Monday, July 30, 2012

More Market Romanticism from George Weigel

The man makes lots of sense, except when he starts spouting about the miracles of the free market and the (modified Catholic version of) the prosperity gospel.

Here is a snippet from his latest syndicated column:

And that, from a Catholic social doctrine point of view, is the key to understanding the demise of the post-World War II social welfare state: it’s eroded the moral culture that makes free and responsible citizenship in self-governing democracies possible. Yuval Levin again: “The attempt to rescue the citizen from the burdens of responsibility has undermined the family, self-reliance and self-government”—and it has done this, not from a lack of compassion or resources, but because the social welfare state by its nature creates dependencies that erode the virtues necessary for genuine human flourishing.

Yes, the social welfare system creates dependencies. And bureaucracies. But guess what? Those things are features of modern life anyway. Ask the cubicle slave in a gigantic multinational, the kid doing unpaid work experience because it's the only way to break into his chosen profession, or the woman desperately trying to use her bank's helpline but unable to get past the pre-recorded menu, none of whose options have anything to do with what she wants to ask about.

How about this-- untrammeled commercialism has undermined the family (parents who never see their kids because they're working all hours), self-reliance (how will that look on my CV?) and self-government (give me some more of that addictive Happy Meal NOW!). That seems to make just as much sense to me as Weigel's finger-pointing at government. What about the evils of big business, Mr. Weigel?

People like George Weigel talk as though social welfare is the only thing holding an unemployed man back from marching to the unowned virgin forest ten miles from his home and carving out a plantation for himself. Piffle, pure and simple.

Those who believe the social doctrine of the Church is compatible with neoliberal economics, anarcho-capitalism, or other laissez-faire social philosophies seem to be simply ignoring the actual teachings of the Church to which they belong. Take, for instance, John Paul the Second's enyclical Centesimus Annus, itself drawing on Leo XIII's famous Rerum Novarum, the definitive anti-free market pronouncement of the Church's magisterium:

Rerum novarum is opposed to State control of the means of production, which would reduce every citizen to being a "cog" in the State machine. It is no less forceful in criticizing a concept of the State which completely excludes the economic sector from the State's range of interest and action. There is certainly a legitimate sphere of autonomy in economic life which the State should not enter. The State, however, has the task of determining the juridical framework within which economic affairs are to be conducted, and thus of safeguarding the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience.

In this regard, Rerum Novarum points the way to just reforms which can restore dignity to work as the free activity of man. These reforms imply that society and the State will both assume responsibility, especially for protecting the worker from the nightmare of unemployment...

Furthermore, society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings...

Finally, "humane" working hours and adequate free-time need to be guaranteed, as well as the right to express one's own personality at the work-place without suffering any affront to one's conscience or personal dignity. This is the place to mention once more the role of trade unions, not only in negotiating contracts, but also as "places" where workers can express themselves. They serve the development of an authentic culture of work and help workers to share in a fully human way in the life of their place of employment.

No mention of social welfare, you might say. But I think you would also agree the whole tone and rhetoric is very different from the "get the Jerry Springer-watching bums off their asses and let the laws of supply and demand do their miraculous work" style language of of market romanticists.

Yes, perhaps my reaction is emotional. But if the champions of the free market (including other Catholics such as Thomas E. Woods and Ireland's own Gerard Casey) ever mentioned the evils of impersonal market forces and the need to balance them with other (not necessarily governmental) institutions, I would be a lot less suspicious.

I'm with the Popes, not the Catholic market romanticists.

P.S. Even though I am a Chestertonian, I am not a Distributist, though I sympathise with the goals and vision of the Distributists. I just don't find their programme convincing. Nor do I claim to understand economics, but I don't think you have to understand economics to be highly sceptical of this rather mystical faith in market forces that seems more and more prevalent in our era-- even amongst Catholics, who should be immune to superstition.


  1. I dunno. I know a lot of people who haven't worked in 20 years because they don't have to, they are rearing their children along those lines and the sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility astonishes me. They are usually confused by my astonishment. Genesis 3:17, men have to work for their bread. Nobody owes anyone a living.

    I agree with him regarding virtue too, and in my experience long-term proud dependency on social welfare does nothing for making men responsible and into a leader. You're a Ballymun boy right? I'm from the northside, surely we've both seen the long term consequences of this. It's not just about the poverty line, it's about self-respect. I've seen poor men heavily involved in football coaching, boxing etc who inspire the kiddos who know them. That is at odds with the men I know who happily do nothing for their money. I dislike that Jeremy Kyle rhetoric but too much slack leaves poor families and poorer areas all the poorer.

    Notice I'm speaking of men moreso, just because from what I've seen women don't seem to suffer as women from long unemployment as men seem to as men. I know a better balance needs to be struck but I don't think the nanny state is helpful. I also don't think getting rid of it will make ranchers out of all the boys and agree wholeheartedly that 2 people working 30 years to buy a quarter of an acre is madness and cruel. I can't help feeling great sympathy for those who do, while those who don't work at all, happily, have such a comfy comfy cushion. And I am working-class Dub, as far from Foxrock as you can get. I think the man makes sense on the point he's making in that paragraph, I just don't see why you take issue with it. Does he go on to disagree with those encyclicals?

  2. It could be that someone who hasn't worked for twenty years isn't working because they don't have to, but really, after twenty years on the dole who is going to give you a job? Or after ten years? Or after five years? I don't understand why the assumption is that work is there.

    Remember that Weigel is speaking in the American context, where they don't really have a welfare state as we would understand it (certainly not social welfare you could live on for years), little more than a temporary safety net, and where many working people have to hold down two jobs to survive, but even that doesn't seem good enough for the libertarian right. Where I take issue with it is the constant contrast between a bureaucratic/dependency-instilling state and a free market where a man can plough his own furrow and be the master of his own fate. I think that contrast is nonsense. I think the plebs (most of us) are just as dependent and in thrall to huge (corporate) bureaucracies without any reference to the State whatsoever.

    I don't think long-term employment makes anybody any more responsible or more likely to be a leader, either-- at least, not in most cases.

    And it seems to me very significant that people who say "I might just as well be on the dole" never actually quit their jobs and do just that. The work ethic? I think it's more likely that they know it's not the case...

    My own view is that, in our highly complicated and interconnected society, you couldn't punish the people who are taking a free ride (and I know they are there) without also punishing those who genuinely can't become gainfully employed, perhaps for valid psychological or emotional reasons as much as for anything else.

    And how many of us can truly say we have made our own way and been self-sufficient? Certainly not me.

    Sorry for the scattershot reply. It may be that I am being unjust to Weigel in quoting from an encyclical of a Pope whose biography he wrote and every word of which he would probably agree with. But I do know that he has been rather selective in his approbation of Pope Benedict's social encylical Caritas in Veritate (as Damien Thompson describes here

    I just think free market Catholics, as I might call them, seem highly selective in their interpretation of Catholic social teaching, paring it down to the absolute minimum they have to accept. And I know that the Church does teach the principle of subsidiarity and is also rather suspicious of State, preferring private charity and voluntary organizations to serve as a safety net. But we don't really have those, in part (I think) because our society is so thoroughly commercialised.

    By the way, I am disgusted by the entitlement mentality, too, but I do think it is just as likely to be observed in well-heeled and gainfully employed people.

    Anyway, thanks for dignifying what might have been just a random rant on my part with a reasonable comment!