Men, money and society: what St Thomas had to say

Men, money and society: what St Thomas had to say
Aquinas and the Market: Towards a Humane Economy

by Mary L. Hirschfeld (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, £35.95)

Money: In ‘Sireacht: Longing for another Ireland series’

by Conor McCabe (Cork University Press, £9.95)



I was speaking to one of our eminent economists recently. He reported on a meeting of the American Economic Association. He found the mood of the profession was sombre.

Governments’ most tru-sted navigators had failed to notice the rocks. Their efforts to refloat the ‘ship’ had been costly. The premier social science had lost its confidence. Many hoped that psychology could improve its models and restore its reputation. There was much talk of behavioural economics as the way forward.

Mary L. Hirschfeld’s Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy tells us that they would be better off turning to the Thomist tradition. Hirschfeld studied economics because she believed it was a sure guide to policies that would make the world a better place. She gained a Ph.D. degree in economics from Harvard.


Then, unexpectedly, this ‘good pagan’ being drawn to the Church, she converted to Catholicism. To deepen her new-found Faith, she studied theology at Notre Dame and discovered Aquinas. Aquinas and the Market brings her two commitments – economics and Catholicism – into conversation.

For those seeking succinct, clear and accurate accounts of the Thomist understanding of the human person and the presuppositions of economics, this book could hardly be bettered.

Economics presents itself as a science, to be tested, not in the court of the philosophers, but against the facts. Its assumption, however, that reason’s sole purpose is to scout ahead to find the clearest route to the satisfaction of our desires, is not a ‘fact’ but a philosophical proposition.

Hirschfeld demonstrates its weakness in contrast to the richer, more complex analysis of the Thomists. The problem with economics is not so much that it is plain wrong but that it is reductionist. It takes one aspect of the human condition and makes it the whole story. It has a contribution to make but only when placed in the bigger picture that Thomists provides.

Meanwhile, its dominance distorts our understanding of our interdependence, entrenches individualism, and compels consumerism.

Hirschfeld does not ask why so limited a view of the human condition holds so much sway over our policy-making. Colm McCabe provides an answer in Money, the latest contribution to Cork University Press’s Sireacht series.

It is hard to think of a time when the quality of discussion of public policy was as low as it is today. While we are informed of problems, these are presented as stories that stir the emotions and excite compassion. ‘That’s terrible,’ we say, ‘something must be done.’

Analysis and arguments about contending solutions are foregone, and we are reduced to the level of children stamping their feet at the failure of their parents – the government – to solve problems which we are not expected to understand and which demand nothing of us.

The Sireacht series resists this infantilisation of our politics in well-written accessible challenges to orthodoxy that restore much needed pluralism to public debate.

McCabe also argues we should place economics in a bigger picture. He follows Marx in insisting that the institutions, laws, and social relationships that make money possible be brought into view.

When they are, we see conflicting interests and disparities in power. We see how the reckless pursuit of profit by powerful interests delivered the financial crisis. We see how the same interests made sure that the considerable costs of recovery were paid by the taxpayers and the weakest in society. It’s not enough, he urges us, to recognise this reality that a reductionist economics and the shambles of our politics conceal from us.

The problem is the capitalist system and progressive forces must mobilise to dismantle it.

McCabe is to be commended for reminding us how powerful interests subvert the common good. His solution, however, is disheartening.

Can we really suppose that the eclipse of socialism is simply a consequence of poor organisation and the guile of capitalists?

It is time that radicals did some radical thinking and examined the presuppositions of their analyses. They will find that these share many notions that also underpin economics. They could read Dr Hirschfeld with profit.