October 26, 2007

Defending Hayek

Edward T. Oakes S.J. is one of those folks I most wish would write a book. He has this to say on the First Things blog:
I dispute this reading of Hayek at several points. After all, there are perfectly harmless applications of the term “natural selection” that do not entail anything nefarious, as when we say that bloated corporations become “less fit” and thus inevitably lose out in the “struggle” to win investors. No literal slaughter of corporate managers takes place, nor did Hayek recommend killing off the unemployed. I do not deny that classical neo-liberal economics stands in tension with Catholic social doctrine, but that hardly renders the “European social model” unproblematic either.

I am reminded of a remark Arnold Schwarzenegger made when he was running for governor of California: he emigrated from Austria to the United States in his youth, he said, because as soon as Austrians turn eighteen they start talking about their pensions. (The fact that he is now recommending universal health care in California is irrelevant to the observation and only shows he is being a true politician, pandering to an electorate that is perfectly willing to make use of “free” services as long as they don’t notice they have to pay for them.)

Plus, I think a good argument can be made that the cradle-to-grave social services provided to most European citizens have contributed to the demographic lethargy and cultural ennui that worries so many Christian commentators, on both sides of the ocean. And let us not forget that other variants of political economy, socialism certainly (and , even more perversely, National Socialism), took the trope of natural selection leagues more literally than anything dreamed by Hayek. For that reason, they are those Darwinian systems of political economy that truly merit the condemnation of the Church (as the current case of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela proves, whose program of state-sponsored socialism is meeting fierce opposition from the Catholic bishops there).

As I say, the cardinal’s criticism of the Darwinian genealogy of neo-liberal economics is but an aside to an otherwise fine book; but it does show yet again how difficult it will be to follow the mandate of Vatican II when it calls on Catholics to attend sufficiently to the rightful independence of science, economics very much included. That said, his main point will always remain valid: There is no need for believers to worry about the false claims of the science-hijackers: “Everything that is, is created,” says Schönborn. “That is the first, fundamental statement the Bible makes about reality.” Which means that everything we encounter, rightly interpreted, is a gift. “What do you have that you have not received?” Paul asks rhetorically (1 Cor. 4:7).

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