[Ite ad Thomam: John Mueller’s Return to a Solid Foundation for Economics
Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element
By John D. Mueller (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2010) 400 pages]
Since 1776, economics has been under the shadow of Adam Smith, known to most as the “father of economics”. However, Mueller’s book, Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element makes it clear that Smith had very little claim to founding anything. Most economic historians, if they are honest, recognize that the roots of economics go back into the Greek world and rise to renewed heights with Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics who treated economics in their consideration of the daily lives of men. Mueller’s genius lies in taking things a step further. He recognizes that Aquinas held the full and complete picture of economics in his thought. All who came after tossed aside or rediscovered bits and pieces of what Aquinas and his disciples knew centuries before Smith, but none could claim this complete picture.
Redeeming Economics begins the process of correcting this failure. While the book is written to explain what Mueller describes as Neoscholastic Economics to the lay audience, his explanations and copious footnotes (which contain almost all the math in the book) provide plenty for serious scholars to delve into. As the subtitle suggests, Mueller’s thesis is that all schools of modern economics are missing at least part of this full picture as conceived by Aquinas through his synthesis of Aristotle and Augustine with his own thought. As Mueller notes on the first page of his book, “[t]he first revolution in economics had occurred five centuries before Adam Smith, when Thomas Aquinas offered a comprehensive view of human economic actions. All such actions fall into four categories: Humans produce, exchange, distribute and consume goods.”
Adam Smith, in his revolution in economic thought simply eliminated the scholastic categories of consumption and final distribution. At the end of the 19th Century, a third revolution, the so-called Marginalist Revolution, occurred with the rediscovery of Aquinas’ theory of consumption (utility). Through a thorough, and fair, examination of the various economic schools (including Keynesian, Chicago, Austrian, Distributist, Georgist, and Marxist) Mueller explains where these schools have all failed to recover from Smith’s original mistake and regain a handle on final distribution. As a consequence, economics currently fails when trying to discuss such topics as love and the role of gift (as well as its opposite—crime, as Mueller notes) in human interaction.
As a contrast, Mueller presents a view that is, as one would expect coming from Aquinas, both Catholic and descriptive of reality as we know it. In addition to laying out his proposed return to Aquinas’ four-fold economics, Redeeming Economics presents both real-world examples of how Neoscholastic Economics predicts far better than any other theory (at all levels of scale) as well as policy proposals to address problems such as social security, unemployment, and our present economic doldrums.
Mueller’s book is of outstanding merit and value. In these 400 pages, he lays the groundwork which can be picked up by men of goodwill and used to bring about a just society. For the first time since Aquinas, we can see before us the full picture of an economics, not just as if people mattered, but that the full nature of the human person mattered. It is an impressive accomplishment.
For Distributists and those who align themselves with them, this book holds even more promise. Chesterton and Belloc, as well as Distributists since, have been hampered by missing one or more pieces of the economic puzzle known to Aquinas. Now, by building on the firm foundation of Neoscholastic Economics, I would hope that Distributists will be able to present a coherent and sophisticated defense of Catholic Social Teaching that is robust enough to withstand both comparisons with our observed world and the criticism of other scholars.