevitable and the law and prices are inadequate.

          • brianmacker

            Also, what about all the other economic goods I need besides financial one, do they need to be local too? Seems that tha same reasoning goes for that. I just might need to grab the local sheriff and visit the guy who mined my coal or iron, or made my computer. Oh wait, nobody does any of these activities anywhere near me.

            In real life, if the coal I bought turns out to be inferior to what I expected then a) I deal with immediate seller and not my friends over at the coal mine. b) if I don’t like the product I find a different seller and deal with him. That’s true even if the original guy was my friend and I hate the guy with the superior product. Ever have a friend try to sell you Amway products?

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            As a rule in distributism, the closer the finished goods are created to the consumer, the better.

            Clearly, due to natural resources, there are going to be concentric circles of what can be made near you. But if something is made closer to you, you can get higher workmanship simply by asking for it.

          • KP

            What in interesting fantasy world you live in. I should want cars made in my neighborhood because then I’d have better quality in them???

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            See Morgan Car Company. Ok, so they sell internationally, but the whole ethos of the company is around lifetime guarantee of the *individual* who created your car.

          • KP

            This silly example does, ironically for you, show much about what’s wrong with your thesis.

            1. Morgan’s entire 2007 year production numbered fewer than 1,000 cars.

            1.a. What are my chances of laying my hands on one?

            1.b. What are my chances for affording one if I do?

            1.c Could their processes somehow be scaled up to manufacture cars for the masses?

            1.d. And how could the masses possibly *afford* such a thing? [Yeah, I know 1.c and 1.d are really trick questions because of the incredibly limited opportunities for economy-of-scale in handcrafted items.]

            2. Why on earth would I care about a personal guarantee from the “individual” who created my car, and what possible value would that be to me?

            2.a. What happens to my “lifetime” guarantee from the “invididual” if said individual’s lifetime comes to an unexpected end by, say, his being run over by an illegally-imported Trabant on his way home from work?

            2.b. Do you really have no idea that *this* — the ability of a business to transcend the proprietor’s lifespan — is one of the very reasons why corporations developed in the first place???

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “Morgan’s entire 2007 year production numbered fewer than 1,000 cars”

            Exactly. Now if you had a LOCAL Morgan plant in every dealership that sold 1000 cars or less, you’d have it covered.

            Economy of scale is the enemy of labor.

            But it’s also the enemy of the consumer. As GK Chesterton famously said, the problem with capitalism isn’t too many capitalists, it’s too few.

            Of course, that also means that you are invested in the lives of the people who make stuff for you- and have to care about them, which is the real objection to distributism.

            I do know of the “transcending the worker’s lifetime” excuse- I just find it ruinous to human dignity and relationships. Either an economic system is designed for human beings, or human beings become just another resource in the economic system. Reducing the worker to merely a cog in a machine, is destructive of human dignity.

          • KP

            It’s not an “excuse”, it’s reality.

            Plus, how in the world is your local “Morgan” work-alike going to hand-produce cars any cheaper than the $50,000 or more that the current hand-produced ones cost? I see you dodged that question above…

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            Cheaper isn’t better. The workers who make things for you deserve their wages.

          • KP

            You’re the King Canute of economics, I see. Unaffordable means most of the workers get ZERO because only the few wealthy will be able to buy their stuff.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            If you raise wages, the workers will be the wealthy. Henry Ford discovered that when he made sure every one of his workers could afford the car they were building.

      • brianmacker

        Perhaps your Keynesian teacher is misleading you on this issue too. I read your link and it was quite short on understanding and long on hyperbole. Perhaps it would help you to read this: http://www.aei.org/outlook/economics/financial-services/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-credit-default-swaps–but-were-never-told/

        I further recommend that you just do a google search on “Credit Default Swaps Myth” and start reading articles.

        • Paul S.

          Thank you sir!

  • Beth Turner

    My husband is a moral theologian in this area of study (Catholic Social Thought), so I’m definitely interested in this problem. I wanted to forward him a link to this post, but I’m afraid I still don’t understand your criticism about the errors of a theologian when discussing economics, even after reading it. It seems to me that there is a need to recognize the good the Popes are trying to draw out in their instruction on economic matters, rather than just criticize them for taking a feel-good approach. What kind of goods was John XXIII longing for when speaking of agricultural subsidies (this seems to require a closer look at context)? What is it that Pope Benedict XVI likes about a Christian democracy like Germany? Why is Pope Francis skeptical about capitalism and globalism?

    In any case, I look forward to reading more of your posts on this topic, as I assume you’ll flesh some of these things out.

    • Beth Turner

      Or perhaps it might be better to explain why agricultural subsidies, Christian democracy, and Pope Francis’ style of opposition to capitalism and globalism are not all they’re cracked up to be. I didn’t get a good sense of that from your post; you seemed to rely on the reader to fill in the details about why the popes were wrong/naive about these things.

      • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

        I’m making a narrow point here about aestheticism, not at all indicting Popes’ economic thought writ large, to which I am deeply indebted and which I admire greatly.

    • Mike Blackadder

      The ‘error’ is one of logic, not necessarily an error (or wrongfulness) of the economics or theology Where there is an error is in the use of this ‘aesthetic’ answer as a substitute for a question that is actually answered empirically. Recognize Beth the context of the social doctrine communicated through the writings and communications of the Pope; these are not mere opinions, but serve as a guide and instructions to the faithful, and therefore are expected to be rigorously defined and objectively evident given the faith.
      For instance, we might suggest that rather than address a question of economics with aestheticism, the Pope could instead defend or criticize the merits of an economic question with a rigorous and objective analysis of the facts including historical data of what we know about economics, or we could expect the Pope to make their argument on a different plane – ie. an argument of morality and theology. The problem is that morality and theology do not address an ‘empirical’ question (like whether Capitalism is good for the poor) and hand-waving is not a coherent substitute, not matter how well intentioned or how correct such judgement turns out to be.

    • charlesrwilliams

      My impression, as a Catholic, of Catholic social teaching is that it is mostly platitudes that are difficult to operationalize. The exception is the remarkable encyclical Centesimus Annus. Blessed John Paul 2 clearly understood economics well enough to bring important insights to bear from Christian teaching. The less said about Pope Francis’s thoughts on economics, the better.

      We can talk all we want about a “just wage” that will permit a single worker to support a family in dignity. Making this happen is not so easy. And I am afraid a lot of Catholics see this teaching as justifying minimum wage laws which destroy jobs and knock the rungs out of the ladder that leads ultimately to employment in good jobs.

    • brianmacker

      “What kind of goods was John XXIII longing for when speaking of agricultural subsidies?”
      Harm for everybody except the special interests served, farmers?

    • KP

      Why is Pope Francis skeptical about capitalism“?

      That’s an easy one: his entire life has been lived in an area rife with the pretense of capitalism.

  • Mike Blackadder

    Great post. Your argument about the inadequacy of occasional aesthetic answers to empirical questions makes a lot of sense, and is something that irks me about papal writings.

  • Doug

    “Niels Bohr famously described a non-falsifiable scientific hypothesis as ‘not even wrong.’” That’s the complaint about behavioral economics, the fact that it does not generate falsifiable hypotheses.

    • John Walstrum

      Actually, I think that quote is attributed to Wolfgang Pauli.

  • http://alsbach-art.com/ Floyd Alsbach

    Please tell me you are considering turning this series into a book. PLEASE!!!!

  • Steve Kellmeyer

    Wow – this is a remarkably useless article. It starts with a thumbnail Galileo reference that’s so incorrect on the historical facts that it is “not even wrong.” Clearly, the author is lousy at summary.

    Then it goes into tirades against various popes without even giving us links to the original so we can verify the author has accurately summarized those writings. Given what a bad job he did on the Galileo history, one has a right to wonder.

    Finally, there is no real “there” in the essay. The idea of “romantic aestheticism” or maybe he means “theological aestheticism” seems to be the point of the essay, but who can tell, since the author doesn’t define his terms?

    I agree that today’s Popes don’t seem to be very knowledgeable about economics, but this essay is certainly useless in making that point.

  • geek49203

    I have a BA-Econ and a MDiv. I think I’ve seen both sides.

    IT would help if the theological crown could actually do a supply-demand graph, and explain how prices are set. Then they could understand the “Law of Supply and Demand of Labor” as well. Which would then give them a basis, a “Target” for their theological commentary.

    Most political and theological liberals only have “read about” economics, and most of that either a bad summary of Marxism, or perhaps a form of Keynesian economics that Lord Keynes would NOT recognize as his own.

  • Dagnabbit_42

    I think I agree with you about the aestheticism problem.

    The way I usually express the problem is as follows: Distributism points us to an outcome: How we wish the economy would end up looking.

    However, Distributism (as preached thus far) is woefully short on policy prescriptions to get us there, however.

    Individual Distributists are NOT always short on policy prescriptions. But so far, those who do offer prescriptions seem mostly to say, “Let’s use government compulsion temporarily to get us from our current, undesired Point A to this rosily-painted Point B. Once we’ve arrived at Point B, will figure out how to keep things there.”

    However, this recipe seems always to call for more compulsion, not less, at least in the initial phase. Consequently, the level of government control over the economy urged by the Distributist seems always identical to that urged by the International Socialist. The difference, apparently, is that the Distributist’s desired outcome is held to be so much more just and wise than the Socialists’ actual outcomes have ever been.

    That may be. But the world is rife with stories of the misuse of that level of economic control either through greed or simple error. And F.A.Hayek correctly noted the tendency in a given society for positions of central control to be sought and eventually obtained by the very persons we least want to obtain them. Supposing we grant the government the kind of emergency powers it would need to move us to the Distributist’s desired state-of-affairs: What would cause those men to exercise those powers any more honestly or wisely than their Socialist forebears did? What would prevent the power-hungry sort of men, the sort of men overly convinced of their own wisdom and the rightness of their own cause, from gravitating towards the offices wielding such power? I can think of nothing.

    So in the end, I think that aestheticism is a true, but an incomplete, critique of Distributism as it has been heretofore “sold” to the Catholic reader.

    Yes, the “desired outcome,” the rosy picture painted by Distributism’s apologists, is truly more aesthetically pleasing than what I see as I look out my car window while driving down Main Street USA. It has that shimmery fuzzy Thomas Kinkade glow about it, doesn’t it? (Hmm. Maybe I’m having second thoughts about my earlier, positive aesthetic judgment!)

    But a more complete critique should note that: (a.) it’s not okay to use immoral means to achieve a moral end; and (b.) people who are wise enough to know what a fallen world is really like, and how fallen men behave and make decisions when given power will rule out most if not all of the actual policy prescriptions offered by those Distributists bold enough to offer any.

    And without actual policy prescriptions, is Distributism anything more than just a particular breed of wishful thinking?


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