Monday, December 22, 2008

Not to Worry: it’s Merely a Moral Collapse

Spengler had occasion recently to refer to Benedict XVI’s “magnificent” correctness in a paper on business ethics that the then-Cardinal Ratzinger presented in 1985.

Taking his cue from the Cardinal’s ideas, Spengler notes:

Internet stock valuations, the market delusion of a decade ago, presumed that pornography, gaming, music downloads and shopping would be the driving forces of the future economy. It is easy to ridicule this Alice-in-Wonderland accounting after the fact, just as it is easy to laugh at television advertisements that even today urge Americans to buy homes because their prices double every 10 years…But what should we say of an economy based on consuming as much as one can without troubling to bring children into the world?

I would go further. Shuffling off this mortal coil without leaving descendants behind is somehow seen as being the holiest green sacrifice possible. How much more righteous can one be in reducing one’s “carbon footprint” than by refusing to permit any little footprints to follow after?

Spengler puts it more baldly:

Underlying the crisis is the Western world’s repudiation of life, through a hedonism that puts consumption or “self-realization” ahead of child-rearing. The developed world is shifting from a demographic profile in which the very young (children four years and under) outnumbered the elderly (65 and older), to a profile with 10 times as many retirees as children aged four or younger. Economics simply never has had to confront a situation in which the next generation simply failed turn up.

It’s not that they didn’t try to “turn up” — they weren’t permitted to do so. Since Roe v Wade became law in the US in 1973, in a culture that has the most liberal abortion laws in the world, about fifty million American human beings failed to materialize.

Their non-parents will be entering old age with no one to take care of them. Until the very recent implosion of our economy, money was to be the cushion against any problems attendant on decrepitude. However, with the destruction of so much wealth in the last year, those who will be old within the next two decades might have found right handy the presence of a few children to look after things.

Thus, we have two situations which ethics underpin, yet the current wisdom claims both are beyond the reach of ethics. It seems as though we are repeatedly hit in the face by the swinging doors of unintended consequences wherever we turn. We can see the results very clearly in these two areas: abortions and markets. Both of them proclaimed to be ethics-free and both of them riddled with problems no one foresaw. Or at least no one was listening to those who did foresee and tried to warn us.
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Again, from Spengler:

In Congressional testimony this autumn, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan notoriously admitted that his free-market philosophy was inadequate. Yet nothing that occurred under Greenspan’s tenure had to do with freedom. Banks that enjoyed a monopoly due to their federal charters were permitted to transfer assets away from their balance sheets to other entities, allowing them to use much less capital to support assets than in the past. Even worse, the Federal Reserve allowed larger and more sophisticated banks to put less capital against assets that bore a high rating from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s — the agencies that later owned up to having sold their souls to the devil for revenues.

So much for regulation being a safeguard. If you didn’t know before, now might be a good time to see what comprises our fiat monetary system.

It will partially explain the current mess.

But I digress. I was talking about ethics in the marketplace. Some find this discussion out of bounds, rather like linking ethics and “pure” science. However, we have learned to our sorrow that all knowledge and all fields of endeavor, founded as they are on human understanding, have limits. If we mark those boundaries within the realm of ethical dialogue, we are less likely to end up with big pots of burned porridge that no one can digest.

Human beings are not comfortable with ambiguity. We want our answers in black and white, with uncertainty banished from the field. But life is messy and human interactions are rife with failure. Hence our ethics-free “free market” and our “no-fault” divorces, and our “pro-choice” abortion business — and yes, it is a big business.

In the paper Cardinal Ratzinger presented in 1985, he was prophetic beyond our worst nightmares:

…Following the tradition inaugurated by Adam Smith, this [doctrine] that the market is incompatible with ethics [is] because voluntary “moral” actions contradict market rules and drive the moralizing entrepreneur out of the game. For a long time, then, business ethics rang like hollow metal because the economy was held to work on efficiency and not on morality. The market’s inner logic should free us precisely from the necessity of having to depend on the morality of its participants. The true play of market laws best guarantees progress and even distributive justice.

The great successes of this theory concealed its limitations for a long time. But now in a changed situation, its tacit philosophical presuppositions and thus its problems become clearer. Although this position admits the freedom of individual businessmen, and to that extent can be called liberal, it is in fact deterministic in its core.


This determinism, in which man is completely controlled by the binding laws of the market while believing he acts in freedom from them, includes yet another and perhaps even more astounding presupposition, namely, that the natural laws of the market are in essence good (if I may be permitted so to speak) and necessarily work for the good, whatever may be true of the morality of individuals.


Even if the market economy does rest on the ordering of the individual within a determinate network of rules, it cannot make man superfluous or exclude his moral freedom from the world of economics. It is becoming ever so clear that the development of the world economy has also to do with the development of the world community and with the universal family of man, and that the development of the spiritual powers of mankind is essential in the development of the world community. These spiritual powers are themselves a factor in the economy: the market rules function only when a moral consensus exists and sustains them. [my emphasis — D]

And there lies the problem. There is no moral consensus regarding market rules — or any other rules, for that matter. Whatever “feels” right is the thing to do: an ad hoc moralism that has subsumed the faculties of thought and will… that is, unless the will to power is perceived as having pride of place in our list of virtues for the successful individual.

Cardinal Ratzinger said (again, this is 1985):

We are no longer in the Kennedy-era, with its Peace Corps optimism; the Third World’s questions about the system may be partial, but they are not groundless. A self-criticism of the Christian confessions with respect to political and economic ethics is the first requirement.

But this cannot proceed purely as a dialogue within the Church. It will be fruitful only if it is conducted with those Christians who manage the economy. A long tradition has led them to regard their Christianity as a private concern, while as members of the business community they abide by the laws of the economy.

These realms have come to appear mutually exclusive in the modern context of the separation of the subjective and objective realms. But the whole point is precisely that they should meet, preserving their own integrity and yet inseparable. It is becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions. Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse.

I recommend the whole essay. There you can read Benedict XVI’s elucidation of the Marxist vs. the classical liberal view of the market and of the forces of history as they apply (or do not) to economics.

Spengler spoke of the Pope’s words in 1985 as “prophetic”. Today, comes this news item from Spain. It is as though Señor Ordonez had just read Ratzinger’s essay:

The governor of the Bank of Spain on Sunday issued a bleak assessment of the economic crisis, warning that the world faced a “total” financial meltdown unseen since the Great Depression.

“The lack of confidence is total,” Miguel Angel Fernandez Ordonez said in an interview with Spain’s El Pais daily.

“The inter-bank (lending) market is not functioning and this is generating vicious cycles: consumers are not consuming, businessmen are not taking on workers, investors are not investing and the banks are not lending.

“There is an almost total paralysis from which no-one is escaping,” he said, adding that any recovery — pencilled in by optimists for the end of 2009 and the start of 2010 — could be delayed if confidence is not restored.

We are innocents no more. Having seen greed and corruption in its various naked and promiscuous forms — both here and in the EU — how do we go about “restoring confidence”, pray tell?

Hat tip for the story from Spain: JD


Unknown said...

Based on my own experience, the abortion figures you cite are likely overstated. My wife and I account for two of the supposed terminations. The first was an early miscarriage, which occurred at home. I will spare you the description. We had a D&C to ensure that the spontaneous abortion had not left anything behind. The second, at about three and a half months, was after the ultrasound showed that there had been no growth in the fetus in over three weeks, which can only mean one thing.

Both procedures were counted in the statistics as elective abortions. Both times, there were protesters outside the clinic. Believe me, no matter how fervently they might have prayed that we not go through those clinic doors, it was nothing compared to how we had prayed that we not have to.

I commend to the mercy of God, who blessed us with three other beautiful babies, the two children we lost. If the law had required my wife to endanger her health for the sake of an abstract principle, I would not have hesitated to break that law.

Bruce Church said...

Mitch, the law never did require your wife to endanger herself even before abortion was legalized. Seems you've imbibed pro-choice propaganda.

Henrik R Clausen said...

Mitch, what happened for you is perfectly common and natural - spontanious abortions occur very frequently. My own wife had one. Fortunately, it turned out there had been twins, and the other developed healthily and is right now assembling Lego right next to me :)

The problem here is the abortion of healthy children, The killing of the unborn. That is rather grim.

The obvious alternative, adoption, gets much too little attention. There are plenty couples out there who for various reasons have trouble getting children - the chemical environment and degraded food quality may have caused that - and they will happily adopt a child from a mother who's unable to raise it properly.

We are innocents no more.

Neither are we adults. Or, perhaps, a few of us still are, and still willing to tell our children the difference between Right and Wrong. I'm currently reading Diana West: the Death of the Grown-up, and must say the falling is extensive. The restraints that used to form the foundation of civilization are being dismantled, and we'll have quite our share of trouble for that.

xoggoth said...

The main problem seems to be one of quality of the replacement, the attitude you mention seems more typical of the successful classes.

We seem to do quite well at encouraging births among the welfare dependent and poor migrants but the UK is not a socially or economically mobile society and those children are likely to be low earners who are hardly going to cover their own future pensions, let alone that of their parents.

Certainly the idea some espouse that we need more children, any children, to care for future generations is about as sensible as building more motorways to cope with traffic congestion, sooner or later the solution will no longer be viable so we may as well start looking at better options now.

Longer working life, not just by making retirement later but by abandoning the daft idea that everyone can benefit from higher education, and enforcing adequate retirement planning are some obvious and fairly easy to implement solutions.

xoggoth said...

I do wonder if the state solution of tax and welfare have destroyed much of the desire to care for our own elderly.

When we see so much of their money and our money being diverted to people we do not know, often it seems without amy consideration of merit or deserving, is it any wonder that we feel justified in offloading our own responsibilities onto the state?

Bilgeman said...


"I do wonder if the state solution of tax and welfare have destroyed much of the desire to care for our own elderly."

Perhaps so. I'd also observe that it works both ways.

If the elderly aren't living with their own progeny, then there is no perceived cost to the next generation being impoverished by their overconsumption of resources.

So they want the subsidized Viagra and the Medicare benefit Electric Scooter that they campaigned for.

And because they get it, some child goes without ...

dienw said...

Ethics are based on demographics. The word ethic is based on ethos: the motivating spirit of the group or community. Understanding this leads to some startling realizations: in the den of murders, murderers are ethical - a boy scout in that den would be unethical; in a group of abortion practitioners, abortion is ethical - the anti-abortionist in the same group would be unethical.

Morals are external and objective realities: thus a murderer is immoral no matter what his ethics are.

Thus the Cardinals' statement regarding the market is meaningless, even silly. The right to private property is a moral one; the right to buy and sell one's property is moral. Moral rights exist despite the very fact that man is a sinner and thusly will abuse his liberty.

X said...

It strikes me that Ratzinger, whilst h may have a lot of good points, has misunderstood what the phrase "laws of the market" actually means. His arguments seem to be based on the premise that someone came along and wrote down the laws and said "This is how markets are going to be from now on". Based on that premise, his argument against the amorality of the laws of the free market make sense but, it's a false premise. The laws are observations. Someone came along and wrote down how things were behaving as a guide to better understand the market, not as a means to restrict and direct the market. The fact that there is no inbuilt moral guidance in these "laws" means nothing because they are not meant to be a moral guide. OR, to put it another way, Ratzinger observes that a lack of morality will cause the market to collapse - but this is a very effective argument in favour of the market, not an argument against it. His argument that the laws collapse without a moral component is still true but it would appear that his understanding of why this is so is flawed in the same way a leftists is flawed; and his prescription for that, to apparently change the law, is equally flawed as leftist thought as they, too, observe the laws of the market and say "we must change these to make them conform to our world view", not realising, or not caring, that you can no more change the laws of the market than you can change the laws of thermodynamics.

Markets require trust. Trust is the belief that someone will be moral in their behaviour, which is predicated on the idea that there is a morality. The problem isn't the market, but the lack of morality within the people attempting to take part. Adding rules to the market to dictate morality will only break things further.

Anonymous said...

"Shuffling off this mortal coil without leaving descendants behind is somehow seen as being the holiest green sacrifice possible. How much more righteous can one be in reducing one’s “carbon footprint” than by refusing to permit any little footprints to follow after?"

Reduced to a succinct analysis, worship of the 'green' earth, in essence, is a death cult for the society that embraces it. The same can be said for narcissism, which is central to the abortion "choice."


Henrik R Clausen said...

Graham, good points here!

I actually agree that Ratzinger misunderstands something important - but at a level that might look suprising:

I believe Christianity is the best ethical/moral foundation for Capitalism. And Catholicism more so than Protestantism. Take the Netherlands - the puritanic Calvinists are often taken as an example of the 'Protestant work ethic'. But the wealth of the Netherlands is much older than the Calvinists, and was founded by Catholics, not protestants.

The philosophical foundation of modern Capitalism (a term I really don't like, actually) lies in 12th-13th century Catholic philosophers, along with the practical progress in accounting and technology provided by the monasteries. And here we come full circle - for the reason they had this much impact was that they were found worthy of trust.

The more I look, the more I find Christianity - and Catholicism in particular - as merged with Hellenism, to be at the root of Western civilization.

Dymphna said...

A few points:

Defend The West has a photo up that could have been used to illustrate Diana West's "The Death of the Grown Up.
The man looks like a case of permanent arrested childhood.


The figures are from the CDC and the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Their totals are similar but not identical.

And, no, spontaneous abortions -- miscarriages -- are not the same thing as induced terminations of pregnancy.

How you extrapolate from your experience to the experience of the country at large since Roe vs Wade went into effect escapes me.

BTW, the female body knows the difference between them also: a spontaneous abortion (which is frequent and unremarkable except for those involved. We find it wrenching indeed)occurs for a variety of reasons and it happens over a period of time. It is not a sudden invasion and interruption. In the former case, the hormones initiated by pregnancy slowly resolve. In the latter, they are ratched down very suddenly. This is a real problem for women who have not born a child to term. In such a case, where first degree females in her family have had breast cancer, a girl's chances of early breast cancer increase greatly. Rather than face the publicity, two abortion clinics in Washington state settled out of court a few years ago for failing to counsel some 15 year-olds who turned out to indeed have female relatives with breast cancer. Those poor girls now face the prospect of hypervigilance, trying to catch any carcinoma before it has a chance to get going. What a way to spend your adolescence and yound adulthood.

In that speech, Cardinal Ratzinger reported studies that showed Protestant countries/cultures were better at supporting free markets than were Catholic ones. He's right in one respect: until centrally planned economies came along to show up the problems inherent in their philosophies, earlier pontiffs bought the ideas of socialism as more protective of workers' health and lives.

When he speaks of the laws of the market, he's talking about Adam Smith's'd have to read the whole essay to see his point. The hope was that the "wisdom of crowds"(he doesn't use that term) would set a limit to greed. Unfortunately, there wasn't a regulation made that couldn't be gotten 'round by the regulators they have shown us.

The market has rules galore, but greed is always larger than any rule made by man. In the final analysis, who's gonna regulate the regulators?

Who would have thought that the new Dark Ages would come from capitalism in free fall?

It's going to be a long ride to the bottom, maybe 10 years or more. And none of us has any idea what "The Bottom" will look like when the stateless actors have finished their play.

Google (now there's greed for you -- Google) the term "deviant markets" or "black markets". They are consuming more and more of the available world capital.