Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Catholic writers and economics

In an article at Inside Catholic, Jeffrey Tucker tries to explain why Catholics do not understand economics. He begins with this assertion:
Today, most of what is written about economics in Catholic circles is painful to read. The failing extends left and right, as likely to appear in "progressive" or "traditionalist" publications. In book publishing, the problem is so pervasive that it is difficult to review the newest batch.
His hypothesis is that in religious thought many things are not scarce goods but rather either free or public good and thus religious writers are not used to dealing with economics questions that arrive from scarcity:
These are goods like salvation, the intercession of saints, prayers of an infinitely replicable nature, texts, images, and songs that constitute non-scarce goods, the nature of which requires no rationing, allocation, and choices regarding their distribution.
I accept his premise that a lot of Catholic writing shows no understanding of economics, and many of the comments left on his post re-enforce his premise--they are painful to read if you understand economics. I think there is an element of truth in his theory, but I also think there are at least two other factors that help explain the awfulness of Catholic economic understanding.

First, a lot of people who deal with religious matters are used to thinking in normative terms. I knew a person who thought of himself as a Catholic thinker and I do not know if he was able to think in any other way. For him, everything was normative and he simply could not think in positive terms. It meant that most conversations with him went nowhere.

Second, intention is key in discussing whether a person is acting morally or not. This is not true in determining what is naturally right or wrong, the natural law view of things, but it is in terms of judging specific actions. If a person does something that is naturally wrong but does not intend to do something wrong, or thinks that the action is in fact a right action. that person is not guilty of sin. If I hate my neighbor and do something that I intend to harm him but it in fact helps him, it is my intention that matters not the result when looking at whether I have been sinful or not. Alternatively, if I intend to help my neighbor but my actions in fact harm him, my actions are not sinful. In contrast, economics pays no attention to intention. Economics assumes that people act in a self-interested way, but self interest can be anything from selfish greed to certain forms of altruism. When economists see a result they do not like, they do not try to change people's intentions, but rather they try to change incentives. People in the religious world are prone to convert people, in other words, to try to change intentions and motivations,

Finally, my guess is that few Catholic writers have ever taken an economics course. (Maybe that is a third factor.)

1 comment:

relhurg said...

In God's catholic world....abundance is the only choice of many seeds on a pine tree to maybe deliver or reproduce one new tree?

Add me to your catholic site and if you care...I am at: