Dumping the Economic Cover Stories

Karl Marx, in recounting the many horrors of the wretched conditions of 19th century British industrialism, sarcastically remarked, “Das ist der doux commerce!” Marx was critiquing the well-known idea that the rise of market economies had redirected human energies previously devoted to warfare into the more “gentle” (=doux) sphere of economic competition and acquisitiveness. The idea of le doux commerce was an idealized cover story. No one can doubt that rich barons trying to outdo one another in home furnishings is better than the battlefield. But the idea of economic competition as a systematic basis for a more peaceable society is far less compelling, once the whole picture of such a society is taken into account. The illusion of the cover story only survives if one ignores much of the picture.

Christianity is in many ways a faith that mercilessly exposes all of our cover stories. These cover stories are meant to comfort us, usually by telling us that our typical habits are commendable, or at least “not all that bad.” Sin is displaced onto a scapegoat, rather than being discovered and exposed in our own lives. Of course, Christianity can do this only insofar as it also preaches the always-greater power of God’s rich mercy. Christ crucified is the culmination of Jesus’ relentless truth-telling, while at the same time, is the promise of the greater power of perfect love. The prophetic Jesus and the forgiving Jesus are not Jekyll and Hyde, but instead are necessary complements for actual conversion and reconciliation. Without truth-telling, forgiveness is cheap or even unnecessary. Without forgiveness, truth-telling leads to despair or cynicism.

So it is disappointing that another idealized cover story for economic competition was recently forwarded, in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, by Cardinal Timothy Dolan: the idea of “virtuous capitalism.”

Cardinal Dolan (who has many gifts and has done much good for the Church) is writing to tamp down concerns about Pope Francis. He writes:

The church has long taught that the value of any economic system rests on the personal virtue of the individuals who take part in it, and on the morality of their day-to-day decisions. Business can be a noble vocation, so long as those engaged in it also serve the common good, acting with a sense of generosity in addition to self-interest.

In speaking to the U.N. leaders, Pope Francis recalled the story of Zacchaeus, in which Jesus inspires the repentant tax collector to make a radical decision to put his economic wealth at the service of others. This reminds us that a spirit of sharing and solidarity with others, in the words of Francis, "should be at the beginning and end of all political and economic activity."

In other words, virtuous people, acting justly, compassionately and honestly, are the foundation of good economic or business activity that can produce prosperity for all, and not just for a few.

In one sense, what the cardinal states here is unobjectionable. Many authors have recognized that markets themselves depend on a background “morality” of respect for the rule of law, especially a broad notion of trust. Contracts are enforceable by law, but it would be intolerably burdensome to market activity if such trust had to be constantly extracted by coercive means.

But the cardinal’s op-ed falls short in two notable ways. First, he implies that the present American system is mostly this kind of virtuous capitalism. He notes that

the church certainly disapproves of any system of unregulated economic amorality, which leaves people at the mercy of impersonal market forces, where they have no choice but to sink, swim or be left with the scraps that fall from the table. That kind of environment produces the evils of greed, envy, fraud, misuse of riches, gross luxury and exploitation of the poor and the laborer. Fortunately, few people subscribe to an inhumane philosophy of radical economic individualism, and even fewer consider the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ to be a good role model.

He reminds his readers that a supposedly more vicious form of capitalism exists in less developed countries, and that the pope is addressing this audience. But does the cardinal seriously believe that American economic practice is not beset by “the evils of greed, envy, fraud, misuse of riches, gross luxury and exploitation of the poor and the laborer”? Where does he think the food and clothing at his neighborhood discount retailer come from? What advertisements is he seeing that do not play to our tendencies to envy and luxury? What parts of the mortgage crisis (or, to take another example, the 1980’s S&L crisis) aren’t traceable to acts classifiable as fraud? Cardinal Dolan’s editorial seeks to partition off the bad apples from the fundamentally beneficial system. In so doing, it seems clear he is relying on a cover story that cannot account for regular and pervasive features of exactly the economy he is discussing.

Secondly, in so doing, Cardinal Dolan display a kind of naivete about social structures, one which notably contrasts with the hypersuspicions bishops often apply to questions about sex and religious freedom. The difference is striking. In the latter cases, the bishops are (not wrongly) alert to every possible ramification of seemingly minor changes in practices. They are rightly aware that a contraceptive mentality and widespread abortion are not accidental features of a promiscuous culture, but are in fact regular and pervasive… and this despite the fact that the vast majority in the culture are not simply slaves to lust.

But here, regular and pervasive features of our economic system are attributed to the accidental actions of vicious businessmen or corrupt regulators. The cardinal seems to think that self-interest and generosity can somehow be combined, simply by individuals having the correct dispositions. This tension has beset capitalism from its earliest formulations, by the heirs of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophy that posited two basic sources for human behavior: self-interest and the “moral sense.” This combination has never been philosophically defensible, and the more dastardly in this line (Bernard Mandeville, David Hume) have more coherently admitted this. But why a cardinal of the Catholic Church picks up on this line of thought is mystifying. What the modern encyclical tradition has continuously suggested is instead a twin suspicion of both markets and states – what Benedict termed “the market-state binary” – in favor of economic forms of collaboration and cooperation that serve the common good. This vision surely requires agents with a different morality than that possessed by homo economicus, or his successor, the modern corporation. In this, Dolan is right. But such a vision also invites a quite different understanding of the kinds of structures and systems in which this goes on. The examples of this are constant: the support of cooperatives and various mutualist enterprises in the early 20th century, St. John Paul II’s insistence on truly humanizing work in Laborem Exercens, Pope Benedict’s claim that “quota of gratuitousness” must be present within the structures of business, not simply as a mop-up afterwards. Or in the stark words of Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio: “The world is sick.” One cannot have it both ways: believing the market is neutrally set up so that individuals simply act within it based on their respective “moralities,” but also seeing it as an effective incentive system driven by self-interest.

Let me be clear: I do not think that corporate CEO’s are all moral monsters. This is plainly false. But this is precisely the problem with using stories like “The Wolf of Wall Street” to exemplify the problem. The insidious nature of these structures of sin is that few are such monsters, and yet the system rolls along. Such cover stories can be used by the Left, as well. All such morality plays sustain the illusion that the problem is other bad people. In fact, the problem is our collective attachment to unjust and unsustainable systems on which we all too often rely for our daily bread.

In order to sustain his case, then, the cardinal has recourse to an illusory, partial vision of the existing economy, supported by a naïve, ultimately philosophically incoherent understanding of the relationship of individual morality and present economic structures. Put another way, he is telling us a story of the good Jimmy Stewart and the bad Lionel Barrymore, all the while ignoring that even Frank Capra’s fairy tale took place in a small town where George Bailey and Potter ran competing small financial enterprises.

New York City is no Bedford Falls. In Bedford Falls, the good cardinal might take his rich pastoral sensibilities, good humor, and enthusiasm down to Potter’s office, and try to soften his heart. But as the overseer sent by the Spirit to the see in which the world’s few vast financial powers congregate, Cardinal Dolan might want to rethink his story. By all means, remind us that pure top-down statist policies are not the way to salvation, any more than the unfettered invisible hand. But this is no middle way, as the cardinal suggests in his article, as a way of maintaining the basic cover story that things are fine in the US economy. It is a different way, a strange way, that surely calls the richest see in the richest society to reconsider its collective disobedience, its secret sins that we won’t admit. Gross luxury, envy, fraud, greed – these are on the cardinal’s doorstep (as are the poor). “Das ist der virtuous capitalism”…  



David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and editor of catholicmoraltheology.com. He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008).

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