Imagine a group of economists assembling to advise clergy on how best to conduct church affairs. Consider the subjective value of your customers, they might say. Instead of being captured by an outdated notion of what your industry should be, think outside the box. Consider what the church could be, if it really understood its customers. Remember the sad lesson from the railroads: They thought only about how to become more efficient at railroading, when instead they should have reengineered themselves as transportation companies.
The sad truth, I realize as I type this, is that likely somewhere, in some fluorescent-lit basement of a church hell-bent on growth, there's a consultant giving precisely that advice to a group of elders even now.
But most of us recognize that asking an economist to sort out how best to manage the institution founded by a God-man and governed by a Spirit whose plans and purposes are beyond our ken is like asking a podiatrist to conduct an orchestra.
Why the Vatican sees fit, then, to appoint a committee of experts profoundly ignorant of economics to hold forth on markets eludes me. This analysis of how to fix the world economy, from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is in fact so astoundingly incompetent in its analysis that it borders on intentionally nefarious.
The statement begins as innocently as such intellectual train wrecks can begin, in the curious admixture of sophomoric economics jargon and groupspeak that is the hallmark of an assemblage of second-rate academics, as anyone familiar with the pronouncements from most university ad hoc committees can attest. Markets are currently a mess because they haven't been regulated adequately, the world is in thrall to capitalism, and so on-exactly what we've come to expect from people entirely unfamiliar with the extent to which governments distort market processes with regulations, subsidies, and subtly inflationary monetary policy.
The council then approvingly quotes Pope Benedict, who labels the current economic crisis moral in nature. People should be selfless, he admonishes, which misses the point of markets, namely their ability to coordinate the behavior of people who don't know each other. For example, the beauty of international trade in coffee is that I don't have to spend hours understanding the needs of the bean grower and his family in Colombia, nor does he need to understand just how passionate I am about my morning coffee. We interact through dozens of intermediaries to make one another better off without the intimacy essential to moral interaction.
In other words, it's precisely because people are far-flung and often not angelic that markets are so essential; they force us to make strangers better off in order to yield profit for ourselves.
But the pope's is a rookie mistake, and one to be forgiven someone who has devoted his life to an endeavor that has absolutely nothing to do with economics. Still, one is tempted to offer to refrain from issuing personal encyclicals about the essence of the Holy Spirit, say, in return for a concomitant willingness on the part of the pope to keep silent about things for which he is entirely unsuited to hold forth.
But the ignorance of the pope is just the tip of the iceberg. From here the committee veers into the kind of academic insanity that only serves to fuel the paranoia of people living on compounds and waiting for the black helicopters to descend. It calls for a world governing authority. "The world's peoples," declares the committee, "ought to adopt an ethic of solidarity to fuel their action."
As a sentiment this is admirable. As a potential vision of life after the Second Coming, it may well be prescient. But as a statement of practical governance, it deserves ridicule. The Church exists, after all, in part because man is fallen and in need of the saving word and Word. To call for a government that depends on man not being dark-hearted, then, is like a hospital exhorting its community to stop being sick so it can become a recreation center.
But the silliness escalates because the committee's pronouncement calling for a world authority capitalizes the word "Authority." The next effect is a document that honors a man-made political construct in the same way that we honor God the Father and the Holy Spirit by capitalizing them. Which is fitting because what the committee calls for is heaven on earth built by the goodwill of man.
The entire statement is an embarrassment. Perhaps the only saving grace is that nobody takes it seriously. Which is a shame, given the loftiness of its title: Justice and Peace. Perhaps a good step would be to fire everyone involved and instead appoint people who have some sense of what those words actually mean and how much they might be attained in a world that still, despite the Council's utopianism, falls short of Christ.