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Economics—When the Truth Really Matters


James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 11/22/14 - updated on 06/08/17

It has long been my opinion, for what it is worth, that Catholic social thought has lacked a complete and valid insight into the economic side of what it was proposing. The theories of consumption, unemployment, taxes, poverty, and wealth distribution that we find in so many Catholic and Christian sources simply lacked full understanding of what was at stake. This book, I think, along with Brian Benestad’s Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought, supplies that need in a most careful manner. One simply cannot talk of unemployment without knowing what causes employment. In the beginning everyone is poor. That question is easy to answer, but not the one of why many are not poor. Not all theories cause wealth, not all theories alleviate poverty. There is a strict relation between intelligence and society, in this sense. This fact is why truth matters in economics.

One of the major contributions of this book is its analysis of the domestic, intermediate, and political economy. Mueller’s attention to the domestic economy is    particularly fine. What does go on in the home? Most of the important things, in fact. Jennifer Roback Morse, in her not-to-be-missed book, Love and Economics, had previously asked the question: “Why do not economists understand the home?” Basically, she said, because the household does not operate on the same principles that are implicit in utilitarian or stoic based economic theories that seek to explain it. Determinism, utility, and pleasure, though factors, are not the principles that explain life and community in any normal home. While there are elements of order, pleasure, and utility, there is also sacrifice, generosity, and gift that depend on human intelligence, virtue, and freedom. These elements explain the ultimate distribution of goods in a way that has been lacking to economists.

Mueller often cites Chesterton, a wise choice. Chesterton’s remarks about the family and its place in or outside of modernity remain fundamental. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the Worldwas precisely about the child, husband, wife, home, and education. What Mueller has done is to show that the action of each person in the economic order is either for someone else or for himself. The latter may be perfectly normal, as we are to look after ourselves, or it may distort things. One of the interesting aspects of Mueller’s book is his attention to crime as an economic factor, both its consequences and what it is usually about, the choice of self over others. Likewise, Mueller pays a good deal of attention to the relation of abortion and fertility, to population decline in major countries and to crime. It is a fascinating relation.

One might say that the conclusion of Mueller’s book is that we had it right in the first place. Muller’s discussion of the economic and political thought of American founders is very interesting in the light of natural law, prosperity, and the family, as well as international relations. This book also contains a discussion of inflation, monetary theory, international trade, money, and all other basic issues of economic theory. He sees the clear relation of immigration to abortion, and of divorce to poverty. In short it is a complete book. About the only thing that I found missing, and I may have missed it, was more of a discussion of wealth as a function of intelligence and of the importance of innovation. I am also a bit more understanding of Aristotle’s comment on natural slavery. I think what Aristotle was pointing out was the number of human beings in every age who cannot really manage by themselves. In the ancient world, they were in households; in the modern world, they are usually in institution (often killed in birth these days, alas). However, Mueller is quite clear that a growing economy is essential to general well-being, so the limits of growth thesis that would politically restrict population are in the end anti-human.

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