May 13, 2011

Let’s Have at Those Caveats! (III): Freedom as Conformity, Capitalism as a Post-Christian Structure, and Other Humpty-Dumptyisms


When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

We have descried that by free Mr. Ferrara means—without irony—morally restrainedHe now asks the reader to entertain another symbol, a potential source of confusion because used in the same context: “free” market:
. . . as used through this book, the term “free” market refers not to private property or free enterprise as such, but to the post-Christian structures of “actually existing capitalism,” which (see Chapter 2) is anything but a free market in the Catholic sense of freedom as a moral faculty exercised in conformity with the divine and natural law. (11)
That is, he apparently thinks it good form to stipulate the meaning of a term one of whose words is in scare quotes.*
Mr. Ferrara borrows the phrase “actually existing capitalism” from Kevin Carson, the left-libertarian theoretician from whose critique of “mainstream” libertarianism he borrows heavily (even though Catholics “cannot possibly go where left libertarians will take them” [14]) and on which we will comment when our survey of TCATL brings us to it.
Let’s drop the redundant “actually.” Mr. Ferrara’s object is extant or “existing capitalism.” But whether extant or extinct, what does capitalism itself mean? The history of the usage of capital or word capitalism by socialists or anti-socialists will not help us here.
Perhaps “post-Christian structures” is a clue. The prefix post- implies a timeline: the temporal structures dubbed Christian came into being (implying pre-Christian structures), had their day in the sun, and then passed away (to be resurrected one day in a glorified Distributist body?). That, according to Mr. Ferrara’s lexicon, is capitalism. In any case, when those “structures” prevailed in the West—in unspecified centuries and countries, under unspecified rulers—there allegedly were free markets “in the Catholic sense of freedom as a moral faculty exercised in conformity with the divine and natural law.”
We suppose that the “faculty” in question is the human will. We accept arguendo Mr. Ferrara’s faculty psychology, whose validity he presupposes as though everyone knows what he’s talking about. Even if the mind is a network of interacting “faculties” (or “modules” or “organs”), one cannot sensibly be said to exercises one’s free will only when one conforms to the law. One also exercises it when one transgresses the law. That is a necessary condition of culpability. If the word free and its cognates were to pertain only to the decision to conform to the law, we would need another word to refer to the decision to transgress the law. We couldn't say that transgression is ever chosen, for choosing presupposes freedom, and freedom—“true freedom”—is ordered only toward conformity to the law. A reductio ad absurdum if there ever was one.
Equivocation once again mars Mr. Ferrara's argument: freedom as the positive spiritual strength, virtue, or power (dunamis, cf. 2 Tim. 1:7; 2 Tim. 2:1-2; Eph. 3:16-17) to do the good and avoid evil crowds out the meaning of freedom as the negative condition of not being restrained, prevented, hampered, or hindered in the use of one’s property by force or the threat of force.** Markets may be free in the latter sense regardless of how free or unfree market participants are spiritually. Mr. Ferrara’s confusion prevents him from considering how knowledge of markets is a factor in moral deliberation.
There is also his equivocation on law. As we have discussedlaw may refer to legislation or it may refer to principle. Divine law is a kind of legislation, and natural law (with God as its source) a kind of principle. The choice to conform is possible in the former case, but not in the latter. One does not sanely entertain the option of not conforming one’s behavior to a law of logic, to a physical law or, as we will elaborate in due course, to an economic law.***
According to Mr. Ferrara, the masses “[toil] for the wealthy in the cubicles of large corporations while living under a mountain of credit card and mortgage debt that also redounds to the benefit of a capitalist oligarchy” (10). Indeed, they do, but not under unrestrained capitalism, but rather under a mercantilist welfare-warfare bureaucratic state, which Austro-libertarians would dismantle root and branch. Commitment to an unhampered free market order does not entail rule by a few but, if anything, a radical “consumerocracy.”
The consumers patronize those shops in which they can buy what they want at the cheapest price. Their buying and their abstention from buying decides who should own and run the plants and the farms. They make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. For them nothing counts other than their own satisfaction. They do not care a whit for past merit and vested interests. If something is offered to them that they like better or that is cheaper, they desert their old purveyors. In their capacity as buyers and consumers they are hard-hearted and callous, without consideration for other people. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Ch. XV, Section 4, “The Sovereignty of the Consumers.”
Before Mr. Ferrara can judge whether “consumer sovereignty” so described is good or bad, to be promoted or opposed, he has to ascertain whether or not markets, to the extent that they are free, tend to establish it. This he will not do.
To Be Continued
* “The tic-like use of scare quotes renders many of his statements ambiguous. To a critic of any of those uses, Mr. Ferrara can always retort, “I wasn’t referring to x!  I was referring to ‘x’!” Or: “I didn’t say S’s assertion was heretical!  I said it was ‘heretical’!” Of Sound Bites, Panic Buttons and Scare Quotes, March 14, 2011. And so with “free market” and “‘free’ market.”
** “Political-economic freedom is not to be confused with the positive spiritual power to resist temptation to sin and instead do the right thing, with which Christians (among others) are concerned (Gal. 4:31-5:1), indeed, for which they pray. That concern is no warrant for unfavorably comparing that freedom to that power. They are distinct, but not rival dimensions of human living, related as interior to exterior, as it were.” Freedom is Restraint, May 5, 2011.
*** Although one may commit two equivocations in one sentence, it unfortunately takes more than one sentence, many more, to expose them. It is time to cite Bishop Butler again: “. . . a complete and exhaustive answer . . . would need to be a much longer treatise than this.  It is easy to pack into half a dozen pages enough clever charges . . . to require a thousand pages in reply.  In this kind of warfare the aggressor always has an enormous advantage.” On Reviewing Propaganda, March 8, 2011. At the rate we are going, our complete and exhaustive answer to TCATL may very well exceed it in length.