Paul Ryan Is In Love With St. Thomas Aquinas; What Does This Mean? (UPDATE)

Since Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan as a running mate, many media outlets have pointed out the Wisconsin Rep's interest in Ayn Rand.

And they should -- Ayn Rand's basic schtick is that selfishness is a virtue and as such, the only ethical economic system is pure capitalism. Under Rand, any social safety net is wrong and unjust and for "moochers " and "collectivists;" true moral exemplars are ultra-rich egoists. What's important about Ryan's Rand affiliation, then, is its fiscal implications (and not-so-subtle dislike of the poor.)

Ryan might have realized that aligning himself with a pro-choice atheist might piss off GOP fundamentalists and partially renounced the pop philosopher, saying before VP talk: "If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don't give me Ayn Rand."

Of course, this is complete bullshit. He hasn't abandoned his interpretation of Rand's economic policies (see first link.) More importantly, though, there's no way Ryan could read Aquinas -- and adhere to his beliefs -- without lying to himself and/or doing some serious mental gymnastics. And that's because Aquinas would have fucking hated Ryan's capitalism.

Let's get down to business.

For starters, some -- such as the Guardian's Giles Fraser -- have pointed out that it's kinda impossible to be a good Catholic and/or Christian and advocate economic policies that Jesus would outright abhor.

(Remember that whole "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" part of Matthew 19:24? Yeah...)

Anyway, a lot can be said about Christianity and Catholicism and capitalism, but we're mainly concerned with Aquinas here.

In his Summa Theologica -- which you should probably, like, read if you claim to be an Aquinas fan, considering it's his most well known work (WE ARE TALKING TO YOU PAUL RYAN!!!) -- the saint had a few things to say about economics, and none of them are very free market sounding. (Note: Daily Kos got into this a bit on Saturday, but we wanted to look at this in extensive detail...)

In a portion of that tract titled "By Sins Committed in Buying and Selling," Aquinas argues that it's not OK to sell something for more than it's naturally worth -- which is kinda the basis of many financial transactions driven by supply and demand.

(You know, the ones that pretty much characterize our society.)

Citing Matthew 7:12, Aquinas begins: "It is written 'All things . . . whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you also to them.'" But no man wishes to buy a thing for more than its worth. Therefore no man should sell a thing to another man for more than its worth."


"But, apart from fraud, we may speak of buying and selling in two ways. First, as considered in themselves, and from this point of view, buying and selling seem to be established for the common advantage of both parties, one of whom requires that which belongs to the other, and vice versa, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 3). Now whatever is established for the common advantage, should not be more of a burden to one party than to another, and consequently all contracts between them should observe equality of thing and thing. Again, the quality of a thing that comes into human use is measured by the price given for it, for which purpose money was invented, as stated in Ethic. v, 5. Therefore if either the price exceed the quantity of the thing's worth, or, conversely, the thing exceed the price, there is no longer the equality of justice: and consequently, to sell a thing for more than its worth, or to buy it for less than its worth, is in itself unjust and unlawful.

Secondly we may speak of buying and selling, considered as accidentally tending to the advantage of one party, and to the disadvantage of the other: for instance, when a man has great need of a certain thing, while an other man will suffer if he be without it. In such a case the just price will depend not only on the thing sold, but on the loss which the sale brings on the seller. And thus it will be lawful to sell a thing for more than it is worth in itself, though the price paid be not more than it is worth to the owner. Yet if the one man derive a great advantage by becoming possessed of the other man's property, and the seller be not at a loss through being without that thing, the latter ought not to raise the price, because the advantage accruing to the buyer, is not due to the seller, but to a circumstance affecting the buyer. Now no man should sell what is not his, though he may charge for the loss he suffers.

On the other hand if a man find that he derives great advantage from something he has bought, he may, of his own accord, pay the seller something over and above: and this pertains to his honesty."

He also doesn't think that deriving a profit for the sake of deriving profit is OK, writing:

"Exchange of things is twofold; one, natural as it were, and necessary, whereby one commodity is exchanged for another, or money taken in exchange for a commodity, in order to satisfy the needs of life. Such like trading, properly speaking, does not belong to tradesmen, but rather to housekeepers or civil servants who have to provide the household or the state with the necessaries of life. The other kind of exchange is either that of money for money, or of any commodity for money, not on account of the necessities of life, but for profit, and this kind of exchange, properly speaking, regards tradesmen...

The former kind of exchange is commendable because it supplies a natural need: but the latter is justly deserving of blame, because, considered in itself, it satisfies the greed for gain, which knows no limit and tends to infinity. Hence trading, considered in itself, has a certain debasement attaching thereto, in so far as, by its very nature, it does not imply a virtuous or necessary end. ."

So yes...he is not anti-trade or anti-profit per se, but greedy profit-seeking -- again, the apparent basis of a lot of Ryan's pro-investment economic beliefs -- is NOT praised in Aquinas' book.

Also, Aquinas' chapter on the "sin" of usury indicates that he wouldn't be down with credit, as he argues that "it is by its very nature unlawful to take payment for the use of money lent."

Many of Aquinas sentiments -- especially the previously mentioned notion of "just price" have been lamented by the very economists Ryan claims to love, such as followers of Ludwig von Mises.

"The concept of the just price will forever be associated with the medieval Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas," writes Lawrence Vance. "The concept of the just price is the basis of a great deal of erroneous economic thought that permeates our supposedly free market, capitalistic society. Laws regarding usury, loan sharking, price gouging, ticket scalping, dumping, profiteering, equal pay, price discrimination, predatory pricing and lending, product bundling, and antitrust --these are all prime examples of this fallacious way of thinking."

So yeah...

Maybe you could make the argument that Ryan only said that his "epistemology" is influenced by Aquinas -- not his economics.

However, we would counter that it's very problematic to say "I totally agree with the way Aquinas sees the world" -- which is what Ryan basically does -- while disagreeing with a sizable chunk of Aquinas ethics.

UPDATE: Some weird computer shit happened and the first part of the story apparently got deleted. Unfortunately, no backup was made, but we tried to reproduce it as closely as possible from our memory.

Follow Victoria Bekiempis @vicbekiempis.

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@freddoso That's true, David. St. Thomas was basically a distributist. Sublime, but unworkable.


I started to read this article, truly listening to what was being said, then you had to throw distasteful words into it and completely turned me off to anything else I was reading. Is this the new journalism? Your lack of writing skills are apparent in your choice of foul language that should be left where the lack of a better vocabulary would go unnoticed, not in an article where you're trying to discredit someone.


Are you trying to say that liberal dems will now endorse the Catholics on economics but defame Catholics on abortion and the concept of natural law which finds its way into Magna Carta 39 and the English bill of rights of ( i seem to recall ) 1689?  Thus, do you accept that the 10th amendment to the US Constitution is  a restatement of Acquinas on natural law and is the ultimate speedbrake on large central government? Now that the new testament is so approved how about Saint Paul on homosexuality and no work means no food? How about Acquinas on women's rights?  You might refer to the scholarship on the University of Paris debates between Acquinas ("the dumb ox") and Sigeur de Brabant who was the Bill Clinton of academia in those days.  There were riots in Paris because of the debates. You might want to engage Platonic dominance within Pauline doctrine and see where you go.  If one wants to spout Acquino, please know what you are talking about.  Stop using lib talking points on theology as though libs cared about substance and are thus reliable.  You might also discuss Acquino's view on slavery, the divine right of kings and the nature of sin.  Do you adopt those?  Do you have any idea what you are talking about?  How about Islam and victim's rights in violent crime, or of the nature of sin or the mission to spread the faith?  How about taxing infidels?   Stop talking because you feel the political need to constantly attack. Let's hear Hillary Clinton weigh in on Catholic theology. How about Sen. Schumer?  Ryan wins the day because he dragged you into a debate where you can't even see the arena.  Got it?  Get out of this area. Don't be so presumptious. Never go into a debate unless you know the subject, data and scholarship.  Stay away from theological debate which is a different world than PC on global warming or climate change or whatever you want it to be. If you force Obama to debate Acquino, Ryan will hit it out of his park. Thus, you hurt Obama with Acquino blurbs.  Stop it.


...Are you saying you're on the side of "usury, loan sharking, price gouging, ticket scalping, dumping, profiteering, equal pay, price discrimination, predatory pricing and lending, product bundling, and antitrust"? Really?


You seem to have some problem with 'fair value': a profit within reason contains within it 'fair value'. It's profit disproportionate to reason (say, by a monopoly on staples) that is the problem.


Finally, in the economic conditions of Aquinas' time, money didn't represent fungible value to do more work (petrodollars == energy) like it does today. It precisely represented land which did not have growth potential commensurate with the interest rate, so usury would have attempted to extract more from the land than it was worth, which is impossible (or, more realistically, it represented an attempt to control the land).


@alielombardi do you have the story open from before and if so, could you email me the 1st 3 paragraphs? system glitch, no backup.


@vicbekiempis damn i don't have the tab open! grrr...


I don't know. Many of the welfare programs Ryan's budget seeks to curtail would qualify as an instance of a thing's value exceeding the price paid for it. Come to think of it, the very idea of charity, a staple part of Christianity, necessarily include exchanges of this nature. Aquinas skirts this issue by limiting this rule to the act of buying and selling rather than donations and the like, but how then does one classify government services? Different tax rates are charged based on how much income a person makes in a year, but the thing that those taxes buy are the same for everyone, regardless of the price paid. Seems to me opposition to such a system is in line with Aquinas's thinking as presented in this article. Perhaps Aquinas could have convinced as such, or clarified his thoughts on the matter of civic duty. Hard to say.



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