Most economists would have us believe that the free market is the best form of social organization. Each individual is the best judge of his or her own needs and should be free to negotiate every economic transaction with minimal public regulation or interference. People are rational and knowledgeable; they are capable of calculating costs and benefits with relatively little error, maximizing their well-being. A just wage or price is the one that the market dictates. Economic growth entails economic inequality. Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Governments serve society best by doing least.
Then there’s Anthony Annett. In Cathonomics – How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy, he sets out to show that the world doesn’t work that way. And the way the world DOES work is much closer to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching than libertarian free market ideals.
Annett, who spent two decades at the International Monetary Fund, must have heard the case for small government and free markets hundreds of times as IMF economists demanded developing countries adopt neoliberal reforms as the price of a bailout. Today he’s in more congenial environs as a senior adviser for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
In his book, published last year by Georgetown University Press, Annett begins by reviewing the roots of Catholic Social Teaching in Scripture and the encyclicals before comparing its assumptions with those of neoclassical economics. “Homo Economicus,” the rational utility-maximizing individual that powers economic models, is found to be less than universal, to say the least. Annett argues that Catholic Social Teaching – which suggests that sometimes solidarity must take precedence over competition, that there are limits to accumulating goods, that individuals ought to defer to the common good – is a better fit for the world we live in.
Annett gives only limited attention to labor unions. He notes that “Catholic social teaching also strongly supports the rights of workers to form and join unions and to bargain collectively, one of the strongest and most consistent elements of its labor market ethics (165),” and goes on to cite Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis on the topic of labor unions. But it’s clear that his heart is with the developing world. Annett devotes much of his effort to identifying parallels between Catholic Social Thought and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Thanks to Pope Francis and Laudato Si, Catholic Social Teaching today is also heavily focused on environmental protection in general and global warming in particular. Annett picks up this theme as well. No other topic better illustrates the dangers of free-market fundamentalism. After all, for two centuries firms have been collecting profits from their activities while “externalizing” the costs of global warming by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“My basic contention is that neoliberalism inculcates and amplifies the wrong values. It is time to try something different,” Annett concludes (284). He’s not wrong.