Francis Fukuyama bears a heavy burden: He wrote the most premature obituary in history. He declared the end of the Cold War marked “the end of history,” ushering in a new era of unopposed democratic capitalism.
Two decades later, capitalism faces challenges from within the Church. The highest levels of the hierarchy express skepticism about the free market. Most recently, a debate over collectivism flared between the Acton Institute and writers for the magazine First Things.
Founded by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a critical but vocal supporter of the free market, First Things’s current literary editor calls himself a “socialist Roman Catholic.” Its pages describe wealth itself as “an intrinsic evil.” And editor Rusty Reno has written extensively about the need to curtail markets.
The disagreement comes over a prudential issue, between faithful Catholics in agreement over much else. It culminated in two public debates between Acton’s founder, Fr. Robert Sirico, and Reno. (You may watch the debates online in their entirety here and here.)
I’ve been asked to present both sides of the argument without taking sides – not even with my employer – and let the reader decide which is correct. I hope each side will recognize this as an accurate, if incomplete, summary of their position.
Catholic critics of the free market are often influenced by the writings of G.K. Chesterton, E.F. Schumacher, or Dorothy Day. They frequently consider themselves distributists, favoring the small and local. They believe that private property should be widely diffused throughout society, and government should break up concentrations of wealth.
Further, Reno warns that neoliberalism erodes civic engagement and traditional morality. It even poses a spiritual danger, enhancing the soul’s rebellious attraction to “gnosticism” and “antinomianism.” Market choices give the impression that everything, including gender identity, may be selected at will. Political correctness, he wrote, “dovetails frighteningly well” with capitalism.
The triumph of capitalism gave rise, Reno says, to a “globalized oligarchy” that “champions” free trade and degrades the middle class. To preserve middle class economic and political power, “We need policies that favor small and mid-size companies … We should consider progressive corporate taxes” and grant “competitive advantages” to “local companies … against gigantic global corporations.”
Reno also called for the state to “restore Sabbath laws,” and tax university endowments and internet commerce. These steps will enhance solidarity and allow citizens to focus on higher things.
Defenders of the free market frequently quote Michael Novak and Fr. Neuhaus, as well as the Austrian school of economics. They believe the free market reflects the belief that human nature was “made for freedom.” It best unleashes human creativity and creates unprecedented wealth that has lifted billions out of poverty.
Elites favor crony capitalism, not the free market, they say. Government intervention favors the powerful and politically connected. The crisscrossing ties between corporate boards and government regulatory bodies forms a Lilliputian lasso that strangles the free market.
Increasing government power merely hands the powerful and politically connected more rope. Turning first to government violates subsidiarity.
Moreover, governments have proven hostile to a free and virtuous society. Reno’s social vision “will require a class of managers to assure that the social engineering is being implemented,” Fr. Sirico said. Reno “thinks that he is going to be on the Politburo,” but these positions are typically filled by people hostile to traditional values.
“At this moment, when the moral tie is weakening in our society, you’re going to expand the political – as though the political class is somehow immaculately conceived? As though they’re not part of this moral erosion?” he asked. “I think this is dangerous on a very practical level.”
Their debate reflects our growing social division. A 2013 Public Religion Research Institute poll found Americans closely divided on whether capitalism is compatible with the teachings of Christ.
Since I am an employee of the Acton Institute, the reader can likely deduce my position. However, this issue is a matter of prudence guided by broad principles. To come to an informed position, each person must learn the laws of faith and economics.
Thoughtful readers must critically ponder such questions as:
- Which economic systems affirm or deny that mankind is made in the image of God?
- How does a given proposal fit with the whole of Catholic social teaching, especially Pope Pius XI’s statement that “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (Quadragesimo Anno)?
- How does the proposed government intervention avoid the “grave evil” of violating subsidiarity?
- What issues justify government intervention? At what level of government?
- What form of economy encourages citizens to exercise moral discretion (diakrisis) and responsibility?
- What does history tell us about this system’s economic performance and relationship to human flourishing?
- What is the likelihood that the government agency I would create will be run by people who hold Judeo-Christian moral beliefs?
- What would happen if the power I bestow upon government is ever wielded by aggressive secularists?
- Am I living up to the full potential of my faith within the existing system, or could I do more?
Those who think these through will agree with Fr. Sirico, Rusty Reno, and the Russian dissident and prophet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”