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:

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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