The Catholic Thing
On Redistributing Wealth Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Greed, some say, is the main reason the poor are poor. It isn’t. We rarely take a close look at envy. Because someone is rich, it does not follow that he is therefore greedy. A poor man is free to be both greedy and envious. Envy is as much a generator of extra work as want, perhaps more so.

Mandeville’s famous notion, that our vices not our virtues cause prosperity, has a point. Usable wealth must first be produced and made available. The primary causes of wealth production are brains, effort, and virtue. The world was given to us in a raw state to see what we would do with it, yes, for one another.

At first sight, the oft-repeated lament that the world’s goods need to be “redistributed” for the benefit of the poor seems logical. Usually behind this apparently innocent approach is the idea of the limitation of the world’s “goods.” If the world’s resources are “limited,” then we need to establish a system of control of human behavior, of our “desires.”

The ideologues have been searching for centuries for this “moral” means to control human beings. Ecology is potentially the best thing ever to have happened to socialism and absolutism, as their advocates realize.

Moreover, it is claimed, we have to “save” the earth for “future generations.” How many future generations are never specified. Do we worry about the oil supply for the good folks, if there be any, in AD 4678?  in AD 7842? in AD 11369? Besides wild guesses, how do we go about deciding what not to do today in order for us to be “just” to future generations?

The very proposition of “future generations” leaves out everything, including the eschatological question, about what we deal with in such future ages. We have no idea what they will need or have available. Who in 1900 thought that the computer, let alone the airplane, would be available in the year 2000, let alone be available to most anyone? 

      “The poor you will have with you always.” 
     (Christ in the House of Simon, by Dieric Bouts, c. 1445)

The fact is that we have no idea whether oil will be needed a thousand years hence or whether it will be the stuff that comes from some Arab sheikdom or the vast reserves in Dakota and Alberta. We imagine that the human race stops thinking two days after we are gone. Our passions for “earth-saving” are predicated on what we now know. Julian Simon used to delight in recording the panic predictions of our running out of this or that raw material, only to find that new supplies were found or new ways were discovered.

America was said to be overcrowded when Columbus discovered it, even though the whole continent probably had fewer than a million inhabitants. If no knowledge exists on how to improve the productivity of the earth, as both Locke and Rousseau ironically saw, then we starve to death on what nature produces spontaneously.

Evidently, the Garden of Eden did not need much tilling. When Adam and Eve were tossed out, they had to work by the sweat of their brows. Yet they were instructed to have dominion over the earth. This command obviously meant that they were to use it for their purposes. The planet was meant to be populated and improved. That’s why they were told to increase and multiply.

Suppose, when oil or coal were first discovered that they were defined by some early save-the-earth politician. And that he convinced the folks at that time not to use these raw materials but to “save” them for future generations, like ours. Then at the last judgment, the Lord calls these worriers up and ask them what they did with their talent. They tell Him that they managed to prevent from being wasted the stores of oil and coal which the Lord had provided for future generations. In the meantime, folks lived in dire conditions. Like the man with one talent, the Lord would say to them, “Depart from me, just what did you think these stores were given to you for? Why do you think I gave you brains?”

If we took all the goods of the earth and “redistributed” them “equitably” on some basis (who gets what is always amusing to contemplate – usually the ones already in control will get more), everyone would be poorer, both the present rich and poor. The whole notion of “redistribution,” as Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote in his famous book, is wrong-headed.

If we really want to help the poor to become not poor, the first thing we must do is stop talking of “redistribution,” which is, at bottom, a branch of envy theory. We have to look elsewhere, at innovation, thrift, incentive, proportionate justice, virtue, markets, culture, and growth. 

If we really are concerned with the poor, talk of “redistribution” is not worthy of us.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic. 
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Comments (17)Add Comment
written by Mack Hall, July 26, 2011
Thank you!
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Martinkus, July 26, 2011
Thank you, Father Schall. In other words, plans to redistribute wealth that do not take into account how wealth is actually produced are irresponsible. "Because we should be concerned about the poor, therefore we should be in favor of liberal/left wing plans to redistribute wealth" is a fallacy with a true premise but a false conclusion. Unfortunately, doesn't the Vatican, and the Holy Father in particular, often talk about redistribution? The great majority of American bishops and their staffers certainly do. Why does the hierarchy tend to forget the theological and philosophical anthropology that underlies Catholic doctrine when it turns to social justice? The last time I looked, there was only one section on morality in the Catechism. Have I been wrong to assume that it applies to all economic classes, genders, races and ethnicities, and cultures? And, finally, aren't those liberals so "concerned" about future generations usually pro-abortion?
written by Guy C. Stevenson, July 26, 2011
If there was a third way don't you think with God's help it would be Just?

There is a Just Third Way.
Guy C. Stevenson

"Universal Declaration On The Sovereignty of the Human Person Under God"
written by Titus, July 26, 2011
Fr. Schall is certainly not talking about charity, the willing conveyance to one in need. He is talking about compelled redistribution, the unwilling taking of property from one and giving of it to another. Nor is he advocating waste: but just because it would be wrong to cut down forests or burn oil fields for no reason does not mean that it is wrong to cut down forests or harvest oil fields for legitimate human endeavors.

The bishops generally do not speak of this type of redistribution either: rather, they remind groups and individuals of their obligation to show charity towards the poor. There is a large difference.
written by Grump, July 26, 2011
Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancel cell -- Edward Abbey

Greed still outranks envy in my book as contributing to the evils of the world. The attitude of the rich is: I upped my income; up yours.
written by jsmitty, July 26, 2011
@ Titus...the Bishops have also been pretty consistent in their support of social welfare programs like medicare, medicaid and social security as well as most foreign aid (that doesn't promote abortion or birth control). None of these are charity. All of them require some action by the state.

And there is a moral and common sense justification for taxation with the goal of redistribution. 1) it is necessary to preserve the fabric of the society where wealth can be created and preserved. No one could produce wealth without the state to enforce property rights, contracts, defense of borders and public safety. No business would be capable of making the kinds of investments in human capital or infrastructure necessary to ensure the foundation of wealth creation; there would be very few students at Georgetown for Father Schall to teach Aristotle to if the federal govt. did not provide institutions like Georgetown with lots of money on top of private money they receive

2)Capitalism will always generate very different outcomes. If capitalism completely ignores those at the bottom of the ladder it will undermine its own moral foundation for existing as well as threaten social the social stability on which wealth depends. Creation of wealth is one thing but some redistribution is necessary to protect society from deeply anti-social outcomes due to accidents of birth, luck, and yes, differences in ability, hard work and so forth. And the vicissitudes of life. and predictable things like old age. This is the basic logic of the welfare state. I'm very surprised that for all the supposed Catholic wisdom on this page that this basic insight is so controversial.

As for the environmental stuff, um, just because the resource is there does not mean that we should exploit it without any consideration for the long term environmental degradation. But apparently this too is controversial here. The logic of Father Schall's argument is "if God put it there it's for us to use" . OK should we extract from the oceans regardless of whether our patterns of use are sustainable? Should we burn coal wantonly regardless of the long term degradation of air quality just because its in the ground and we need the heat? etc. Or do we not have some responsibility to maintain a suitable environment for the present and future generations and yes...other creatures on the planet??

written by Jeannine, July 26, 2011
"Growth for growth's sake" may be the ideology of the cancer cell, but it is not the ideology of real people. Economic growth is desirable because it creates goods for people, including jobs, products, and even charitable giving. Greed (avarice) and envy are BOTH deadly sins. Envy destroys the soul just as much as greed, and it also takes the joy out of life. We don't know the attitude of every rich person, and it is unjust to assume that every one of the rich has the attitude of "up yours." In terms of the world, virtually every American is materially rich. We should all have an attitude of gratitude for the gifts we have received and of generosity toward those in need, not an attitude that the government should take care of all that so we can be selfish.
written by Mike Welker, July 27, 2011
There are at least three reasons to oppose redistribution, all three are practical. The first is that the transfer state will politicize wealth redistribution. As one example, why would the government owned Chrysler Corp. close one of the most successful dealerships in Maryland in 2009. We were told that cost cutting measures were needed to save the company. But what logic behind this strange incident? How many times did the owner of that dealership contribute to political campaigns for democrats, say, since 1945? The answer, I would guess, is not once. Thus political logic wielded power, a sort of vengeance for nonsupport.

Another reason to oppose redistribution is that it damages a civic virtue, that of charity. Here I refer to a principle in Catholic social doctrine, known as subsidiarity. Let's establish community-based, family-based, assistance to persons in need. Heard of Economy of Communion? This organization receives funds from its for-profit members (business owners) to enable private redistribution to communities where these owners see the need.

A third reason to oppose redistribution is that it potentially (though I have of late tended to agree more and more with Hayek, who stated that it would be inevitable) leads to a totalitarian regime. As the programs fail (and they certainly will for varied reasons, not least of which is ideology that is ignorant of real life) a clamor and a rush forward to hand more power to governments takes place.

As I write this a nagging thought comes to mind. It is Bastiat, I think, nagging my conscience. The way to fund redistribution is taxation. Taxation is a form of (legal) plunder. One the one hand, legal plunder has a moral teaching authority--if the government can confiscate my property, then it must not be sacred... thus, others will also seek out ways to confiscate (legally, as in the use of government power via special interests). Additionally, as persons who get on the welfare rolls then discover that property can be transferred, they lose a sense of responsibility and respect toward property rights.

And another piece of our civilization is thus at risk. One that seems so non-important.

But our economic freedoms and rights are (technically) not so important merely as result of an illusion... this is so because we enjoy these freedoms so much that we are not so vigilant toward them. Take them away and then consider, the opposite of abundance is always associated with an increase in the value of that which has been lost. It's the law of demand.

Analysis of this sort is weak. What is the alternative? Historically it was the gift-exchange economy, the Church. But Catholics give so little, the Church is crippled by huge need. But nothing is impossible for God.

As Fr. Schall correctly notes, the key to development, and this is proven in the science (though there's much more to study, development is fraught with vague and ambiguous cause and effect relations): education, infrastructure, innovation, opportunities, virtues (properly viewed as goods that are the opposite of material goods, the more we use virtues, the more virtues there are, per Aristotle), and culture.

written by Achilles, July 27, 2011
Jsmitty, to read and understand Fr. Schall's excellent articles you must have Faith and reason in their proper order and properly weighted. You don't object to what the good Father says, you object to your misunderstanding due to ill-weighted influences. Catholic Doctrine and Dogma as revealed by Christ are the foundational principles that undergird all the ideas with which Fr. Schall instructs us. There is much profit in allowing this learned Priest to instruct us. What is there to gain from trying to instruct him?
written by Paul, July 27, 2011
In the Spirit of "WWJD?" I think Father Schall comes up short. The "Gospel of Prosperity" has never been a Catholic thing. Too many (and I'm not accusing Father Schall of this) are subordinating what Christ taught to the agenda of the Republican Party which serves the rich and takes from the poor. That too is a "redistribution of wealth".
written by David Wendell, July 27, 2011
The statement "the agenda of the Republican Party which serves the rich and takes from the poor" written by Paul is incorrect (to be polite about it). As G. K. Chesterton said (paraphrase)- Capitalism is not the problem. The problem is that there isn't enough capitalism. Encourage PRIVATELY owned SMALL businesses.
written by TeaPot562, July 27, 2011
The poorest in the slums of 21st century USA are so much better, both materially and healthwise than the median resident (50% above, 50% below) in 1750. To what should this improvement be attributed? Much of it should go to capitalism; because that rewards invention and/or research for items to fulfill human needs. The patent laws, to reward invention and discovery by making the successful discoverer wealthy, and the limitation of patent protection to a specific number of years, also contribute. Surely the antitrust laws (Sherman-Clayton) should also get credit.
A major factor helping the US and hurting many other nations is respect for private ownership of property. If the King or the state can confiscate anyone else's land at will, the incentive to try to develop improvements, to work for them, is killed.
The socialist theoreticians ignore how people really act, and react, to the actions of others.
written by Puzzled Convert, July 30, 2011
Thank you, Fr Schall. I understand what you are driving at, and I share your concerns to resist socialism in all its forms, but I find it hard to reconcile what you actually say with Catholic social teaching and with what Pope Benedict XVI explicitly says in Caritas in veritate, Chapter Three (34-42), for instance. It seems to me that your blanket condemnation of redistribution needs to be clarified. Would you not agree that we must actively work for distributive justice as well as commutative justice between nations and families? Wherever serious distributive injustice exists there must be some kind of redistribution. The question is simply how best to achieve the end. It is true that some means to that end would be imprudent. We should not promote socialism or welfare liberalism, but should we not create conditions that allow as many willing workers as possible to earn a living wage and own capital and land? I trust that you still agree that the universal destination of goods for the satisfaction of the basic needs of all takes moral precedence to the right to private property, as the Catechism puts it.
written by stosh, August 02, 2011
While Fr. Schall does not address certain specifics, his concerns are with the overall direction and tone of policies. No one suggests removing safety nets. As Eric Voegelin puts it, the art of the politician is to find any way possible to get people to do the right things. The right thing is to promote the virtues Fr. Schall suggests over redistribution.
written by stosh, August 03, 2011
Just to add to my previous comment: if the direction of the citizens is towards these virtues, then the poor and needy will be taken care of. If the direction is towards, redistribution, then, as we have seen in history, everyone goes down with the ship.
written by mcasey, February 29, 2012
What Fr, Schall somehow misses here is that wealth is already being redistributed, and has been for a long time. Due to gov. structures and lobbying, money has been taken from the needy who actually do the work and given to the wealthy, who control the government. The wealthy and powerful have been actively channeling money their way for ages, using government and the legal system to take from the poor and give to the rich (see Bush tax cuts). Perhaps the poor have no business trying their own version of what the rich have been doing, but you can't blame them for at least trying. After all, it's worked for the rich for decades!
Also, Fr. Schall makes quite an assumption that God put oil and coal in the earth for humans to burn. Could there be other reasons that oil is there? By this logic, things only exist in this world for human to exploit. If everything is on earth for human to exploit, would this not also apply to each other? People thought this way for a long time. Fr. Schall's above economic analysis leads me to believe he and others still believe it.

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