Why Paul Ryan’s ‘economic approach’ to politics clashes with Catholic teaching
After widespread criticism, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has reinstated the chamber’s chaplain, a Jesuit priest and fellow Catholic, Father Pat Conroy. Many members of Congress believe the forced resignation was politically motivated. They claimed Mr. Ryan did not like Father Conroy’s prayer before the Republican passage of a bill reducing taxes on the wealthiest Americans. In that prayer, Father Conroy echoed Catholic social teaching, imploring that “their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws.” For his part, Mr. Ryan denied the resignation was political but Father Conroy contends Mr. Ryan warned him: “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”
What is clear is that many American Catholics like Mr. Ryan have grown deeply disaffected with the New Deal social democracy that was built at midcentury with massive support from Catholics. Understanding how American Catholicism went from F.D.R. and J.F.K. to Mr. Ryan is a complex story. But one key factor is certainly the adoption of what the economist Gary S. Becker referred to as the “economic approach” to understanding human nature and society.
Indeed, Mr. Ryan has credited his entry into political life to the libertarian idea that human society should be understood primarily through the lens of economics. For Mr. Ryan this began in his youth, reading thinkers like Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who together schooled him in the libertarian understanding of “this economics thing.”
Many American Catholics like Mr. Ryan have grown deeply disaffected with the New Deal social democracy that was built at midcentury.
So what is this economics thing and why does it cause tension with the Catholic Church? After all, economics is made up of various competing schools and the church also encompasses a wide variety of possible political positions. Answering this question requires understanding the libertarian appropriation of economics and particularly rational choice methodology.
Rational choice is a helpful method used by many social scientists. However, libertarians adopt rational choice in a very specific way to make a political critique of government and in favor of markets.
Perhaps the most important assumption of rational choice is that humans are self-interested, rational preference-maximizers. Most economists accept that these are completely idealized and fictional models. Actual humans are neither rational nor self-interested in the ways assumed by rational choice. For example, they cannot rank all preferences because there are some goods (like human life or justice or religious observance) that lie beyond measurable, comparable value. Moreover, rational choice assumes individuals have stable, non-circular preferences. So someone who prefers A to B, and B to C, also prefers A to C. But psychologists like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman showed that in certain contexts humans have unstable and circular preferences.
Nonetheless, libertarians like Mr. Ryan often insist the fictitious assumptions of rational choice economics demand a radical reshaping of the very real institutions of government. For example, if humans are rational and self-interested this entails that there is no such thing as the “public good.” The only thing that exists are collections of individuals with their own interests that may at certain times overlap. In this way a methodological fiction is used to deny a potential reality about society.
Libertarians like Mr. Ryan often insist the fictitious assumptions of rational choice economics demand a radical reshaping of the very real institutions of government.
This assumption, moreover, has very concrete political consequences. In her book Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean has brilliantly shown how the belief that there is no public good is used by American libertarians (including Mr. Ryan) to attack the New Deal. Public schools, public health, social security and so on are not really in any “public interest.” Instead, government should be limited to the protection of individual property rights and the pursuit of self-interest. For this reason Mr. Ryan often avows his goal has been to run “against big government.”
Yet these premises are incompatible with Catholic social teaching, which holds the concept of a “public good” to be central. So for example, Pope John Paul II in his Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Churchgoes out of his way to reject individualistic reductions of the common good when he writes that “the principle of the common good” is something to which “every aspect of social life must be related” and “does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject” but “remains ‘common’ because it is indivisible.”
Libertarians assume a strong notion of public goods is dangerous.
By contrast, libertarians assume a strong notion of public goods is dangerous. It blinds citizens to the supposed fact that politicians and bureaucrats are never stewards of the commonweal but always self-interested actors, maximizing their own benefit. The key intellectual figure here is the economist James Buchanan, who advanced “public choice” theory by applying libertarian notions of rational choice to democratic institutions. For Buchanan government is inherently inefficient because politicians seeking reelection are incentivized to make thriftless promises of subsidies and benefits, while groups of citizens are incentivized to extract as much private gain from government largesse as possible. Thus, government always creeps towards socialist collectivism. As Mr. Ryan put it in a 2005 talk to an organization dedicated to Ayn Rand: “in almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill … it is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict: individualism versus collectivism.”
According to this dualistic brand of libertarianism, the alternative to a government creeping towards collectivism are markets where rational choice individuals pursue their own interests without interference or taxation in the name of make-believe public goods. Admittedly, this means that limited government may appear harsher on the poor. But ultimately, such libertarians assert, this is the only way to keep individual liberty and initiative alive. As Mr. Ryan infamously implied in 2014, programs like food stamps and school lunches may offer the poor a “full stomach” but they also give them an “empty soul.” Instead, according to Mr. Ryan, the United States should have an “incentive-based system” where the “safety net” does not turn into “a hammock” lulling people into “dependency and complacency.”
Once again there are tensions between Mr. Ryan and the church. For instance, John Paul II affirms markets are helpful for the production of wealth but there is nonetheless the risk of “an idolatry of the market” and thus “freedom in the economic sector... must be regulated.” Indeed, John Paul II even writes that the Catholic tradition requires a positive role for government as a “guarantor of systems of social insurance and protection that are designed above all to protect the weakest members of society.”
Ultimately this conflict between Mr. Ryan’s libertarianism and his Catholicism rests on rival anthropologies.
Ultimately this conflict between Mr. Ryan’s libertarianism and his Catholicism rests on rival anthropologies. Christ teaches that humans, although sinful, are capable of spiritual betterment and conversion that allows them to form communities of common purpose and solidarity (the church is the preeminent form of this association). Such widely disparate views of human nature have led Pope Francis’ advisors to publicly suggest that libertarianism and Catholicism are incompatible.
Does this mean that Catholics faithful to the church cannot be good Americans? After all, Mr. Ryan has publicly argued that “Ayn Rand’s vision” and that of other radical libertarians “go back to our roots [as Americans]” and help reveal “what our girding, undergrounding [sic] principles are.”
But the fact is the United States has always been comprised—in the words of Rogers Smith—of “multiple traditions.” Indeed, even Mr. Ryan’s own libertarianism is not the same as the classical liberalism often attributed to the Founders. For instance, a key figure within classical liberalism like Adam Smith did not believe society should be formed by individual, market-based self-interest, but instead argued for what he called “sentiments” like “fellow feeling” and “the agreeable bands of love and affection” between citizens. A society of economic self-interest was not enough.
As the political theorist S. M. Amadae has argued at length, libertarian notions of society break from classical liberalism and the belief that a society of mutual benefit can be formed without doing harm to others. This is most famously expressed in John Stuart Mill’s “no harm principle.” By contrast, the libertarian economic approach envisions calculative self-interest and not other-directed altruistic sentiments of a public good as binding society.
In other words, the political thought of both the Founders and 19th-century liberals is not equivalent to Mr. Ryan’s later, 20th-century libertarianism. In addition, America is not reducible to liberalism but has had indigenous forms of civic republicanism, social democracy, conservatism and other traditions of political thought. So Catholics have many ways of being American and political that do not run into the tensions of Mr. Ryan’s brand of libertarianism.
Mr. Ryan, meanwhile, continues to live out a very public conflict with the teaching authority of his own church. In addition to Father Conroy, he has clashed with women religious and even with the pontiff. Mr. Ryan says he admires Pope Francis but also dismisses his pastoral guidance on politics. When asked about Francis’s critical words on capitalism, Mr. Ryan responded: “The guy is from Argentina. They haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina.”
Perhaps Father Conroy and other American Catholics can take comfort in the fact that there was no real capitalism in Nazareth either.