- Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy by Mary L Hirschfeld
Mary L. Hirschfeld is associate professor of economics and theology in the Department of Humanities, Villanova University. She holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Notre Dame.
In a preface to the volume she tells the reader that she chose to study in the field of economics because “I wanted to make a positive contribution to society. Accordingly, I wanted to work on developing policies that would promote widespread economic prosperity.” Hirschfeld began her teaching career at Occidental College in Los Angeles. There she taught core introductory courses in economics and developed a course of her own on economics and philosophy.
Later she experienced a dramatic event in her personal life. She became a Catholic. “It was not the product of searching philosophical or [End Page 602] theological inquiry into the existence of God or the truth about world religions,” she relates. “It was a matter of being knocked off my horse, and then dusting myself off with a mysterious but overpowering sense that I needed to go to a local parish and find out what I needed to do to become a Catholic.” She was formally received in the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 1998. By embracing Catholicism, she writes, “[m]y intellectual world was up-ended.”
Augustine and Aquinas became her new intellectual and spiritual mentors. Upon encountering St. Thomas, she was led as an economist to study his account of private property and its use. As did Aristotle before him, Thomas embraced the commonsense truth that we are more inclined to work when we reap the fruit of our effort. Adam Smith, the Scottish social philosopher and political theorist, was to articulate the principle for an eighteenth-century audience in his now classic An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence that the butcher, the brewer and the baker that we expect our dinner but from regard to their own interest.”
From her study of Thomas on private property, Hirschfeld is led to an examination of his moral theory in general. She is particularly interested in Thomas’s thoughts on how private property contributes to the commonwealth. Remaining true to Aristotle, Thomas nevertheless believed that in some sense we should regard private property not simply as our own, but as a contribution to the common good.
Hirschfeld devotes an early part of the book to reviewing modern economic theory and how Thomistic theory might relate to or profit from some of it. Given her extraordinary erudition, the names of prominent authors flow by—Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Rawls, Milton Friedman, Michael Novak, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Robert Sokolowski, and John T. Noonan, to mention only a few—as she draws upon the work of both economists and philosophers.
Hirschfeld spends some time discussing the so-called rational choice model of economic theory. Developed in the nineteenth century, it assumes that individuals efficiently allocate their scarce resources to acquire the most desirable bundle of goods available to them. Sometimes called “homoeconomics,” it investigates how individual choice plays out in the marketplace. In Hirschfeld’s judgment, Aquinas’s teaching on private property can accommodate what is true in modern economic thought, but Thomas definitively “pushes back” against theory that fails to order economic goods in the light of moral goods, understood as goods that genuinely promote human happiness. For Thomas, “self-interest” refers to the natural desire to provide ourselves with what we truly need, whereas modern economists are reluctant to distinguish between necessary and inordinate desires.
Modern economics, Hirschfeld declares, is a surprisingly monolithic discipline. Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction between positive and normative economics. Positive economics is limited to description and prediction. As such, it studies how markets work and evaluates policies in [End Page 603] the light of their intent. Normative economics, by contrast, is a discussion of...