The economy is not like a monastery or a convent – where everyone has made a conscious decision to renounce their private pursuits and embrace the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. There, and only there, property is organised “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” (a principle that Karl Marx wanted to apply to society as a whole – with truly disastrous results).

This arrangement works and is spiritually fruitful in a monastery because, and only because, it is voluntary. Each person has renounced the primary project of ordinary mammals – reproduction – and willingly surrendered the fruits of his or her labour to serve a common good, as determined by a superior whom he or she obeys (excepting sin) as the voice of God.

This calling is sacred and comparatively rare. The Church does not expect the majority of human beings to enter monastic life. In fact, for those who are not called to this radical inversion of natural human instincts, such a life would be a kind of hell. Every political attempt to organise society as if it were a monastery must end in a brutal dictatorship. And it always does.

When Leo XIII and his successors condemned every form of socialism, they were recognising that forcibly taking from people the property, fertility and liberty that monks and nuns willingly give up indeed amounts to a diabolical parody of the good. Let’s give those popes credit for being prophets: long before the gulag, and the famines and purges that decimated Russia, China, North Korea and Cambodia, had demonstrated the true evil of socialism, these theologically educated men saw it.

The popes were relying on more than logic; they also had the lessons of history. One lesson was in the form of the crackpot millenarian movements that had erupted in late medieval Europe, composed of outraged peasants and self-appointed messiahs who began as penitents trying to ward off the plague by scourging themselves and ended as armed mobs massacring Jews and merchants, creating short-lived tyrannies that tried to abolish liberty, property and the family. Another lesson came from the clear principles of the moral law written in both revelation and on the human heart. (The Pursuit of the Millennium by the historian Norman Cohn paints vivid, appalling pictures of medieval end-of-the-world movements, which the author sees as the forerunners of revolutionary socialism.)

Given that prices are the essential “data” by which consumers inform producers how much of something to make, they are at the very heart of human cooperation. It seemed only natural to thinkers like Marx that we should value objects based on how much work and thought had gone into them. But this theory does a poor job of explaining the actual prices that emerge in an open market: some items that require comparatively little effort to create (let’s say, suddenly fashionable hats) in fact command higher prices than the fruit of enormous labour (for instance, brilliant but difficult novels).

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