Personalism and the Economic Hitman

Now, one might think that such happenings occur only in foreign nations in the Third World. But this is not so. One of the strengths of the Rourkes’ book is that they make clear that pretty much the same thing has been going on in our own country. Quoting Kentucky poet and novelist Wendell Berry about his hometown of Port Royal, they write: “Wendell Berry notes that eighty years ago his town had eighteen businesses, all of which served the local community. Now, excluding the post office, there are only three. There is no market for produce within forty miles, no garage or repair shop, no doctor and no school. Like countless others, his community is dying.” And in Berry’s own words: “For a long time, the news from everywhere in rural America has been almost unrelievedly bad: bankruptcy, foreclosures, depression, suicide, the departure of the young, the loneliness of the old, soil loss, soil degradation … population loss, the loss of supporting economies, the deaths of towns.”

We are not accustomed to seeing the damming of a river in South America and the decline of rural America as having much to do with each other. But they do. In both cases, impersonal outside economic forces take over a locality, its economy and its culture, without regard for the welfare of the locals either individually or as a group. Failed businesses, destruction of local environments, families broken up—these are just some of the injuries inflicted on those who have neither power nor prestige. Whether in the Third World or in rural America, the financial and political powers care little about the lives of those who happen to be in the way of “progress.”

Perhaps some readers are asking themselves whether the Rourkes are liberals or conservatives. Perhaps some have already decided that they are liberals. This would be an error, for like most theorists who place themselves squarely within the Catholic intellectual tradition, the Rourkes are neither of the Left nor the Right. Though deeply critical of capitalism (as indeed are most serious Catholic thinkers), they are equally critical of the socialist alternative, and also of abortion, divorce, and pornography, which evils are often fueled by do-your-own-thing capitalism. They also point out the problems with Latin American liberation theology. The kind of economy they recommend is that of such Catholic thinkers as G.K Chesterton or Fr. Heinrich Pesch: private property, well distributed among many owners, serving local needs as much as possible. Much of our economic debate revolves around two big entities, the corporation and the state. But the heavy hand of both of these falls equally hard on the people. And it is the people the Rourkes wish to champion.

Both Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and A Theory of Personalism address the symptoms of our modem malaise, a malaise which is at once political, economic, and cultural—but ultimately religious. Perkins’s book is surely worthwhile, simply to help people understand what is actually going on in the world. But the solutions can be found in the Rourkes’ book. In them we see a Catholic approach to our difficulties, an approach that is largely unknown because it does not fit well with the paradigm of either Right or Left.

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