Thursday, October 20, 2005

Toward a Proper Understanding of Neoliberalism

In "Pope John Paul II condemns neoliberalism in Ecclesia in America, as social sin that cries to heaven", Houston Catholic Worker Vol. XIX, No. 2, Mar.-Apr. 1999, Louise and Mark Zwick reiterate Pope John Paul II's condemnation of "neoliberalism", equating it with 'neoconservatism':

Neoliberalism is known in the United States as neoconservatism. Its Catholic proponents are Fr. John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Michael Novak and Fr. Robert Sirico. Their publications are available through the American Enterprise Institue, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Acton Institute and First Things magazine.

One can find this charge often repeated on websites such as -- the most recent being a notation by Stephen Hand on his blog 'TCRMusings' ("John Paul II on Neoliberalism" 10/20/05):

Despite the attempts of neoliberals to explain it away, John Paul II shed a lot of light on their dismissive commentary when he wrote plainly that neo-liberalism is:
"...based on a purely economic conception of man, this system considers profit and the law of the market as its only parameters, to the detriment of the dignity of and the respect due to individuals and peoples. At times this system has become the ideological justification for certain attitudes and behavior in the social and political spheres leading to the neglect of the weaker members of society. Indeed, the poor are becoming ever more numerous, victims of the specific policies and structures which are often unjust. (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in America, (January 22, 1999), no. 56 emphasis ours)

Thus attempts to baptise this system must fail, just as oil and water do not mix.

Read the entire Apostlic Exortation of JPII, Ecclesia in America in context.

While Stephen does not "name names", it is a good presumption (based on past history) that he would concur with the Zwick's equasion of "neoliberalism" with "neoconservatism", identifying this philosophy with the individuals in question.

One may likewise presume that Dr. Hubert also concurs with the Zwicks, in light of his charge that ""Neoconservative economic principles repudiate the Natural Law and thus are largely incompatible with Catholic teaching in the economic arena." ("The New Stealth World View"

I've already addressed Dr. Hubert's article in my recent post Leo Strauss and the Neoconservative Cabal Religion & Liberty [blog] Oct. 6, 2005), noting that as his "fast and loose" definition of neoconservatism left something to be desired, it would be beneficial to

[come] to a more concise definition -- that is to say, laying out specific criteria by which one can accurately identify a "neoconservative" and/or a "Catholic neoconservative" -- including a substantiated list of "neoconservative principles" operative in U.S. economic/foreign policy.

Stephen advises us to read Pope John Paul II's charge against neoliberalism in the context of JPII's entire apostolic exhortation, which I agree is a very good idea. If we examine the particular section in which the condemnation is leveled ("social sins which cry out to heaven") and the two paragraphs which follow the cited passage, we get a sense of John Paul II's solution to the problem of neoliberalism:

On the basis of the Gospel, the best response to this tragic situation is the promotion of solidarity and peace, with a view to achieving real justice. For this to happen, encouragement and support must be given to all those who are examples of honesty in the administration of public finances and of justice. So too there is a need to support the process of democratization presently taking place in America, (208) since a democratic system provides greater control over potential abuses.

“The rule of law is the necessary condition for the establishment of an authentic democracy”. (209) For democracy to develop, there is a need for civic education and the promotion of public order and peace. In effect, “there is no authentic and stable democracy without social justice. Thus the Church needs to pay greater attention to the formation of consciences, which will prepare the leaders of society for public life at all levels, promote civic education, respect for law and for human rights, and inspire greater efforts in the ethical training of political leaders”. (210)

Comparing for a moment the prescription of JPII with the stated mission of the Acton Institute to "articulate a vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing" and especially to:

[educate] religious leaders of all denominations, business executives, entrepreneurs, university professors, and academic researchers in economics principles, and in the connection that can exist between virtue and economic thinking. We exhort religious leaders to embrace the principles of economics as analytic tools in the consideration of economic issues that arise in their ministry, on the one hand, and, on the other, we exhort business executives and entrepreneurs, to integrate their faith more fully into their professional lives, to give of themselves more unselfishly in their communities, and to strive after higher standards of ethical conduct in their work . . .
Examining the various projects sponsored by the Acton Institute or George Weigel's Ethics & Public Policy Center, I'm inclined to think there is some degree of confluence between the work of Fr. Sirico and John Paul II in cultivating moral virtue in the business community and instilling a greater respect for the dignity of man. Likewise, one doesn't have to agree with every principle or program espoused by the Acton Institute or the EPPC to recognize that it is highly unfair to characterize their work (as Stephen and the Zwicks do) as a mere "baptizing" of unbridled capitalism.

In the interest of correcting the erroneous interpretation that John Paul II's condemnation of "neoliberalism" in Ecclesia in America amounts to a general condemnation of capitalism or the free economy per se (indeed, one would have to square this passage with JPII's qualified endorsement of the free market in Centisumus Annus), I refer my readers to Michael Therrien's essay, aptly titled John Paul II’s Use of the Term Neo-Liberalism in Ecclesia in America. Delivered at the Pontifical College Josephinum April 8, 2000, Therrien deals with the specific passage cited by Stephen Hand.

According to Mr. Therrien:

[Neoliberalism] is a worldview held by certain free-market economists who believe man’s social existence should be understood primarily in terms of economic considerations. This system of belief has led many to approach the market as though moral norms have no bearing upon market activity. In other words, an unfettered market itself, it is believed, will take care of the social problems we face.

However, Catholics need to grasp the distinction the Church makes between the free economy and neo-liberalism. This distinction is one of great import insofar as it distinguishes between a morally viable and important economic system in the first case and an immoral philosophical world-view in the second. Certainly these two realities can be related, but they are not necessarily so. In other words, neo-liberalism is not the inevitable outcome of the free-market system; it is only one possible outcome, depending on the moral disposition of the actors within the market. The Church, in as much as it values the fundamental principles of the free economy, understands this, and thus attempts through its social teaching to encourage the international community to place what it would prefer to call the "business economy" at the service of human dignity.

Of the term "neoliberalism" itself, Therrien notes "it is a word that has the potential for serious misinterpretation if it is not properly understood from within the Church’s ongoing dialogue with liberalism." (Thus in the context of the article he addresses some of the criticisms made by Dr. Schindler as well). The frequent use of the term by Stephen Hand and the Houston Catholic Worker, equated with "neoconservatism" and usually in reference to Fr. Sirico, Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel, or Michael Novak, demonstrates this potential for confusion absent proper clarification and understanding of JPII's thought. For this reason I personally recommend Therrien's essay as a necessary corrective.