Bill Cavanaugh wants a truly free market

Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh, author of such dense scholarly works as Torture and Eucharist and Theopolitical Imagination, has written a small little book to address how Christians should confront modern economic challenges. Being Consumed is an interesting book because, in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, it refuses to embrace or reject the free market. In each of the four chapters, Cavanaugh’s goal is to “use Christian resources to try to change the terms of the debate.” He calls his work a sort of “theological microeconomics.”

When “Caritas in Veritate” was published, Ross Douthat observed that the Pope’s “vision doesn’t fit the normal categories of American politics.” A similar assessment could be made of Cavanaugh’s work in Being Consumed. He wants to move the debate beyond the binary opposition of state intervention and “freedom” and instead seeks to ask “When is a market free?”

In the introduction, he lays out the approach of the book: “We must give a fuller, more positive, account of freedom; and to do so from a Christian point of view, we must draw on theological resources.” Stay tuned for Chapter One where Cavanaugh will pit Milton Friedman against Augustine on the question of freedom and choice.

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3 Responses to “Bill Cavanaugh wants a truly free market”

  1. Have you read this rather, er, skeptical take on Catholic social teaching from Adam Kotsko?

    http://itself.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/a-rule-of-thumb/

    “In reality, Catholic social teaching seems to me to fall outside of our normal political spectrum because on the one hand, it requires individuals to start behaving in a moral and honorable way, but on the other hand, it appears to have no mechanism for getting them to do so. (‘We don’t need a “statist” solution, we just need people to start being more generous! Don’t you see?’) In other words, it falls outside the political spectrum because it’s a fantasy — and not even a very appealing one.”

    […]

    “Rather than viewing Catholic social teaching as an actual practical agenda, we should view it as immediately practical — to the papacy itself. It’s part of the interminable process of forming and maintaining alliances, about which Schmitt already told us all we need to know in Roman Catholicism and Political Form. Catholic social teaching needs to be a “third way” because it needs to appeal to various groups whose interests are in conflict. It needs to hold onto its alliances with the ruling powers in order to maintain the church’s privileges, and it needs to maintain its popular base of support as well. It needs the crazy right-wingers for foot soldiers in the stupid social issues (which are where the papacy’s heart really is), but it needs to convince the well-meaning liberal Catholics that there are really good elements in the church worth holding onto as well. The list goes on.”

    I won’t be reading Cavenaugh with you, but I may be trying to hit you with practicality/feasibility questions as you go. Though it’s not like I have my own coherent take on theology and political economy right now.

  2. I hadn’t read that article before, but I have to say, I’m not impressed.

    1) The idea that liberalism and fascism are binary opposites and that we find ourselves in a dilemma and must pick between the two seems to me to be disingenuous. Liberalism is a slippery concept and has thousands of meanings. Again, I don’t know the author, but he is really suggesting that we have to take what liberalism has evolved to (i.e. Rawls, justice as fairness, etc.) or become fascists. If not, then you have to admit that liberalism itself is a broad tradition and is capable of “third ways” in and of itself. Kotsko’s dialectic tendency here is untenable.

    2) Of course the counterintuitive is appealing if you believe both sides of a debate are heading in the wrong direction or working from bad premises. I think he’s offering a spotty psychological analysis in place of a substantive argument here.

    3) And now where we get to the point where I wonder if Kotsko even read Catholic social teaching. “It requires individuals to start behaving in a moral and honorable way, but on the other hand, it appears to have no mechanism for getting them to do so.” The mechanisms are clearly laid out. Catholic social teaching talks about the responsibility of the law to have a pedagogical function. The law is a teacher that helps men be moral. Furthermore, what about the Church? I think she might have a small part to play when it comes to morality and Catholic social teaching.

    4) Of course, we all now that Catholic social teaching is really a cloaked attempt to reinstate Caesaropapism. No argument here. Kotsko also ignores the fact that Catholic social teaching predates the whole “culture war” issue. I don’t think Leo XIII wrote “Rerum Novarum” to unify the right and left wing.

    Kotsko offers a cynical assessment instead of addressing the arguments on their face. And he really has the nerve to talk about those who believe in Catholic social teaching having a sense of superiority at the end?

    Come on.

  3. See, I’m glad I posted the quote because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten to see you respond to it.

    “Catholic social teaching talks about the responsibility of the law to have a pedagogical function. The law is a teacher that helps men be moral. Furthermore, what about the Church?”

    I mean, I get this in theory, but I am going to want to know how it plays out in America. I don’t think that the Catholic-evangelical coalition will ever be able to take the place that the mainlines occupied for the first hundred and seventy-five or so years of this nation’s existence, when they did have the power to apply theological arguments in the public square. Things are different now. If the law is going to be this kind of a teacher, how could our system produce appropriate laws? If it can’t, what do we do then? Violate pluralism? Furthermore, what about Protestants?

    I understand that it may be best to handle these questions as the book addresses them.

    (Don’t expect me to take up Kotsko’s argument, though. I just wanted you to read it.)

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