A Remark on Economics/Political Economy

The Josias recently offered up a fresh translation of Pope Pius XII’s 1941 Pentecost radio address which, inter alia, commemorates the 50th anniversary of Leo XIII’s landmark social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Patrick Smith, who had a hand in its publication, offers up some thoughts on the address over at his web-log while highlighting Pius XII’s reaffirmation of the Catholic Church’s competence to teach when the social and moral order intersect. That is distinct from teaching on purely practical matters, such as how a society ought to calibrate its competition (antitrust) penalties or design social safety nets. While popes—and indeed the episcopate as a whole—can weigh-in with suggestions, the faithful are not necessarily bound to follow them.

With this noted, it is important to highlight the fact that a great deal of confusion surrounds statements such as, “The Church does/does not have the competence to speak on economics.” Why? Because “economics,” in the widespread understanding, refers to a particular academic discipline which is often regarded as part of the “social sciences.” Economics, in this sense, refers to both a theoretical and practical discipline which, like so many academic disciplines, remains fractured into a series of “schools,” many of which disagree with each other on questions ranging from methodology to normativity. Those wishing to set aside the Church’s social magisterium when it conflicts with the tenets of libertarian or neoliberal ideology are, in a certain sense, correct when they say that the Church has no competence to speak on economics when “economics” is understood as “economic science.” (More on that below.) This is an easy parry, and one that needs to be addressed.

One way to do that is for Catholics who wish to defend the Church’s authentic social magisterium to move away from using the expression “economics” as commonly understood in favor of an older—and more defensible—expression, “political economy,” which does a better job of capturing the policy aspect of economics. Economics is not, as many economists would have it, a “value neutral” science; behind every economic theory or research question lies pre-scientific value judgments over what is to be studied, why, and how. Anthropological assumptions, which have nothing to do with economics per se, animate most branches of the economics discipline, and too often those assumptions are directly at odds with what revelation and natural reason tell us about the human person. Today, however, the economics discipline has cloaked itself in the garb of the physical sciences in order to give itself a prestige which it may not deserve. As the old joke goes, economists love to say that what they do is similar to what physicists and biologists do; but physicists and biologists would never dare say that what they do is similar to what an economist does.

The Concept of Progress

The concept of progress, i.e., an improvement or completion (in modern jargon, a rationalization) became dominant in the eighteenth century, in an age of humanitarian-moral belief. Accordingly, progress meant above all progress in culture, self-determination, and education: moral perfection. In an age of economic or technical thinking, it is self-evident that progress is economic or technical progress. To the extent that anyone is still interested in humanitarian-moral progress, it appears as a byproduct of economic progress. If a domain of thought becomes central, then the problems of other domains are solved in terms of the central domain – they are considered secondary problems, whose solution follows as a matter of course only if the problems of the central domain are solved.

– Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political 

In an unintentional manner, Schmitt summarizes well not just the concept of progress generally, but — unintentionally — the ethos of think-tanks such as The Mises Institute, The Cato Institute, and even the Catholic-backed Acton Institute. It is the ethos of the so-called “Washington Consensus” that emerged after 1989, the consensus which gave us the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, and a global investment regime that erodes national sovereignty in the name of economic improvement. “Spread the wealth” via “free trade” and everything will fall into place: peace, security, stability, “human rights,” etc. How quickly has that dream, that myth, unraveled in the wake of the terrible realization that human souls cannot be placated with “stuff” and a life infused with meaning, even demonic meaning, has more power to move mountains than the wealth of every global elite combined.