Kevin Williamson has a piece at National Review that is sharply critical of some Catholic pronouncements on economics. I’d like to respond to his piece, with a view to pointing out what I think are some important errors in his own libertarian critique of some Catholic thinking. I think this is worth doing, because it seems to me that the problems one can see in Williamson’s argument are often encountered in the arguments of libertarians. Their criticisms of other people’s economic thinking often point to serious considerations that ought to be taken into account, but those critiques themselves often seem to include errors to which these libertarians are themselves blind.
One thing that struck me about the piece is its disdain for not just traditional Catholicism, but even traditional Christianity. Here is the passage that illustrates what I am talking about:
Which brings us to our fundamental problem: The errors of the Catholic hierarchy regarding the economy are the product of errors in its thinking regarding the state. Catholic thinking about the role of the state has evolved precious little since “render unto Caesar,” even though there is, especially in the Christian world, a blessed shortage of Caesars just now, and has been for some time. The Catholic clergy still operate under the Romans 13 assumption that “the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Paul apparently forgot to add “ . . . and the Electoral College.”)
Williamson here in effect ridicules ideas that are contained in sacred scripture. One of them is a remark of Jesus himself. The other comes from Saint Paul. Why is this a problem for his argument? After all, he has a right, I suppose, to regard those ideas as ridiculous. But I think there are two important problems with his approach here, one that is rhetorical, and the other theoretical. Put another way, his argument here is not practically helpful, and in addition to that it is not very persuasive.
Rhetorically, it is not helpful because Catholics and traditional Christians regard the New Testament as inspired by God. They are accordingly not going to listen to an argument that treats principles or passages derived from that source as obviously ridiculous or outmoded, as Williamson does here. I assume that Williamson wants to persuade people to his way of thinking. If he intends to persuade Christians to rethink their approach to economics and the state, it would be more productive to suggest different ways of interpreting these passages, rather than dismissing them outright. Since many Americans are still earnest Christians–especially the audience that reads National Review–that would seem to be the better way for him to have gone.
But there is a theoretical problem in Williamson’s argument here: namely, ridicule is not an argument. Arguing like a liberal progressive, William presents these ideas from Christian scripture (render unto Caesar, the powers that be are ordained of God) as outmoded. These are old ideas, he suggests, and we modern people know better. But appealing to the self-satisfaction and sense of superiority of modern people is among the most common, and least persuasive, tactics of the contemporary left. Old ideas are not necessarily false. (I admit that Williamson goes on to make a further argument, which I will address in a post to come, but he still tries at this stage of his argument to rely on appeals to modernity as a kind of substitute for thought.)
In addition to all this, there is a more serious practical issue that Williamson might have attended to, another reason not to ridicule traditional Christianity. A lot of Williamson’s piece is dedicated to lauding the modern, free societies that he thinks (quite correctly) have proven so effective at building prosperity and alleviating poverty. He surely knows enough about history to realize that those societies emerged from cultures that were heavily influenced by Christianity. Many proponents of modern freedom have a real dislike for the old Christendom. But the free societies they venerate emerged first in countries that had been, and in many ways still were, “Christendom.” Is this an accident? If the freedom we cherish has no root in Christianity, then why did it not emerge at random all over the world and in many different times? I admit that this does not prove that modern freedom depends necessarily on Christianity. Still, it is suggestive enough that Williamson ought to show a little more sobriety. In ridiculing Christianity to protect his view of freedom, he might be sawing off the branch he and his tradition are sitting on.