Wealth, Poverty & Human Destiny
reviewed by John William Coleman
The appearance of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Centesimus Annus in 1991 was greeted by many as a victory for the liberal democratic tradition. While it did not offer unconditional support to capitalist economic orders, its condemnation of socialism and reaffirmation of freedom as an essential precursor to the recognition of human dignity seemed a vindication for those who support classically liberal ideas. However, the pope’s message for Lent in 2003 reiterated his concern for the modern poor:
In Wealth, Poverty & Human Destiny, Doug Bandow and David Schindler attempt to address these questions in a world in which the failure of socialism has left capitalism unopposed—even as poverty, inequality, and wider moral and social decline persist. The editors have compiled one of the most thorough examinations of this topic in recent history.
The writers are divided loosely into two camps. Bandow’s writers (Peter J. Hill, Michael Novak, Samuel Gregg, Jennifer Roeback Morse, Daniel T. Griswold, and Richard John Neuhaus) generally argue for the practical efficacy of free markets in helping the poor and for the general compatibility of Christianity and liberal democracy. Schindler’s writers (Adrian Walker, D. Stephen Long, William T. Cavanaugh, David Crawford, V. Bradley Lewis, and Arthur Davis) are more pessimistic—most notably arguing that these orders are undermined by their implicit (and sometimes explicit) creation of a moral poverty and spiritual homelessness.
Synthesized in concluding responses by the editors themselves, these arguments offer an enlightening discussion of liberty, Christianity, modernity, and the poor. The book includes two appendices: Wendell Berry’s essay “The Total Economy” and a bibliographic essay by Max L. Stackhouse and Lawrence M. Stratton.
Bandow’s writers win one battle conclusively: arguing global capitalism’s practical superiority as a tool for raising material standards. In thorough if unoriginal essays, they offer a wealth of historical evidence and economic theory showing the benefits of liberal democracy, free trade, and globalization, and they carefully outline those anti-capitalist forces, both cultural and political, that threaten their final success. Several of Schindler’s writers question the authenticity of this triumph, citing examples of corporate abuse, income inequality, and consumer “unfreedom,” but their efforts are often abstract and are invariably overwhelmed by the arguments of their liberal counterparts.
Indeed, Schindler himself seemingly concedes the wealth created by these systems (as do several other writers), noting the historical accuracy of Michael Novak’s assertion that, “for the poor, market systems provide far better chances of improving income, conditions, and status.” And the book itself seems a reflection of the gradual real-world triumph of capitalism in the last century.
However, on questions of moral poverty and spiritual homelessness, Schindler’s writers offer no such concession. Arguing that it is only the dominance of a liberal anthropology that allows poverty to be narrowly defined as a merely material condition, these writers reject the instrumentalism of the new global economy and hark back to questions of deeper moral poverty and spiritual homelessness.
Their critiques are convincing. Schindler notes that Augustine observed that the primary condition of humanity is one of homelessness, properly understood as “a lack of one’s proper place in the cosmos, and not . . . the condition of a discreet group of people living in the street.”
And therefore the assertion that liberalism (understood even in its “classic” sense) simultaneously worsens and veils this condition must be taken seriously. For Schindler’s writers, foundational to this doctrine is a proper understanding of human anthropology—one that recognizes the proper telos (end) of man and his construction as “gift.” They assert that liberalism consistently instrumentalizes man, refusing to confine self-interest to the marketplace, and extending it instead to social relations—even those of the family.
Bandow’s writers refuse to accept this claim. They cling to the pope’s statement in Centesimus Annus that “the historical experience of socialist countries has demonstrated that collectivism does not do away with alienation but rather increases it, adding to it a lack of basic necessities and economic inefficiency.” Bandow argues that “the problem of humanity is not liberal economics, but humanity. All men are fallen and sinful; greed and envy are our inevitable lot, not the products of particular social systems.” Indeed, his writers contend that the maximization of freedom is a necessary precursor to the maximization of virtue. As Richard John Neuhaus writes, “Authentic faith is, of necessity, an act of freedom.”
The argument boils down to a discussion of causation. Do liberal capitalism and the market economy worsen spiritual poverty and homelessness, as Schindler’s writers argue? Does the ideology of liberalism suppose and promote an autonomous individualism hazardous to real fulfillment, to human interaction, and to love? Or, as Bandow’s writers assert, is homelessness an inherent piece of humanity? Can economic liberalism actually further the moral and spiritual growth of man while improving his material condition and maximizing the personal freedom that serves as a precursor to virtue?
To the end, these questions are mired in a sea of gray. Schindler’s writers effectively question the spiritual and moral effects of the market economy, but at times come off as cold, abstract, and a bit too dismissive of material poverty. Their willingness to criticize the “spiritual poverty” of liberal economics while devoting less-than-adequate attention to its material successes is alarming, and Schindler’s dismissal of three of Bandow’s writers—Gregg, Hill, and Griswold—in his conclusion is indicative of a wider tendency to overlook these real-world concerns throughout the work.
While Schindler’s writers may claim that they are simply unwilling to address questions based in a “liberal anthropology” of human nature, those acquainted with real poverty might find troubling this treatment of suffering. Additionally, as Bandow points out, their proposition of “an economy of gift,” while good in theory, seems to have no application to the state. And if their criticism is merely that the culture must institute the changes they desire, they may find themselves more aligned with Bandow’s camp than they initially concede.
Bandow’s team rarely deals in an adequate way with the very real questions of increasing isolation and instrumentalism in liberal systems. Their appeals to material wealth and autonomous choice seem to emphasize the liberal anthropology described by Schindler. Novak’s argument that the market is representative of communion in the body of Christ is less than persuasive, and at times the analysis of these writers tends to libertarian simplification. In general, however, I thought their writing pursuasive, especially in the breadth of concerns—moral, physical, political, and spiritual—they have considered.
Wealth, Poverty & Human Destiny is a broad and provocative discussion of liberal capitalism, democracy, moral and physical poverty, homelessness, instrumentalism, technology, and globalization (among many other things). It is an essential companion to anyone interested in the many questions of poverty and classical liberal ideology.
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