With hopes that I’m not falling into some heresy, I find myself persuaded by mainstream libertarian economists. Their general positions include: economic law of free markets with limited or no government interference; the law of supply and demand; the responsibility of central governments to collect taxes only for those activities the private sector can’t or shouldn’t provide; and the imperative for governments to avoid excessive taxation and accumulation of debt. However, when the famous libertarian economist Milton Friedman enunciated and defended the underlying principle of the free market with the cliché, “Greed is good,” I started to re-examine my unrestricted libertarian tendencies. (Of course, Dr. Friedman may only have been trying to drive home the point that self- interest in economics is just an undeniable fact of life.) But motivations in pursuing wealth and personal security can’t be reduced to mere self-interest culminating in greed.
Libertarian economic theory would do well with more virtue and less vice. My understanding of Catholic social teaching can be summed up by the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George Bailey and Mr. Potter are both businessmen and capitalists. George is virtuous and has a keen sense for the common good. His society remains family-oriented, with small communities helping one another in tough times. Mr. Potter is greedy and abuses his economic might. His society is money-grubbing, harsh, and even pornographic. To my eye the Church teaches businessmen to imitate George Bailey, not Mr. Potter (or at least that’s what I would write if I were penning encyclicals on the economy).
But libertarian fears seem to have a solid foundation in today’s economic realities. With an $18 trillion government debt—with some estimates reaching as high as $80 trillion when taking into account unfunded liabilities such as Social Security and Medicare—the libertarians (and many others) are warning we have passed the point of no return. (A national debt that exceeds a nation’s gross domestic product is a huge problem, especially when there are no political constraints on future deficit spending.)
At some point, the stress on the American economy (and the economies of the world, because they have the same problem) will bring a) massive inflation and rapidly rising prices; b) mass deflation and unemployment; c) currency wars among the nations of the world, especially between the United States and China; or—well, you get the idea. The libertarian solution in the face of unrestrained and reckless government spending is generally to encourage us to buy gold and other valuable hard assets as a hedge against a currency that would lose its economic value in an economic collapse. But is that enough?
There have always been reasonable recommendations to prepare for disasters such as hurricanes, floods, or even terrorist attacks. If you can swing it, it seems reasonable to have extra water supplies, non-perishable food, batteries, blankets, generators, etc. to remain safe after a disaster until help arrives. But economic disaster expectations suggest that help will never arrive. Everything will come to a standstill. No electricity, no fuel, no food; it may even be necessary to walk to church.
In searching the Internet for strategies and products to prepare for the “coming economic collapse” we are advised to purchase gold, accumulate freeze-dried food with a shelf life of 25 years, purchase seeds for crops, prepare clean water kits, stockpile guns and ammunition. But I don’t think the listing goes far enough. An all-encompassing solution must include attention to the little things that can become really big things. A simple sinus infection can lead to pneumonia and kill. So our medical kits must include a 25-year supply of freeze-dried antibiotics. Similarly, we need a cache of pharmaceutical painkillers like Percocet, just in case. Perhaps thousands of bottles of booze could be stored in our attics. It doesn’t have to be 15-year single malt scotch. Blended scotch or even vodka would do in a pinch.
Without electricity or gas, we need old-fashioned push mowers to cut the grass around our houses. We need a substitute for caulk (lest the critters such as mice and copperhead snakes find a way into our bedding). After turning 50, most folks become afflicted with cataracts, at least very small cataracts at first. Now is the time for preventive cornea surgery. And there should be a government program for everyone to undergo appendix surgery as another preventive measure. After all of our preparation, it would be a really lousy irony to die from appendicitis after an economic apocalypse. There are so many preparatory steps to take, and so little time!
As I continue to think through the apocalyptic scenario, I find myself getting discouraged. If I run out of food, for example, how many gold pieces would a loaf of bread cost? And as I follow the logic of my discouragement I find myself asking, “What about my immortal soul?” I’m a priest and I can celebrate Mass (if someone has a supply of bread and wine). I can absolve people from their sins after a good Confession. But enough about you; what about me? Who can I turn to for Confession when I’m afflicted with terminally infected ingrown nails (because I forgot to pack nail clippers)? At age 61, with 19 years to live according to the actuarial tables, it might be too much to hope for to be dead by the time of the collapse. What am I to do?
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Mt 6: 25-34)
If emergency supplies can’t save me, if making friends with doctors, nurses, and militia members holds no promise of salvation, maybe I should surrender myself more radically to Divine Providence and turn to someone who can really save me. Maybe I should start taking my faith more seriously. Mr. Potter wouldn’t agree, of course, but he may have been happy to know that I’m still in favor of concealed weapon permits—as a merely prudential matter.
Editor’s note: The image above, one of a five-part series by Thomas Cole called “The Course of Empire,” depicts the stage of destruction, painted in the years 1833-36.