Posted: July 16, 2014
A review of Poverty and Wealth: The Christian Debate over Capitalism, by Ronald H. Nash and Christians for Freedom: Late Scholastic Economics, by Alejandro A. Chafuen
he pursuit of happiness, regardless of how that goal is defined, presupposes a certain amount of wealth. The need for food, shelter, and clothing must be satisfied before serious attention can be given to the true, the good, or the beautiful. Thus, while economics may not be the highest science, and may even be regarded as a somewhat dismal one, it nevertheless demands the attention of serious men.
Unfortunately, the typical modern Christian can practically be defined as someone who cannot come to grips with economic reality. He is acutely aware of the disparity between the affluent nations of the West and the impoverished nations of the Third World. Yet without much thought about the causes for that disparity, he blithely assumes that world poverty would go away if everyone were less self-interested.
Concern for the poor and oppressed, of course, has been a hallmark of Christian practice ever since the Sermon on the Mount. What is peculiar about the "social gospel" of our own times is its almost total lack of historical and philosophical perspective. The modern Christian has accepted the maxim, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," as if it were from Scripture. "The poor you will always have with you," on the other hand, does not seem to ring a bell.
A dramatic example of this phenomenon was the decision of the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States to issue a detailed critique of the American economy. While the bishops' concern for the hungry, the homeless, and the unemployed was undoubtedly genuine, it was also pitifully naive. As Dinesh D'Souza reported in "The Bishops as Pawns" (Policy Review,Fall 1985), few of the bishops who signed the statement had even nodding acquaintance with marginal tax rates, Keynesian theory, or Say's Law.
As a consequence, modern Christianity has nothing politically constructive to say to serious men. This is especially tragic in the field of economics, which by definition stands in need of moral and spiritual direction. The economists can tell us what makes society more prosperous, but they cannot tell us what makes it more just. No matter how they are distributed, economic goods do not by themselves advance the common good.
The two volumes here under review seek, in rather different ways, to bridge the chasm between Christianity and economics. The first, by Ronald Nash, is intended as a primer on free-market economics for Bible-believing Protestants. According to Nash, many such Christians-even theological conservatives-are seduced into embracing the tenets of socialism because they vaguely resemble some passage from Scripture.
Nash's first task, therefore, is to wean the reader away from this superficial and dangerous approach to economic analysis: "Attempts to deduce any political or economic doctrine from the Bible should be viewed, initially at least, with skepticism. After all, the Bible is no more a textbook on economics than it is on astronomy or geology. There is no such thing as revealed economics" (p. 59).
The remainder of the book is a fairly straightforward exposition of "Austrian school" economic principles written for the uninitiated layman. Nash does pause here and there to resolve some apparent conflicts with Scriptural passages. Aside from that, his treatment of the subject differs little from countless other introductory texts.
The second volume, on the other hand, is a substantial contribution to the literature on economic theory. Like Nash, Alejandro Chafuen is a believing Christian who is also schooled in the economic theories of Bohm-Bawerk, von Mises, and Hayek. Unlike Nash, however, he does not regard modern economic thought as a thoroughly secular development to which Christians must reconcile themselves, but as the natural outgrowth of the more authentic Christian tradition that antedates modernity.
In his book, Chafuen addresses both Christians and non-Christians alike. He challenges all who believe that free-market economics contradicts Christian teachings and who opt for one over the other. "Many intellectuals," he notes, "have pulled away from Christianity in the belief that God's representatives on earth preach against reason and freedom." And it is not unusual to find men of the cloth who confirm their worst suspicions.
The standard wisdom on the subject is that free-market economics was a product of the Enlightenment with few, if any, antecedents before the Physiocrats and Adam Smith. Some historians recognize the contribution of Grotius and Pufendorf, but these two thinkers were Protestants and presumably out of touch with the Scholastic intellectual tradition which preceded them. Either way, the economic order ushered in by The Wealth of Nations is understood to represent a clean break with medieval Christianity.
In other words, traditional thought in both religion and politics was governed by a concept of the common good. The activity of individuals was ordered to the good of the larger community, either of the Church or of the State. The Reformation and the Enlightenment, each in its own sphere, reversed this order and set the good of the individual over the common good. In the historic struggle between liberty and authority, liberty has triumphed in the modern world.
According to Chafuen, this account is little more than a caricature of the truth. It assumes an almost complete absence of economic thought in the 500 years between St. Thomas Aquinas and Adam Smith. Yet as Chafuen demonstrates, one can trace a continuous development from the Summa Theologica to The Wealth of Nations through the writings of several generations of Late Scholastic economists, many of whom were associated with the great University of Salamanca in Spain:
The ideas that gave birth to what has been called the free society were not the result of spontaneous generation. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, for example, bears the imprint of earlier writings, and these were influenced by still earlier writings. . . . It is easy to see the road leading from some Late Medieval thought to Classical Liberal ideas. . . .(p. 153)
Chafuen first points out that there are two aspects of St. Thomas' natural law teaching. The "normative" concerns the order which man imposes on his own actions. The "analytical" concerns the order which man discovers either in himself or in the world of nature. Insofar as economic activity is governed by the natural law, it can be studied under either of these aspects. Chafuen then shows how Scholastic writers of the 14th and 15th centuries-like Bernardino of Siena and Cardinal Cajetan-applied St. Thomas' analytical method to the increasingly complex questions of property, money, taxes, commerce, interest, and banking. This tradition was carried on in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Hispanic Scholastics at Salamanca who, in turn, had an enormous influence on Grotius, Pufendorf, and the Physiocrats.
Neither St. Thomas nor the Late Scholastics believed that the primacy of the common good contradicted individual liberty or required authoritarian regimes. In fact, the political teaching of the Salamanca school seems almost libertarian compared to the stereotype usually presented of pre-Enlightenment thought. For example, Juan de Mariana wrote:
Only after society had been constituted could men have thought of creating power. This fact in itself is sufficient toprove that rulers exist for the people's benefit and not vice versa. . . . This can be confirmed and verified by our personal cry for liberty, a liberty which was first diminished when one man took up the sceptre of law or exercised the force of his sword over others. (quoted on p. 63; emphasis added)
It is perhaps not surprising that the names of the great Hispanic Scholastics-Vitoria, Soto, Azpilcueta, Mercado, Medina, Molina, etc.-are virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. The two centuries in which they flourished happened to be a period of intense rivalry between Spain and England whose effects still linger today. Except for horror stories about the Inquisition, hardly anything is known about Spain's Golden Age.
While Chafuen successfully undermines the facile distinction between Scholastic and Enlightenment thought, he does not replace it with an equally facile account of their relationship. "The road by which ideas influence later thoughts and actions," he warns, "is not always straight and well marked." Thus, for anyone with a serious interest in politics, economics, religion, or history, Christians for Freedom is a healthy antidote to received opinion.