Whose Econ? Which Public Policy? (2022)

By Michael W. Hannon

September 18, 2013

A devout and intelligent friend of mine, who does policy work down in DC, recently leveled a scathing attack against the increasingly popular cohort of Catholic anti-capitalists, anti-liberals, and anti-moderns.He complained that the writings of many in this crowd betray a gross ignorance of economics and public policy, and that, as a result of this political illiteracy, these thinkers manage to produce only worthless abstractions. Such intangible idealism, he argued, renders them incapable of serious engagement beyond preaching to their insular and irrelevant choir.

This he intended not as an argument against anti-capitalism as such, but simply as an appeal to these uncharitable critics of modernity to apply greater rigor to their analyses and argumentation. Many will find his exasperation relatable, and plenty will find his complaints familiar. Given the prevalence of these objections and the relevance of this in-house confrontation, I, like my DC compatriot, believe it is worth reflecting on the present state of this intramural Catholic conflict.

Yet with all due respect to my esteemed friend, I do not think his read of the problem is quite right, though certainly I agree there is a problem here. It is not, I think, that one side is being adequately thorough (whether or not they’re ultimately correct) while the other is content with vacuous rhetoric and uncritical methodology (again, regardless of the merits). It is not even primarily a breakdown of charity—though that can always rear its head on both sides, of course. The real issue is that what divides these two is so severe that even their standards for evaluation differ, such that what one side considers reasonable argumentation, the other side dismisses as entirely beside the point.Whose Econ? Which Public Policy? (1)

For example, what my friend means by “economics” and “public policy” are entire fields of study that those he’s criticizing would refuse to acknowledge, arguing that they start off on the wrong foot and thus never have any hope of leading to truth. By this, certainly I do not mean to say that economics and politics, under every possible description, are either useless disciplines or else useful only to those operating in a classical liberal framework. I simply mean that, when my friend accuses anti-capitalists of failing to know anything about them, I believe he is presuming a quintessentially classically liberal expression of these disciplines. “Economics” and “public policy,” as those are understood today, are believed by anti-capitalists to be trash, on par with alchemy or astrology. For such thinkers would characterize these as secondary sciences, and would argue that the value-neutral starting points informing contemporary conceptions of the disciplines render their methods sterile. However, if we are willing to zoom out and accept incarnations of these sciences radically at odds with our contemporary versions, then I do not think it is fair any longer to say that anti-capitalists fail to utilize them at all. Their entire project is a political-economic one, as they understand those sciences.

And while the capitalists (or whatever we want to call them) would glean the relevant standards for evaluation of arguments from those very disciplines as they have grown up in the liberal tradition, anti-capitalists (or, again, whatever we want to call them) would reject those standards out of hand. But the standards of the anti-capitalists—for instance, the degree to which a particular economic programme encourages man in political virtue and achieves distributive justice—are almost always grossly misunderstood by the capitalists when they try to translate them back into their own schema, smuggling in a number of individualist/personalist assumptions that the anti-capitalists never endorsed, and perverting their thought and argumentation beyond recognition. “Waiting for St. Vladimir” comes to mind, but so does “Murray’s Mistake.” At the end of the day, capitalists like Weigel, Novak, and George seem no better able to comprehend and convert the anti-capitalists than anti-capitalists like Deneen, Don Colacho, and Dorothy Day seem able to comprehend and convert the capitalists.

If I am right, then, the real problem is not that only one side is playing by the rules of the game, but rather that the two sides cannot even agree about what game is being played here. At present, the opponents find themselves in what literally amounts to in an intractable stalemate. This is not to say that there is no hope of moving forward. But it is to say that there is no hope of moving forward until those on opposite sides of this divide develop sufficient moral imaginations to understand their interlocutors on their own terms. I do not pretend that that is an easy route to take, or even a possible one in all situations. But it is, I think, the only one that provides a way forward in this particular debate.

As to some of the more substantive objections made against the Catholic critics of modernity, it is obviously true that the movers and shakers of modern America—those most intimately acquainted with our society and culture and most in control of its trajectory—are not all that likely to take those of the anti-capitalist stripe all that seriously. For it is a central tenet of the anti-capitalists that our society and culture are not in themselves really worth engaging—except perhaps in the accidental sense that this happens to be the only society and culture we’ve got, so best to push from within to transform the thing radically (and even that, of course, is a hotly disputed point amongst anti-capitalists). Now, that radical antagonism to contemporary culture may be entirely incorrect, but my point is simply that we cannot make it a precondition of the correct economic philosophy that it be found readily accessible/attractive/convincing to those who are already deeply rooted in our present culture without stacking the deck in favor of capitalismex ante. (This is not to say that that cannot be a precondition. It is just to say that, if we decide to make it one, we cannot then be either surprised or annoyed when the anti-capitalists fail to agree to it or abide by it.)

The same moral applies to the complaint that anti-capitalism is too caught up in abstractions and does not engage sufficiently with the rubber-meets-the-road questions we’ve got before us today. Shocking that a philosophy that thinks we threw out the speculative framework we needed half a millennium ago will be radically unsatisfied with the practical questions bequeathed to us by its poor substitute! That does not mean that no anti-capitalist can or does proffer answers to such questions. (Love it or hate it—and even many anti-capitalists aren’t big fans—Médaille’sToward a Truly Free Markettackles everything from the federal budget to the tax code to the administrative state to environmental policy to Wall Street bailouts to health care. And right or wrong, most of the old essays onThe Distributist Reviewwere both specific to current events and intensely focused on the application of principles. There is also the example of Phillip Blond, whose Red Toryism and “Big Society” platform are nothing if not practical—again, regardless of the merits.) But that the anti-capitalists adopt this framework does mean that, if we are going to count it against them that they answer most of these popular political questions by first attacking the premises that went into asking them, then again, we are stacking the deck. (And I reiterate, cheers if you want to stack the deck that way. There is not going to be a neutral playing field, and if these are important criteria to you, use them. Just don’t act like it is unreasonable on their own terms for the anti-capitalists not to.)

These common objections, by the way, strike me as terribly similar to the recent brouhaha over the atheists-have-higher-average-IQs business. We live in a society with very particular contours aimed at producing a very particular sort of citizen, and capitalism is an even more essential and less contested aspect of that picture than areligiousity (at least for now). It should hardly be surprising that there is a strong correlation between excellence and conformity to that social mold. “All our best and brightest who are actually affecting the direction of our society on a large scale, even amongst Catholics, are capitalists!” Well yes, of course they are.

It is also not as though there is going to be some sort of stock anti-capitalist response to these specific practical problems. There is no clearly correct anti-capitalist answer to the question of food stamp reform, for example. “Anti-capitalism” (an awful term, but I don’t know a better one) denotes a rich and dynamic tradition of thought —or really, several such traditions—that leaves space for plenty of internal disagreement. Though again, the fact that not many anti-capitalists think running for office or lobbying on the Hill or weighing in on popular news shows is a great use of their time should not be all that shocking.

On that note, while again the Médailles of the world are dead-set on throwing their anti-capitalist hats into the ring of these contemporary socio-political battles, it also strikes me as not so unreasonable—again, on their terms—for a great many anti-capitalists not to bother with any of that, and to take the so-called “Benedict option.” They focus in on exclusively local affairs, founding or entering communities with as much separation from American society as they can, and they do their best not to look back. Maybe our age really is too far-gone to be worth fighting for on the battlefield it offers, and maybe continuing to do so endangers our own souls as well. This was certainly Dorothy Day’s view, and Peter Maurin’s, and it remains the view of most of their disciples today. They may be wrong, but again, on their terms, this is not such a surprising conclusion. It is unreasonable by the capitalists’ standards, sure, but not by their own.

So in summary, while the anti-capitalists may be dead wrong, I do not think my friend’s familiar complaints offer anything that demonstrates his conclusion to anyone who doesn’t already agree with him going in. His appeal for greater rigor will unfortunately fall on deaf ears, because it presumes a great many theoretical starting points that his interlocutors do not share. In essence, it establishes a burden of proof that the anti-capitalists necessarily cannot meet and will not recognize.

That does not automatically render this sort of critical case entirely worthless, of course. It may end up being quite good catechesis for the capitalists. It’s just not going to do much by way of apologetics for their anti-capitalist interlocutors. And, to belabor the metaphor, it is probably less than swell for ecumenism as well.

There is no doubt we need to learn to speak to one another more constructively if we ever expect to see this conversation progress. My contention is simply that this is a two-way street—one on which, at present, no one seems to be driving.

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