Grenier on economic liberalism

Yesterday, we published a longish piece here about Paul VI’s attitude toward socialism compared to Pius XI’s. We quoted the Canadian Thomist Henri Grenier’s Cursus Philosophiae (translated as Thomistic Philosophy) at some length, both to give a concise summary of the doctrine as it existed after Quadragesimo anno and to clarify—by means of summary—some of Pius’s points. We noted, briefly, that Grenier also summarizes the important points of the Church’s condemnation of economic liberalism.

The Church’s position on economic liberalism is often a point of contention, especially with Catholics on the American political right, who frequently express great fondness for the free market. Indeed, some of the most strident criticisms of the Holy Father’s recent social encyclical, Laudato si’, have come from these Catholics. (Just as some of the most strident criticisms of Benedict’s Caritas in veritate came from these Catholics.) And these criticisms have two key features: (1) the Holy Father has somehow sold out to a climate-change consensus that is not settled at best and bogus at worst, and (2) the Holy Father is inflexibly opposed to capitalism and the free market. The former point, we think, is best left to the experts, most of whom, we are told, say that climate change is a thing. But the latter point, it seems, is easily answered by the Church’s own teaching.

But discussing the Church’s own teaching is difficult, since the definition of capitalism, the free market, and economic liberalism is tricky. Definitions are either inadequately simplistic or too complex to be agreed upon as a premise. Consequently, the argument becomes definitional. And this is where we think Grenier is helpful. He offers a very helpful summary of economic liberalism that seems right to us. We reproduce it here simply as something interesting to read:

2° Economic liberalism maintains that the control of material goods is a strictly private, personal, and individual right. Its fundamental principles are the following:

a) Private utility is the chief and almost the sole stimulus of economic life, and especially of production, for it is the individual who can best seek, know, and promote his own interests or utility.

b) Therefore, in economic life, private liberty must be strictly safeguarded. Hence the State’s only function in economic matters consists in the protection of private rights; and it must abstain from all positive intervention in the settlement of the economic problems of society (State police or night watchmen).

Moreover, all associations, especially workmen’s associations, should be abolished, because they are a restraint on individual liberty.

c) Economic life should be governed by free competition. In other words, the first law of economic activity is free competition, i.e., the free play of economic individualities seeking, by any lawful means, the greatest possible advantages, respecting at the same time, of course, the equal rights of others to do the same.

d) The consequence of free competition is responsibility; and hence each one not only must provide for his own needs entirely through his own initiative and industry, but becomes solely responsible for the happiness or unhappiness that may be his.

(3 Thomistic Philosophy § 1152, 2º, trans. O’Hanley.)