Saturday, November 11, 2006

Capitalism and Catholicism

I was reading at this morning about the Oct. 31 videoconference that was organized by the Vatican Congregation for Clergy. The two addresses linked to below brought to mind a book I had read and that now sits on my shelf. The basic premise of the book by John Mueller is that capitalism is not as evil as it is made out to be and that it rewards virtue.

Christian Judgment on Neo-liberalism
- Address by Rodney Moss

First, Catholic social thought does not view economics as concerned only with facts or being value-free/neutral as do the neo-classical/neo-liberal economists. Importantly, economic systems are seen as based on some set of values, whether that system be capitalist, socialist, Marxist or some other economic variant.

Secondly, in Catholic social thought, the scientific or qualitative aspects of economics are secondary to the human element. Therefore "[e]ven in social and economic life the dignity of the human person and the integrity of his vocation, along with the good of society as a whole, are to be recognized and furthered. Man is the author, the center and the end of all social and economic life."[6]

Thirdly, Catholic social thought is not based on the belief that individual self-interest should be pursued and that somehow this will contribute to the good of society. This was the assumption of Adam Smith. However, Wilber notes that "Scholarly work in economics over the past fifteen years demonstrates that, under conditions of interdependence and imperfect information, rational self-interest frequently leads to socially irrational results."[9] We need a "moral culture" to inform economic life.

Fourthly, the common good is central to Catholic social thought and can never be regarded as a mere byproduct of individual self-interest. The common good, that which transcends particular interests and which is a good in which all can participate, is very different from a "mechanistic" and individualistic view of society dominant in classical and neo-liberal economic theory.

Finally, economic problems are not solved by growth alone. In "Centesimus Annus," No. 29, we read: "[D]evelopment must not be understood solely in economic terms, but in a way that is fully human. It is not only a question of raising all people to the level enjoyed by the richest countries, but rather of building up a more decent life through united labor, of concretely enhancing every individual's dignity and creativity, as well as his capacity to respond to his personal vocation, and thus to God's call."

Hedonistic Culture and the Global Market
- Address by Father Gary Devery

The overall positive or negative effect of globalization towards the common good of humanity will depend on what is the underlying anthropology giving rise to its moral component; it at this level that the Church has the most to offer.

The present Pope, while still a cardinal, addressing the College of Cardinals before they went into conclave highlighted the urgency of this matter. He noted that today "relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of 'doctrine,' seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the 'I' and its whims as the ultimate measure."[2]

The culture of hedonism is a consequence of relativism. The measure of the human person is the "I"; all values become relative and subjective. Forecasting this into a global market driven by an anthropology based solely on a "What is in it for me?" attitude could result in a tyrannical empire divided between the "haves" and the "have nots." The latter would be the necessary slaves to feed the hedonistic culture of the "haves."

On the other hand...

Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery
- By John Mueller

From Library Journal
The thesis behind Mueller's cleverly worded title is that capitalism gets terrible press (for promoting greed and deceit) while democracy's is naively positive and uncritical (it can never be as egalitarian and participatory as it claims). Mueller (political science, Univ. of Rochester) feels that Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, from Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Wobegon (the motto is, "If you can't get it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it"), is a more realistic model for approaching the two entities. Mueller argues that our unrealistic images of capitalism and democracy prevent us from claiming the full benefit of each. Throughout, he is careful to qualify rather than make bold declarative statements that would be damned by exceptions. Many thought-provoking ideas are packed into this nuanced work, and Mueller's case is strong and well documented. The sophisticated argument, however, will limit its value to academic collections or public libraries where there is an active interest in political science. --Patrick J. Brunet, Western Wisconsin Technical Coll. Lib., La Crosse

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