ECONOMIC SCIENCE AND ST THOMAS AQUINAS: On Justice in the Distribution and Exchange of Wealth
by Donald Boland
En Route Books and Media, St Louis
Paperback: 214 pages
Reviewed by Paul Collits
Don Boland is a modern day peeping Thomist (apologies to the late Ralph McInerney), a keeper of the faith and a champion of the natural law-driven scholastic ethics, philosophy and theology of the Angelic Doctor.
Don has been a significant presence for many years at Sydney’s Centre for Catholic (formerly Thomistic) Studies, involved both in teaching and administration. The former CTS broke ranks with the older Aquinas Academy, established by the legendary Marist Father Austin (Doc) Woodbury, when the Academy later took off in a modernist, post-Vatican II direction.
(Fr Woodbury was noted for being a staunch opponent of the equally legendary atheist philosopher and “free thinker” John Anderson, and also sharing a PhD supervisor, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, with Pope St John Paul II. Woodbury has a street named after him, at Campion College in Old Toongabbie).
The differences between the modern Aquinas Academy and the CTS/CCS reflect broader debates and the turbulent modern trajectory of Thomist thinking, with Scholasticism and Neo-scholasticism much challenged within and outside the Church over the last two centuries.
As Catholic scholar Christine Wood has noted: “After Vatican II, however, Catholic theology moved away from Neo-Scholasticism, and even Thomism in many quarters, because it was seen as too rigid and was perceived as a theological method that did not facilitate ready engagement with the modern world. This enabled other forms of theology and philosophy to flourish, with mixed results.”
Don’s book builds on his PhD thesis, undertaken in Rome’s University of St Thomas. His dissertation examined economic utility and value in Aristotelian and Thomist thinking. Don was also an economics student at Sydney University during the time of the splitting of the Economics Department into two ideologically warring tribes.
Aquinas was many things but he was not usually considered, nor is he remembered, as an economist. Indeed, the “fathers” of economics, such as Adam Smith, lived centuries later. Markets and much economic thinking post-date Thomas, so the connecting of economics and St Thomas by Boland is an intriguing one, to say the least. Hence one of Boland’s early tasks is to establish that Aquinas had something clear and powerful to say about economics.
As well, the book is dedicated to Pope Francis, in Boland’s words “a friend of the poor and courageous teacher of the social doctrine of the Church”. Since the book’s publication in 2016, Francis’ pontificate has come under increasing scrutiny on many levels and not a little criticism for, among other things, his highly political and leftist approach to matters economic and social.
So, the book becomes even more intriguing! On the face of it, it may present a serious critique of pro-market Catholic thinkers on economics like the Australian Sam Gregg (author of The Tea Party Catholic), Sam’s boss at the Acton Institute, Fr Robert Sirico (author of Defending the Free Market: The Moral case for a Free Economy) and the late American scholar Michael Novak (author, perhaps most famously, of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism). All of these scholars seek to make a moral, at times a Biblical, and, indeed, a Catholic case for free markets, and all are quite some distance from Don Boland.
Economic science and St Thomas Aquinas also (inevitably) engages with some of the core questions of Catholic social teaching over the last century, at least since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Catholic social teaching is concerned with just relations among men, and with making sense of the notion of the “equality of believers”, as Rob Esdaille puts it, in an imperfect, unequal and complex economic and social city of man.
One of the more contentious aspects of debates over Catholic social teaching is distributive justice. In a free market, of course, who ends up with what is of less concern than whether the economic relations that produced the outcomes are freely entered by the parties concerned, for example in workplace relations and contracts. Classical liberal philosopher Robert Nozick of Harvard challenged the social democracy of John Rawls, another Harvard philosopher, on this very question in his 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia, arguing that human beings do not have a right to particular outcomes from justly entered (that is, freely entered) economic or social relations. Free contracts may or may not leave the various parties well off, let alone equally well off. Austrian economist F.A. Hayek went so far as to call the whole notion of “social justice” a “mirage”.
Needless to say, the left-of-centre tradition of social democracy and indeed of socialism challenges the free-market view, arguing that there is such a thing as social justice and that poorly off individuals and especially families deserve support (from the state) to make up for the inevitably unequal outcomes delivered by markets. The distributist philosophy of G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc and others also challenges the pro-market view, especially regarding the world’s concentration of wealth, in its support for a wide sharing of wealth in society.
Distributism promotes a so-called “third way” economy, not free market but also not state socialism or communism. The principle of subsidiarity and the acceptance of private property, both enshrined in the social thought of both the Catholic Church and of thinkers such as Belloc and Chesterton, would demand no less.
What, then, does Economic Science and St Thomas Aquinas bring to these controversial debates? Was the Angelic Doctor a socialist? Was he an economist?
Don wishes to bring a Thomist way of thinking to modern economics, as he ponders, in particular, questions of distributive justice and focuses on the Austrian, Keynesian and Marxist schools of economic thought. A monumental task, but a highly relevant one to our times. Is there indeed a “Catholic” view of these questions of property, exchange (markets) and just outcomes?
Boland takes issue with many aspects of modern economics, not just markets, armed with something of a baseball bat. His targets include economics’ assumption of rational human behaviour, its pretensions to scientific status and value-free neutrality, conspicuous consumption (following Thorstein Veblen), utilitarianism, consumerism, and classical and neo-classical economics (and the marginal revolution). Perhaps most significantly, his argument provides a sustained attack on what Pope St John Paul II called “economism”: the reduction of all human relations and cultural matters to economic transactions.
Coincidentally, American Thomist scholar Ed Feser, who has written widely both on Aquinas (for example, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, 2009) and on Hayek (for example, “Hayek’s Tragic Capitalism” in the Claremont Review of Books), provides a counterpoint to Boland’s own work. Hayek, of course, is one of the doyen’s of the Austrian free-market economics that attracts so much of Boland’s derision. Among other things, Feser contemplates in an excellent blog (linked below) whether a Thomist driven by an Aristotelian sense of morality and justice can also be a classical liberal.
Feser notes: “It is possible to … acknowledge the achievements of so-called liberal institutions while rejecting any liberal philosophical rationale for these institutions. The empirical evidence supports the acknowledgement, whereas, for the post-liberal conservative, philosophical consistency requires the rejection. For, I would argue, you simply cannot marry Catholicism or Thomism to Lockean political philosophy or to Kantianism, much less to Rawlsianism or libertarianism, any more than you can marry them to socialism in any of its noxious varieties.”
One might like the outcomes of liberal institutions, the good things that they bring and prevent, as Pope Paul VI has noted, without being committed to philosophically defending the liberal position. (Pope Paul stated that “the liberal ideology calls for careful discernment”.)
In general, Boland is not as accommodating as Feser, who is far more generous towards the modern market economy. And Feser strikes a clearer distinction than does Boland between philosophical liberalism and the market economy and associated limited government. I wonder which of the two authors here, both sympathetic, St Thomas would side with?
So, how does Boland do? I came away from reading the book underwhelmed, unfortunately. I still have many questions in my mind. The subject, it has to be said, is enormously complex and difficult. Modern economics is a hugely complex discipline, and controversial. So, is the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. And so, especially, is the notion of “justice” and its meanings in the context of exchange. Placing them all together – more than this, actually linking them – requires special nuance and dexterity, and here the book falls short, I think.
Another great challenge is that Aquinas did write – though not much – on aspects of what we now think of as economic relationships. And he wrote at a time of minimal secularism and general societal acceptance of both the Catholic (Christian) faith generally and of its foundational principles as the cornerstone of life. He could not have anticipated the modern secular state nor the modern economy, global economic relations, or post-Industrial Revolution workplace relations.
Economic Science and St Thomas Aquinas is not always easy reading. It might well be argued, neither is St Thomas himself! Boland has a density of conceptual approach and a sometimes quirky style of prose that requires a little work. There are many scattergun references to the author’s bêtes noires along the way, and the treatment of these sometimes lacks structure and coherence, at least for this reader.
Alternate views are dismissed rather than debated. Indeed, at one point they are simply termed “stupid ideologues”. There is little referencing, especially of the economists discussed and critiqued, and this is unhelpful. Tighter editing would have helped things considerably, for example, in relation to repetition. I would have loved a glossary of terms.
The author assumes too much agreement among the members of the economics profession, and the modern profession/discipline is assumed to be undifferentiated. This is wrong. For Boland, “economics” should read “neo-classical economics” or “free-market economics”. There are many debates among economists – and this is just talking about those who generally agree with one another! There is no consensus. Yes, there are many, many problems with contemporary economics, but, no, it is not sufficient to bundle the discipline up quite so neatly.
I have two particular gripes. The book sometimes reads as a bible for the attacks in recent times on the “one per cent”. That is fine, but credit where it is due. Capitalism, for all its many faults and for its inevitably unequal outcomes, has brought at least half a billion people out of poverty in the last few decades, on the back of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Yes, there is also increasing income and wealth inequality. This requires deep analysis as to causes and solutions, rather than blanket condemnation of “the system”.
Second, in the context of unequal (and, for Boland and, in his view, for Aquinas too, “unjust”) bargaining positions in otherwise free exchanges such as providing jobs, the author fails to acknowledge the risks taken and the labour applied by capitalists, especially start-up businesses. They are not all merely rich, propertied slave drivers.
Finally, the notion of St Thomas’ “commutative justice” is intriguing and bears much contemplation and debate. The book here, on this very, very important issue, leaves me unsatisfied and wanting more.
Are free exchanges just? How the heck could we actually ensure that unequal but voluntary exchanges benefit all parties to them equally? As noted, distributism is one solution that has been proffered by Catholic thinkers. It is mentioned in the book, but alas only in passing.
So, persistence is required to stick with the book and to elicit meaning from it. The topic is important and the insights are fresh. It is not always compelling but is solidly argued, by an author of considerable Thomist scholarship and deeply read in economics in its modern form.
Sadly, I remain perplexed about this topic, and not as satisfied as I wanted to be by its treatment here.
Maciej Zieba, Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, From Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate, ISI Books, 2013.
The whole of Ed Feser’s thoughtful essay on conservatism and fusionism can be found here.
Paul Collits is a writer, university lecturer, independent researcher, policy adviser and business mentor. He has worked in regional economic development analysis, research, training, policy and practice for over 25 years.