On Economics and the Canadian Bishops
Alexander Craig is a freelance journalist in Lennoxville, Quebec.
When in 1983 the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops published its report, Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis, they met considerable criticism. They should, many felt, get back to their own matters and leave economics to the “real” world. In the meantime, the Pope’s visit helped, perhaps, to make people more aware that there’s more to economics than profit-making, the celebrated “bottom-line.”
Yet there is a continuing unease on the part of much of business to outside criticism. The Fraser Institute set itself up some years ago as the foremost Canadian proponent of the conservative, free-enterprise approach to economics. It often puts forth its views in a very assertive, not to say ideological and dogmatic, way. How true is it, for instance, that “most Canadians have been extremely sympathetic to the aims of the unions”?
One can hardly object to the fact that the actual bishops’ report is in the appendix in this study, but it’s probably most sensible to read it first. The concern of the bishops is with human dignity, not with the perfect market model of economics. They make their case in what is here nine pages, but what is really under review is the sixty pages of text and eight pages of suggested readings that Mr. Block seems to require to demolish the episcopal case.
If the author is guilty of any sin, it is not one of commission, or even omission, but of hyper-bole: The marketplace is not a jungle, according to Mr. Block; indeed, everything works in favour of the poor (the “economically afflicted”) — if only they knew it.
Of course, society needs people to say that pro-fits are not necessarily a bad thing. Mr. Block uses lively prose and avoids jargon (if not always typos) to make a number of interesting, if debatable, points. He does try to be a little too smart, even humorous, in a smirkily irreligious way at times, but his overall analysis is faulted by some fairly glaring fallacies — arguing by assertion, cute but specious analogies, and so on. This is in no way redeemed by quotations whose source is “the authoritative Fraser Institute study.”
What we have here is simply a sophisticated version of the trickle-down theory of economics. The overall impression of the Fraser Institute approach, in this case at least, is that of a sledgehammer masquerading as a scalpel. The bishops, in their report, followed military strategy and used its ideal, minimum force. The Fraser Institute goes against its very principles and spurns economy of effect. There is a lot to be criticised in the bishops’ declaration, but that can most effectively be done in a more balanced, more considered way.