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Richert-Akin Debate on Pricing and Just Price

Man is made in the image and likeness of God; he is not Homo economicus. Where Mr. Akin and I disagree is on whether you can interpret the Church’s social teaching in light of an economic theory that celebrates the self-interest of man and is itself predicated on a philosophy that regards men as individuals who are related to each other and society at large only by means of contracts (economic or social) without doing irreparable damage to that teaching. ~Scott P. Richert [1]

Last week, Scott Richert of Chronicles [2] began an interesting discussion at The Rockford Files of Mr. Jimmy Akin’s objections to the regulation of price-gouging [3], in this case in the wake of a hurricane, and took issue with Mr. Akin’s usage of the term ‘natural price point’ where, he held, just price was more fitting and appropriate in reconciling the setting of prices with Catholic social doctrine. The post listed above is Mr. Richert’s response to Mr. Akin’s first reply [4].

The exchange is well worth reading, and Mr. Richert’s arguments [5] are commendable in the way in which they take seriously the consequences of our creation in the image and likeness of God and our ultimate natural end in returning to Him. He is quite right to stress that this concept of man, to which, incidentally, all Christians are obliged to subscribe, cannot readily admit assumptions from theories in which man’s end can be conceived really only in terms of material self-gratification rather than spiritual and natural restoration in Christ. In this way it is tangentially related to my post [6] about Dr. Fleming’s ethics article [7]: understanding the proper theological definition of human nature and will found in the Fathers will necessarily lead to a rejection of any ethics that privilege the self as an autonomous agent and which consider the self’s fulfilling of its desires as the basis of moral rationality. Indeed, it is well worth considering whether the Christian doctrine of person, and the patristic understanding that true personhood exists only in relationship and communion, has anything substantial in common with the modern concept of self, which is, by and large, considered to be independent and autonomous in its true form.

In a parallel way, it seems to me, economic libertarians and somewhat less doctrinaire proponents of largely unregulated markets, such as Mr. Akin (who firmly disavows any libertarian label), appeal to concepts of economic self-interest rooted in a concept of autonomous man alien to the understanding of the Fathers, and they defend those appeals by turning to definitions of rationality and value that must inevitably vindicate their economic theory. As I read Mr. Akin’s “Just Price Analysis [8],” I find that he is willing to entertain that there might be intrinsic value in a commodity, but that he has long since accepted that value is determined in terms of money and anything’s value is only as great as the amount someone is willing to pay for it. In Austrian economics, as I understand it, anything that interferes with the market determining that value creates inefficiency and that interference is ipso facto irrational.

The goal of just price is, well, justice, not economic efficiency or ‘rationality’, and as I understand the early Fathers it would only be to the extent that the latter are compatible with justice that they would be considered desirable or even licit. There was considerable economic inefficiency in medieval Europe, as measured by this definition of efficiency, but I suspect that had the medievals been confronted with the alternative of great efficiency most of them (or at least the authorities in the Church) would have spurned it, as the hope and desire of medieval Christian man was not riches stored up here below but those laid up in heaven.

That being said, however, it is a bit tendentious to accuse Mr. Richert of a certain inconsistency in his argument for using the concept of just price without also necessarily endorsing the practices of medieval guilds. Mr. Akin writes: “From what I gather, Mr. Richert is not in favor of price controls, but these were a prominent part of the medieval just price system. By rejecting them, Mr. Richert is advocating a significant departure from the just price system as it was understood and practiced in the Middle Ages.” At this point I might point out that just price was originally a Roman legal requirement adopted into Christian theology through the Byzantine Fathers and reformulated by Aquinas and others in the thirteenth century, so there need be no necessary connection between medieval economic practices as they obtained in western Europe in the high middle ages and an embrace of the concept of just price. More to the point, as I imagine Mr. Richert might argue in a future post, if the Catholic Magisterium does not feel obligated to endorse a temporary economic arrangement in order to endorse the concept of just price, whether understood in scholastic fashion or not, Mr. Richert is hardly under any obligation, moral or intellectual, to do the same.

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