Thursday, May 28, 2015

free people, free markets...and free religion (!?!?!)

At one of National Review's many blogs Kevin Williamson weighs in on Vermont senator, and now presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders' recent musing.  Born in Brooklyn but a Vermont state resident for decades, Sanders is a well-known socialist.  No, seriously--he is a card-carrying socialist and has been since he served as Burlington's mayor in the late 1980s.  In launching his campaign to win the Democratic nomination, Sanders opined that the nation needs fewer personal cosmetic products (deodorants, tennis shoes) and more poverty-relief programs.  He made this claim sequentially, in that reducing the former (commercially available shoes and cosmetics) would lead to the latter (poverty relief).  Williamson thus goes off:

This is a very old and thoroughly discredited idea, one that dates back to Karl Marx and to the anti-capitalists who preceded him. It is a facet of the belief that free markets are irrational, and that if reason could be imposed on markets — which is to say, if reason could be imposed on free human beings — then enlightened planners could ensure that resources are directed toward their best use. This line of thinking historically has led to concentration camps, gulags, firing squads, purges, and the like, for a few reasons...

Read it all here.

Gut reaction:  good for Williamson.  The candidacy of Sanders and his fringe-leaning Republican counterparts like Rand Paul demonstrate the health of American politics.  (Are there signs of dis-ease and/or problems in the same?  Absolutely!  but that's a topic for another blog post....)  Especially in President Obama's second term it seems a sign of life--albeit one with which I disagree strenuously--that a candidate like Sanders can advocate an even more progressive agenda than Obama himself.  That being said, part of our American public life is criticism.  Ideas--all of them--get discussed, lauded, dismissed, and resurrected in the public square.  Therefore, just as it's a good sign that Sanders is campaigning, it's an equally good sign that somebody like Williamson comes along to deflate him.  In the free market of ideas individuals and communities freely accept and reject what they will--and this process itself is good.  As Williamson himself notes, facts remain facts--so it is not guaranteed that one's "right" views will win out over the wrong ones.  All we can do keep pressing our side of the argument, even as we recognize salient points of the opposition. (And this recognition often stands as an indicator of the exchange's humanity.  Seeking to win an argument through ridicule and peer pressure exhibits a stubborn adolescent preference best called comedy porn--and that's not good.)  So a spirited criticism--especially one that sees a campaign like Sanders replicating previous patterns of oppression and impoverishment--is exactly what we need...but might not always like.

Is this blog a neo-con blog?  Not necessarily.  I certainly read National Review, Weekly Standard, and of course First Things.  That does not a neo-con nor Republican make.  Part of conservativism's attraction, at least in its Russell Kirk/Bradley Birzer or Front Porch or AmCon expression, is the recognition of humanity's inherent limitedness.  Age, maturity, and historical circumstances all conspire to thwart our presumptions to universal omniscience.  We might know a lot, but nobody will ever know everything.  Very Augustinian & Barthian, that.  This becomes important very shortly.

Back to Williamson.  Here are his reasons for Sanders' policies leading to the gulags:

The first is that free markets are not irrational; they are a reflection of what people actually value at a particular time relative to the other things that they might also value. Real people simply want things that are different from what the planners want them to want, a predicament that can be solved only through violence and the threat of violence. That is the first reason that this sort of planning leads to gulags. The second is that there are no enlightened planners; men such as Senator Sanders imagine themselves to be candidates for enlightened leadership, but put a whip in his hand and the gentleman from Vermont will turn out to be another thug in the long line of thugs who have cleaved to his faith. The third reason that this sort of planning always works out poorly is that nobody knows what the best use of resources actually is; all that the would-be masters know is that they do not approve of the current deployment of resources.

Here's where the Catholic departs from the neo-con...or at least one point of departure.  Williamson doesn't go far enough.  The Roman Catholic perspective actually extends and deepens the argument. Regarding the first reason, Williamson is exactly right about the resort to violence--the way we make the people make the right choices is that we make it VERY uncomfortable, even lethal, to want anything else.  However, market desires are not necessarily goods in themselves.  Ultimately we must want the right (morally and spiritually speaking) things for the right reasons.  Hence evangelization--the Church is called to preach the Gospel.  Consider Pope Francis' Twitter feed--the Pope's words serve as that constant reminder of greater goods than mere material well-being.

Second, effectively Orwell's famous satire "Some animals are more equal than others" makes the point--nobody is especially gifted with omniscience.  Given power even a peace-leaning socialist like Sanders might easily become the next tyrant.  Again, the Church:  Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum made the point in 1891, and Pius XI and Saints John XXIII and John Paul II reiterated it in 1931, 1961, and 1991:  the Church offers the social justice that recognizes the dignity and freedom of both property and labor. Unbridled capitalism--which Pius XI certainly targeted in his Quadragesimo Anno and which Paul VI and Benedict XVI also challenged--leaves an immoral gap--spiritually as well as financially--between rich and poor.  The Church implores men to give of their wealth freely to help others.  That being said, again as Pius XI declared, Christianity contradicts socialism.  This is again is Williamson's point:  by what authority does one individual or group presume to level all income and achievement?

Without that unifying Christian social vision, the balance becomes upset and the results will be totalitarian oppression and/or anarchy.  This balance, though, does not shy away from the tricky realities of human freedom.  Vatican II understood this, and perhaps two of its best known declarations (Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes) codified it:  the Church maintains its call to proclaim the Gospel and save souls but it will do so fully aware of human freedom.  The Church only proposes, it does not impose.  Socialism, effectively, despite its good intentions, is an imposition.  Finally, while Williamson is right about the Left's distaste for the "current deployment of resources," the Church obviously has something to say about that, too, and it is not necessarily in step with official neo-con thought.  Consider the beatification of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero,  a deeply spiritual man who nonetheless recognized long-simmering socio-economic unrest when he saw it.

The Church's social justice vision stands athwart the conventional 'left-right' spectrum.  Stereotypes abound of conservative Catholic stances regarding sexuality and life issues...but the fact remains that equally authentic Catholic positions on poverty and economy are also life issues.  Some have the grace to pursue this vision far more fully.  Again, freedom dictates some leeway with how we pursue it...but we are, let's not forget or ignore, to pursue it.  That's where capitalism falls short.   Scripture makes it clear--we are to care for the poor--and we must do so in ways that respect the dignity and freedoms both we and the poor possess.

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