Kevin Williamson writes Catholics Against Capitalism in The National Review Online
The increasingly global and specialized division of labor and the resulting chains of production — i.e., modern capitalism, the unprecedented worldwide project of voluntary human cooperation that is the unique defining feature of our time — is what cut the global poverty rate in half in 20 years. It was not Buddhist mindfulness or Catholic homilies that did that. In the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, neither of those great religious traditions, nor anything else that human beings ever came up with, made a dent in the poverty rate. Capitalism did.
Those who put distribution at the top of their list of priorities both make the error of assuming the existence of some exogenous agency that oversees distribution (that being the Distribution Fairy) and entirely ignore the vital question of what gets produced and by whom. Poverty is the direct by-product of low levels of production; the United States and Singapore are fat and happy with $53,101 and $64,584 in per capita economic output, respectively; Zimbabwe, which endured the services of a government very much interested in the redistribution of capital, gets to divide up $788 per person per year, meaning that under circumstances of perfect mathematical equality life would still be miserable for everybody. Sweden can carve up its per capita pie however it likes, but it’s still going to be 22.5 percent smaller than the U.S. pie and less than two-thirds the size of Singapore’s tasty pastry. You cannot redistribute what you don’t have — and that holds true not only for countries but, finally, for the planet and the species, which of course is what globalization is all about. That men of the cloth, of all people, should be blind to what is really happening right now on the global economic scale is remarkable, ironic, and sad. Cure one or two people of blindness and you’re a saint; prevent blindness in millions and you’re Monsanto.
Unless His Eminence et al. have come up with a way to apply something akin to a literal loaves-and-fishes model to the global economy — and I’m going to go ahead and predict that that isn’t happening, no matter what color the alleged economist’s hat is — then production precedes consumption. “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said, but in the capitalist world, that simply is not true — there is no poverty in the capitalist world comparable to poverty in the early 18th century, much less to the poverty that was nearly universal in Jesus’ time. Our people are clothed, fed, and housed, and the few shocking exceptions, as with the case of the neglected mentally ill, are shocking because they are exceptions — and those are not economic failures but political failures.
But the state in fact has no way of knowing to any practical effect what the common good even is or how its policies might affect priorities relating to it. The “common good” may seem like a relatively straightforward thing when your theater of operations is the general moral intuition of a saint, but it’s something else when you’re working with 20,000 pages of Affordable Care Act regulations — and that, not refined sentiment, is the realm in which the state operates. Meanwhile, he also expects the state to determine just wages and union work rules, to administer unemployment insurance, to calculate the economic consequences of immigration, and a hundred other things that the state has no capacity for doing. Like Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga and others, he assumes that the state will act in the cause of justice for the poor rather than being the most ruthless and pitiless exploiter of the poor, as history, including the history of this country, very strongly suggests that it will be. “The relevance of these reflections for our own day is inescapable,” the sainted epistolist writes, saying perhaps rather more than he meant to. Put not your trust in princes. Expecting them to deal rationally — to say nothing of morally — with systems of incomprehensible complexity is an error.
“The case against libertarianism”? As usual, the most important part of the question goes unstated and unanswered: “Compared with what?” You can have free trade or you can have trade managed by politicians; you can have free markets or you can have capital managed by politicians; you can have real prices or you can have shortages, waste, and chaos; you can have a society in which people are free — free, among other things, to follow the Gospel to a higher kind of freedom — or you can have . . . something else. “Can you be Catholic and libertarian?” theWashington Post asks. I suppose that it depends on how you intend to fulfill the Lord’s command to feed His sheep — with rhetoric or with bread — and how much faith you put in the proposition that “deep within his conscience, man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.” And it must depend very heavily upon how you feel about the peaceful, cooperative, egalitarian, collaborative, poverty-pulverizing economy that we built when Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga wasn’t looking, the billions it has saved from poverty, and the billions more that it will save. Can you be Catholic and celebrate that? How could you be Catholic and do anything else?