All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1987

Books of Note

Advocates of the freedom philosophy who minimize the importance of ecclesial beliefs about economics are making a serious mistake. More men and women in the United States—and in my own skeptical nation, Australia—attend church services every Sunday than go to football matches every Saturday! Even non-church people regard mainstream churches as significant agencies of what we have been taught in recent years to call “moral legitimization.” For this reason, I urge those who are church members, or whose friends include church members, to read Roger Freeman’s essay, Does American Neglect Its Poor? Comments on the American Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter: Economic Justice for All (Hoover Institution Press, 41 pp., single copies free). Succinctly, thoroughly, and utilizing a minimum of technical economic terminology, Freeman analyzes the recent pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops. The impact of this letter upon Catholic clergy in particular, and Christian clergy in general, cannot be overstated, and not a few politicians have already made considerable political capital from its conclusions.

Murray Rothbard, in his path-breaking essay, “New Light on the Prehistory of the Austrian School” (in The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics, edited by Edwin T. Dolan, 1976) challenged the cliche that scholastic philosophers and theologians were economic incompetents to be remembered simply for their theory of the “just price.” This challenge is sharpened and developed by Alejandro A. Chafuen in his small but tightly written volume, Christians for Freedom: Late-Scholastic Economics. (Ignatius Press, 207 pp., $12.95 paperback)

Dr. Chafuen argues that the late Spanish scholastic thinkers who teased out economic insights forged by St. Thomas Aquinas and his immediate successors developed positions un-cannily reminiscent of those defended by the Austrian school of economics. Any person versed in the tenets of contemporary Austrian economics who reads the “Hispanic scholastics” will experience a strange sense of déjà vu. He will encounter a consistently subjective theory of value, an insistence upon the importance of private property rights, an understanding of the nature of money that would have elicited nodding approval from Mises, a theory of interest not unlike that developed by B6hm-Bawerk, and so on.

Michael Novak contributes a Foreword which he concludes by observing that “the Catholic Church will gain [from this volume] a deeper understanding of her own tradition, and she will achieve a clearer sense of her own slow but steady journey toward liberty, in the economic as well as in the political domain.” He further notes that Dr. Chafuen’s “linking of the Austrian school to the commonsense observations of the Late Scholastics of Salamanca may be a significant event in Latin American intellectual life.”

One can but hope that today’s religious leaders and economic historians will gain a greater appreciation of the insights developed by the scholastic thinkers.

There are few books which deserve a prominent place on the bookshelves of all lovers of liberty. The English historian (and one-time editor of the left-wing journal, The New Statesman) Paul Johnson has penned such a book in his Modern Times. (Harper and Row, 1983, 817 pp.)

Painstakingly, Johnson documents the growth between the 1920s and the 1980s of both statism and of the moral relativism which almost invariably is embraced when the reality of natural rights is denied. In the course of so doing, Johnson defends several U.S. Presidents cavalierly dismissed by most contemporary historians, castigates not a few European and English “statesmen” widely hailed as saviors of the West, and provides a compelling account of the rise of tyrants such as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Castro. Somehow, the author manages to combine an attention to detail with a refusal to be distracted by trivia that is quite extraordinary.

Not surprisingly, given such a wide canvas, one can criticize isolated claims. This reviewer’s reading of revisionist historians leads him to question the adequacy of Johnson’s account of U.S. involvement in both the First and Second World Wars. Also, while I applaud his defense of transnational corporations against the charge that they spread “U.S. imperialism,” I regret his failure to note that many transnational firms have been all too ready to form symbiotic relationships with governments, and thereby have escaped the discipline of the marketplace.

But such criticisms are minor. Like Johnson’s earlier work, A History of Christianity (New York: Atheneum, 1976) and subsequent volume, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), Modern Times displays the attention to detail, the subtle discrimination, and the ability succinctly but accurately to narrate a complex story, that are all too rare in the writing of history.

(The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams is a philosopher and theologian based in Australia. He is currently spending his third summer at FEE as a senior scholar in residence.)

  • The Reverend Dr. John K. Williams has been a teacher and is a free-lance writer and lecturer in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. He was resident scholar at FEE from April to October of this year.