Religion and Economics Don’t Mix

The phrase “fiscal cliff” was coined by Fed chairman Ben Bernanke to describe the expiration of certain stop-gap economic measures at the beginning of the new year (that being today.) I suspect that Bernanke now regrets the hell out of inventing the phrase. He forgot how much our media loves little pithy labels and looming disasters. “Fiscal cliff” has become the most overused phrase in politics.

My impression is that the “fiscal cliff” is an entirely political problem. Economists seem divided on how much harm we now face. The real issue seems to be the federal legislature, which is so politically divided – particularly within the Republican party – that no agreement can be reached.

But there is no problem so great or small that it cannot be spun into a morality tale about the failure of modern society. Enter Benjamin Wiker at the National Catholic Register, who wants to use our latest political fiasco as an example of the problems of secularism:

That we seem to be merrily rolling along toward a fiscal cliff is evident. Why is not as clear — at least not the deep why. Some of the depth of the problem can be plumbed out if we look at the relationship between secularism and our current morbid financial mess.

Ah yes, Catholicism and its “four levels of meaning” and Aristotelian philosophy. Does there really have to be a “deep why” behind every kind of political shenanigans?

It would be more persuasive if the philosophy weren’t always so self-serving:

To live in a secular world means that the only heaven, if there is to be one, will be on earth. And since there are no souls in a secular, materialist world, then the only goods we can get are bodily goods. Thus, we run on from the self-preservation of having sufficient food, clothing and shelter to seek superfluous pleasures, titillations, entertainments and luxuries.

Fair enough. The idea of “the good life” now means a high standard of living rather than a life lived in harmony with the will of God. But there’s a chicken and egg problem here: did our secularism result in a drive for affluence, of did our rising affluence result in secularism?

Furthermore, we live in a capitalist society where the desire for “superfluous pleasures, titillations, entertainments and luxuries” drives the economy. As someone once said, nevermind the ten commandments, our economy demands the right to covet freely and widely.

Wiker sees this as a modern problem:

But as we became more secular, things became more crass. Some began to argue that a vice, greed, was actually good, because the desire for wealth — especially if it is inordinate and all-consuming — will produce more wealth for oneself and others and spread technological, medicinal and practical benefits that enhance everyone’s life.

The problem is, the idea that “private vices are public benefits” comes from Bernard Mandeville, in the early 18th century. The idea that individual greed can produce common good is hardly a new thing.

Wiker goes on, turning the “fiscal cliff” into a standard conservative sermon against entitlements. You see, it’s our secularism that drives us to acquire more, which the government provides to us in the form of social security, medicare, etc.

He makes the dubious assertion that these entitlements go beyond a safety net. But even if we accept the argument that welfare programs go beyond what is necessary for a stable society, I just can’t make the jump from “superfluous pleasures, titillations” etc. to unemployment insurance. Welfare just ain’t sexy, and I don’t know the last time I met someone who got hot over foodstamps. You can make an argument against the social safety net, but this isn’t it.

And none of this provides any insight into the deadlock in congress. Why the repeal of the Bush tax-cuts is supposed to be a sign of decadent secularism isn’t obvious, nor does the opposition to a hike on the upper income tax-rates look like a spiritual position. Wiker really needs to find a better hook for his sermon.

Finally, I’d like to ask Wiker and other Catholics who see deep spiritual forces behind political and economic troubles about the “deep why” behind the various Vatican banking scandals. Does the current strife represent the encroachment of secularism? Did the 1980′s scandal, which required a bailout courtesy of the Knights of Columbus in decadent America, represent some moral failure on the part of the Vatican?

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