Review: Cloutier's 'Vice of Luxury' Part II

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I began my review of David Cloutier's new book The Vice of Luxury: Economic Excess in a Consumer Age. I finished by noting how Cloutier describes the reasons the critique of luxury found in both ancient pagan philosophers and early Christian thinkers was diminished and obscured. Today, I shall conclude the review, beginning with the effort to reclaim that critique from a theological perspective.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emerges as a hero in the effort to reclaim and reapply the Christian moral imagination, specifically our understanding of sacramentality, to Catholic social teaching. The Second Vatican Council laid the groundwork with its insistence on the universal call to holiness. Blessed Pope Paul VI and Saint Pope John Paul II developed the idea that the "stuff" of life demands more than the kind of ethical add-on approach to economics ("make the money however you want, but then be charitable with some of it") that had become normative in Christian life, if not entirely in Christian thought. But, it is in Benedict's Caritas in Veritate that the effort to look at economic issues through the lens of Christian imagination, as well as thought, comes to fuller flower.

Cloutier notes an earlier text from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in which the future pope wrote:

The practical alternatives have hitherto been insufficiently formulated and have in many cases remained without political reverberation because Christians have no confidence in their own vision of reality. They hold fast to the faith in their private devotion, but they do not dare to presume that it has something to say to mankind as such or that it contains a vision of man's future and his history.

It was here that Cloutier locates Ratzinger's core problem with liberation theology: They too readily accepted Marxist understandings of materiality and had a distorted theological anthropology. Raztinger's critique of Marxism was never about its bad economics.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict does for social ethics what Pope John Paul II tried to do for sexual ethics: to introduce a sacramental ontology in which, citing Hans Boerma, "the mystery inherent in the created order" is recognized and "historical realities of the created order served as divinely ordained, sacramental means leading to eternal divine mysteries." In that encyclical, Pope Benedict delivers an "understanding of reciprocity and gift at all levels of social life [that] is the culmination of the trajectory of theologizing Catholic social teaching." Benedict's insistence on gratuitousness provoked George Weigel at the time to say he had no idea what the pope was talking about: Cloutier's work explains it: We can view the "stuff" of life, including our consumer purchases, as devoid of moral content, or we can recognize that some invite and instantiate a sacramental understanding of life while others lead to idolatry.

If this all sounds pie in the sky, it is at first. Cloutier is a first-class intellect who delves into the realm of ideas with ease and insight. But, he also takes the time to explain how these ideas can affect the decisions we make everyday. "Nothing is so emblematic of idolatry than a stream of spending along the lines described earlier (e.g., premium-priced gym shoes) accompanied by the insistence that one cannot buy food (or gym shoes!) produced in a just manner because it is "too expensive." He notes that it takes work to find out about whether or not the products one is buying were made in a just manner, by workers paid a just wage and without environmental degradation, "but so does keeping up with following fashion or reading ads to find the best deal so as to buy more and more unnecessary things." He recalls the effort by Whole Foods to combat their "whole paycheck" paradigm by embracing it with the ad slogan "Whole paycheck … for farmers!"

Having delved into the philosophic and theological justifications for retrieving a critique of luxury, Cloutier then dives into the economics, and he faces the issues head on:

Nevertheless, the economic objection remains potent; isn't this a critique that reflects class comfort and ignores the economic harm that would happen if people stopped consuming so much? Isn't it true that widespread pursuit of luxuries produces an economic system where wealth "trickles down," even to the developing countries making the goods that fill our stores? Most potently, doesn't the ancient critique of luxury rest on a fundamental economic mistake: a zero-sum model, where one person's gain (of private luxuries) represents another person's loss (of daily bread)?

This is the concern that you always run into when speaking with economists devoted to the current consumer capitalist system, and most theologians are content to invoke their theological objections and leave it at that.

Cloutier doesn't leave it at that. He examines and exposes the ways that modern economics has written normative criteria out of their own models, the assumptions that permit them to claim innocence before the bar of justice for the gross inequalities their system has produced. He starts with Bernard Mandeville's famous early eighteenth century "Fable of the Bees" which claimed that "every part [of England’s economic life] was full of vice, yet the whole mass a paradise." If everyone pursued their own interest, the whole would benefit, a theory that is still at the core of modern economics. Cloutier examines Adam Smith's "invisible hand" although he rightly notes that Smith was not past assigning moral significance to economic choices.

It is in his examination of the "marginalist revolution" that we really see the benefit of Cloutier's wide reading in economics. Marginalism holds that the market simply and rationally allocates resources, that consumers and producers interact in myriad ways "at the margins" to achieve an equilibrium of supply and demand. He notes that marginalism appealed to the intellectual climate of modernity because "it seemed so deeply 'scientific.' " By valuing this supposed equilibrium, and its acolyte efficiency, marginalism asserts its results are the best. But, the "best" is a normative judgment and, what is more, the marginalists make the mistake of claiming that "what is best according to the model is understood to be the best, per se."

Cloutier examines the Keynesian economic revolution, which saw economic problems as structural, also minimizing the moral significance of human choosing. And he looks to the critics of these revolutions, noting, for example, that they do not handle "externalities," such as environmental degradation, very well. Citing economist Charles Clark, Cloutier notes that "marginalist analyses of economic maximation appear on the scene just as 'real scarcity ceases to be the main economic problem facing capitalist economies' – instead 'artificial scarcities must be created (i.e., more positional goods) 'in order to maintain the rate of return on wealth and the social power that attaches itself to 'scarce' wealth." He notes that this is all justified with a tautology: "Individuals maximize utility by choosing goods, and the proof that the goods maximize utility is that individuals choose them."

If Cloutier had stopped with this thoughtful consideration of first principles, the book would still be a good read. But he goes on to apply these ideas in practical terms. First, he sets forth a reasonable definition of what constitutes luxury, and its opposite, necessity, noting that while the definitions necessarily will change in different social and cultural circumstances, the definition of the terms is not merely subjective. Writing of the citizens of "Richistan," those people with large amounts of disposable income, Cloutier observes, "While it is certainly important to point out that these residents [of Richistan] pay taxes and often make large charitable donations, the question still remains: Why do they not pay more taxes (given the need) and make more charitable donations (again, given the need)? One recent newspaper story featured a pharmaceutical millionaire who realized he's given $34 million to charity since 2000 and had just spent $34 million on a luxury yacht." Cloutier does a fine job weaving sociological data and economic analysis into his narrative in these chapters.

The final chapter notes that surplus income is not really the problem, or at least not the most immediate issue. He asks if there are not ways that a serious Catholic with surplus income could spend that money in ways that do not indulge the vice of luxury? He cites four categories of spending that reflect the vision of Benedict XVI: Shared goods, vocational goods, festival goods, and enrichment goods. The church has long advocated for cooperatives, a perfect institutional example of a shared good. Spending money on guests at a wedding, provided the focus is on the guests and not on the excessive self-exaltation of the bride, is an example of festival spending that is sacramental and communal. And so on. The point is this, and Cloutier makes it again and again: We may not be able to draw scientifically precise categories of what constitutes a necessary expense, or a morally valuable use of surplus income, or a luxury, but if we use prudence, we know it when we see it.

This review has not done Cloutier's book justice. His treatment of reciprocity and gratuitousness, the need for a morality that is intrinsic to our economic decision-making, and his detailed debunking of dominant economic ideology is so extraordinarily well done, I cannot recommend this book enough. It should not only change the conversation in Catholic social teaching circles, but represents a challenge, a thoughtful, precise challenge, to contemporary economics. Cloutier, already making a name for himself as one of the editors of and a co-leader of the Catholic Conversation Project, has delivered a masterpiece of Catholic thought.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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