The U.S. Bishops and Their Critics: An Economic and Ethical Perspective
L.M. Read is author of The Intelligent Citizens Guide to the Postal
Walter Block is the director of the Centre for the Study of Economics and Religion, a division of the Fraser Institute in Vancouver. The institute declares that “it has as its objective the redirection of public attention to the role of competitive markets in providing for the well-being of Canadians.” In this study Block provides a critique of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter in Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy from a clear and remarkably consistent competitive free-enterprise point of view. For example, in discussing poverty Block notes that the bishops say, “A key element in removing poverty is prevention through a healthy economy;” he comments, “Fortunately, we have had for the last two hundred years a recipe guaranteed to accomplish that very task. It is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Unfortunately, virtually all of the economic prescriptions given by the bishops are highly incompatible with that volume” (p. 41).
In part one (chapter 2) Block takes issue with the bishops’ philosophic position and, in particular, their espousal of positive economic rights. Against this he offers negative rights or negative liberty which “consist solely of the right not to have physical force or the threat thereof, initiated against oneself” (p. 6). This we might surmise is the only right deemed necessary to sustain the free market.
In part two (chapters 3 to 6), the main body of the study, Block takes issue with the bishops’ economic prescriptions for employment, poverty, economic collaboration, and international economic policy. The central theme here is that not more intervention in the free market (as the bishops propose) but the removal of existing restrictions, especially those imposed by government, would have a salutary effect in all these areas.
An interesting 20-page appendix attempts to redress the balance between negative and positive criticism. The bishops are praised for their moral courage, their exercise of free speech, their moral indignation, their preferential option for the poor, their emphasis on the immorality of unemployment.
The merit of the study is that it sets forth clearly and consistently the negative impact of what the bishops recommend on the positive accomplishments of the free market. What Block omits is the positive impact of what the bishops recommend on the negative accomplishments of the free market. Those of us who, like the bishops, are concerned with the welfare of our mixed economy can ignore neither the one nor the other.