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Contra Sirico (Part 3 of 3)

A similar lack of subtlety is apparent when we turn to a more direct attack on the shortcomings of “socialism” as Sirico understands it:

(T)he pope has put the problems of economics exactly in the right light: the practical issue that needs to be settled within the framework of a sound morality and understanding of human nature. Socialism fails for a precise and practical reason: It has no system for pricing factors of production to make economic calculation possible. Prices come from the exchange of the very private property with which socialism dispenses.

And yet the moral problem with socialism is more profound: It exalts theft as an ethic and overlooks the human right of freedom. (italics added)

In reality, the issue that Benedict addresses in the passage quoted in Sirico’s text never mentions a “system for pricing factors of production,” or anything remotely like it. Instead, he makes the common criticism against Marx, contending that his vision didn’t make concrete predictions about the specifics of a post-capitalist society. Where Sirico (and perhaps Benedict as well) go wrong is here: The reality, as devastating as it is, is that above and beyond Marx’s understandable reluctance to (as he put it) “write recipes for the cookbooks of the future,” the democratic socialist experiment has done profoundly well according to almost all standards of human welfare: per capita GDP, productivity, educational status, social mobility, measures of happiness, rankings of infant mortality, health care coverage, life expectancy… need I go on? In contrast, the post-neoliberal United States scores at the very bottom of many of these measures.

Particularly egregious on this score are measures of infant mortality:1

When we look at infant mortality in particular, Sirico’s comment about “theft as an ethic” has unfortunate ironic resonances; to be blunt, under conditions of minimal state protection for vulnerable lives, in a libertarian world of every man for himself (the gender is intentional, believe me), the weak are forgotten and infant lives are stolen. Democratic socialist states haven’t “dispensed with” private property, except on the pages of polemics by economists like Hayek. Nor does Sirico’s economistic nonsense about the absence of a “system for pricing factors of production to make economic calculation possible” make any sense here: democratic socialist states have reasonable costs for many of the things that matter most, such as health care. When a visit to the doctor is free or at minimal cost, no one has to declare bankruptcy for being sick. When a new mother has a state-mandated and protected year for maternity leave, the talk about “the human right of freedom” sounds painfully out of touch.

One can argue against Marx for his “materialism” as Benedict does, and yet the brutal reality is that libertarianism engages in an equally reductionistic, abstract, and unrealistic perspective onto the human condition. What does the obsession with private property or “the human right of freedom” disclose about the intimacy between a mother and her newborn baby? The reality of family and social and political life is infintessimally more complex than a formulaic conception of private self-interest. Recognizing this to be the case, and acknowledging that democratic socialist states have done a better job of protecting their citizens from the raw forces of globalization isn’t advocating for a particular stance.

It is telling the truth, however.

Acknowledging that truth on Sirico’s part would mean a recognition that markets are nothing more than mobilized secularity, completely indifferent and agnostic as to deeper moral questions. Sure, it is the case that a well-informed and morally-grounded public might push market forces in a positive direction, but an awareness of that fact is at least as old as Tocqueville’s observation about the power of civil society on public opinion. To presume that the causal direction of moral influence moves in the other direction – that is, that the “conveyor belt” of morality comes from markets and deeply informs our lives as moral agents – is to ignore the profound way in which civil society has been disrupted and dislocated by market forces. It is to categorize that dislocation as sensible and just, and even worse, perhaps even God’s will. It is to make an idol out of a secular institution. This may be not only “heretical” in a theological sense as Finn rightly points out – libertarianism at its core is nothing but a secularized attempt at theodicy, applied to market forces – it may commit heresy against the otherwise rich but endangered tradition of conservative thought itself.


1 Original source for the graph above:


Commenting Guidelines

The last four countries in that liste are Australia, the UK, Canada, and the US: speaking English is (highly?) correlated with high infant mortality.


typo: liste -> list

I could correct it if only I could edit

Very clever to posit an English language correlation with high infant death rates. While we laugh, maybe we can forget that even at the bottom of the pile there remains a significant difference between our English-speaking country and the other three.

Great piece overall! I am always inspired when I read articles like this and wonder ... what can I or we do in my community

Interesting to see Finland on the list of low mortality rates; partly from a heritage point of view as my mother is Finn and that was her first language. I also live in a city that has the highest populations of Finns outside of Helsinki.

On the economic front, Finns were highly invested in the co-operative movement when it came to banking (credit unions are the preferred form), groceries, etc.

As a Catholic community, I wonder if we would be well served to support alternative economic and social programs in the form of various co-operatives. I notice that they are losing popularity even in the last 20 years in my community where there has been a historic support for co-ops. Globalization is having its effect. We have walmarts, superstortes, etc.

Catholics in Canada historically experimented with the co-operatives in the early 1900's.



Wonderful stuff!  That you would try so earnestly to use reason and compassion to counter the nonsense of those with a compulsion to speak at length using neither is admirable.  Stalin and his crew were no more communist than Hitler and his crew were socialist.  Capitalism is a purely economic model and has no soul whatever.  It is based firmly on the notion of profits.  Earthly profits.  Christianity is a purely religious model.  It based on the life of Christ.  Without the recognition of a soul such a belief provides it has no purpose other than yet another well intended, charitable organization. 

In as much as some clearly find no real value in defining a clear and necessary separation between an economic model and a religious model one is left to wonder what specific price they place on a soul.  One is also left to wonder what world they inhabit that allows them not merely to believe but to preach a near sermon suggesting trickle down charity is all we need.  .

I do so wish these people with their grand delusions would spend less time redefining so many words so important to our understanding in order to fit whatever dream of glory consumes them at the moment.  Pulling an adjective out of the hat and throwing it in front of a noun may well modify its meaning in a particular sentence but it does not altogether change its definition.  Good greed does not exist.

"The reality of family and social and political life is infintessimally more complex than a formulaic conception of private self-interest." You mean "infinitely" - an infinitesimal is what you get when you divide a finite amount by a number approaching infinity - i.e., an amount approaching zero (which is not what you mean).

Even "infinitely more complex" will give unnecessary pause to a reader who expects words to have reasonably clear meanings, at least in expository writing. Just say "far more complex" or an unmodified "more complex," and let the reader get on.


Even "infinitely more complex" will give unnecessary pause to a reader who expects words to have reasonably clear meanings, at least in expository writing. Just say "far more complex" or an understated and unmodified "more complex," and let the reader get on.


Ok, I'll play devil's advocate.

Note that the numbers in that bar chart are infant deaths per 1,000 live births.  If the x axis was scaled from 1 to 1,000, I would think that the differences between the various countries listed in that chart would be difficult to discern with the naked eye - it would suggest that, in fact, the US is in the same ballpark as those other countries.

For an actual visual of what I'm describing, check out this map of the world.  Note that all of the countries listed in the original post's bar chart, including the US, are the same color - they are all considered to be in the same (the best) category.  Unfortunately, that is not the case for many other countries, comprising, presumably, the majority of the world's population.  Here are infant mortality rates from the other end of the spectrum (source here):



 Burkina Faso










 Central African Republic









I trust it's clear that the x axis would need to be re-scaled to include these countries in the bar chart.

I note, too, that the list of countries contained in the bar chart in the original post is curiously incomplete: it omits Bermuda, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Anguilla and  Belarus, among others, all of whom do better than the US and who also do better than some or virtually all of the European and developed-world countries on the list in the bar chart.  Now, I know nothing about the health care delivery arrangements for any of these countries.  They may reinforce the point that I suppose that bar chart up in the original post is supposed to insinuate - or they may complicate it.

What causes infant mortality?  According to Wikipedia, the strongest correlation is the infant's birth weight.  To the extent that the US lags the other countries in that bar chart, the supposition is that more of our infants are born underweight.  Why do we have so many underweight babies?  The leading cause is preterm birth (i.e. the baby does not make it to full term before delivery).  According to the Wikipedia article, citing a NY Times article as its source:

Even though America excels past many other countries in the care and saving of premature infants, the percentage of American woman who deliver prematurely is comparable to those in developing countries. Reasons for this include teenage pregnancy, increase in pregnant mothers over the age of thirty five, increase in the use of in-vitro fertilization which increases the risk of multiple births, obesity and diabetes. Also, women who do not have access to health care are less likely to visit a doctor, therefore increasing their risk of delivering prematurely.

Perhaps some of those factors would be amenable to improved outcomes by nationalized health care, or by some sort of semi-coordinated system like Obamacare.  We will find out, I suppose, over the next few years.  My expectation is that Obamacare's ability to improve these factors is marginal (which is not to say it is nothing; a marginal change can be a large change).   My hunch is that there are cultural factors that separate the US from countries with better outcomes (e.g. I would bet that our birthrate also is higher than most of the countries on the list in the barchart), and those cultural factors may resist improvement via central government programs.

Please don't construe anything I've written here to suggest that I'm insensitive to the death of infants.  I'd think that infant mortality might actually be an issue that would unite Left and Right in the US; nobody is in favor of an already-born infant dying.  That the issue of infant mortality isn't on the national political radar may be suggestive - it may suggest that it's not perceived to be a major problem in the US.  The map I've linked to above reinforces that suggestion.


I trust it's clear that the x axis would need to be re-scaled to include these countries in the bar chart.

Not at all. The US should be compared to countries that are comparable to it.


Q: Among the 13 countries that have a higher GDP per capita than the US and the 33 that have a GDP per capita less than the US but at least half of the GDP of the US, $39800, which ones have a higher infant mortality rate?

A: Qatar and Brunei for the first category, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar and the British Virgin Islands, Greenland, St Pierre et Miquelon, the Bahamas, Turks and Caico Islands, Oman, Bahrain, Cyprus, the Seychelles, Saudi Arabia, and Barbados for the second category. 


Removing countries with population less than 1 million leaves: Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Cyprus, and Saudi Arabia.

Not at all. The US should be compared to countries that are comparable to it.

Perhaps I misunderstood the point of the bar chart, but I took the implication to be that those other countries were all dissimilar to the US - we're invited to assume that they are all social democracies and the US isn't -  and that that difference accounts for the alleged lag of the US compared to all those other countries.

Also - as I noted, Hong Kong and Singapore (and a number of others) were, without explanation, omitted from the bar chart, even though their outcomes are better than the US's (and most of the other countries listed on the bar chart).  How is it that France and Sweden are comparable to the US, but Hong Kong and Singapore are not comparable?



the democratic socialist experiment has done profoundly well according to almost all standards of human welfare: per capita GDP ...

According to these IMF numbers, of the countries listed on the bar chart, the US is second-best in per capita GDP.  Only Norway does better (by quite a bit, by the way), and of the rest, only Switzerland comes within 10 percentage points of the US.  

I also tried to look at unemployment numbers - a measure of economic/social well-being that, while not mentioned in the original post, is widely considered to be a basic measuring stick.  I wasn't able to find apples-to-apples unemployment figures for the countries listed on the infant-mortality bar chart, but this table did provide unemployment figures taken sometime in 2012 for all of those countries, except the US.  If we peg the 2012 US unemployment rate at 7.9%-8%, then the US is somewhere in the middle (if your glass is half full) or in the bottom half (if your glass is half empty).

Norway seems to outscore us pretty significantly in a number of measures; one wonders why the VIkings were so eager to leave. :-)


Btw, I think maybe our comments are now being listed in chronological order?

One interesting counter-argument worth considering is that the democratic socialist countries are free-riding on the technological advances generated by countries with more cutthroat versions of capitalism:

Jim P. --

Rick Steves TV travel program last night was about Norway.  Fascinating.  A very beautiful country, but life there has always been extremely hard, and that's why so many came to America.  It seems that they survived there by emphasizing cooperation with their small groups,  not by  rugged individualism in a rugged place.  Hmm. Quite a recommendation for the crunchy con way of life, no?

Love those 1000-year-old wooden churches!

It really is unconscionable to be laissez faire capitalist. Modified capitalism works best. There are plenty of items in the news to clearly see that greed is runaway in this country. Believe it or not getting a colonoscopy is not necessary. But while Doctors absolutely recommend it the costs are astronomical compared to other developed countries. The busines of health care is the problem. In Iraq, China which is not subject to the tyranny of shareholders is able to buy more oil at a higher price. The motivation is to stimulate the economy mind you. Not to increase the wealth of Exxon Mobil and the hedge funds. Even Google, with the publication of the "New Digital Age" is in imperial mode. So much for "do no harm." The prodigious example of Capitalism needing a moral component is the crushing of the Middle Class in this country. Arthur Ryan in the 90s, then at Chase, fired 5000 people just to please a Mutual Fund Company. He then went to Prudential Insurance and baracuded a company once congenial to employees. The same for many other compaines.


The rich man will still have a most diffiult time entering heaven. Especially if he is not concerned with the downtrodden. No question the Archdiocese of NY is concerned with its 187 million renovation of its stone edifice, symbol of an Empire Church. 

It seems that they survived there by emphasizing cooperation with their small groups,  not by  rugged individualism in a rugged place.  Hmm. Quite a recommendation for the crunchy con way of life, no?

Ann - at the very least, it seems to be another refutation of Libertarianism!

Professor Geroux (may I call you Robert?) - I understand that the point of your posts is not to criticize the status quo in the US so much as to illustrate the shortcomings of libertarianism (and it's made for some thought-provoking reading).  I don't consider the US to be essentially libertarian, and I'm wondering if you agree.  Also, I'd like to understand your point of view on this: even though the term Democratic Socialist isn't really in our domestic political lexicon, do you consider the US center-Right / center-Left governance of the last 50-60 years to be fundamentally different in its view of government's role in caring for its citizens than that of some of the European developed-world nations (France, Norway, Germany et al)?  It seems to me that it's more a difference of degree: we all have public educaiton but theirs might be more centrally coordinated, funded and measured; we all have government-sponsored health care, but theirs is more universal; we all have social insurance, but theirs is more generous; we all have unemployment protections, but theirs are more generous to workers; etc.


Btw, I think maybe our comments are now being listed in chronological order?

Did you hit "reply"? If so then yes, they follow chronological order, and that would be a big plus. Almost big enough to make up for the reversal of policy on self-edits.


Hi, Claire, yes, I did hit reply, possibly even the reply to the correct comment :-).  So I think it is chronological now.

To clearly see particular excesses of Capitalism one merely needs to look at the present real estate "boom" which is being driven by hedgefund investors who are buying up blocks of real estate artificially raising prices so the ordinary person cannot afford to buy. This is worse than the schoolyard bully or the mugger in the street. Like the woman said: "A mugger just takes what you have in your wallet.. Wall St  takes your life savings or your ability to afford housing. This is certainly comparable to a monopoly and should be regulated.

So all you supporters of a completely free market, get your consciences in order and protest this kind of carpetbagging.


Ann - this comment couldn't possibly  be more off-topic, but thought you might be interested in this article, "Who is the worst philosopher?" :-)


So let me ask:  why is the "edit" feature no longer available?

Thanks for the fun article, Jim P.  (I guess I'd have to say Hegel.  But that's another thread on another blog :-)

Ann - during a car ride, I mentioned the article to my daughter, who is taking an undergraduate intro-to-Philosophy course at present.  Her vote is Descartes.  Mine is Neitzsche, although if John Ruskin were in the pantheon, I'd switch up my vote.  Both our criteria were, "hardest slog to read, yielding the least edification".

I read several volumes of Nietzsche a few years ago (sideline to a research project I'm working on).  He strikes me as a brilliant ranter--much more prone to asserting than actually constructing arguments.  I think that if he were alive today, he might make an interesting talk radio personality--though I'm not sure he'd keep sponsors long.  If you disliked the groups he was savaging (Christians, the bourgeois, most other thinkers), he'd be great fun; if you belonged to one of those groups, he would be enraging.  As memory serves, he tended to savage almost everyone, so perhaps his fan base would be too small.

Jim and Kevin --

Yes, I can see a vote for Nietzsche.  Oh, he was smart, but an out-of-control adolescent enjoying stamping his foot and throwing things.  I tried reading him, but I just find him too unattractive as a human being to take him very seriously.  And he was literally crazy, at least at the end.

I admire Descartes muchly.  Brilliant, original, rightly influential, but not good enough to answer all his own  great questions.  I LOVE Ruskin on drawing.  What can you possibly have against him?  Besides his inventing the welfare state.  :-)