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Fleming on Woods

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Fleming on Woods

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on June 23, 2004 11:34 PM

As Tom Woods recently noted, though he was too polite to name names, Thomas Fleming and others at Chronicles (related posts: 1, 2) have attacked his published views on Austrian economics and some economically illiterate pronouncements of certain popes.

Woods’s exquisitely brilliant and eloquent response speaks for itself. But Fleming, who is genuinely brilliant on some issues, like other conservatives (no offense, Pat Buchanan) sometimes flails when he goes out of his depth, as here:Fleming writes:

Even major economic thinkers on basically the same side—say Friedman, Rothbard, and Stigler—disagree on many things. How does a non-economist—like Woods, his mentor Lew Rockwell, or me—decide which of their writings is Holy Writ, which is apostolic apocrypha, and which is arrant heresy? I don’t know and neither do they.

He continues,

Science is a slippery term because in English we use it primarily to mean a hard science like physics and chemistry or microbiology. Sociology and economics are only metaphorically sciences in this strict sense. Of course any disciplined body of knowledge is also a science, as theology and literary criticism are sciences, but these looser sciences do not presume to dictate absolute rules on the order of 2+2=4. Aristotle settled this question long ago, and it is one of the prime mistakes of the modernists since Descartes to pretend that there can be an absolute science of human behavior or society. If Woods were consistent in his logic, he would have to set all the teachings of the social sciences against the teachings of the Church. He would of course argue that economics is somehow different, but who would agree with him?

Several problems here. First, he implies Lew Rockwell is not an economist. As Misesian James Yohe told me one time over beers in Auburn, and with which I agree–Lew is one of the top ten economists in the world, easy. Second, Fleming is appealing to authority; as if having a PhD in economics entitles you to pronounce on economics–which is untrue due to the corruption and scientism of modern economics and which contradicts Fleming’s own condemnation of economics qua disclipline.

Third, Fleming is simply incorrect to think that economics is not a hard science; or to imply that it matters how many people “agree” with this whether it is so or not.

I fear that Fleming’s comments leave an impression of ultra-traditionalist denigration of reason and skepticism which imply that a primary reason to be a Christian–a Catholic–is that we are all helpless idiots and need the authorized instruction of priests before we even know how or what to know. Of course something along these lines can be argued in the field of morals. But on the topic of economic advice, Woods rightly points out,

By any standard, the issue of (for example) whether free trade or a system of protective tariffs is more effective for a developing country – obviously a matter of legitimate disagreement among Catholics – is not one on which the Pope may appear to make a morally binding judgment.

Woods continues,

Bad economic advice does not magically become good economic advice just because a pope or even a series of popes have offered it, any more than poor architectural advice would become good architectural advice for the same reason.

Fleming states that Woods champions “the social sciences over the magisterium”. He imples Woods denies the Tradition of the Church. This is not true. Woods points out quite sensibly that simply because something is uttered by a pope or a line of them does not mean it is infallible. This is elementary, and Fleming no doubt knows this.

Fleming tries a clever analogy to argue against Woods:

One of the sources of Woods’ confusion is that he does not distinguish between economics as an analytical tool subject to verification and economic philosophy, which is a branch of ethical and political theory. These are quite distinct, just as distinct as evolutionary theory and social Darwinism. I might generally endorse Adam Smith’s analysis of markets, as I do, while repudiating his moral philosophy (The Theory of Moral Sentiments), as I also do. Put simply, a mathematician has the right to instruct the Church on the rules of geometry, but he has no right to tell the Pope how those rules are to be applied, for example, in the construction of a Church. To take a trivial example, the sphere might be a perfect shape, mathematically considered, but it is hardly the right shape for a Church.

This analogy is inapt and disingenuous. Woods and Austrians do not say, qua economist, that it is the “right” type of economy. What they say is, if you want to increase wages, or increase economic prosperity, then a private property order is the ticket. Now surely Fleming would not say the Church’s goal is to increase impoverishment. Therefore his only argument can be the economic proposition about the best means to achieve prosperity. But as Woods points out, the Church ” may not say that the state has to be employed to bring about better working conditions, because she is incompetent to pronounce upon the best way to bring about better working conditions, just as she is incompetent to pronounce upon whether, assuming their production involves nothing immoral, I should use aspirin or ibuprofen for my headache.”

So using Fleming’s analogy, the Austrian would not say that a building should be sphere-shaped simply because a sphere is “perfect”; rather, he would say, if, for some reason, you want to construct a container having a minimum surface area for a given volume, then the container should have a spherical shape. If a pope enunciated this goal, then he would simply be incorrect to insist on using a cube- or barrel-shaped container; the means advocated is simply not the best way to achieve the stated goal. It’s one or the other: cube-shaped container; or one having minimum surface area. It’s not the mathematician’s fault for pointing out this unavoidable tradeoff.

Likewise, if your goal is to achieve peace and prosperity, then consistent private property rights are absolutely essential. If a pope advocates any deviation whatsoever from a pure private property order, he is to that extent advocating conflict and impoverishment, which surely contradicts moral goals sanctioned by the Church.

Fleming also states that

What Woods and Rockwell are arguing for, however, is not merely the limitation of the state to protection of their interests. No, they are explicitly denying the moral order and, because that argument has limited appeal, they attempt to fool their followers by pretending to champion economic freedom against its enemies, whether those enemies are Marxists or collectivist Catholics.

But it is quite untrue that they are “denying the moral order”, whatever this loosey-goosey, non-rigorous, overly-impressed-with-himself liberal-arts-major type term means; it is untrue in fact; and it is untrue, beyond cavil, that it is implied by their economic comments qua economists. As Woods writes,

if you want wages to rise, then eliminate all taxes on capital, just for starters, and get the state out of the way of private investment. The resulting increase in investment will raise the productivity of labor; that, in turn, means more goods, lower prices, and increased purchasing power for everyone. The kinds of tax, wage, and other economic policies that the Storck school recommends as a faithful reflection of Catholic social teaching will do the opposite, and can therefore be expected to have precisely the opposite effect. Why should I not be permitted to say this?

Simply pointing out the economic consequences of a proposed policy is not denying the moral order. Surely the popes, like good Austrians, are in favor of peace, prosperity, and cooperation. But since these things are achieved only by respect for individual rights, including property rights–and all the consequences of this, including that governmental regulations are inconsistent with this and concepts like “‘economic justice” are quite literally nonsense–then any pope who advocates any of these things is simply incorrect; he is advocating policies that undermine his own (perhaps divinely inspired) goals of peace and prosperity. That Fleming would use an irrational, incoherent, manipulable, loosey-goosey, even evil, term like “economic justice” with a straight face, as if it were coherent and accepted and just and noncontroversial, is a sad indication of the true gulf between liberty-, rights-, and justice-seeking libertarians, and ultra-traditionalist conservative types who can no longer even pay lip service to the elementary teachings of the science of economics.

Can it be “immoral” for an employer to pay his employees too little? Who knows. Austrians do not speak on this issue, qua Austrians. The point is, if a pope advocates the state outlawing the payment of a certain wage (i.e., the imposition of a minimum wage), then the pope is simply incorrect if he thinks this will improve the lot of workers or will not cause unemployment and impoverishment.

Economics per se is about means; the best means to achieve ends. Although economics is in a sense value-free, it should be no blemish on real, human Austrian economists that they, like most normal, decent human beings, happen to also prefer, qua humans, peace and prosperity; and thus tend to recommend the private property order, which is, in the end, the only means of achieving the desired goals.

In the end, the disagreements of Fleming and Storck are economic disagreements. It is monstrous to use the cover of the Church’s magisterium to give credibility to one’s secular, economic arguments. Woods is right when he writes, “Sooner or later the substance of my argument will have to be addressed.”

The bottom line is: are the irrational, incorrect, even immoral pronouncements of popes on technical economic issues infallible? Of course not.

A priest comments on Chronicles versus Tom Woods

Posted by Norman Singleton on June 23, 2004 09:23 PM

Last night, I had dinner last night with a friend of mine who was recently ordained as a priest. We discussed the Tom Woods-Chronicles exchange. My friend pointed out that if the Chronicles folks were right then Pope John Paul II could not have revised previous Papal statements on economics and embraced capitalism.

Blessed Is the Fast Writer

Posted by Lew Rockwell on June 22, 2004 12:02 PM

Especially the fast, good writer, of which LRC has a number. Yesterday afternoon, I saw Thomas Storck’s June 17th attack on Tom Woods and the free market. I forwarded it to Tom, and in a few hours, he sent me today’s terrific essay.

Tom has a forthcoming book — much needed — on economics and the church, and another just out from Columbia University Press, The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era.

Woods, Storck, Fleming et al.

Posted by Lew Rockwell on June 24, 2004 09:15 AM

Writes Professor Michael King of Benedictine College:

Stephen Kinsella hits the mark with his conclusion that the disagreements of Fleming and Storck are economic disagreements, and it is “monstrous to use the cover of the Church’s magisterium to give credibility to one’s secular, economic arguments.”

One thing that struck me when reading Storck’s piece was the sense that he was almost desperate not only to win an economic argument, but to end the debate.

To wit, consider this important claim made by Storck:

“What can one say in reply to Woods, then? First, that since a whole series of popes has taught certain moral truths connected with economics which they believed was entirely within their competence, it is monstrous for anyone claiming to be a Catholic to argue against this teaching, and second, that what Woods represents as the teaching of economics is in fact simply one economic view among many, and that thus it is not the science of economics that is at odds with Catholic doctrine, but simply one school of thought representing ultimately the fallible reasoning of human beings.”

This passage only makes sense if Storck is claiming that when popes write on economics, they are teaching “certain moral truths” rather than “simply one economic view among many.”But he betrays himself later in the piece with these two revealing comments: “In fact, the Austrian school, to which Woods adheres, is a minority school of economists.” [emphasis original] and “…but there are other schools of economic thought whose finding harmonize well with Catholic social thought.”

Hmmm. Sounds to me like Mr. Storck is using the “cover of the Church’s magisterium” to score points for his own line of economic thinking. To paraphrase Tom Woods, is it not a weird coincidence that most who speak or write on Catholic social teaching support heavy interventionism?

And, is it not surprising that as their policies sink deeper into failure, they seek further cover under the authority of the popes.

Re: Woods, Storck, Fleming et al.

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on June 24, 2004 10:45 AM

Regarding Professor King’s comments on my post, another thing comes to mind. Suppose a person interested in economics also adheres to the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. This means you believe when the Pope speaks ex cathedra (from the Chair of Peter), solemnly defining a dogma concerning faith and morals to be held by the entire Church, it is impossible for the pronouncement to be incorrect. Thus, it may be relied upon concerning one’s own moral conduct.

Now, clearly some pronouncements by the Pope are, under this doctrine, infallible; others are not. How do we know whether a given pronouncement is ex cathedra or not? There has been much written on this, but wouldn’t it be reasonable, to recognize that a given pronouncement cannot be, indeed must not be, one of the ex cathedra, infallible pronouncements, if it is known to be false? If I, as a mathematician, know that pi is greater than 3.14, and the Pope declares it to be exactly 3.14, then I know not only that the Pope is incorrect; but also that his statement was not ex cathedra.Likewise, if the Pope makes some statement based on fallacious economic reasoning–e.g., he espouses some kind of socialist system as being more efficacious or efficient than capitalism at achieving prosperity–then this statement also cannot be infallible. The point is, if we know something is false, we know it cannot be infallible; so having knowledge, gained through reason, can be used as a simple test to determine whether a statement is ex cathedra or not.

No doubt there are more sophistocated, established tests for determining when a papal decree or teaching is infallible or not. But this is a simple one, useful in some circumstances. Storck et al., by claiming that obviously false propositions are infallible, are in fact undermining the idea of infallibility.

In any event, they are trying to take a shortcut to establishing truth–trying to use authority, rather than grapple with the substance of Woods’s economic views. They do not even mount a serious argument trying to show that or why socialistic-economic pronouncements of certain popes are indeed ex cathedra; they just seem to assume this, because it would shut up Woods.

And this is the tactic modern socailists are increasingly adopting: the “shut up” tactic. As the collapse of communism and spectactular failures of the welfare state have become more visible and manifest, it has become ever more difficult for liberals to argue for outright socialism with a straight face, and increasingly difficult for them to justify their socialistic policies such as affirmative action, antidiscrimination laws, minimum wage, political correctness, and so on. Therefore–since they have virtually no arguments left anymore; the failure of their policy prescriptions has become too obvious– they have increasingly, in their desperation, increased their tone and resort to ad hominem and attempts to literally silence the opposition by force. Thus, the modern phenomenon of being labeled racist or anti-semite at the slightest, mildest challenge to prevailing mainstream orthodoxy (to the extent where if someone is called a racist or anti-semite, the prima facie conclusion has to be that the person is probably not), and the resort to antidiscrimination laws and their penumbras and emanations which indeed exert a severe chilling effect on free speech. The “liberals” are the biggest threat to free speech, yet have the chutzpah to pretend to be defenders of liberalism.

Re: Re: Woods, Storck, Fleming et al.

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on June 24, 2004 09:32 PM

In response to recent posts concerning Tom Woods and the folks at Chronicles, Scott Richert, Executive Editor of Chronicles, wrote to tell me that I was incorrect to “have claimed that Storck, Fleming, and I regarded papal encyclicals on Catholic social thought to be ‘infallible.’ None of us has said that; we do not believe it.”

He then asked that I “withdraw” my claim and to “make a public apology for misrepresenting our position.”While I find this entire exercise a bit too over-indulgent, I’ll try to respond. But let me first emphasize that I respect Fleming and Chronicles, and none of this is meant personally.

Now it seemed to me obvious that when Storck and Fleming attacked Woods’s pro-capitalist views on the grounds that they are somehow incompatible with Church “teaching”, the Church teaching in question was supposed to be some kind of unchallengeable, established-as-true Catholic dogma–i.e., infallible. It seems to me that unless the “Church teachings” in question are indeed infallible, then the dispute between Storck/Fleming and Woods is merely economic and has nothing to do with the Church. Therefore I assumed Fleming and Storck view the Church teachings that Woods disagrees with as ex cathedra.

According to Richert, none of them hold this view. But his demand for apology is unwarranted, for no harm was intended if I indeed did, mistate their view; at worst, their own ambiguity led to their view being misconstrued. I have no idea what it means to “withdraw” something already said–it’s not as if there is some big statement-deed-registry office in the sky who keeps track of these things–but I will be happy to state “for the record”–if any of these gentlemen do not “regard papal encyclicals on Catholic social thought to be ‘infallible,’” then I retract stating this as a fact.

Yet it seems to me they are trying to have it both ways. For their attack on Woods is based not on economic substance or arguments but on the incompatibility of (pure) capitalism with certain Church teachings. This only carries weight only if the Church teachings have some kind of authority to guarantee they are right. To my mind, this must be infallibility. I am unware of some intermediate “infallibility-lite” status. Yet Richert denies they are saying the teachings are infallible.

So which way is it, guys? Are the teachings infallible (in which case, show how they are matters of faith or morals); or if not, what’s the big deal with contradicting these teachings? After all, if you say something true that contradicts a non-infallible, possibly-false “teaching,” you are in the right, no? So the question then simply becomes, are Woods’s economic-related views correct, or not? Are they sound? No appeal to authority makes any sense at that stage of inquiry.

Now far be it from me to accuse them of holding a view which an editor of a magazine with which they are associated insists they do not. But I may be excused for quoting some comments of theirs that can perhaps excuse my error. Storck writes,

the hallmark of dissenters and heretics throughout the ages has been precisely to take some human science, theology or philosophy often, elevate it above the teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church and pose the false quandary: If I accept such and such a teaching of the Church I must go against my God-given reason. But since reason is from God, I cannot contradict it. Therefore I must reject this teaching of the Church.

Storck here mentions the “magisterium” of the Church; and implies that a Catholic should not go against the “teaching of the Church”, which, to me, implies the teaching must be infallible. If Storck does not mean this, then he is speaking of non-infallible teaching, in which case, there is nothing at all wrong, from the point of view of Catholicism, with Woods disagreeing with it. I for one would be happy to see Storck clearly and explicitly state precisely what is the basis of his critique.

As for Fleming, in his piece he writes,

Second, the issue is not about Papal infallibility, and those who say it is are, as usual, lying. Popes make mistakes all the time, and, as I pointed out in my column, even Councils of the Church have had to reverse direction from time to time. The basic question is whether or not the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit over time. If it is, then the foundational principles of the Church in theology and ethics are true. If not, it is time to find another religion.

[…]Catholicism requires a certain amount of patience and humility, and if I am going to be asked to reject the infallibility of the Church, I am certainly not going to replace it with the infallibility of non-professional economists.

Now Fleming first denies it’s about infallibilty. However, he then implies that the Church’s teachings on economics–even the non-capitalist oriented ones–are “guided by the Holy spirit”; foundational principles of ethics that are true. I am not sure what this is; it seems to be some kind of intermediate “infallibility lite” standard. And what can it mean when Fleming implies that adopting free market economics means “reject[ing] the infallibility of the Church” As with Storck, I regret if I have mistated or am misstating Fleming’s views; but if so, I am not quite sure what they are, in this respect.

Some final comments (some drawn from private correspondence with Woods). Fleming et al. say these teachings are not infallible. However, if they’re saying it represents 2,000 years of traditional thought, then almost by definition that makes it infallible by virtue of the ordinary Magisterium. For example, Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, on contraception, is not ipso facto infallible — nowhere does he say, “As Pope, I bind you all with this infallible statement” (that would be the extraordinary Magisterium at work) — but because it follows an uninterrupted line of thought, it is considered infallible.

Additional knowledge has come to light over the years that must influence these questions. Fleming is not quite correct when he says that the usury teaching changed only because conditions changed. Theologians had begun to realize that certain factors made certain loans not immoral; these factors became more and more numerous until finally, the prohibition essentially withered away. That is what Woods is suggesting should happen here.

Consider the case of Galileo: Fleming’s views here would justify Urban VIII’s treatment of Galileo. Hadn’t 1500 years of tradition opposed Copernicanism? Hadn’t all the Fathers interpreted the Bible to imply a stationary earth?

In a follow up, Fleming writes,

I am still waiting for a libertarian to respond to my challenge. Can they show that their liberal-individualist ethic is represented either in the New Testament or in the authoritative teachings of the Church? In the Beatitudes, for example, or in Christ’s admonition to the rich young man, in the writings of Augustine and Thomas on the obligations of charity? If they were not sunk in the mire of 19th century liberalism–a dead tradtion of thought, if ever there was one–they might be able to understand what the issue is. Come on, boys, we are waiting for a single rational argument that is not simply a recital of liberal platitudes.

I personally don’t base my libertarian principles on statements in the New Testament, but rather on the simple notion that committing violence against other individuals requires justification; on the idea that peace, cooperation, civilization, and prosperity are preferable to their opposite–war, mayhem, strife, struggle, animal-like hand-to-mouth life, rape, murder, theft, conflict. I don’t care to see if I can find statements justifying this in the NT; but it seems to me Jesus would choose the former over the latter.

The bottom line is if someone “opposes” libertarianism, that means he does endorse the propriety of aggression–the initiation of violent force against peaceful neighbors–in some cases. It’s that simple. Fleming writes:

Third, the issue is not about economic liberty or private property. The Church has consistently defended both. But it is only in the Modern Age that property rights became absolute, while other moral considerations had to be bracketed as matters of private opinion–a position to which the Church has never subscribed.

My first comment is–the Church never subscribed to absolute property rights? What about Roman law?

In any event, note here, Fleming apparently thinks property rights are not “absolute,” presumably because “other moral considerations” outweigh them or something. But this is just euphemistic or sterile language to disguise the naked truth, which is simply, that Fleming is in favor, in some cases, of institutionalized aggression against the bodies and/or private property of peaceful, innocent individuals. (If he is not, then he is a libertarian.)

Why Fleming thinks there is some kind of burden of proof on those who endorse, advocate, and strive for peace, cooperate, prosperity, and civilization to prove that it is morally permissible to be in favor of these things is beyond me. It’s reminiscent of the Randian’s hand-wringing attempts to find some basis for benevolence–as if you should feel guilty for wanting to be nice to your neighbors unless you can prove it’s permitted. Rather, the view of those consistently in favor of peace and cooperation and prosperity is not really that those willing to commit, or endorse, aggression have the burden of justifying it; rather, their view is that criminals, like animals, disasters, disease, and forces of nature, which, while unfortunate and a cause of tragedy, misery, and impoverishemnt, are merely technical problems that those who oppose aggression must try to find ways to combat and protect against.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • RJ Moore II May 7, 2018, 1:38 am

    It’s really quite bizarre how much effort Flemming et. al. put into distancing themselves from Woods, whom they would tend to agree with for other reasons (traditionalist Catholicism, social conservatism, anti-world imperialism, historical revision and anti-progressivism). This might simply be a case of ‘the smaller the movement, the more the factions’.

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