In his response to my previous Ethika Politika essay, Ryan Shinkel begins by lamenting that I do “not discuss the word `liberalism’ with more nuance.” And certainly liberalism has been used at different times and places to mean different things. But the differences between Shinkel and myself are over graver matters than words, controversy about which is generally fruitless anyway. Instead let us turn to Shinkel’s substantive objections.
Shinkel claims to agree with the critique of market economics that I advocated in my reply. There I said that Catholic social teaching has always entailed:
a rejection of the notion that fundamentally all that is needed are market forces plus a legal framework that helps make these market forces function efficiently. Intermediate groups such as guilds, worker participation in management, coordination between unions and owners, proper regulation on the part of the government—all these suggestions have been offered by popes and a Catholic is free to debate many of the details of how they might be applied. But he is not free to suggest that market forces are fundamentally productive of justice or sufficient to regulate the economy.
Surprisingly, Shinkel tells us, “I happily agree with everything written above …” But does Shinkel really understand the point at issue? For in the next paragraph he offers as his limits and checks on the market “the rule of law, the mores and intermediating institutions of civil society, and initiatives of private citizens.” Perhaps I am at fault for not specifying that economic liberals are often quite willing to allow, indeed to celebrate, customs, voluntary associations, a strong cultural affirmation of marriage and the like, and to consider that these constitute sufficient restraints on the ravages of capitalism.
Sadly, they do not. For granting that we need such cultural supports, the question is whether the market itself, the practices and institutions of our economic life, need to conform to justice and the common good. Shinkel reveals his fundamental view when he says that the restraints that he advocates “provide a buffer between the market and the realms of value wherein certain things … cannot be bought and sold.” Indeed, this is the crux of the matter. Why is the market outside of the “realms of value”? Why should economic activity be handed over to Satan while the health of society is guarded merely by good will and private initiative? We must indeed erect buffers against human greed; this is done not simply by private institutions and good morals, but by the way in which we structure and regulate economic life.
I wrote in my original response to Shinkel of “the incredibly destructive effects that capitalism has had on all traditional cultures and ways of thinking.” What does Shinkel say to this? “But such vices are rooted in our fallen nature, and would manifest themselves in any economic system.” Yes, the vice of greed will always seek to manifest itself. That is not the point, however. It is that capitalism allows for greed, encourages it, even at times celebrates it. Shinkel mentions advertising and admits that it “seeks to reduce civil society into mere atomized individuals built for consumption.” Is he unaware that advertising was prohibited in the medieval social order, and in parts of Catholic Europe, e.g., France, well into the 18th century? But capitalism needs advertising, just as a sexually libertine society needs pornography. They both seek to initiate us into full participation in their respective vices. So the controversy here is not whether we need protections from the ravages of market economics, which Shinkel admits, but whether these safeguards should extend to economic activity itself, to orient it toward justice and the common good.
Finally, Shinkel has thought to invoke the liberalism of G. K. Chesterton and even to link Chesterton’s name with that of Edmund Burke. Yet in the very passage that Shinkel quotes, Chesterton explains that he means by liberalism simply democracy, a system of government against which I have never spoken, except to point out (with Leo XIII) that it is only one among several potentially just systems of government. But Burke? In What’s Wrong With the World Chesterton says there are “only two kinds of government … the despotic and the democratic.” He dismisses aristocracy, promoted by “sophists like Burke and Nietzsche.” Indeed, elsewhere in that book Chesterton recalls how he once distressed a “cultivated Conservative friend” by calling Burke an atheist:
I need scarcely say that the remark lacked something of biographical precision; it was meant to. [But] Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument … The [French] Revolution appealed to the idea of an abstract and eternal justice … Here Burke made his brilliant diversion; he did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old medieval doctrine of jus divinum … he attacked it with the modern argument of scientific relativity … “I know nothing of the rights of men,” he said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist.
I am not enough of a Chestertonian to know whether Chesterton had elsewhere any extended discussion of Burke. But I am enough of one to know that it is hazardous for Shinkel to link Burke with Chesterton, even though American conservatives love to place both in their pantheon. But they place Chesterton there only by ignoring what he actually said. I daresay that he himself would not have been happy to be found in the same temple with Burke, the “sophist” and the “atheist.”