Sunday, May 20, 2018
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a new document called "Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System." Although some pre-emptively criticize some "on the right" for imagining that the Church's social doctrines do not contain grounds for criticizing many aspects of contemporary economic and commercial practices, I doubt if anyone actually thinks they don't. Of course they do. As the document (quite correctly) points out, "economic" questions are (like all interesting questions) questions of "moral anthropology" -- a point that bloggers here at MOJ have been making for 14 years. So, some Catholic commentators will mine the document for quotes that they regard as useful rhetorical arrows to shoot at (mostly imaginary) Randians but that frustrating fact doesn't take away from the document's welcome reminder about the centrality of the question, "what are human persons, really, and what are they for?"
For me, there are at least two things missing from the document: First, the document fails to appreciate that regulatory complexity is, in fact, a subsidy to the rich and to those who are already "ahead." The document calls, repeatedly, for "regulation" (as if the economies in North America or western Europe are unregulated -- they certainly are not, and no one believes they should be) but does not acknowledge that "regulations" can be good, or bad; they can reduce dangers or they can simply protect narrow interests. Those who are best able to navigate complex regulatory environments will not be the poor. In this sense, regulatory complexity is like corruption. (Paragraph 31 comes close to recognizing this point, but in the context of tax avoidance.)
A second point: The document does, to its credit, say that "it is good to point out how often the public debt is also created by an incautious, if not fraudulent, management of the public administrative system." More was needed, though -- given the document's title -- on the urgent and moral dimensions of the saddling of the young and of coming generations with obligations simply to fund the social-welfare, pension, vacation, and retirement policies preferred by today's Baby Boomers. This is at least as important as, say, the use of "offshore sites" (with which the document was strikingly concerned) for various purposes.
In some Catholic commentary on these matters, it's suggested that there are "laissez faire" "libertarians" out there who are plotting an end to all "regulation." This is silly. Again, western economies, including the American one, are pervasively regulated, and the argument is (or should be) about which regulations serve their goals well and which do not. Some regulations do not protect the vulnerable but instead entrench monopolies and protect rent-seeking. "Competition" should not be an idol, or the foundational principle, but it's hardly the sole cause of the various features of modern life that we as Christians regret.