Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Free-market economics and bad philosophy

Reading doctrine through ideological glasses

The most pervasive problem facing the Catholic Church in America today is our predilection for reading both Scripture and Tradition through ideological glasses. If bad philosophy leads inevitably to bad science, it leads even more quickly to bad theology.

The left has a history of trying to reconcile Catholicism with socialism, even Marxism, despite the explicit condemnations of various popes beginning with Bl. Pius IX (cf. Syllabus of Errors). The right’s version sometimes goes so far as to baptize Randian objectivism — to which Ayn Rand herself would  have objected — but more often settles for its own version of the “health and wealth gospel”; i.e., invocation of free-market capitalism.

As I’ve outlined before, “cafeteria Catholicism” on the right tends to play a game I call the “appeal to theological weight”. If a citation of pope or dicastery runs counter to a free-market position, the tactic is to claim it sits on a level of theological certainty low enough that a Catholic of good conscience can dispute or ignore it.

Even when the authority of a document, such as Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, is treated as authoritative, it’s creatively interpreted so that all the troublesome bits get ignored. For example, read this post in Ethika Politika, in which Gabriel S. Sanchez takes Joe Hargreaves to task for his sins of omission.

Scientific determinism explained

The remark about bad philosophy leading to bad science isn’t irrelevant. The materialism assumed as a part of classical socialist theory, especially in Marxism, is irreconcilable with Christianity: either the immaterial exists, in which case socialism is faulty, or it doesn’t, in which case all religions are faulty. Economics holds itself out as a science, and as such relies on the cause-effect thinking of determinism. And that may be a bigger problem than you might think.

Determinism, where physical interactions are involved, is pretty obviously true. The cue ball strikes the 6 ball; the momentum the 6 ball gains will exactly equal the momentum lost by the cue ball, and the 6 ball will travel in the direction opposite the angle at which the cue ball struck it.

Material cause and effect are also at work in our bodies, particularly our brains, where thoughts, feelings, memories and commands to various body parts zap back and forth across our synapses in a miniature electro-chemical storm. Damage the brain by any means, and those thoughts, feelings, memories and commands can be impaired.

The fatal fallacy of strict determinism

So much can be granted so long as one doesn’t insist that this is all that’s going on in the brain. When determinism, especially combined with materialism, goes so far as to deny the human power to make and act on choices, it goes too far: it turns what we normally mean by “reason” into an artifact of chemical and neural interactions over which we have no control. That reason appears to work is simply another illusion created by our programming, which we can no more resist or disbelieve than we can sprout wings with a wish.

Social science attempts the same thing — a wholly deterministic universe — using social influences rather than neurochemistry. However, it suffers from the same drawback: eliminate choice, and you eliminate reason. What we call “conscious decision-making” is merely the outcome of different social influences fighting over our responses. Of the two, the neuroscientist’s determinism is the more complete and tyrannical because more concrete.

The odd thing is, scientists talk about the absence or “death” of free will as if the illusion of choice were simply a survival mechanism. Ali Mazaheri of the University of Amsterdam told Live Science’s Tia Ghose, “The idea is that you have the illusion of free will as an artifact to be able to get through life.”

However, if such a strict construction of determinism is true, then not only is reason an illusion, but so also is determinism as a reasoned conclusion. Whatever we think to be true, we “think” it because we literally have no choice not to do so. So, for that matter, is science — we think it works, not because we observe that it’s produced so much knowledge and so many neat gadgets, but because physical forces beyond our control make us think so. Free will, then, is a necessary initial condition for reason qua reason to be anything but a neurochemical farce; Mazaheri’s explanation is merely the babble of a philosophically untrained mind.

One possible source of this confusion is failure to keep the material cause-effect relationship of physical determinism distinct from the ground-consequent relationship of rational thinking. Another neuroscientist, Jesse Bengson at UC-Davis, told Ghose that “purposeful intentions, desires and goals drive our decisions in a linear cause-and-effect kind of way …”, which is simply sloppy language use. Intentions, desires and goals are grounds, not causes, especially not causes in the sense that the cue ball’s impact on the 6 ball is the cause of its movement; they have neither the regularity nor the inevitability of physical causes.

Is economics really a science?

At first glance, it would seem that economics is all about choices: whether to buy product A or product B, whether to raise or lower taxes, whether to invest or consume. Study it a bit, though, and its determinist colors show: the “free market” isn’t really free.

For instance, every conservative talking head who’s ever trashed a proposed minimum wage hike takes it for granted that, if it’s passed into law, the resulting increase in prices will cause people to stop buying hamburgers and hiring janitors, which will cause massive unemployment, because people always act in their own self-interest. The implicit argument, the subconsciously understood premiss, is: “People can’t help it; this behavior is encoded into their genes. They don’t really have a choice.”

Then we read about the thirteen states which experienced greater than average job growth after passing minimum-wage increase laws, and wonder whether economic determinism is really that well-founded in empirical fact. For while the job growth can’t be attributed to the minimum wage hikes, neither can the predicted massive unemployment.

If French entrepreneur and writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is correct, then economics as it is practiced is not only compromised by class bias but ill-founded as a science. As a “broken clock”, it occasionally produces useful results and correct predictions; in other respects, however, it tries to explain a round economic world from a body of flat-earth theory.

Economic determinism isn’t Catholic

Catholic doctrine, needless to say, is built on the premiss of free will, from the Fall to the Final Judgment (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1730 – 1742). A reasonable determinism — that’s to say, a determinism that allows for some degree of free will — is both philosophically and doctrinally acceptable; indeed, the Church accepts the validity of the social sciences so far as they accurately describe how people do behave.

It’s only when social scientists assert that people can’t act any other way that they come into conflict not just with the Church but with the reasonable limits of determinism. However, the only point of referring to economic theory is to assert that “the economy can’t work any other way”.

This is not only wrong but wrong-headed. If you believe in free will, you believe that people can change their behavior, which includes their economic behavior. The last argument a Catholic should ever turn to is an appeal to economic determinism.