Aquinas and the Market: Part 5, Is the Answer Always Socialism or Voting for the Democrats?

I've hinted at this point a few times in these posts, but I wanted to pause and devote a whole post to this observation.

Specifically, we've talked a lot about how theologians tend to marginalize themselves by effectively reducing their theological project to rooting for a preferred economic team.

Globally, the two teams are capitalism and socialism. Or, more precisely, capitalism with a welfare and social security system versus democratic socialism.

Here in the US, the two teams within a broadly capitalistic consensus are the free marketeers (aligned more with Republicans) and those wanting more robust and comprehensive social safety net (aligned more with Democrats).

Given these teams, when you hear theological criticisms of capitalism or free markets the conversation always lands in a very predictable place. The moves of the argument are pretty standard:
  1. Capitalism is bad. Describe all the problems.
  2. Describe how God's economy is based upon mutuality, creation care, grace, gift, and abundance. 
  3. Therefore, socialism and/or the Democratic Party.
Let me be clear, as regular readers know, my political and economic sympathies are toward the Democratic party and socialism. That's how I vote. I want a broader and deeper social safety net, starting with universal health care. But if that's true, why am raising concerns about theological arguments of the type described above?

Some of it is simply due to the fact that I'm invested in being self-critical, of myself and my "tribe." But my deeper concern, I've come to realize, has been highlighted by Mary Hirschfeld in Aquinas and the Market, that theological conversations about economics have become 1) all pretty predictable, and 2) are reduced to rooting for a preferred economic team.

My worries about this are diverse. The list includes:

1. Aren't we always just preaching to the choir with these arguments? How many times have I seen a group of theologically like-minded individuals gather to rehash and restate what everyone in the room already believes? Where's the persuasive task of theological argumentation?

2. Aren't we just using God as political and economic leverage to argue for why our preferred political vision must be the one adopted by all? Isn't theology just being used as a pawn here, on one side or the other, in our already too-polarized political debates?

3. The predictability of these arguments is, well, just boring. We listen to these long theological discourses, but we already know how it is all going to end, for this party or this candidate. So why don't we cut the theological mumbo jumbo and just vote already?

4. Can't theology say anything self-critical? Why don't we ever see conservative theologians leveling critiques at capitalism and the Republican Party, or progressive theologians leveling critiques at socialism or the Democratic party? Where is evidence for the radical independence of theological thought?

Anyway, what made me interested in Hirschfeld's book was how it seemed to cut across the tired lines and positions that emerge over and over again in these debates.

For example, the issue of private property.

Why do theological critiques of capitalism always tend to cash out (sorry for the pun) into socialism or the Democratic party?

As Hirschfeld describes, it's a simple move. "God's economy," as described in the last post, isn't characterized by competition but by sharing, an economy of mutuality and the exchange of gifts. However, as we talked about in the last post, this "economy of grace" is very idealized. So what's the next best thing for sharing in our world? The answer comes from a simple mapping. Sharing, which is good, maps onto public, and competition, which is bad, maps on to private. Simply:
Public goods are shared and therefore "good."

Private goods are not shared and therefore "bad."
A great deal of theological windbaggery can be reduced to this simple mapping. It's the mapping that causes a lot of theological discussion to dump out as socialism or the Democratic party. Public = Shared = Good.

Stepping into this debate, Hirschfeld points out that Thomas Aquinas is an interesting conversation partner, because Aquinas held the private property is actually a good. To be sure, this is Aquinas of course, this good can be distorted and disordered. And it often is disordered in capitalism. But that doesn't make private property bad. Private property, contended the Angelic Doctor, is actually a good.

That's interesting to me. A surprise. Simply because it cuts across the tired lines of these debates. Hirschfeld is going to level a criticism at modern economics and capitalism, but she's not going to adopt a simplistic moral mapping of Public = Good and Private = Bad, a mapping which predetermines where her critique might go or how it will all cash out.

And this, all by itself, is both noteworthy and interesting.

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