Saturday, 21 March 2009

Faith Matters Lecture 2: Catholicism and Capitalism

The second lecture in this series was given by Professor Philip Booth, and economist, of the Institute of Economic Affairs. If we are to place Professor Booth within the political spectrum, it is probably fair to say that he is on "the right" rather than on "the left". The text of Professor Booth's slides, and a video of the lecture, can be found on the Diocese of Westminster website.

The lecture was chaired by Daniel Johnson, editor of a political magazine Standpoint that will, in its next issue, publish the text of the lecture. Whilst it is certainly fair that the chair of a lecture should be someone who has an empathy with the lecturer - that is only to be fair to the lecturer - on the other hand, the connections here seemed a little too cosy.

Professor Booth presented an account of Papal teaching against socialism, noting, if I recall correctly, that this opposition was not just to what one might term "extreme" or explicitly totalitarian socialism, but to socialism in principle. The quotations can be seen in the slides at the Westminster Diocese website. His core thesis was then based around the twin concepts of solidarity and subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching, and argued that a "free economy" (essentially what would be understood by the term a "market economy") delivered these concepts.

1. I think Professor Booth's analysis is worthy of considerable attention, and should not be ignored by Catholic thought, be that from those on the political left or on the political right.

2. Professor Booth's analysis needs to be carefully examined. I do not think it advocates a totally anarchic free market economy. The adoption of the term "free economy" does indicate, in the detail of its presentation, something distinct from the idea of a complete "free for all".

3. Professor Booth takes a very interesting approach to the relationship between self interest and the promotion of the common good. In essence, I think this asserts the possibility of pursuing at once an activity that is both in a person's self interest and in the interest of society as a whole. It depends, so far as I can tell, on seeing the interest of the common good as being actually my own interest too. This asks for a kind of conversion towards the interests of the other in economic (and indeed political) activity. I think this is something that could be developed much more in the context of how a Christian individual can play a morally just part in economic and political activity.

4. In discussing the balance between the role of individual responsibility (or spontaneous exercise of responsibility by citizens coming together to pursue a common purpose) and the role of the state (whose role is to facilitate the exercise of responsibilities only when lower levels in society are not able to do that themselves - subsidiarity), I think Professor Booth failed to develop a more exact understanding of when state intervention becomes appropriate. This left a kind of "unanswered question" in the mind of the listener. The notion of subsidiarity does recognise a part to be played by the state; one wondered in this lecture whether a silence remained on this aspect of subsidiarity which left open the possibility that Professor Booth was really advocating a completely non-interventionist position.

5. An interesting part of the discussion of the lecture was around the relationship between the morality of the "free economy" and that of society as a whole. To the argument that a "market economy" encourages greed and selfishness, Professor Booth responded that the ordering was the reverse. The existence of greed and selfishness in society as whole would drive a moral disordering of the "free economy" so the answer is to restore a moral stance in society as whole rather than to attack the idea of a "free economy" as being the cause of the evils. One can admit that the behaviour of people in society as a whole will drive their behaviour when they take part in economic activity. However, there is mutuality in this relationship. If the economic system encourages a particular type of behaviour, then that will also spill over into wider society too. And where the economic in human activity is seen as the essence of politics (this can be recognised in both capitalist and socialist thinking), then the influence of economic activity on the moral activity of society as a whole will be even greater. I think Professor Booth needs to be more strongly challenged on the mutuality of this relation.

6. Connected to this, I suspect there was a selectivity in Professor Booth's presentation of Papal teaching. I recall that, when Pope John Paul II wrote his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, this was seen in some media treatments as standing between the two positions of liberal market economy and Marxist socialism, with a critique of them both. As I post this, I have not been able to read this up fully, but I certainly think it is worthy of further study in the light of Professor Booth's lecture.

7. Professor Booth referred to the idea that the state cannot replace the spontaneous action of charity to care for others in society, be that the spontaneous action of an individual or of a group of persons coming together. This is the principle of solidarity. This point does, I think, have a double import. One is that, as Cardinal Cordes noted when he spoke in England last year, and commented on Pope Benedict's Deus Caritas Est, the charitable activity of the Church cannot be separated from its roots in Catholic faith and so always needs to be undertaken in faithfulness to one's love of God (and so in accordance with the teaching of the Church). This gives an "added value" to care provided by the Church, when compared to that provided by the (impersonal) state, an "added value" that is there for any act of charity truly so called. Government should therefore not remove the freedom needed for this action of charity to be effective in society. This is a valid idea; but, as I have already noted, there is a point where, exercising its role in the framework of subsidiarity, government might contribute to this activity. This is the second import of Professor Booth's reference. In questions at the end of the lecture it was expressed in the concerns about inequality that many Catholics would have with a free market system. It is essentially about determining the point at which an intervention of the state becomes appropriate, something that I have already noted as being a kind of "silent point" in the lecture.

8. During questions, Professor Booth was asked, through the mediation of the chair of the lecture, about how his idea of a "free economy" responded to the inequality that can exist in such a system, and that was the difficulty that many Catholics would feel with his position. I felt his response was inadequate, perhaps primarily because of the failure to elaborate fully the point at which state intervention became appropriate. A less cosy relationship between the chair and the lecturer might have brought this out more clearly and presented Professor Booth with more of a challenge to answer (though, to be fair, the chair did present the question in very much the terms I have just used).

In the contemporary situation of our society, Professor Booth's lecture prompted some questions for me. These questions do touch very much on the relationship of the employees of what are often termed public services and their employers.

Are those who work in state funded schools, hospitals, social services etc agents of the state? Or are they agents of civil society, with the state funding being a mechanism by which the state fufils its role, in accordance with subsidiarity, of empowering those at "lower" levels in society to properly and in freedom play their part?

Is it really the role of central government to set performance targets and develop strategies at a national level for public services? Or should this be left much more to the levels of local government (remembering, of course, that it was Conservative government that introduced the pattern of local responsibility for implementation and highly centralised control of what it was that was to be implemented, a pattern that new Labour have followed through with a vengeance)?

What is the proper role of the state towards those in civil society who fail to fulfil the responsibilities that are properly theirs according to the principle of subsidiarity?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this very thoughtful discussion of my talk. I don't want to respond to every point - that would be rather silly, but perhaps I could clarify one thing. I said at the end that there was a wide playing field on which we could conduct an argument about the role of state intervention and that this was clear from any dispassionate interpretation of Catholic social teaching. For example this might include workers rights and labour market regulation (but lots of other things too). I have my own view on such things as an economist but it would have been wrong to claim that CST on my side - so I didn't do so and naturally this leaves a hole. CST does not answer all economic questions, I was merely trying to stress the point very strongly that it should lead us to have empathy with a free economy. I do think though (and I think this should be discussed more) that CST does help give us a framework for how we intervene when we do intervene in the economy. In fact, far from leaving a hole here, I gave three specific examples (adoption agencies, education and the environment - with increasing amounts of details). CST does not tell us whether 1% or 5% of national income should be spent on education by the government but it does tell us that the state should serve the parent and the family in education policy (and facilitate its initiative) and not the other way round. As somebody who feels his social-family, as well as economic, life is increasingly controlled by the state (the state being master and not servant) I really think these are important issues.

Joe said...

Dear Philip

Thank you for your comment, which I appreciate you taking the trouble to make.

I think your three examples were interesting, though I read them (or, perhaps, more exactly, heard them) in the context of political participation rather than more specifically economic activity. Readers might like to try to spot the place in the video of the talk where you discuss them.

I do agree that Catholic social teaching does encourage Catholics to look carefully at the idea of a "free economy" that you presented; and, doing so, is not just a kind of "conservativism" that some might want to inextricably associate with Catholicism.

Thank you for your talk, which I did find valuable.