For those of us who closely follow the pronouncements of Church officials on economic issues, it has never been surprising to find that expertise is generally lacking. But even when the quality of the commentary leaves much to be desired, how do we respond to open and seemingly deep-seated disagreement between two princes of the Church? To be sure, there isn’t much in common between Cardinal Dolan’s defense of “virtuous capitalism” and the structural critique advanced by Cardinal Rodriguez.
In his piece in the Wall Street Journal, Dolan confidently tells us that “[t]he Church has long taught that the value in any economic system rests on the personal virtue of [...] individuals [...] and the morality of their day-to-day decisions.” Thus, he says, a capitalist economy is perfectly compatible with Catholic teaching (and avoids the brunt of the Pope’s recent criticisms) so long as it is practiced by virtuous people and in a virtuous way.
The problem with the notion of “virtuous capitalism” is that it sees the free-market economy, at its best, as rewarding virtuous action and, at its worst, as a neutral stage to be occupied by principled players appropriately incubated in so-called “pre-political” institutions. Except that, really, the opposite is true. For all its accidental goods (and there are many, as even Marx admitted), capitalism provides perverse incentives that—systematically—lead to the poor being treated as an afterthought. Virtue is implicitly discouraged, for success within the capitalist system depends mainly on two factors: how selfish one is willing to be with one’s time and treasure and how much one can pay a consulting company to figure out the wholly impersonal and mostly inscrutable forces that dominate global markets.
The fact remains that, as Cardinal Rodriguez said in his speech at Catholic University of America, the least fortunate have a claim on the wealth of our societies by virtue of their very existence among us. Not giving them their due portion is the same as stealing it from them. And by taking advantage of their cheap labor but otherwise ignoring them, the current system does precisely this. Furthermore, Rodriguez is right to be concerned that Catholics have become accustomed to a status quo in which our lives (like those of everybody else) are so fragmented that most of us cannot even imagine fashioning a structural alternative to capitalism that is faithful to the Church’s social teaching.
Regulating capitalism, as we do today, might mitigate the intensity of its debased incentives, but it leaves its worst outcomes untouched. That is, no kind of regulation will be able to address the continued breakup of communities and the estrangement of their members; or the fact that advancement in the capitalist system is based on greed and self-regard. And for as long as we continue to see goods being distributed not to those who need them but more often to those who already have enough, we will know that capitalism is in good shape.
We would do well, therefore, to keep in mind Steve Randy Waldman’s admonition: “It is naive to imagine that operating in ways rewarded by existing market arrangements will be sufficient to reshape those arrangements in ways likely to harm those doling out the rewards…[T]o redirect [the control of markets], a bit of hardscrabble, old-fashioned fighting might be necessary."
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on “virtuous capitalism” designed to explore the topic in 500 words or less. The entire series may be found here.