Fleming on Woods

Email Print

As Tom Woods recently noted, though he was too polite to name names, Thomas Fleming and others at Chronicles (related posts: 1, 2) have attacked his published views on Austrian economics and some economically illiterate pronouncements of certain popes.

Woods’s exquisitely brilliant and eloquent response speaks for itself. But Fleming, who is genuinely brilliant on some issues, like other conservatives (no offense, Pat Buchanan) sometimes flails when he goes out of his depth, as here:Fleming writes:

Even major economic thinkers on basically the same side—say Friedman, Rothbard, and Stigler—disagree on many things. How does a non-economist—like Woods, his mentor Lew Rockwell, or me—decide which of their writings is Holy Writ, which is apostolic apocrypha, and which is arrant heresy? I don’t know and neither do they.

He continues,

Science is a slippery term because in English we use it primarily to mean a hard science like physics and chemistry or microbiology. Sociology and economics are only metaphorically sciences in this strict sense. Of course any disciplined body of knowledge is also a science, as theology and literary criticism are sciences, but these looser sciences do not presume to dictate absolute rules on the order of 2+2=4. Aristotle settled this question long ago, and it is one of the prime mistakes of the modernists since Descartes to pretend that there can be an absolute science of human behavior or society. If Woods were consistent in his logic, he would have to set all the teachings of the social sciences against the teachings of the Church. He would of course argue that economics is somehow different, but who would agree with him?

Several problems here. First, he implies Lew Rockwell is not an economist. As Misesian James Yohe told me one time over beers in Auburn, and with which I agree–Lew is one of the top ten economists in the world, easy. Second, Fleming is appealing to authority; as if having a PhD in economics entitles you to pronounce on economics–which is untrue due to the corruption and scientism of modern economics and which contradicts Fleming’s own condemnation of economics qua disclipline.

Third, Fleming is simply incorrect to think that economics is not a hard science; or to imply that it matters how many people “agree” with this whether it is so or not.

I fear that Fleming’s comments leave an impression of ultra-traditionalist denigration of reason and skepticism which imply that a primary reason to be a Christian–a Catholic–is that we are all helpless idiots and need the authorized instruction of priests before we even know how or what to know. Of course something along these lines can be argued in the field of morals. But on the topic of economic advice, Woods rightly points out,

By any standard, the issue of (for example) whether free trade or a system of protective tariffs is more effective for a developing country – obviously a matter of legitimate disagreement among Catholics – is not one on which the Pope may appear to make a morally binding judgment.

Woods continues,

Bad economic advice does not magically become good economic advice just because a pope or even a series of popes have offered it, any more than poor architectural advice would become good architectural advice for the same reason.

Fleming states that Woods champions “the social sciences over the magisterium”. He imples Woods denies the Tradition of the Church. This is not true. Woods points out quite sensibly that simply because something is uttered by a pope or a line of them does not mean it is infallible. This is elementary, and Fleming no doubt knows this.

Fleming tries a clever analogy to argue against Woods:

One of the sources of Woods’ confusion is that he does not distinguish between economics as an analytical tool subject to verification and economic philosophy, which is a branch of ethical and political theory. These are quite distinct, just as distinct as evolutionary theory and social Darwinism. I might generally endorse Adam Smith’s analysis of markets, as I do, while repudiating his moral philosophy (The Theory of Moral Sentiments), as I also do. Put simply, a mathematician has the right to instruct the Church on the rules of geometry, but he has no right to tell the Pope how those rules are to be applied, for example, in the construction of a Church. To take a trivial example, the sphere might be a perfect shape, mathematically considered, but it is hardly the right shape for a Church.

This analogy is inapt and disingenuous. Woods and Austrians do not say, qua economist, that it is the “right” type of economy. What they say is, if you want to increase wages, or increase economic prosperity, then a private property order is the ticket. Now surely Fleming would not say the Church’s goal is to increase impoverishment. Therefore his only argument can be the economic proposition about the best means to achieve prosperity. But as Woods points out, the Church ” may not say that the state has to be employed to bring about better working conditions, because she is incompetent to pronounce upon the best way to bring about better working conditions, just as she is incompetent to pronounce upon whether, assuming their production involves nothing immoral, I should use aspirin or ibuprofen for my headache.”

So using Fleming’s analogy, the Austrian would not say that a building should be sphere-shaped simply because a sphere is “perfect”; rather, he would say, if, for some reason, you want to construct a container having a minimum surface area for a given volume, then the container should have a spherical shape. If a pope enunciated this goal, then he would simply be incorrect to insist on using a cube- or barrel-shaped container; the means advocated is simply not the best way to achieve the stated goal. It’s one or the other: cube-shaped container; or one having minimum surface area. It’s not the mathematician’s fault for pointing out this unavoidable tradeoff.

Likewise, if your goal is to achieve peace and prosperity, then consistent private property rights are absolutely essential. If a pope advocates any deviation whatsoever from a pure private property order, he is to that extent advocating conflict and impoverishment, which surely contradicts moral goals sanctioned by the Church.

Fleming also states that

What Woods and Rockwell are arguing for, however, is not merely the limitation of the state to protection of their interests. No, they are explicitly denying the moral order and, because that argument has limited appeal, they attempt to fool their followers by pretending to champion economic freedom against its enemies, whether those enemies are Marxists or collectivist Catholics.

But it is quite untrue that they are “denying the moral order”, whatever this loosey-goosey, non-rigorous, overly-impressed-with-himself liberal-arts-major type term means; it is untrue in fact; and it is untrue, beyond cavil, that it is implied by their economic comments qua economists. As Woods writes,

if you want wages to rise, then eliminate all taxes on capital, just for starters, and get the state out of the way of private investment. The resulting increase in investment will raise the productivity of labor; that, in turn, means more goods, lower prices, and increased purchasing power for everyone. The kinds of tax, wage, and other economic policies that the Storck school recommends as a faithful reflection of Catholic social teaching will do the opposite, and can therefore be expected to have precisely the opposite effect. Why should I not be permitted to say this?

Simply pointing out the economic consequences of a proposed policy is not denying the moral order. Surely the popes, like good Austrians, are in favor of peace, prosperity, and cooperation. But since these things are achieved only by respect for individual rights, including property rights–and all the consequences of this, including that governmental regulations are inconsistent with this and concepts like “‘economic justice” are quite literally nonsense–then any pope who advocates any of these things is simply incorrect; he is advocating policies that undermine his own (perhaps divinely inspired) goals of peace and prosperity. That Fleming would use an irrational, incoherent, manipulable, loosey-goosey, even evil, term like “economic justice” with a straight face, as if it were coherent and accepted and just and noncontroversial, is a sad indication of the true gulf between liberty-, rights-, and justice-seeking libertarians, and ultra-traditionalist conservative types who can no longer even pay lip service to the elementary teachings of the science of economics.

Can it be “immoral” for an employer to pay his employees too little? Who knows. Austrians do not speak on this issue, qua Austrians. The point is, if a pope advocates the state outlawing the payment of a certain wage (i.e., the imposition of a minimum wage), then the pope is simply incorrect if he thinks this will improve the lot of workers or will not cause unemployment and impoverishment.

Economics per se is about means; the best means to achieve ends. Although economics is in a sense value-free, it should be no blemish on real, human Austrian economists that they, like most normal, decent human beings, happen to also prefer, qua humans, peace and prosperity; and thus tend to recommend the private property order, which is, in the end, the only means of achieving the desired goals.

In the end, the disagreements of Fleming and Storck are economic disagreements. It is monstrous to use the cover of the Church’s magisterium to give credibility to one’s secular, economic arguments. Woods is right when he writes, “Sooner or later the substance of my argument will have to be addressed.”

The bottom line is: are the irrational, incorrect, even immoral pronouncements of popes on technical economic issues infallible? Of course not.

11:34 pm on June 23, 2004
  • LRC Blog

  • Podcasts