Be it done

To more than the usual degree, the other day, I found myself puzzled by comments on an article I had written (here). For a change, I wasn’t annoyed. Most had missed my point so widely that I could retreat into my private phantasmagoria, secure in the knowledge I had covered my traces with impenetrable gobble-de-goo. The topic was anyway what is called “technical.” In a moment of potential financial meltdown, on a global scale, it seemed worth mentioning that Church teaching on usury, as expounded in Thomas Aquinas, might be somehow relevant to, even mildly explanatory of, “events.”

What I thought my most interesting point was ignored. It was that in studying the articles on usury in the Summa, I found the Angelic Doctor had anticipated a modern economic idea. This was how money might be created, out of nothing, as a function of lending and borrowing with interest. His critique of usury might be more sophisticated than is usually assumed, the more so since the institution of pure “fiat” currencies, untied to gold or any other anchor. Too, that quite beyond the classical distinction in Roman law between commodatum (a moveable property to be returned intact) and mutuum (something fungible to be returned in kind), Thomas was adeptly distinguishing between what is for investment and what is a consumer loan — relating the latter to beggary.

I may return to that point, or not; perhaps I hallucinated the whole thing. For the moment I am only interested in the nature of the responses to my broader insinuation that usury is a morally destructive economic force — which could be a problem when the whole world’s economy is built on it. Now, the possibility that I was taking a longer view of the matter than, say, what had happened in Zurich last week, was missed by several observers.

Too, I had not mentioned “just price theory” or various other things that happened to be in the minds of readers, who then assumed they must be in my mind, too. It is surprising how wrong one can be, when arguing with what an author has not said.

Naturally, I stood accused of great naiveté: of offering simplistic remedies to complex problems; of demanding commie-style interventions in the markets; of not knowing that the current foreground worry is about deflation, not hyperinflation; and of not realizing that fiat currencies are now here forever. To which I reply, that I wasn’t offering any remedies at all, and my thickness consists entirely of suggesting that we might get a better view of present economic arrangements nearly sub specie aeternitatis, from the serene distance and elevation of a mediaeval platform. And anyway, consult Euromoney (the magazine): the banks are now totally regulated and micromanaged by agencies of the State down to the sub-molecular level — so hey.

But there was a more fundamental misunderstanding. Readers assumed I was giving my opinions, and thereby misconstrued my intention. Rather I was attempting what has been my hobby for some time now: guessing at what might lie beyond my own pettifogging opinions.

I might get things wrong, might misrepresent Church teaching, might myself misunderstand the subtle reasoning of St Thomas, or read something into it that isn’t there; but I wasn’t actually trying to do any of this. I was trying instead to expound something along the lines of, “Creating money from nothing to fund gluttonous lifestyles on mountainous debt cannot be good,” under the impression that Holy Church would agree with me.

Often I find myself at cross-purposes with readers. Commenters say not only, “This is how things are today, stop being quixotic and get a life,” but also, “I think this,” or “I want that,” or “this is how we should do it.” We have something called “freedom of speech,” and I am reliably informed that everyone has the right to an opinion. Not being in a position to take that away, I seldom even phantasize about it.

I think, want, and truth be told, have opinions, too. But since I can suppress them, I more and more find it is worth a try. This is because they get in the way. Another thing that gets in the way is my plans: I’ve wasted too much time trying to advance them. When I look back, I find that my thoughts were wrong, my wants selfish, my opinions vain, and my plans rather silly. The hole is deep enough, as they say: I can stop digging now. Perhaps walk away. “Let the dead bury their dead.”

I had, for instance, when I was younger and mixed up for a time in economic journalism, in Asia, many fairly “original” opinions about how things should be done. Most put me on the side of “free markets” against Statism in its various forms; my guru was Friedrich Hayek. I knew more then than I remember now, about how things work in economic theory and practice. Verily: once upon a time I subscribed to Euromoney, and followed big bank asset tables as if they were major league sports standings: cheering some banks, booing others. I had strong views on which methods of investment would cause “emerging markets” to emerge (I actually worked for the guy who invented the term), and bless me, I wanted the best for Asia. I wanted “economic growth,” which is to say, more wealth, and less poverty. I had in common, even with people who disagreed with my opinions, a certain basic perspective: that winning is the most important thing; that it is even more important than the second most important thing, which is to avoid losing.

I will not say this experience was worthless; only that it wasn’t worth much.

Habit alone makes me leap to conclusions, on news reports to the present day. I find opinions I held thirty years ago suddenly reviving on Pavlovian cues. Opinions wire one’s brain, and rewiring may require industry and patience. Of course one will always have opinions, but whose will they be?

Today I find the criterion for my thinking has changed. Winning and losing have drifted out of the picture: of course we will lose, we always lose. I am no longer trying so much to make up my mind on the “what to do” questions, as asking (if I may put it so crassly), “What would Jesus do?” Less crassly: what does the Church think; what has she always thought? For as Jeanne d’Arc said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”

This hardly means I would like to put bishops in charge of the central banks. Hooo, would I not like to do that. Bankers should run banks, statesmen should run states, potters should run potteries, and farmers run farms. It would help if they were all burningly sincere, faithful orthodox saintly Catholics, and none were “freethinkers.” I doubt, however, that that could be arranged. Still, it is interesting to compare notes with those writing in an Age of Faith.

Meanwhile we (you and me, gentle reader) are discussing premisses here, and establishing the ground conditions to think anything through. To work out more fully how to do something specialized, specialists will have to be called in. But the end to which we are all working is not a job for specialists.

My gradual embrace of something resembling “Distributism” is not premissed on the belief that it would be a more efficient economic order, that it would grow the GDP faster, or anything like that. (Inflation it would cure, but that is a side issue.) Rather, I am trying to imagine an economic order that would be compatible with Catholic teaching, and contribute to rather than detracting from the salvation of souls. That it would, in some practical sense, “work,” if we got it even half-right, I take for granted — and this for the same reason that in faith I take for granted that God knows what He is doing. My challenge is to find out, thus, not what I want but what God wants, even in the field of macroeconomics.

Indeed, I rather wish I could cash the cheque for one billion dollars a friend at my church gave me for Christmas. (He has a long beard and mischievous eyes and looks like a Scotchman.) I hesitate from the fear it may not be covered, and I really hate unnecessary bank charges. Still, I thought one thing to do with the money might be set up a Distributist think-tank, to which we might invite the more ingenious economic specialists to consider, “What would a truly Christian economy look like?” For I think many of our difficulties spring from failure of the educated imagination.

Not, be it noted, the economy we want, but the sort of economy God might smile on. If it would make us materially poorer, overall, then so be it. If it would restrict our freedom to acquire certain things, then we do without. If it did not deliver perfect equality of opportunity, so what? Yet a way of life that left everyone starving, and encouraged usury, hoarding, and theft, would not be acceptable. This is because God wouldn’t want that.

A secondary question would be, how do we get there? How, rather than waiting for agencies of the State to do things not necessarily in the interest of the State as currently conceived, could people who are, say, Catholic, work towards such an alternative economic order, entirely through voluntary acts on their own? … I am of course imagining an institution in which the Angelus bells are rung thrice daily, at beginning, middle, and end of shift, and all work pauses to consider the Incarnation, and everything that follows from: “Be it done to me according to Thy word.” (Here is a nice video.)

For the point in all this is to accommodate, both individually and in the commons of the Body of Christ, not our own plan but God’s plan for us; how we might live within His prescriptions, and not stray ever farther outside.

Yes, yes, perhaps I am naïve. … But so was Don Quixote. …


What makes this scheme so ludicrous is that, not at the corporate but at the individual level, people who include most Catholics don’t think like that. They wake every morning with their own plans. And while it may be reasonable to keep appointments, and earn one’s bread from day to day, or even to save for retirement, the question is seldom asked: “What might God want me to do: today, tomorrow, and forever?” Or even, “What if the universe in which I am currently participating is not all about me?” For you know, it isn’t.

Deep inside lies the fear that God’s plans may not be congruent with my own. Yes, this is rather likely — as, too, that the fear of God might be the beginning of wisdom. We cling to what we cannot keep, in the nature of time’s passage; to what no one has ever kept. And we make ourselves sad in our aloneness.

Our plans presuppose things as they are, in the glib sense of what is all around us. We have no choice but to accommodate at least some of that, for the State has cops and tax collectors, and The People have rapacity. Yet even as mental exercise, the imagining of “things as they are not” has a certain value. It suggests possibilities that our environment does not of itself suggest: Beauty, Goodness, Truth, things like that. It might provide glimpses of the kind of social solidarity that would help to lift us out of ourselves. We might not feel so terribly alone.

Imagine a town whose primary collective economic wish were to build (in the words of some quixotic Spanish mediaeval architect), “Such and so great a cathedral that those who look upon it in the future will think that we were mad.” And then built it. (As they did at Seville.)

That “we cannot know God’s plan” tends to arise as the first objection; and it is true that we can’t begin to understand the full majesty. How could we, given the scale on which we are operating? But within that plan we can, like the miner with a lamp on his helmet that does not light the view around corners, know enough to be getting on. For the passage we walk is immediately before us, and the light on that works just fine. And it may still be working when we turn the corner.

And here I am thinking of another passage in Thomas Aquinas, his Questiones disputatae de caritate:

“In this life we cannot know perfectly what God is, but we can know what he is not, and in this consists the perfection of our knowledge as wayfarers in this world. Likewise, in this life we cannot love God perfectly so that we are permanently turned towards Him in act, but only imperfectly so that our minds are never turned towards what is contrary to Him.”