March 11, 2011

A Question of Competency

Even if one pushes past the unrelieved sneer that colors Mr. Ferrara’s brief against Austro-libertarianism, one may raise questions about the evidence he adduces and his use of it.  
His every venture into a field in which he is not expert is a contrived garden path to a foregone conclusion. And when we ask what his standard is and how a writer he cites favorably meets it or how his opponents do not, we are left to our powers of inference and surmise. 
An early-warning sign of trouble ahead is the sheer number of disparate areas of study that its author, not a specialist in any of them, presumes to treat. Land enclosure in 18th-century England; the loss of Church lands in Europe; the Greek ingredient of the medieval Greco-Christian synthesis; consequentialist ethics; praxeology as a method of the social sciences; the moral status of lending money at interest (“usury”); the financial crisis of 2008; distributism—these are but a few of the topics I can call to mind without refreshing my memory. His opinions are delivered with an arrogance that might be tolerable if displayed by a polymath, but insufferable when exhibited by a dilettante.
Not surprisingly, given our author’s profession, his book is redolent of a prosecuting attorney’s brief. That is, it assumes the form of reasoning while denying the power thereof, which requires one to be on the lookout for possible flaws, not only in another’s hypothesis, but also in one’s own.  The principle of charity, once again.
Now, attorneys at trial are not engaged in mutually enriching dialog. Whether prosecuting or defending, they are under no obligation to disclose to their curial adversaries a weakness in their case. They may very well be under a professional obligation not to. To dispose his opponents’ case in the most favorable light, then, to raise questions for their consideration, and to be genuinely open to their responses is not a characteristic concern of Ferrara’s, if this book is any evidence. 
Because TCATL never engages the body of thought with which I am conversant as an advocate, I must comment as much on its rhetorical performance, even theater, as on the content of his few arguments, which only betray his ignorance. What the book does parade before the reader is one external criticism* after another, each resting on the author’s superficial grasp of (a) the historical controversies to which those criticisms refer and (b) the literature that evaluates those controversies. 
Of course, had Mr. Ferrara tried to evaluate that literature, he would have had either to confine his scope to a narrower scope of topics or write many volumes the size of TCATL. To achieve judiciousness in all of them in a mere 326 pages, however, the caliber of one’s mind would need to rival that of Jacques Barzun. Alas, Christopher Ferrara is no Jacques Barzun. 
And neither is the reviewer. Apart from having done graduate-level work in philosophy, this cradle Catholic, who intellectually converted to Austro-libertarianism in 1983 and enjoyed the friendship and guidance of Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) for the last dozen years of his life, claims no expertise in any of the fields for which our author presumed to play tour guide. 
As we shall see, however, expertise is not required in order to discern that Mr. Ferrara does not have any. Our series of posts aims at exposing the disservice he did his readers by way of inexcusable omissions and distortions. 
That is, our case is primarily moral: the author is not to be trusted on his chosen topic. Showing this will discharge my obligation as a reviewer (and recipient of a review copy). Unfortunately, showing it will cost me many more sentences than the one of dismissal TCATL deserves solely on its content.
Finally, this review-essay is intended to be a resource for Catholics in Mr. Ferrara’s camp or orbit who, although impressed with the book’s prima facie case against Austro-libertarianism, are curious about what might be said in reply. To that end, readers will be referred to the literature, much of which was arguably Mr. Ferrara’s responsibility to bring to their attention and from which they may infer fuller answers to his charges.

* A criticism may be described as “internal” or “external.” An internal criticism takes the writer’s case on its own terms and tries to ascertain whether, on those terms, it stands or falls. An external criticism presupposes something to be the case dogmatically—much as a court of law might “take judicial notice” of the fact that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west without demanding justification for it—and then notes whether or not the text under review contradicts the presupposition. If it can be shown that it does, then it has ipso facto been refuted. While both kinds of criticism can be effective, the efficacy of external criticism varies inversely with the controvertible character of what the critic presupposes. Internal criticism relies on no controvertible propositions other than those supplied by the writer.