March 31, 2011

Demonize and Delete the Austrians (II)

As we noted last time, Mr. Ferrara oddly chose to cite Hebrew University’s Sharon Gordon’s unpublished research on Carl Menger.  No citation at all, however, supports his assertion of a broad thesis morally implicating thought leaders of the Austrian School of Economics (ASE) in the downfall of Christian civilization.
Mr. Ferrara gave priority to conveying his view of the import of laissez faire over his   responsibility to define the meaning of his key term. It is, in the first place, opposition to a government’s use of its monopoly of the means of coercion to regulate economic exchange, to determine whether something may be produced or not, at what rate, and sold for what price. That is, he allowed a particular connotation—“the primary dogma of economic liberalism that emerged as part of the Enlightenment’s overall attack on the Christocentric social order of Catholic Europe” (7)—to crowd out its denotation in his exposition.
The words “emerging as part of” an “overall attack” on “Christocentric social order” can excite the Christian reader’s glands, but his or her exigent mind may wonder what role Carl Menger and the ASE played in those events or their aftermath. He or she may also wonder, as do we, about the viability of an allegedly Christocentric social order that was so easily undone, and ask about any role that agents of that order unintentionally played in the unraveling.
In vain does one search in TCATL for a causal story that shows how one may impute to opponents of interventionism even partial culpability for the demise of a putatively healthy social order.  (I find such a possibility antecedently improbable.)  Identifying Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (last name only, however) as a leader of the Physiocrats (undefined), who in turn “helped” (in some vague way) the Encyclopaedists (also undefined) “pave the way” to the French Revolution is an opinion, rather flabbily expressed, not a cautiously framed hypothesis. 
Mr. Ferrara translates “Laissez faire, laissez passer!” as “Let do [or “let be”] and let pass!,” but doesn’t tell us what he thinks of the forced cartelization and privileges (and suboptimal consequences for the consumer) that mercantilism represented and against which “Laissez faire!” was a protest.  If his counter-revolutionary proposal is not accurately summed up by, say, “Restrain and obstruct!,” he should have made that clear. 
In his biographical essay on Turgot, “Brief, Lucid, Brilliant,” which I recommend as an antidote to Mr. Ferrara’s gossip, Murray Rothbard showed how Turgot anticipated many insights of the ASE.  (Mr. Ferrara both claims that his book “is not concerned with ‘economics’ as an academic discipline” [11] and that he will make exceptions to that stipulation, unavoidable in a book critical of the ASE.)  Mr. Ferrara takes a swipe at “the fallen bourgeois minister Turgot,” without telling his reader what it means for something to be a fallen bourgeois minister.
Unlike Mr. Ferrara, Ms. Gordon mentions Menger’s tutelage of Rudolph, Crown Prince of Austria. So what? Well, His Imperial and Royal Highness, Carl Menger, and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk were all Catholics, and the environment of their marginal revolution in economics was the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire; that of the anti-liberal, Junker-supported German Historical School (GHS), Protestant.  (Again, Ms. Gordon mentions the GHS, Mr. Ferrara does not.)
In other words, Mr. Ferrara missed an opportunity to link his own, early 21st century concerns to their close parallel in late 19th, inevitably referred to in the literature by the misleading tag Die Methodenstreit.  Rather than a “debate” over “method,” however, it was a bitter polemic over the very nature of economics.  Is economics a value-free (except for the value of truth, of course*) science, or a political instrument of extra-scientific interests (framed, of course, in the language of ethical concern)? 
Ironically, Mr. Ferrara and his modern Catholic Social Teaching camp have championed the Protestant rather than the Catholic side of this divide.  We will return to this theme.  For now, however, let a passage from an unedited lecture of Murray Rothbard provide us with a marker for such future reference:
It’s no accident that the . . . epistemological value and value climate in Austria is completely different than it was in Germany and Britain . . . Austria was Catholic and always had been Catholic, whereas northern Germany was Protestant . . . . Menger and Böhm-Bawerk were . . . steeped in natural law and natural rights and Aristotelian epistemology in general. Northern Germany and England and Britain were influenced by Calvinism and Protestant Evangelicalism, which tossed out the so-called scholastic method. . . . . So we have the Austrians steeped in a very different tradition, religious and philosophical tradition than either the Germans or the British.
Rothbard, “Menger and Böhm-Bawerk,” fourth in a series of six lectures on the History of Economic Thought. Transcribed and Donated by Thomas Topp.
Rothbard then praises Barry Smith’s work on this philosophical division.  Smith noted:
Austrian philosophy is marked . . . by the absence of entrenched Kantian and Hegelian elements, philosophical education in the Habsburg lands having been dominated instead by textbooks whose content was drawn from Catholic school-philosophy and from the Leibnizian-Wolffian Popularphilosophie that had been current also in Germany until the time of Kant. It is against this background that both the Brentanian movement and the Austrian school of economics grew up and became established. 
Barry Smith, “Carl Menger: On Austrian Philosophy and Austrian Economics,” Austrian Philosophy: The Legacy of Franz Brentano, Open Court Publishing Company, 1995, 300.
In the same lecture, Rothbard highlighted the importance of this background:
. . . Menger . . . was reacting against the historical school, which was dominant in German-speaking countries, headed by Gustav Schmoller, who believed there were no economic laws, partly because he was interested in building up the state power in Prussia and the rest of Germany. It was inconvenient to have any economic laws out there which might contradict or confound government degrees and actions. As a matter of fact, the famous phrase of Schmoller, which Mises liked to mention from time to time, is that the function of the University of Berlin—which, of course, was the creation of the Prussian state—the function of the professor of the University of Berlin is the intellectual bodyguard of the House of Hohenzollern. That was the dynastic Prussian monarchy. When Menger’s Principles of Economics was published, it was greeted with hatred—bitter derision and hatred—by the Schmollerites of Vienna, that organized a contrary campaign against it. Then Menger got [caught?] up in the mythological conflict, explaining why there is such a thing as economic law. [My emphasis.—A.F.]
Mr. Ferrara’s attack on the ASE only mirrors the “bitter derision and hatred” first displayed by his ideological forebears in the GHS.
To Be Continued

* Frank van Dun, a Belgian professor of the philosophy of law in the ASE tradition and a member of the Academic Advisory Board of The Rothbard Institute, argues that no science can be absolutely value-free because every scientific pursuit presupposes the value of truth. See Frank van Dun, “Economics and the Limits of Value-Free Science,” Reason Papers, No. 11 (Spring 1986) 17-32. The underlying value of truth unites them all but distinguishes none.  Truth is their (internally) constitutive value, but each also has its own  (externally) motivating value.  The motivating reason for one's undertaking the study of economics, however, has no logical bearing upon (is logically independent of) the explanatory reason for one's doing so.  Mr. Ferrara conflates (if not confuses) these two kinds of reasons.  That is, he will not consider causality in economics without at once considering how he thinks it bears on the ethical propositions to which he is committed. (It is good that such confusion does not reign in military science, and so officer-candidates do not pout when they're assigned to play the "bad guys" in an historically based scenario.)  This logical blunder haunts his critique of the ASE.

March 29, 2011

Demonize and Delete the Austrians (I)

Mr. Ferrara’s first chapter, “Meet the Austrians,” reveals almost nothing about history the Austrian School of Economics (ASE), but a great deal about how Mr. Ferrara wants his readers to perceive its key figures.  (Those who do not serve that purpose are simply ignored.)  Ostensibly about “meeting the Austrians,” it manages to ignore the role of The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics (founded as The Review of Austrian Economics in 1987) and Libertarian Papers (founded as The Journal of Libertarian Studies in 1977) in American intellectual life.  Hundreds of scholars have written for just these two high-quality, peer-review publications, to name no others. You would never know that from reading TCATL. In Mr. Ferrara's (utterly non-authoritative) opinion, the ASE is not a respectable body of heterodox (non-mainstream) economic thought with which one may reasonably disagree, but an academic put-on.  His opening salvo:
Within due moral limits, private property and the market economy are indubitably essential components of a rightly ordered liberty that the Catholic Church can and does approve.  The easiest way to lose the argument in favor of property and market, however is to take extreme positions in defense of them—positions contrary to the social teaching of the Church, common sense and even basic human decency.* (8)
Let’s ignore the emotionally charged terms “extreme” and “human decency” (redolent of political campaign attack ads).  We will have ample opportunity in future posts to ask  whether “rightly ordered liberty” is liberty at all. 
Mr. Ferrara almost sounds as though he is giving lawyerly advice to Austro-libertarian Catholics on the topic of how to not to lose arguments, even though the  motivation for writing TCATL was that they are winning too darn many of them and persuading too many educated Catholics with them! 
Over the course of this series of posts, we will see that donning easily punctured pretensions to authority and expertise is one of Mr. Ferrara’s preferred methods of losing arguments.  His truncation of the history of the Church’s social teaching, including its not altogether reassuring relationship to human decency, will prove to be another. 
Mr. Ferrara introduces, in one sentence, the names of Carl Menger, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, and Ludwig von Mises, economists whose writings mark the history of the ASE from the last third of the nineteenth century to the second half of the twentieth.  He accurately enough identifies them as representatives “of the ‘fin-de-siècle Viennese modernism’ of the last years of the Hapsburg Empire” (8), although he does not elaborate on the meaning of “modernism” in this context. 
But then, “modernism” is not his word.  In sourcing this brief description, he does not cite any of the histories of the ASE that  the Mises Institute has made freely available online.  He leaves the reader to find (I almost wrote “fend”) for him- or herself Ludwig von Mises’   “The Historical Setting of the Austrian School of Economics,” David Gordon’s “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” or Hans-Hermann Hoppe's “Economic Science and the Austrian Method,” to name but a few treatments of the ASE’s philosophical and scientific inheritance and how its members developed it.  He does not even cite Wikipedia’s neutral article on the ASE.  The principle of charitable construction would have been well honored by his drawing upon such sources (albeit it would have meant exposing his impressionable readers to them).  It would not have prevented him from also citing historical surveys written from perspectives more congenial to Mr. Ferrara.
No, his source is “Carl Menger and Viennese Modernism,” a “Study Project” of the European Forum of Hebrew University. (327, Chapter 1, note 1)  It is undated.  There is no evidence that it has ever been published or even finished.  The researcher, a young scholar of Hebrew University’s Center for Austrian Studies, is Sharon Gordon. A Ph.D. candidate in history at that institution, Ms. Gordon, as she is still listed in her online university profile, does not list this research in her profile’s short publications list. The study’s abstract refers to it in the future tense: “This research will explore how Carl Menger (1840-1921) related to fin-de-siécle Viennese modernism. 


There’s no evidence that Mr. Ferrara read further.


(To Be Continued)
__________________________________


I grant that one may make converts with bad arguments (at least in the short run, until the fallacies are exposed: the blurbs on the back of TCATL attest to that).  That admission, however, does not address Mr. Ferrara’s claim.  It suggests that an “extreme position,” just because it is extreme, undermines any argument that may be advanced in its favor.  One would think that embattled Catholic traditionalists, having been on the receiving end of sound-bite epithets like “extreme,” would have resisted the temptation to hurl one at fellow Catholics.  Like “beautiful,” “extreme” is in the eye of the beholder.  (“I’m principled, you’re stubborn, he’s pig-headed.”)  It serves only to stir up emotions that block thought and raise a cloud of suspicion over any reasoning about the position itself.

March 24, 2011

Cluttered Book, Cluttered Mind?

Like Roman Gaul circa 58 B.C., TCATL is divided into three parts, but its total area is hardly as well distributed as was that provincial territory. The only thing “Roman” about its organization are its numerals.
The book’s contents are allocated over 22 chapters as follows:
Section I: Encountering the Austro-Libertarian Movement, 35 pages/two chapters
Section II: Austro-Libertarianism contra Ecclesiam, 214 pages/15 chapters
Section III: A Catholic Response, 69 pages/five chapters
In other words, the middle section bulges with more than twice as many chapters and pages as the other two combined.
Section I effectively consists of only one chapter, namely, the second, “The Illusory Free Market,” to which we will, of course, pay special attention. I say this because one-and-half pages out of the first chapter’s five, ostensibly dedicated to “meeting” Mr. Ferrara’s flesh-and-blood targets, do not in the least serve that purpose. Instead they articulate two “caveats” (sic) about what TCATL does not concern, material that for some reason he left out of the “Author’s Introduction” where it clearly belongs. Of course, that would have left three-and-a-half pages (out of 326) to summarize a century of the scholarly thought one is going to spend the rest of the book critiquing. (No, those three-and-a-half pages are not a judicious précis.)
Section II is a grab bag of topics, ranging from the sublime (“Man and God: Opposing Views”) to the ridiculous (“A Defense of Scrooge”), all in some way purporting to show how Austro-libertarian Catholics fail Mr. Ferrara’s test of Catholicity (or, as he sometimes adds, even human decency). With a little effort, however, he might have broken it into two sections, one more philosophically oriented, the other more “applied philosophy.” The latter would have served nicely as a transition to Section III, Mr. Ferrara’s brief for Distributism. The placement of a repetitive “summary” chapter (“The Market Can Do No Wrong”) fourth from that section's end signals organizational trouble.  It is a distracting waste of space that could have been conserved to beef up the skimpy first chapter. What we have instead is an aggregation of topics.  When we examine how he handled each of them, it will be clear that they are all related to each other only by the logic of his fundamentalist epistemology.
Section III is modestly subtitled “A Catholic Response” (as opposed to “The Catholic Response”), although arguably the whole book is one Catholic gentleman’s "response" to the phenomenon of Austro-libertarian Catholics.  “A Catholic Alternative” would have been accurate. Where it is not stumping for Distributism, this section repeats many charges made earlier. When we get to those repetitions, we will simply refer back to posts that addressed them sufficiently the first time.

March 23, 2011

An Overview of an Overview (II)

The “Author’s Introduction” concludes with two sections entitled “The Negative Case” and “The Positive Case.”
The gist of the former is that “no orthodox Christian can abide” the “grave moral, philosophical and even theological errors” of Austro-libertarianism “if he would be faithful to Christ and the Gospel.” (3) 
Observe the broadening scope of Mr. Ferrara’s defense: no longer merely Roman Catholicism as articulated in a century’s worth of papal pronouncements, it is (small “o”) orthodox Christianity itself, even the very meaning of the message of the Gospel and of Christ.  We will contest that claim.
Mr. Ferrara refers to “the triumvirate that rule the world today,” i.e., “Big Government, Big Business, and Big Finance” (4), but it is important to his case against Austro-libertarians that they be seen as obscuring that alliance, rather than, as is the case, among the first to have highlighted it, indeed among the thought leaders who first drew out its implications for scholarship. 
Mr. Ferrara’s unfortunate subscription to Kevin Carson’s epithet “vulgar libertarian” and the underlying notion is foreshadowed. (4)
(Please remember, patient reader, that we are still in his “Author’s Introduction.”)
As for the “positive case,” TCATL has the “far more important positive aim” of defending “the Catholic vision” of social order “presented in the papal encyclicals.” (4)  Implicitly, at least, Mr. Ferrara offers an interpretation both of those encyclicals and of their importance. As we shall see, however, he does not anchor his claims about their meaning and importance in anything more reassuring than his own grasp of history and theology, but does not admit that limitation.
Mr. Ferrara's epistemology will be shown to be “fundamentalist”: it entertains a proposition by comparing it to a list of privileged (“fundamental”) propositions and assigns truth or falsity to it based on its conformity to or divergence from any of them.  In his case, the fundamental propositions are to be found in papal encyclicals. We will examine this undefended epistemological presupposition and alternatives to it.  
Referring to the definiendum in the definiens, Mr. Ferrara claims that “real freedom means only that freedom made possible by the truth of the Gospel and that the only really free society is one built on the law of the Gospel.” (4-5) Again we meet those qualifiers (“real freedom,” “really free”) by which he conflates political libertarianism with libertarianism in both the metaphysical sense (“free will”) and in the psychological sense (cf. Romans 7).  That his “real freedom” is to freedom as military music is to music is something we hope to make clear.  
The Catholic understanding of fallen humanity’s need for grace and the latter’s variable active presence in all of us, regardless of our degree of depravity or sanctity, must inform what Catholics say about political liberty but it hardly justifies the illiberal political regime of which Mr. Ferrara seems to approve.  His claim that
Christian civilization, which stood for 1,600 years and can exist again if only we seek to restore it, already contains every morally legitimate element of the libertarian position . . . . (5)
raises several questions. Exactly which 1,600 years does he mean? That there is a libertarian core to the Gospel, and that this has implications for ordering our use of interpersonal violence, I have no doubt.  What is in doubt is the libertarianism (except in the most attenuated sense) of anyone who seeks to restore what Mr. Ferrara means by “Christian civilization.” 
Christendom, I shall argue, was a “mixed bag” at best, its own worst enemy at worst, and not something that anyone who names the name of Christ would want to restore without the gravest of qualifications, of which Mr. Ferrara offers not one.
Mr. Ferrara made it clear what he means by “the law of the Gospel.” (4) It is not the compelling quality of Christ’s personality and divinity as it given us in the documents called “Gospels” unmediated by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church (granting freely that we wouldn’t even have them to interpret were it not for that Church).  No, according to Mr. Ferrara that magisterium is the cognitive mediator between Christ and man.  As he quotes Pope Pius XI:
Because the Church is by divine institution the sole depository and interpreter of the ideals and teaching of Christ, she alone possesses in any complete and true sense the power effectively to combat that materialistic philosophy which has already done and, still threatens, such tremendous harm to the home and to the state. . . . [T]he Church is able to set both public and private life on the road to righteousness by demanding that everything and all men become obedient to God “Who beholdeth the heart” to His commands, to His laws, to his sanctions.
[In this quotation from Ubi arcano dei (1922), Ferrara italicizes what he wishes His Holiness had emphasized but did not, but does not refer to that alteration. He will not advise his reader of this unexpected departure from honest practice in the introduction.  As we noted,  that announcement does not occur, assuming one is sharp-eyed enough to catch it, until the fourth note of the first chapter on page 327 and its force is assumed for next 300+ pages.]
This passage sounds the theme of Mr. Ferrara’s book.  What he calls for is hardly libertarianism minus “liberal errors.” But misstatement is nothing compared to his claim that TCATL,
however forcefully its arguments are presented in places, is also meant as a fraternal appeal to Catholic proponents of the errors at issue, that they might abandon all error and return to the path the Church has marked out for them and for every soul that seeks true happiness in this world and the next. (5)
As a Catholic proponent of what he deems error, I detect not the faintest tincture of fraternity emanating from this bloviating, self-appointed hammer of heretics. The author of a truly fraternal appeal would normally ask, in all humility, that those whom he criticizes show him, if they can, where he might have gotten something wrong and join him in a common search for truth, especially if they are fellow Catholics. 
But one does not search for something one thinks one already securely has, does one?
In this context I think it is worth noting that in his “Acknowledgements,” Mr. Ferrara didn’t discharge the customary authorial duty of taking full responsibility, and absolving all those he thanked, for “any remaining errors.”  I have always delighted in observing how many ways an author can creatively reword that ethical boilerplate.  Mr. Ferrara may have deprived his reader of that sample of his creative literary powers, but his silence reveals much more: he will not acknowledge even the possibility of his own error.  But what propagandist in history ever had?
No, I won’t be blaming Professors Médaille, McCall, or McArthur for remaining errors. I won't even blame Mr. Obriski, his “eagle-eyed” proofreader.

March 21, 2011

An Overview of an Overview (I)

In his “Author’s Introduction,” Mr. Ferrara lists five concerns of his to clarify what his book is not about.
It is not about the propriety of Christians’ voting for libertarian candidates, nor even about libertarianism “in the broad and benign sense of a call for limited governments consistent with the Catholic teaching on man, economy and state to be defended here.” (1) 
Perhaps any other sense might not be so benign.  In fact, his proviso rules out most libertarian philosophies, for what Mr. Ferrara means by “the Catholic teaching on man, economy and state” is libertarian in the weakest possible sense, i.e., merely non-totalitarian. 
Mr. Ferrara proposes a narrow definition of “socialism” such that his book is “not a defense of any form thereof,” even though he supports policies that would hamper markets no less than any socialist program, and for much the same reason socialists offer for their schemes: justice allegedly requires it.  Again, early in the book, before one has read one word of his opponents or even knows who they are, Mr. Ferrara has characterized them as purveyors of “bugaboos” that serve only as “distractions from real issues.” (2) 
John C. Cort was a Catholic gentleman who sincerely, eloquently, and prolifically argued that the social teaching of the encyclicals and non-Marxist democratic socialism converged on the same goal.  Having read his Christian Socialism, I'm largely persuaded of that fit.  When reading Ferrara, I get the impression that the only reason why a Catholic mustn't be a socialist is because a pope said so.  Catholics who reason that way tend not to perceive the implicit democratic socialism in what this or that pope actually wrote and, ironically, in what writers like Ferrara actually believe (i.e., Distributism). 
Of course, if one does not argue from authority against socialism, one inevitably draws upon the same resources that Murray Rothbard did and (for the last third of the 20th century at least) upon the “encyclicals” of Pope Murray himself and, in this century, the legions of “bishops” he influenced, instructed, coached, and mentored.
Mr. Ferrara rests his alleged opposition to socialism on what he views as a God-given right to property as the basis of a “rightly ordered liberty.” (2) (Or “real liberty” or “true liberty” as he will later refer to it).  He also sends mixed messages to libertarian readers. He wants to explore “common ground” with them in an effort to dismantle “the modern state” (not the state as such), which “was built on the ruins of former Christendom by the very principles doctrinaire libertarians defend as essential to what they think is Liberty.” ([2]; emphasis in the original). Mr. Ferrara’s appeal is presumably to non-doctrinaire libertarians whose libertarianism us compatible with Catholicism as he understands it.  It also provides a glimpse of his causal hypothesis about the origins of the modern state.
Mr. Ferrara will explain the 2007-2009 economic “meltdown,” presupposing his confusion regarding free markets and capitalism introduced in Chapter 1, a confusion that, by then, we will have exposed.
To anyone in the economics profession, “Austrian economics” is a perfectly intelligible label for a respectable body of thought, even to its opponents, such as Paul Krugman, the latest Nobelist in that field. Friederich Hayek's sharing of that prize in 1974 removed any justification, if there ever was one, for casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Austrian School. The Wikipedia entry for it describes it as “heterodox,” or “non-mainstream,” that is, not owing its distinctive ideas to the “orthodox” synthesis of neo-classical microeconomics and Keynesian macroeconomics.  Another heterodox school is the Marxian, around few would think it necessary to put scare quotes.  The origin of the appellation is of interest to our story.  Too bad Mr. Ferrara declined to tell it.
Mr. Ferrara is concerned that some Catholic Austro-libertarians portray their school “as compatible with orthodox Roman Catholicism,” whereas, he claims,
the principle features of the Austro-libertarian system, reflecting ‘classical liberalism’ in general, have been explicitly condemned as errors in a long series of papal pronouncements summed up by Pope Pius XI under the description ‘moral, legal, and social modernism.’ (3) 

The mute premise of Mr. Ferrara’s syllogism is that orthodox Roman Catholicism includes these papal condemnations so that what is inconsistent with the latter is also inconsistent with the former.  We will contest Mr. Ferrara’s facile theological equation.

March 17, 2011

Dialectic and the Weightier Matters of the Law


Some readers who are following this blog may be wondering why I pay so much attention to what seem to be the “little things” of Mr. Ferrara’s attack on Austro-libertarianism. I reply by (a) assuring them that I will get to the so-called big things and (b) begging their patience.
I would also remind them, however, that the way one manages little things can be an excellent predictor of how one manages big things. (Matthew 25:14-28)

I think I understand what these readers are waiting for. “All right, Mr. Flood, so you don’t like the way Mr. Ferrara phrased his objections to Austro-libertarianism, you don't like his tone. But if you don’t start dealing with their substance pretty soon, you’ll risk being seen as merely fussy.” That’s a risk I’m willing to take. But perhaps they misunderstand the point of this enterprise.

Mr. Ferrara’s noisy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style of “argument” is his substance. The few matters that require thought and research could be listed on an index card. His objections were answered long ago in print, in some cases before Mr. Ferrara was born. He did not look for those answers or, if he did, he kept his research to himself.

Perhaps another look at an earlier post, “On Reviewing Propaganda,” is in order, especially this paragraph: 
The challenge facing a reviewer of a work of propaganda is to reveal it to be propaganda without committing an equivalent sin against honest communication. While he must note the intellectual issues that the propagandist raises and critically evaluate the latter’s handling of them, he must not (a) appear to grant the propagandist’s conceit that his is a work of intellectual merit, (b) give the propagandist a victory by appearing to evade the alleged force of his “devastating” arguments, or (c) get into the gutter with him.  
I care very much about the ideas he distorted and the people he held up for ridicule in TCATL, especially since he had the nerve to do so in the name of Christ and His Gospel. It is therefore my purpose to subject Mr. Ferrara’s every polemical twitch to common standards of truthful communication. That's the dialectical spin we’re in.

Once we document Mr. Ferrara's departure from those norms in TCATL, the errors and sloppy scholarship with which it is rife will be intelligible as symptomatic of ethical lapse. The complaints he brings to the bar of reason are but so many tithes of mint and anise and cummin.  Justice in one’s communication pertains to the weightier matters of the law.  That’s a rather Big Thing. This he ought to have done, without leaving the other undone. (Matthew 23:23)

March 16, 2011

An Inconvenient Jesuit

TCATL is dedicated “to all the great Jesuits at Fordham in the Seventies,” where Mr. Ferrara matriculated, specifically the late Francis Canavan, S.J.
Another great Jesuit of that time and place was, and is, James A. Sadowsky, S.J., S.T.L. (b. 1923), professor emeritus of philosophy, who began teaching there in 1960. 
A convert to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism (1939) and ordained as a priest of the Society of Jesus (1957), Father Sadowsky apparently did not have the opportunity to mold our author’s young mind.
Best Buds: Murray N. Rothbard and James A. Sadowsky, S.J., ages 41 and 43 respectively, friends to each other long before each became my friend, relaxing at the Scottish Games, Stamford, Connecticut, July 4, 1967.  Scanned from a snapshot given me by the late JoAnn Rothbard in 1998. -- A.F.
A friend of Murray Rothbard’s since the early ‘60s, Sadowsky frequently celebrated Mass in the Tridentine Rite at St. Ann’s Shrine in New York during the decade before that church’s 2005 tragic demise.
Although many of Sadowsky’s writings are germane to Mr. Ferrara’s topic, either his research didn’t lead him to them, or it didn’t serve his propagandistic purpose to bring them to his readers’ attentioneven though Tom Woods cited those writings several times, and even though Rothbard endorsed Sadowsky’s definition of rights (as formulated in the latter's 1966 article, “Private Property and Collective Ownership,” which Rothbard cites in his The Ethics of Liberty (1982), which Mr. Ferrara certainly knows).
My review of Woods’ The Church and the Market praises Woods for his use of Sadowsky, a review that (a) Mr. Ferrara almost certainly knows and (b) provides links to the text of Sadowsky’s papers. The failure to confront this Catholic moral philosopher’s Austro-libertarianism is inexplicable except in terms not favorable to Mr. Ferrara's reputation as a researcher.
Take, for example, this passage from Woods’ 2004 Lou Church Memorial Lecture:
When dealing with wage rates, a moral question that is hardly ever asked, but should be by those who advocate “living wage” legislation is why the obligation of charity should fall entirely upon the shoulders of the employer. Fr. James Sadowsky explains that the very fact that an employee has accepted employment is an indication that he expects to be made better off than he would have been had he attempted to go into business for himself. Thus in the case of a worker in dire need, while “certainly from a Christian point of view we ought to help him meet his needs,” the question that ought to arise is this: “Why, however, should it be precisely he employer on whom this obligation falls, if in fact the employer is not worsening but bettering the condition of his employee?” “Morality and Economic Law: Toward a Reconciliation”    
Except for the word “moral” (a significant omission, according to Mr. Ferrara), this passage reappears in Woods' 2005 The Church and the Market, p. 73.  But this is how Mr. Ferrara presents it in TCATL:
When dealing with wage rates, a moral question that is hardly ever asked, but should be by those who advocate “living wage” legislation is why the obligation of charity should fall entirely upon the shoulders of the employer. . . .  [I]n the case of a worker in dire need, while “certainly from a Christian point of view we ought to help him meet his needs,” the question that ought to arise is this: “Why, however, should it be precisely he employer on whom this obligation falls, if in fact the employer is not worsening but bettering the condition of his employee?” (193)    
Mr. Ferrara preserves the internal quotation marks that bracket Sadowsky’s words, but replaces with elliptical dots the sentence that (a) attributes those words to Sadowsky and (b) implicitly invites the reader to compare and contrast the costs and benefits of being an employee and going into business for oneself.  (Mr. Ferrara added the italics in the first sentence without remark; the other two italicizations are Woods'.)
The Sadowsky article Woods quoted from is “Capitalism, Ethics, and Classical Catholic Social Doctrine,” [This World, Fall 1983, 115-125], which Woods cited in his book’s third chapter, note 85.
Since Mr. Ferrara paid special attention to that chapter, he must have noticed Sadowsky’s name in its first paragraph and the citation of this article in the first and last reference notes as well as in the 85th (not to mention elsewhere, including the bibliography).
Did that article’s title not provoke his curiosity? Did it advertise its relevance to his task too subtly?
Had he done due diligence, Mr. Ferrara would not have referred to Woods’ source as “a Jesuit economist.” (Does Sadowsky's question strike you as one an economist would ask?) Had he performed an Internet search for “James Sadowsky,” he would have discovered (a fact already disclosed in my review of Woods) that he could access from my site the text of every Sadowsky article cited by Woods.  That is, a few clicks would have taken him to “Capitalism, Ethics, and Classical Catholic Social Doctrine,” “Private Property and Collective Ownership,” and “Christian Response to Poverty.”
When our examination of TCATL arrives at the discussion of the just wage, we will ask Sadowsky’s question again and evaluate Mr. Ferrara’s answer.

March 15, 2011

The Devil in the Reference Notes


In The Aims of Education, Alfred North Whitehead argued that “Style is the ultimate morality of mind.”  In On Writers and Writing, Walter Raleigh held that to “write perfect prose is neither more nor less difficult than to lead a perfect life.”
Mr. Ferrara is certainly not the only writer who relies heavily on the italic font, the typographical equivalent of table-banging, to jazz up his prose. He is, however, the only one I know who italicizes the words of others without bringing that alteration to the reader’s attention when he does so.
He could have defended this departure from good practice in his “Author’s Introduction” to TCATL, or in one of its footnotes—that is, notes at the foot of the page—where it would be hard to miss and evaluate. He chose instead merely to stipulate, in the fourth note to Chapter 1, on page 327: “Emphasis added, here and throughout the book unless otherwise indicated.”
I suppose Mr. Ferrara believes it was reasonable of him to expect his readers to find and retain this stipulation early in their reading. I do not believe that is a reasonable expectation, but I may be wrong. After all, my late discovery of it (well into my second reading) may not be typical. Until I saw that note, however, my impression was that those many emphases were those of the original authorsi.e., not added—unless Mr. Ferrara indicated otherwise.
Consequently, in those cases where I knew that was not the case—I had the cited books on my shelf—Mr. Ferrara appeared to me to be guilty of multiple counts of misquotation. I now see he was merely guilty of the lesser offense of amplifying the perceived “volume” of his evidence while obscuring the agency of the amplification.
Apparently Mr. Ferrara could not trust readers to “get” the meaning of his quotations without his help, and yet also realized that to din “emphasis added” in their ears as many times as necessary would risk highlighting, not his point, but only his low opinion of his readers (not to mention stylistic puerility).
We will have further occasions to show how Mr. Ferrara’s notes illuminate the morality of his mind.

March 14, 2011

Of Sound Bites, Panic Buttons, and Scare Quotes

Mr. Ferrara’s “Author’s Introduction” begins with a true enough reminder that “[w]e live in an age of demagogues and sound bites,” as opposed to the “reasoned polemics that once characterized public discourse” on important matters.” (1)  Perhaps he is tacitly promising his readers that the book they are about to enjoy is a specimen of reasoned polemic. As his rhetorical style puts one in mind of the sound bites found in electoral campaign attack ads, his complaint is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. For in that opening paragraph he announces, with no hint of irony, that he will occasionally interrupt his discourse to post sound-bite-sized “panic buttons” to which, he claims, Austro-libertarian advocates resort when confronted with inconvenient facts and arguments.  Here are the nine “buttons”:
“Industry is evil, evil, evil! (21)
“So, corporations are evil, evil, evil. What about all the good they have done?” (26)
“So, you want to soak the corporations!” (29) 
Socialism!” (137)
“Minimum wage laws!  Mandatory health insurance! Crushing burdens on business!” (172)
“Socialism!  Government-imposed caps on executive pay! Envy of the rich! Class warfare!” (197)
“OSHA! OSHA! OSHA! Government bullying of small businesses and a further expansion of the ‘nanny state’!” (200)
“AFL-CIO!  TEAMSTERS! UNION THUGS!” (206)
“You’re making excuses for the Fed” (221)
“Government regulation of business! Burdensome requirements! More bureaucracy!” (281)
“The abolition or breakup of big business!” (284)
It is hard to interpret these imputations of panic as anything other than rhetorical sound effects intended to enhance the perceived impact of Ferrara’s attempts at argument. The sputterings he puts into the mouth of his adversaries add nothing to them, but detract considerably from their presentation. By his resort to them he shows contempt for the reader’s intelligence, for although he “identifies” the buttons, he does not source them, that is, he does not name the “opponents of the arguments to be presented here” who might “activate” those buttons. (1) That is, before he has presented one word of his opponents (or before he has even told the reader who they are), he characterizes them as purveyors of “bugaboos” that serve only as “distractions from real issues.” (2) 
For all Ferrara has shown to the contrary, none of the Austro-libertarians he names, none of the anarcho-Catholics who have provoked him to write TCATL, have ever pushed those buttons in an actual exchange of views. Yet somehow they are supposed to “prepare the reader” for such an exchange.
We also get a first look at his mixed message to libertarian readers. He wants to explore “common ground” with libertarians in an effort to dismantle “the modern state” (but not the state as such), which “was built on the ruins of former Christendom by the very principles doctrinaire libertarians defend as essential to what they think is Liberty.” ([2]; emphasis in the original). 
Ah, Christendom. The man who insists that his argument is not with libertarianism as such, but only with the “Austro” brand—and any suggestion to the contrary is but a “diversionary tactic”—puts no distance between himself and that phase of Christianity’s history during which so many un-Christ-like things transpired in His name. He will not entertain the possibility that the ruins of Christendom were forecast in the venal stupidities and crimes of so many doctrinaire Catholics of Christendom who defended them as essential to what they thought was Christianity.
Mr. Ferrara excoriates, for example, the revolutionary expropriation of ecclesiastical property in France, but not the absolutist state of Louis XIV who reserved to Roman Catholics the privilege of owning human beings in France’s colonies, provided the slaves were baptized and their families not broken up. His Royal Highness was only acquiescing in then-current Catholic Social Teaching which, thank God, contrary to Mr. Ferrara, can change. (More on the evolution of Catholic Social Teaching on slavery in due course.)
Continuing in the introduction, we find one of the first of countless instances of mocking scare quotes redundantly combined with “so-called”:  
This book originated in a series of articles for the Catholic bi-weekly The Remnant examining the opposition between Catholic teaching and the so-called ‘Austro-libertarian movement,’ a combination of radical libertarianism with the so-called ‘Austrian School’ of economics . . . . (3) 
He causes us to wonder whether he believes his criticism has a real object. For if he accepts the label by which it is commonly referred to, there is no need for punctuation that only renders his reference uncertain.
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’!” And so when we read that “this book is not an attempt to ‘excommunicate’ anyone from the Catholic Church” (2) we face a problem of interpretation, for no one seriously believes that Mr. Ferrara has the power either to excommunicate or even to set in motion a series of events that would result in excommunication. 
My surmise? His use of “excommunicate,” like “heresy” later, contributes to an atmosphere of suspicion without his appearing to arrogate any authority to himself (which conceit would cost him all credibility). But then what we have here is polemical theater, which impedes rather than promotes a serious engagement of ideas. 
Despite the accusatory tone of that permeates his book, Mr. Ferrara denies that he wrote it “to make accusations against the persons who have uttered them.” (3) Either he does not know what an accusation is, or some other defect accounts for his use of that word.

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.

March 10, 2011

The Origins of a Promise

I forget exactly how Christopher Ferrara learned of my Austro-libertarian views, but do remember his buttonholing me during the intermission of a talk we had attended and his subsequent e-mails in which he tried to draw me into an argument over the just wage.  After a few exasperating attempts on my part to make sense of his complaint, I begged off with the promise to review any book that might result from his series of articles. (After several attempts to write a review of normal proportions, I realized that no brief essay could do justice to Mr. Ferrara's product, and justice is what it richly deserves.  Thus this out-sized, blog-length scrutiny.)
Our encounter occurred shortly before the appearance of my review of Thomas Woods’ The Church and the Market, near the end of which I wrote:

My repeated references in this review to “seven consecutive popes” reflect a recent conversation with a Catholic critic of Austrianism [i.e., Christopher Ferrara]. He used that phrase several times as if to underscore its centrality to his case against Catholic free-market defenders like Woods. As I mentioned, we are not going to find popes handicapping sporting events. And when it comes to faith and morals, it would not take seven but only one pope speaking ex cathedra to bind a Catholic’s conscience. If it does not pertain to those matters, if it is instead about, say, music, architecture, or economics, then not even the considered opinions of 265 consecutive popes, in themselves, would suffice to bind it. Especially ironic about this critic’s line of argument was its sharp contrast with his powerful defense, delivered in a lecture just before he and I chatted, of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s 1988 consecration of bishops without the Pope’s explicit permission (and arguably against his wishes). According to this critic, therefore, a faithful Catholic may withstand Paul VI to his face on Novus Ordo Missae, but not on the living wage, or John Paul II on episcopal consecration, but not on “consumerism.”  “A Profound Philosophical Commonality,” April 23, 2005.
But since Mr. Ferrara managed to write a book on the Catholic reception of Austro-libertarianism without evaluating the writings of James A. Sadowsky, S.J., it is a small matter for him to have overlooked me.  More on Father Sadowsky presently.
Since he initiated email correspondence with me, and since I subsequently (but long before he completed TCATL) praised both Woods and Lord Acton on LewRockwell.com, I wonder why Mr. Ferrara declined to treat me as one of the usual suspects.  (See also my “Lord Acton: Libertarian Hero,” April 4, 2006. ) 

March 9, 2011

In Few Things, Charity?

There is a substantial academic literature on the imperative to construe charitably another’s position. In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker's statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation. 
In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies, or falsehoods to the others' statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available. 
According to Simon Blackburn [in his entry for the principle of charity in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy], "it constrains the interpreter to maximize the truth or rationality in the subject's sayings."   
Philosopher Nigel Warburton defined the principle as follows (for the new edition of his Thinking from A to Z)
Interpreting arguments or positions adopted by others in the best possible light. Rather than setting an opponent’s pronouncements up as an easy target, those who adopt the principle of charity look for the best case that this person could consistently be making rather than the worst. Adopting the principle of charity is the opposite of setting up a straw man. Rather than caricaturing an opponent’s position, charitable thinkers give everything about it the benefit of the doubt. The appropriateness of this depends entirely on the context. . . . There is no obligation to adopt a principle of charity, and in many cases it would be entirely inappropriate, labour-intensive, and unrewarding. But it can provide an occasional antidote to knocking down straw men, and the kind of relentless negativity that clear thinkers are sometimes accused of.
As future posts will document, almost every page of TCATL provides evidence of Mr. Ferrara's sin against this principle. Because he is a Catholic, this exercise in mockery is a disgrace: not only is grace absent from its pages, but so is charity, even according to the standards of secular discourse. By the standards one has the right to expect of a Catholic, for whom charity ought to be the chief virtue, it is scandalous.
Because that tone infects his case against Austro-libertarianism, however, it is hard to tweeze out the propositional content from the repugnant form in which he encases it. That tone poisons the atmosphere within which an exchange of ideas can take place, one that has the potential of benefiting both Austro-libertarians and their critics.
The common meaning of “in all things, charity” is apparently so alien to him that referring to his adversaries as “charlatans” (301) who promote a “form of lunacy” (251) is his idea of “a fraternal appeal.”(5) As a way of expressing Φιλαδέλφεια, suggesting that one’s adversary in controversy utters lunacy is interesting, but only clinically so. I reject that appeal as eyewash, as hostile as it is puerile.
Mr. Ferrara is of the opinion that
spokesmen of the Austro-Libertarian movement . . . have much that is good and true to say concerning the benefits of free enterprise and private property (309)
although the preceding 308 pages do not convey that impression.  Fourteen pages later in the same chapter, however, he writes:
Catholics ought to have nothing to do with the Austro-Libertarian movement.  (323)
Now, one  would think Catholics ought at least to have “something to do with” the “good and true things” that Austro-Libertarians say by acknowledging that their spokesmen say them and finding out why they say them. After all, the Austro-libertarian movement is an educational movement. (It is not, say, a paramilitary movement.) That is, the only way one could have anything to "do" with it is to consider its ideas. Therefore, he who deems some of them "good and true" cannot help having something to do with that movement, if only as one who entertains its ideas. One wonders how Mr. Ferrara would try to extricate himself from the prison of that genuine, self-imposed dilemma (which is not an illusion created by juxtaposing out-of-context quotations).
As I shall argue, Catholics are within their cognitive rights to be Austro-libertarians in their political thinking.  There is no necessary cognitive dissonance between the Gospel and the libertarian prohibition against the initiation of force.  On the contrary!
I would go further, however, by suggesting to my fellow Austro-libertarians—Catholic or not, Christian or not, theist or not—that the Catholic worldview is a congenial philosophical home for libertarianism (without suggesting that that is a reason for becoming a Catholic!).  
Catholicism should move out of the shadows of libertarian discourse and onto center stage. Catholics can make a difference to the libertarian movement by stressing rather than soft-pedaling their distinctive worldview. 
An integration of Austro-libertarianism with Catholicism should replace the current “settlement” whereby one notes either (a) the Catholicism of several leading Austro-libertarians as a mere biographical detail or (b) Murray Rothbard’s positive assessment of the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the history of Western liberty.
In short, Austro-Libertarian Catholics should clarify that, for them, “Catholic” is the substantive and “Austro-libertarian” the adjective and, when appropriate, make their case for the greater intelligibility of the Catholic worldview as libertarianism’s wider context of meaning compared to any rival worldview.  
The potential for mutual enrichment is real: Austro-libertarianism is a set of propositions for consideration by the Catholic as he seeks to advance the Kingdom of God, specifically the Social Kingship of Christ, to improve the condition of the poor and to promote the common good.  Other Catholics may accept or reject some or all of those propositions.  
Of course, non-Catholic Austro-Libertarians, after considering the case for Catholicism as that nurturing home for their economic and politics, may lack the grace necessary for conversion (as a Catholic might interpret the situation) and yet be enriched by the encounter.  Even if they pass on Catholicism, their Austro-Libertarianism still needs a framework, and they should not want for Catholic associates ready to challenge them to justify their choice of any other.