Economics and Moral Truth: A Book Review

The following review is made possible by the hard work of Stacy Harp at Mind and Media, who sent a copy of the book to me through the generous donation of The Acton Institute, which has edited and distributed Natural Law: The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System as one in a series of “Studies in Ethics and Economics.”

The Review

Not many economics books could garner a vehement dispute whether taken off the shelf by a hard-core libertarian, doctrinaire Marxist, or New Deal apologist. Yet just such a new treatise will inspire a lot of readers to think outside the box.

Natural Law: The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System by Dr. Alberto M. Piedra (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2004) challenges many traditional systems of economic thought with a penetrating paradox: appropriating traditional moral and theological ideas to promote the creation of a new order.

Some could call Piedra’s thesis an endorsement of a “kinder, gentler capitalism,” but I would describe it as a call to marry moral absolutes and human dignity to an increasingly globalized system of free trade and free markets.

The volume’s true boon is that it is thoroughly grounded in a remarkable breadth of scholarship on the one hand and concise and accessible to the lay reader on the other. Economics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (and it often has the opposite effect of a double frappuccino).

Yet to Piedra, economics is not “a mere analysis of…data and the construction and application of…models,” since no human being can be “reduced to a mere number, measured and valued exclusively in terms of his contribution to a nation’s economic output.” His theology and philosophy undergird his work with a sense of the genuine and of the vital, painting the abstract with the subtlety of personal meaning.

With gratitude from this reviewer, the author steers far from the deep sloughs of Laffer curves and econometric models into more navigable waters, as he compresses the corpus of a David Ricardo’s or Thorstein Veblen’s insights into comprehensible chunks. The average reader likewise will wish to digest this book in small daily quantities rather than to breeze through its pages on a single lazy afternoon.

In the end, though, Piedra’s work is a modest and quietly self-assured tribute to the enduring but long-forgotten Natural Law—“the law by which the Creator wishes the world to be governed and was considered the first law and the source of all other laws”—that informed many ancient Greek philosophers, early Christian apologists, and the preeminent medieval scholastic St. Thomas Aquinas.

Today’s prevailing intellectual currents scoff at Natural Law as hopelessly outdated and repressive. Yet Piedra perseveres in enthusiastically demonstrating that its tenets still have much to say concerning basic questions of the value of human work and deeply-embroiled debates on topics like the alleged overpopulation “crisis.”

The first half of Natural Law takes the reader on a journey through a critical primer of Western economic thought. Although Piedra assails the early capitalists for their dangerous misunderstanding of human nature, he shows his fundamental sympathies for a free market system. The author’s harshest criticisms are reserved for the exalted pride and utopianism of Marx.

Piedra wisely belittles the naïveté that led to large-scale, tragic failure in Soviet Russia and elsewhere while also admitting that capitalists have done a lot to earn their calloused reputations. (As his book dwells mainly in the abstract realms of the intellectual, devotees of American historiographical debates are left to wonder how the author might assess one of the 19th century’s wealthy, philanthropic magnates, like Andrew Carnegie.)

According to Piedra, both economic systems in their pure form neglect man’s personality, the part that enables him as a creature “with an intelligent nature, and through intelligence and love, communicable, sociable and self-transcending.” Capitalism at least acknowledges a human being’s individuality, autonomy, and self-will. Socialism smothers both his individual will and his relational personality, he says.

The book in its present form suffers from the minor annoyances of typographical errors. More disturbing to natives of Edinburgh would be the description of Adam Smith as an “English economist,” while students of the Old Testament may be startled to learn that the Hebrews predated themselves by constructing the ill-fated Tower of Babel.

Nevertheless, thoughtful Christians and others wedded to the Western tradition should especially enjoy Piedra’s tome. It is in places both informative and inspirational. Natural Law is a critical and thought-provoking read that elevates homo oeconomicus to think of himself and his fellow man Imago Dei.

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