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Economic Compulsion and Christian Ethics.

ECONOMIC COMPULSION AND CHRISTIAN ETHICS. By Albino Barrera. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University, 2005. Pp. xvii + 248. $75.

Neoclassical economists, with platonic purity and always insistently, regard any market imperfections or external interventions as undesirable, and have been committed, following Adam Smith, to keeping markets as perfect (that is, unhindered) as possible. Albino Barrera starts from a different, much more realistic perspective. While acknowledging the virtues of the market as an efficient decentralized mechanism for allocating resources, he takes seriously the economic distress that markets actually generate in the lives of many people. That distress reaches a critical point in what B. calls "compulsion," namely, situations where freedom to choose is reduced to the freedom to sacrifice something essential for life in order to save something more essential, even life itself. These unpalatable choices are the staple of economic life for the poor.

Chapters 1 and 2 present the concept of economic compulsion, and how it arises from the regular operation of real markets. The author brilliantly shows that compulsion needs not result only from intentional coercion, but often follows unintentionally from pecuniary externalities generated by the market itself. The different mechanisms through which pecuniary externalities produce economic compulsion are explained in a clear language that any reader, no matter how lay in economics, can understand without difficulty.

Chapters 3 and 4 set a Christian "moral baseline" for judging economic compulsion. B. extracts three theses from the Bible and Christian theology: (1) God has created a world where human beings need not be subject to extreme scarcity or economic insecurity; (2) the divine gift of abundance and security is linked to an adequate structuring of economic life by the community; (3) the gift is also conditioned by personal effort. Particularly interesting are B.'s detailed presentations of the law of Israel and the Scholastic theory of the just price as social mechanisms for restoring those in economic distress, for reintegrating them fully into the productive effort of society and the enjoyment of its fruits. (The traditional theory of the state of extreme necessity, where private property is suspended while necessity lasts, could perhaps have been added here.)

Chapter 5 proposes a reelaboration of social and economic rights doctrine as an adequate contemporary actualization of the moral baseline provided by the Christian tradition. With great analytic depth, B. develops such doctrine within a framework of personalistic humanism. In analytic detail, he counters the most relevant objections to the inclusion of social and economic rights within a general rights theory, and offers not only a list of well-meaning desiderata, but a practical theory able to adjudicate real world conflicts. A fundamental structure of the rights, a typification of relationships to which they apply, and lexical rules for their application are offered. Chapter 6 applies that complete analytic framework to the question of agricultural subsidies. It is an intelligently chosen case study that allows B. to show the potential of his theory in a complicated issue where the parties are linked by markets but not by national belonging. The reader will appreciate this remake of the social and economics right theory that makes it useful not only for prophetic denunciation, but also for responsible social decision making.

I offer one suggestion. B.'s argument depends heavily on a personalistic-communitarian conception of the human being in society, a conception that requires a shared vision of the human good and of collective social agency. But Western liberal society does not and cannot promote a communitarian vision of the morally accomplished human being. It is here to guarantee liberty so that each one may pursue the ideal of the good that he or she believes fit. How does, then, B.'s argument hold up before a liberal, pluralistic society?

This liberal objection to a personalistic/communitarian society does not invalidate B.'s argument. First, he proposes a theological stance that Christians can advance in pluralistic public debates. Here Christians will shape only incompletely the outcome of the debate, but will influence it in the direction of more community involvement with the economic fate of the poor. Second, his conclusions about social duties regarding economic compulsion can be accepted also from an individualistic-liberal background. It is enough to notice that supporting and restoring people under severe economic distress does not determine for them, nor society, a vision of the collective good. It rather puts the poor back in capacity to freely choose their own life project. That freedom fulfills the core purpose of the liberal society.

B. offers us analytical tools to detect and understand economic compulsion, criteria to prioritize our efforts for its correction, and both theological and humanistic reasons to take care of people in economic distress within a market economy. A great, most timely contribution to Christian social thought.


Instituto de Investigaciones Economicas y Sociales UCAB, Caracas
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Author:Fabre, Raul Gonzales
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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