Guidance System Set on "State" Print
By Michael Novak   
Monday, 14 July 2008

Many on the Catholic left today fix their global positioning system to “government ownership,” government “initiatives,” government “responsibilities.” They profess to abhor “privatization,” “deregulation,” and “personal” responsibility. (They prefer the state to own their social security accounts, rather than owning them themselves). They tend to think of the State as a maternal, caring presence, which kisses the bruises of children. From the beginning, the American system has been very different.

Prior to 1776, scholars had assumed that there would always be poor people, because there always had been poor people. “The poor you have always with you,” expressed what their eyes could see. But when a significant body of formerly poor people in one large country rapidly moved out of poverty, a new moral calculus had to be invoked. Hannah Arendt observed in On Revolution that America’s success in raising up the poor forced upon nineteenth-century Europeans the famous “social question.” Once America had shown poverty to be neither universal nor commanded by the stars, what was Europe doing wrong?

Many new ideologies, driven by unproven speculative ideas, set forth “ideals” by which to organize societies anew. Nearly all of them placed higher hopes in the state than any mere state could deliver. Thus, these “new orders” were doomed to end in bitter disappointment. Three texts from Rerum Novarum in 1891 illustrate how a prescient pope foresaw what would happen over the next hundred years:

"The Socialists...hold that, by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present evil state of things will be set to rights, because each citizen will then have his equal share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their proposals are so clearly futile for all practical purposes, that if they were carried out the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. Moreover they are emphatically unjust, because they would rob the lawful possessor, bring the state into a sphere that is not its own, and cause complete confusion in the community” (# 4).

Another point raised an alarm in the mind of Leo XIII. These new ideologies tended to treat individuals as identical units. They did not discern the raw danger in this understanding of equality, as if égalité were arithmetical, the two sides of égal. They did not see that from the hand of God men are not born equal, meaning identical. Rather, they are each born different, meaning unique, with different types of temperaments and personalities, and with different levels of talent in different fields. To treat God’s people “equally,” Leo XIII warned, would be to treat them inhumanely:

“Therefore, let it be laid down in the first place that in civil society the lowest cannot be made equal with the highest. Socialists, of course, agitate the contrary, but all struggling against nature is in vain. There are truly very great and very many natural differences among men. Neither the talents, nor the skill, nor the health, nor the capacities of all are the same, and unequal fortune follows of itself upon necessary inequality in respect to these endowments. And clearly this condition of things is adapted to benefit both individuals and the community; for to carry on its affairs community life requires varied aptitudes and diverse services, and to perform these diverse services men are impelled most by differences in individual property holdings” (#26).

Thirdly, then, Leo XIII foresaw that in using the State to attack natural forms of difference and justice, the socialist aim is

“not only unjust, but is quite certain to harass and disturb all classes of citizens, and to subject them to odious and intolerable slavery. It would open the door to envy, to evil speaking, and to quarreling; the sources of wealth would themselves run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or industry; and that ideal equality of which so much is said would, in reality, be the leveling down of all to the same condition of misery and dishonor. Thus it is clear that the main tenet of Socialism, the community of goods, must be utterly rejected; for it would injure those whom it is intended to benefit, it would be contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and it would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonwealth” (#11-12).

Today, however, the coordinates of the new secular global positioning system center on the state, and tend to treat inequality (without enough distinctions) as an injustice rather than as a natural asset. For by nature it is the variety of talents and temperaments that give beauty and humanity to the human race. This variety makes way for special kinds of creativity, different degrees of personal dedication, and the initiative of different sorts of individuals. A social guidance system pivoted on the sameness of individuals and the central responsibility of the state is wrongly ordered. Such a guidance system is more appropriate to herds of cattle, hives of bees, and flocks of birds, than to independent, self-starting, individual persons.

Be careful, therefore, with the term “common good.” By which global positioning system do we learn where it is to be found?

Michael Novak’s website is

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