The Church and the Moral Framework of the Economy

In The Importance of Being Earnest, the governess, Miss Prism takes herself away for a moment, and she tells her charge, Cecily, that in the meantime Cecily should read her primer on Political Economy. But she cautions her also to omit that chapter on “the Fall of Rupee”: It was altogether “too sensational” for a young girl.

Just as sensational or stirring was a matter that showed itself in a boisterous and, at times, charming way in the comments that came flowing in two weeks ago in response to my column on “Revisiting Catholic Social Teaching.”   Of course I touched only an edge – though a critical edge – of the problem in the space we have, but I was surprised when some friends found this material new and asked me to say a bit more.

One of the things that seems to come as a surprise to people is that the classical economists were far closer to Leo XIII, Pius XI, and John Paul II in their understanding of the moral framework of political economy – closer than most economists are today, and closer even than those Catholics who have been lured into a Leftist version of “social justice.”

In the first place, neither the classical economists nor the American Founders ever described the system they had in mind as “capitalism.” What they saw here simply was the “system of freedom” as it expressed itself in the economy, in the way ordinary people made their livings.

For writers and intellectuals, the “freedom of speech” is usually taken as the anchoring freedom in a constitutional order. But for ordinary folks, with no bent toward public speaking, the freedom that makes difference may be the freedom to make a living at an ordinary calling, like driving cabs and running laundries, without those onerous regulations that make it harder to stay in business.

It was a question then of freedom in all of its dimensions, and in that case the laws that made it harder for people to support their families would have to be tested in the same, demanding way as the laws that restrained the freedom to publish.

Adam Smith, of course, came to the project as a teacher of moral philosophy.  And he, along with Edmund Burke, assumed that the law would be in place to do what it was ever the function of the law to do – to mark off the things that were rightful and wrongful. In that way the law would mark the boundaries for those goods and services that a decent people could rightly demand and supply in the market place.

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot

Whether prostitution and pornography would be available would not depend on whether people were willing to demand and supply these services. But to say that, is to say essentially what John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus. He saw all the good things that an economy of freedom and private property could do in lifting the material conditions of life. But he could not cast his approval over a capitalism, he said, that was “not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality.”

Yet that is exactly how the matter was seen by classical economists, and even by our so-called laissez-faire judges at the end of the 19th century. Those judges saw a moral ground for that freedom of people to make a living, and therefore they saw rightful moral restraints that would bear on that freedom along with any other freedom.

They recognized, as Pius XI said in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), that there is a duty to use property only “in the right way.”  And so those laissez-faire judges were willing to sustain virtually any laws having a plausible connection to the public safety and health. They would sustain laws barring fires at night in laundries in San Francisco, until those laws were used to bar the Chinese from the business.

One of the leading judges here, the redoubtable Stephen J. Field, offered a magisterial dissent in the famous Slaughter-house cases of 1873. And in the course of that dissent, he invoked the proclamation issued by Louis XVI, in 1776, removing in a sweeping way all State monopolies and guilds. John Paul II would later note that the obligation to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow had to imply a “right to work.” But the king’s proclamation made even clearer the standing of that right.

The proclamation was written by the estimable Finance Minister, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. As Turgot had the king explain, he was vindicating the “natural right” of ordinary people to make their living at ordinary work; that this right was not, as he said, “a royal privilege which the king might sell, and that his subjects were bound to purchase from him.” It was, rather, a “natural right,” an inalienable right, not a right conferred by the positive law.

We have ample experience by now of regulations offered in the name of public safety, but used to bar new entrants from the field or bar people from earning their livings by doing such things as braiding hair or shining shoes. But it is not a question of sweeping away the laws that protect. It is a question, rather, of testing the justification for those laws as we would test the laws that barred any other freedom that we thought mattered.

This was the same Turgot, by the way, who spoke those memorable lines when faced with the first proposal for a graduated tax on income. It was one of those instances, as he said, in which we would show better judgment “if we executed the author rather than the project.”  And as we approach the middle of this month, I can drink to that.

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College. He is also Founder and Director of the Washington-based James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.

  • Dave Fladlien

    As always, Dr. Arkes, you raise a lot of interesting points in your article. It is truly amazing how often perception differs from reality, and how what was once regarded as moderate can later be termed right-wing.

    But I’d like to add one more thought, which I suspect many will disagree with, but which I think works pretty well where used: in serious sports, we all recognize the need for “rules”. As a professional sports person myself, I am quite convinced that while good rules don’t make a good sport, good sports always have good rules. Interestingly, though, the people who write the rules, which is now starting to include me, do so not from any concept of independence or impartiality. Rather, we are committed to the sport, and therefore to making the best set of rules we can which will bring about the ends we want. It works pretty well, even though many sports today have immense pressures brought about not only by desire to win, but by enormous quantities of money at stake as well.

    I suggest that business needs rules too. But rather than having those rules made by frequently dishonest and nearly always ignorant and unqualified politicians, we should do as we do in major league sports: have the rules made by dedicated people who are from and in the various parts of the business world. It won’t be perfect, nothing on earth is, but — like most sports — it will probably be a lot better than the multitude of self-defeating stupid laws we now have made by politicians who care nothing about how the system works, but only about how they get reelected.

    • PCB

      Interesting assertion, however, I would only interject a caution, that many/most laws regarding commerce (in particular) reportedly are written by lobbyists working for affected corporations, and delivered to the politician, through his or her aides, for offering, many times without the politician ever fully knowing or understanding the entire contents or implications of the bill being offered, beyond what’s outlined in its summary; This almost certainly is probably why some affected segments get tangled up to their necks in the nooses of regulation, while others seem to slip nicely through the loop-holes.

      • Dave Fladlien

        PCB, you raise a very interesting point, which I read this morning and then thought about off and on through the day while I was out of the office. This will be a somewhat off-hand reply even then, as I hadn’t considered this concept…

        My first thought is that situation to which you refer is probably the reason that a lot of these government regulations don’t consider the overall impact that they will have, as we see for instance with Dodd-Frank which was intended to ensure that major banks don’t behave very short-sightedly but actually ensures that small businesses can’t get loans. The difference with what I propose, though, is that in my proposal the interested party is actually the ruling body, not a self-interested party influencing the paid “watch-dog” (hired shepherd to use Jesus’ summation). In the system I am referring to, the persons making the rules actually do care deeply for the sport (or business as would be the case in what I propose).

        My other thought is that even in sports we have “lobbyists”, as there are many people who want the sport to be what they think it should be. That is really pretty unavoidable in any undertaking about which people care deeply (including religion, as these TCT pages clearly reveal). A situation can arise (I am familiar with one, in fact) where the rule-maker(s) find themselves caught between warring factions, and have little hope of a resolution which does not severely impact the rule-maker(s) themselves. The result can be pretty sad, but at the same time, the sport in question, even the sub-category in question, has survived that problem pretty well. I think it would if we made business laws this way too, but for sure your point needs further thought. Thanks for bringing it up.

        • PCB

          Dave, Thanks for your reply, and for advancing the conversation in such a thoughtful manner. Ideally, of course, everyone would heed the duty, as Prof. Arkes suggests, “to use property (all things) only “in the right way.” – an ideal we can and should at least strive for. You make a very poignant and insightful comment, “but at the same time, (the sport in question, even the sub-category in question), has survived that problem pretty well – I suppose much the same can be said for, “the Church”, “the Country”, etc. – that seemingly, despite the bad and the sad, the Church, the Country, has managed to survive pretty well – there is hope in knowing this; where there is hope, there is a path – the nice thing about a path, is that it provides a move forward, but also, a way to retreat, when that is the better choice. best, Paul

    • Sheila

      Interesting article. I can see your point, but I feel it is not that simple. In making monetary decisions how do we assure that all of our constitutional rights are protected unless we have experts in that law and in the moral law to protect us. Look at Mr Trump who says he is a great business man. He’s used many people in his projects and lost countless $$ and deals along the way. Morally speaking he has no clue about God and life. I would not trust him personally and would not want to go in that direction for a business man. I don’t trust those focused on money all the time. “Money is the root of all evil”. So I take this as a warning to be careful in this arena of activity. Let’s not forget that life is a constant battle against evil with the ememy of our souls nipping at our heels. In general most people don’t get involved when they need to and turn their heads away. They are too busy. That’s when trouble enters. Once in a blessed while we get an honest and strong Christian leader that comes along to set us in the right direction again. A priest, a parent, and even a presidential candidate. Yes a politician. We have that opportunity now, to jumpstart our country back on a moral and higher road. Mr Cruz is that strong Christian and constitutional conservative that we need at this particular time in history. Time does run out. Our country’s leaders are increasingly turning their heads and becoming more evil and it weighs on the backs of everyday Americans. If we don’t get back on the moral high road, we will lose everything, not just our jobs. We the people MUST all get involved and help oneanother in a meaningful way. Our Lady of Guadalupe please intercede for our country so we can return to morality and live for God. Then we can truely help others.

      • Dave Fladlien

        Sheila, it probably is — as you say — not all that simple. One of the problems with a commentary site is that we have to keep our comments short (at least relatively), and so things get oversimplified.

        At the same time, I think that when sports choose their rule-makers, they do so with a long-term, dedicated (and usually unpaid) group selecting the people, unless those rule-makers are also founders, who of course have the good of their project in serious (even if somewhat self-interested) consciousness. It seems like it would be very prone to cronyism, and it is to a considerable extent, but yet it actually works pretty well. I hear what you are saying about money, but both sports that interest me a lot, including the one in which I am seriously involved, have large amounts of money at involved, and they generally stay pretty “clean” in their rules and rule-making bodies. Yes, it is oversimplified, but I do think that — properly expanded — it can work.

        Regarding the Presidential campaign, it happens I do support Ted Cruz, but I admit that I don’t have nearly the confidence that you seem to have. I chose Sen Cruz (after my original choice dropped out) largely because I think he is the strongest candidate on freedom religion. I hope I’m right.

  • rick

    Measuring govt policy by the yardstick of economic freedom is intriguing, Prof Arkes, as far as it goes. But in a global world of corporate gigantism, where economies of scale rule and electronics industry learning curves are calculated in billions of units, deregulation can no more acheive the goals of rerum novarum than socialism. Meaningful change can only come from within the corporate entity itself. Given that over half of your Amherst students are headed to Wall Street in some way shape or form, wouldn’t you have more impact advocating for change in business culture instead of in the legal / political world? Adam Smith is about as relevant to the 21st century corporation as the steam locomotive.

    • Steven Barrett

      Rick, where Hadley lives, Amherst, MA, Adam Smith is as relevant to most of the people who get elected to serve in one of the most unwieldy and ideological legislative bodies known to mankind: Amherst Town Meeting, in which I served two terms in the late 80s. My family had to find newer and more affordable housing in neighboring Hadley (no pun intended for those unfamiliar with the area) simply because we could not afford to pay the ever rising property taxes on our combined incomes derived from my wife’s job working for the town’s food service dept and my job at UMass. Ironically, the taxes raised were used to build a super-state of the art cafeteria. Her job was later privatized at the same time the school cmte decided to ape the Catholic Church’s 2,000 years of teachings in social justice. Plugging a square version of Rome’s curved and smoothed out version has yet to work since this experimentation in curriculum tweaking began a decade ago.
      I’m no fiscal conservative; not by a long shot. On the other hand, some things are best left in the hands of those who know what they’re talking about and avoided like a plague when they’re the “works” of amateurs, no matter how pedigreed the dabbling authors might be. BTW, our kids received a wonderful education in Hadley, at roughly half the cost and the school, nearly three centuries old, was much smaller and offered more hands-on teaching/attention for our four kids.

      • rick

        Steven, My only experience in Massachusetts was once helping somebody build a thing in Cambridge. Red tape nonpareil. Red tape and total corruption. But my larger point is the tendency among elite liberal arts academicians to fulminate endlessly about law and government and put the corporate world inside a black box. It’s like business is some barbaric undiscusable creature locked in the basement who all we have to do is make the right laws and it will do the dirty work needed by society. The students coming out of Princeton and Williams and Amherst mostly go on to run the capitalist engine, blissfully untouched by their obligation and potential to make society better from the insde of the black box. And the academicians, who have a better chance than anybody to actually shape the consciences of the future captains of industry, wring their hands over how to regulate the beast.

        • Steven Barrett

          Rick, Pretty soon our idyllic little “Happy Valley” will become a bit more tolerable. Sometimes it becomes too tolerably boring, but my wife, who’s lived in this area all her life as a bonafide Amherst Townie, is all too pleased to have more of the roads back for the natives and a quieter pace of life for a change. Speaking of that “townie” distinction, I regretted to add that the house we had to leave behind, was built by one of the famed and quite wide-spread Dickinson family and belonged in my wife’s side of our family for four generations. Ironically enough, when moving to Hadley and locating near the old town cemetery, we discovered that the original founder of Emily’s illustrious clan is buried waaay in the back with all the truly original “founding fathers.”
          As for making changes over in the Amherst Oblast, I learned that once the knitting needles come out during “discussion times” during Town Meeting, it never pays to be overly “controversial.” So much for peace n’ social justice. And these gals deliberately put on their Town Meeting face as to tell the speakers something, too!

  • Michael Dowd

    Very good Hadley. Perhaps some time you could do an article on the perversity of profit maximization as it tends to inhibit wage growth and job stability which are required for a peaceful, happy and growing society. Something is fundamentally wrong with our capitalistic system in that wages have not grown much in years, total employment is at a decades low level yet corporate profits are maintained at a high level due to layoffs, transfers of jobs to lower wage areas, mechanization of work, etc. In other words profits have increased at the expense of the workers. Letting this unfair situation continue, where the rich get richer and the poor remain, so is a revolutionary condition which is being used Trump and Sanders in their political campaigns. Ideally wage growth and employment stability should be recognized as essential to the maintenance of our freedoms and corporations ideally should want to make this happen as good citizen not to mention their own selfish interests. Henry Ford recognized this when he established the $5.00 daily wage. Why can’t we do this now?

    • Jeannine

      While wages may not have increased much in recent years, health care costs have drastically increased, thus increasing what employers pay to hire and retain employees. Profits in themselves are not immoral but essential; a business that does not make a profit will not last long. Moreover, profits are needed to expand or update a business. Some problems will always exist due to the fact that all human organizations are run by fallible human beings, but we might ask whether the recent years have seen more encouragement of the actions of free markets or more encroachment of government power and coercion.

    • RickWI

      Governors Brown (CA) and Cuomo (NY) just increased the minimum wage in their respective states to $15…gradually of course.

      • dbrown8

        And we all know what the outcome of those unconstitutional hikes will be!

        • Stephen_Phelan

          I’m not sure we do. Some people still call such moves an imperative of justice, and then they are surprised complain when the unemployment rate among lower skilled workers drops, asking for the government to fix this problem as well.

          • dbrown8

            So true.

    • Fleshman

      Laughing. Hadley will not be writing that piece. It’s profoundly subversive of GOP orthodoxy. The current laissez faire model he champions is all about holding down wages as low as possible, and maintaing “right to work” by smashing labor unions which had been the only significant countervailing force to the downward pressure of wages and salaries.

      • TomD

        Laissez faire capitalism is a straw man and an epithet that will never go away . . . it has never existed, doesn’t exist, and will never exist. Virtually no one believes or advocates for an economic/political system in which government abstains completely from interacting in the workings of the market.

        Unions, in large part, ensured their own decline when they demanded, and received, wages and benefits for their members that could not ultimately be sustained within the global economic system. There is lots of blame to go around, including non-virtuous and blameworthy actions by too many business leaders, today, ironically, more and more in direct collusion with big government to both of their benefit. Better to go along to get along.

        Ultimately, human flourishing depends on human freedom, but a human freedom that is continuously tempered by virtue. No economic system can compensate for a lack of virtue. In the end, without virtuous attitudes and behavior, human economic constructs merely end up stifling human freedom, to the benefit of whoever is in power, whether from the right or the left. The key is minimal power . . . governmental and business. The Founders knew this. Today we have lost it. Or given it away.

        The recent disclosure of the Panama Papers Scandal will soon reveal a long list of business and government leaders who have personally benefited from deception, lack of transparency, cronyism and corruption . . . some of them “capitalists,” many of them not . . . most certainly both on the right and the left of the ideological/political spectrum.

        Human flourishing can not be “created” by constructing an economic and political system to do so. Ultimately those systems are manipulated by those in power, the elites, against the common man. Only through human freedom, continuously tempered by the attitudes and behaviors associated with virtue, can man transcend his selfish and materialistic ways and create a truly just and worthy life.

  • Michael DeLorme

    Very good article; I only wish the principle of subsidiarity, as it bears on regulation vs deregulation, had been addressed.

    I tend to strongly favor deregulation at the Federal level, but am somewhat more reconciled to the regulations imposed by those communities closest to a particular problem or issue.

    One exception is abortion, on which I would love to see an Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing it. But certainly, as a second choice, it should have been left up to the States.

  • Cheryl Jefferies

    Excellent! Thank you, Professor Arkes.

  • Richard A

    ‘What they saw here simply was the “system of freedom” as it expressed itself in the economy, in the way ordinary people made their livings.’

    Every voter in America should be made to swear an oath that this is his understanding of the economy.

    It is not this THING that it is the responsibility of government to manage so as to maximize benefits for the greatest number. The ‘economy’ is a category into which we put the aggregate of human behavior that involves the exchange of material wealth. Any candidate for high office who professes to have a plan for ‘growing the economy’ should be disqualified solely on those grounds. It would be better for him to have a plan to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for all in his country.

    • dbrown8

      Great job. Brilliantly stated!

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      But in Populorum Progressio, Bl Pual VI says, “Individual initiative alone and the interplay of competition will not ensure satisfactory development. We cannot proceed to increase the wealth and power of the rich while we entrench the needy in their poverty and add to the woes of the oppressed. Organized programs are necessary for “directing, stimulating, coordinating, supplying and integrating” the work of individuals and intermediary organizations.

      It is for the public authorities to establish and lay down the desired goals, the plans to
      be followed, and the methods to be used in fulfilling them; and it is also their task to stimulate the efforts of those involved in this common activity. But they must also see to it that private initiative and intermediary organizations are involved in this work. In this way they will avoid total collectivization and the dangers of a planned economy which might threaten human liberty and obstruct the exercise of man’s basic human rights.”

  • Dave

    I’m not sure, however, that destroying the guilds was a good thing. They may have prevented entry by some into crafts and professions, because they were not sons or otherwise related to existing members, and that may not have been good. On the other hand, guilds provided much more than market regulation: they looked after their own when they were sick, after families when men died, they provided for the spiritual welfare of their members through Masses and other devotions, and they also policed themselves; and their destruction helps give rise to greater individual autonomy and with it, greater regulation by the State, without reference to God, as our own modern life tells us: in the end, less freedom for all and less economic security for families. Any time the State moves to eliminate intermediary institutions, it increases its power, weakens those whom it now “serves,” and weakens the free right to association. Could guilds and monopolies have been reformed without being destroyed: probably. And poor Louis XVI learned the fateful lesson: when you give in to revolutionaries, they are not satisfied with the concession — they want the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel, and they brook no opposition.

    • Fleshman

      of course you are correct. Destroying the European guilds did about as well for the working man as destroying labor unions in the US…

      But such analysis obscures the subliminal message of the piece: you want authentic Catholic social teaching? Vote Republican!

      • Dave

        It is the case that voting Republican moves one more solidly in the direction of the Church’s social doctrine than voting Democrat, which only further increases the power of the State, weakens intermediary institutions, and undermines religious liberty and the First Amendment. This is not to say that voting Republican solves the problem; there are grave problems in its platform too — but not as grave nor as many as the Democratic platform (and recall that they actually debated at their last convention whether they should mention God).

        It’s also the case that our mixed economy much more resembles, in the intersecting interests of Big Government, Big Banking, and Big Business, a fascist economy than a free market. Both parties have their rent-seekers, and both parties are enervating the country. PCB points out the Hobbesian nature of our criminal justice system; our entire system is Hobbesian, I’m afraid, and if you’re at the top, life is sweet, and if you’re not, too bad for you, and worse the lower down the pyramid you go. Certainly our criminal justice system disproportionately and incommensurately punishes the poor – but that’s for another time.

        What we need is an apologist or group of apologists who explain that more traditional and less-trendy social arrangements are better for people: more protective of their freedoms and their persons; and who can articulate into policy propositions the precepts of the Church’s social doctrine. Some of this will appear “liberal,” and some of it will appear “conservative” and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have a realist proposal that can show why it is better for people and for society. Then perhaps we can make some progress.

  • JimmyD

    I agree with much here, but I disagree with so much here. Chesterton and Belloc developed distributism on the principles elucidated by Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891. What service does Mr. Arkes intend to do his readers by ignoring those two colossal minds?

    He speaks of the closeness (to true Catholic thought) of classical economists vs. leftist leaning social justice types. This is something of a straw man (no offense). The real question: is the classical economist closer to Catholic teaching than the distributist?

    Perhaps Mr. Arkes has devoted much of time to the study of economics, and I forgive him. I pray he will come round (I say the same of Mr. Marlin, and even Mr. Royal).

    We have been in the same economic moment before:
    “Half our time is taken up with explaining to the Communist that we are not defending capitalism; and explaining to the Capitalist that we are not defending Communism.” – G.K. Chesterton

    • Fleshman

      If you read TCT and related publications long enough you will see that the overwhelming imperative in addressing these issues is to bridge the gap between Catholic social thought (actually hostile to both Marxism and laissez fair capitalism) and the economic agenda of the current GOP. We have an election coming up you know!

      Note for instance Arkes’ veiled support for the flat tax–something beloved by high income GOP donors, Ted Cruz and libertarian theorists but practically no one else.

      Note also that the “right to work” theory after Arkes’ transformation really amounts to a pro-business rationale for smashing guilds and labor unions (except the college professor/high ed guilds and cartels of course on which Arkes depends for his living–those stay intact)…yes and how nicely that this agenda again coincides with the anti-labor thrust of the modern GOP. Who knew?

      On the contrary, serious intellectual efforts like distributivism to apply the wisdom of authentic Catholic social doctrine in the real world economy gets totally airbrushed out of the picture. The Chester-belloc agenda wont be on the GOP party platform this fall and so therefore it doesn’t enter in here.

      • Stephen_Phelan

        Please show, in percentages, where the bible says that rich people should tithe more than 10 percent. Or was everyone to give the same? This was not a tax to the state, but can no principle be derived from the admonition?

        I don’t necessarily need a flat tax and don’t have strong opinions on the matter, but I am against the strains of envy that underlie your post and that also burst out openly from Belloc and Chesterton at times. Brilliant, faithful writers and apologists — not very clear economic thinkers, though.

        I’m a fan of distributism as a way to arrange local economies. That seems very Catholic to me, and it seems to be the natural fit for the virtues that such local economies require. It’s also very personalistic, which is essential to subsidiarity and solidarity.

        But macroeconomic questions and the role of the state are where many distributists lose traction. The Church is clear that our political leaders’ authority is closely aligned with their virtue and accountability to those they serve (not rule), which says something troubling about our government’s authority to “manage” an economy. Here distributists often get angry, start making general and imprecise claims and either imply or demand that the state correct the excesses of the market, without realizing that this almost always means that self-interested politicians collaborate with the most powerful businesses to write regulations that inevitably favor the most powerful businesses (See the Dodd Frank “financial reform” law that no one understands except the still too big to fail) banks and a few bureaucrats. Fannie and Freddie still have free reign to do stupid and destructive things with subprime loans, and small banks are closing faster than before the bill. Was that a good thing? And your answer cannot simply be “someone had to do something!”). This is the opposite of solidarity and subsidiarity, it is depersonalizing, and it is in no way supportive of the common good. Arkes makes a distinction you’d do well to look at again – that rather than do away with all regulation a test could be applied. If you have a problem with that it is for your own ideological commitments, not for some Catholic ideal that you find lacking in others.

    • Ben Thorp

      Great comment- I agree wholeheartedly with your criticism. I used to think in the same way as Mr. Arkes, that the only alternative to American capitalism was Socialism or Marxism. But having studied Catholic Social Teaching and Distributism for some time, it gradually dawned on me that there was a ‘third way’ which avoided both horns of the false dilemma.
      I’m sure that an intelligent, articulate man such as Mr. Arkes has read the same authors you and I have, and has decided, with many other Neo-Conservatives like George Weigel and Michael Novak, that Distributism is too utopian for reality.
      This critique reminds me of my days teaching Moral Theology to high-school students. Living in a society saturated with sexual imagery, championing sexaul gratification as ‘liberation’, these kids simply rolled their eyes at any attempt to argue for chastity.
      My question is: do neo-cons share a similar cynicism? If so, how can that square with a Catholic anthropology? Does Mr. Arkes really believe that it is starry-eyed utopianism to believe that people can work together, share profits, and promote the common good?

  • PCB

    Excellent follow-up to the previous essay, “Revisiting Catholic Social Teaching.” Without a doubt, it is becoming increasingly endemic in our society, this loss of understanding, which was innately intuitive common sense to peoples a mere 100 or 200 years ago that, as Prof. Arkes states, that “there is a duty to use property only “in the right way.” – This statement could be as easily and equally extended to include, “freedom”, “law”, “sexuality”, “healthcare”, “media” – the list goes on, and on.

    Certainly, the relativization of, denial of, basic truths is at least, in part, a very large part, responsible for this gradual systemic erosion of this notion, and the notion, as Prof. Arkes has stated elsewhere, frequently in reference to Lincoln’s own understanding, that “there can never be a right to do a wrong.”

    This loss of common sensical understanding and appreciation for the existence of basic truths seems to have undermined not only our economic system, but perhaps with greater detriment, our legal system. When the founders instituted, if not invented, the U.S.’s nearly unique Adversarial Criminal Justice System, I can only surmise they were relying on this basic understanding and acceptance of the existence of moral truths, an understanding of which they shared in common with the greater majority of the populace, for their assurances that this new system of justice would not only function properly and efficiently, but that it would ensure a greater degree of justice and individual protections than that achievable through the more prevalent Inquisitorial Systems of Justice.

    It would make for an interesting study, to see if the instances of “hung juries” have increased in any meaningful and measurable way as the U.S. has gradually become increasingly susceptible to, and infected by, the widespread assent to the notion of moral relativity.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      This comment clearly addresses the theme of the article, which is the moral framework of the economy. And you isolate the issue that underlies the state of the economy, and its interrelation with the justice system, which is moral relativity.

  • Steven P Glynn

    Thank you Mr. Arkes for yet another entertaining and enlightening column, and for a quote I will now pester friends with for the remainder of my days. Reminds me of the quote from John McCay, first coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his team had lost every game the first season, and the first 10 or so of the second season. He was asked immediately after a game what he thought of his team’s execution on the field, and responded “I’m all for it.”.

    • BroEdward

      Good one! I like the college basketball coach from Florida who took complete responsibility for his team’s losing season. He said: “It’s all my fault. We lost at home and we lost on the road, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else to play.”

  • Bill M.

    Please explain who are those Catholics who have been lured into a Leftist version of “social justice” and what are their deficiencies. And in reference to ‘What they saw here simply was the “system of freedom” as it expressed itself in the economy, in the way ordinary people made their livings,’ in light of the revelations made about the so-called “Panama Papers,” what does the sometimes illegal movement of capital by the 1% have to do with the way “ordinary people,” or the other 99%, make “their livings’?

    • Steven P Glynn

      If I may, one deficiency of Catholics who have been lured into a Leftist version of “social justice” would be a willingness to overlook their candidate’s views on abortion, marriage, or religious freedom in order to procure the aforementioned “social justice”.
      In regard to the “Panama Papers”, some rich people tried to hide their wealth, yes that is certainly a shocking revelation and has certainly turned my world view on it’s head.

      • Bill M.

        Thank you, Stephen. But didn’t I hear someone in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church recently ask, in effect, why do we always have to focus on abortion and certain matters that relate at least tangentially to aspects of the question of marriage, which of course is in itself extremely important, as well as to religious freedom?

        • Brian W

          I think those comments weren’t an anti-capitalist screed nor were the words meant to imply that any political issues are more important than life and family. Rather, I think it was a cry to realize that’s there is so much more. I think it meant to implore us to reform the inside of the party to which we should naturally belong: the party that supports birth. We need the party to support life at all stages in as much as government should. We need the party to be pro-life, pro-freedom and pro-subsidiarity while not throwing up its collective hands in the face of extreme economic disparities and saying “well, it’s the markets”.

        • Stephen_Phelan

          You may have heard something like that. Then, with thoughtful Catholics everywhere, you probably replied something like: “But when has the Church ‘always [focused]’ on abortion and marriage? Talk about a strawman. JPII and B16 were both very strong and clear on these issues, but it requires either great ignorance or bad faith to claim that they focused on these issues ‘always’ given the relatively small portion of their magisterial and unofficial statements that addressed them. The premise of the question comes from those who oppose the Church on these issues and wish the Church would simply be silent on them, so they exaggerate the extent to which the Church speaks on them. This, and because they generally still push the sexual revolution and associated ideologies, they are likely projecting their own obsessions, in reverse, on the Church.”

    • Steven P Glynn

      What if some of those exposed by the Panama Papers turn out to be Leftists (insert “Home Alone” face here)?

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    I’m not an economist and can’t match the obvious knowledge, experience of today’s respondents. My question is perhaps moral. Today many are unemployed because the trend toward high tech and service industry requires less manpower. Some believe the return to manufacture in Am is the solution, as one candidate proposes bringing jobs back from overseas. My opinion is because our economy here is in process of creating high tech less manpower industry that won’t work. Besides overseas manufacture is Govt subsidized. On the other hand socialist oriented leaders including FDR’s CCC that reforested Am, Nazi Socialist workers organizations that built the Autobahn did apparent good in putting lower skilled persons to work, and helped recover failed economies. Considering the enormous cost of rebuilding our infrastructure, would it be economically feasible, and morally justifiable to form large work groups from the 14% unemployed work force to begin rebuilding Roads, Highways, and the Way [rail lines] at a just minimum wage? Is that too socialist or is it simply practical? I’d appreciate some assessment.

    • Fleshman

      You’re thinking a little too practically and in terms of problem solving. Most TCT authors and writers approach these questions through a rigid ideological frame. Socialism bad–free market good..

      Perhaps that made sense during the Cold War but the experience of the last 25 years in that post Reagan style capitalism leaves a lot to be desired as well. Too little investment in non-military public infrastructure and too much indifference to unemployment, low wages and too much solicitude for the demands of the investor class.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Thanks for your response. I’m aware of the socialism bad-free market good economic phi on this site. My question is aimed more at ethics. For example, the trend for Republicans is to sweep away strangling economic regulation and Democrats the opposite. Is it ethical to dismiss regulation entirely? That seems to be the issue I perceive in the Republican position, a polarity. Some pols like Gingrich, perhaps Paul Ryan see benefit in social justice, which shouldn’t absurdly be a dirty word. Gingrich likely lost his bid because he initially promoted a comprehensive immigration policy sans the draconian policy of deporting all 11-12 million illegals. That would collapse industries mainly out West, farming, viniculture. Why should that be labelled socialist like Marxist Soc and not simple good sense, and moral justice? I definitely hope for a Republican president yet it seems our lack of common sense, and justice on some issues will cost us the election again without a much larger minority Rep vote. The Rep refusal to adapt Bush 43’s Immigration plan cost us the next election with Romney. Govt does seem to have a role in initiating economic, ethical recovery through large infrastructure work projects. Is it not ethical to put millions to work instead of paying them to be out of work? I don’t see the logic in simply branding good public works socialistic in the pejorative sense. Of course some pundits play on that for popularity.

        • Fleshman

          agree totally….but those of us who want economic sanity…i.e. an economy that is attuned to the needs of the non-wealthy and who see the agenda of the GOP as hostile to human flourishing..and who oppose abortion, euthanasia and gay “marriage” have literally no voice in our system, no side to root for and no one to vote for.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Actually Fleshman I’m on your side on this, now that I understand your economic viewpoint. I am especially interested in what you say below in the application of “authentic Catholic social doctrine” to serious intellectual thought on Distributivism. And for many Republicans distributivism is socialistic anathema, a relativistic [relative in the sense of subjecting morality to a Republican ideal] skewering of the ethics of social justice.

      • Stephen_Phelan

        Well, it’s the Catholic Church’s constant teaching that socialism is bad, and that the free market is good, with qualification (it isn’t a tenet of faith, more like a necessary but insufficient condition for human flourishing). If you need citations for explicit and unqualified condemnations of socialism, then can easily be provided. The qualified support for the free market comes primarily from Centessimus annus, though it picks up a thread from Rerum novarum throughout CST.

        So let’s not strawman TCT’s “authors and writers” with lazy charges of rigidity.

        Just as strange is attributing to “post Reagan style capitalism”, whatever that is and wherever it is practiced, a failure to invest on the part of the government. Check the debt again. See how much is “invested” in unemployment and the explosion of disability claims. See the explosion of regulations from unaccountable government agencies and then show me where this “capitalism” is practiced. The US has fallen in the free market rankings consistently since the Bush II years, and it has not been a boon for the poor.

        • Fleshman

          A favorite trick is to cite the use of “socialism” in documents over a century old and pretend that they are talking about what Sean hannity calls socialism today.

          The “qualified support” for the free market you see in actual CST is in fact so qualified that it bears almost no resemblance to the type of support expressed here.

          There’s a reason that their ciation of Benedict was extremely selective, ignoring the many places he praised redistribution etc. And there is a reason they’ve run for the hills from the social doctrine of Francis.

          They never really were with the church on these things. Their goal as always was to interpret CST in ways that made their partisan allegiance to GOP seem inevitable.

          They did if because they were righly dismayed that too many Catholics were supporting Dems apart from their odious stands on abortion etc.

          Fair enough. But CST does not change simply because a political party in one country has become hostile to the church on abortion.

        • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

          Please delete.

  • Charles Adams

    As i have said before government social justice and our social justice there is a great divide. The government view is these are laws and must be given and must be received. There is no such thing as ordinary people we are individuals as God has made us and the the US Constitution. Most Social Justice laws are passed with good intentions but the bureaucrats become the law and we become the mass not not ordinary individuals.

  • Chris Ramsey

    I would like to recommend a book by a Catholic economist named John D. Mueller. The title is “Redeeming Economics – Rediscovering the Missing Element”. It’s been around since 2010 but I haven’t heard or read much about it. Mueller uses the phrase “Triple-A economics” to describe his theory because it’s based on Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. It’s not light reading, but definitely worth the effort!

  • Dave Fladlien

    Father, I wish I had the time and space to give you the good answer your thoroughness deserves, and maybe I couldn’t do it even if I had those things. One thought though: please do not mix the *method* of implementation chosen by Republicans or by Pres. Reagan or Treasury Sec Donald Regan (not sure which you refer to here) with the concept, especially the concept that Jack Kemp and Arthur Laffer put forth: supply-side economics. That “Reaganomics” implementation was very faulty in many horrifying ways, most clearly in deriving a small part of its funding from programs for the mentally ill, a totally unnecessary and useless step which did, as you rightly point out, devastate some good projects, with the impact we have today of many homeless mentally ill.

    I quite possibly can’t show how it has previously been done, as you request, but I think I can show how the use of tax cuts, investment credits and incentives, and *proper* government programs, can and will do the job, if they ever got properly implemented. But you think things through thoroughly (to your credit of course) and I can’t even begin to give you an adequate answer that you even might find satisfactory on these pages. Please don’t totally rule out a very good concept (supply side economics) because I can’t do that here, and please don’t assume that one person’s or one political party’s narrow-minded implementation of the concepts shows deficiencies in the concepts.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Dave as I mentioned in my reply to Dave above I deleted my original post for reasons given. Please read my response to Dave as a response to your reply. I’m pleased you agree with Kemp’s criticism of Reganomics. I do certainly believe that supply side economics and any economic growth if managed with a sense of moral interest in the poor can be a good thing.

      • Dave Fladlien

        Thanks Father. One more comment, if I may: about the 11 million illegals, they *are* here. That’s a fact and we have to accept that fact, and I most emphatically do not want a Gestapo state where someone is going around rounding them all up. Deport 11 million people? That’s totally ridiculous. I agree with you, it would be at best immoral and impractical. It’s also impossible. It’s a ridiculous idea. We don’t need Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich here… To want less government but a Gestapo group deporting people is self-contradiction. The Gestapo state is the worst part of *too much* government.

  • Dave

    Father, I’m going to switch the terms of the debate here a bit. I’ll try to be as concise as possible, because a response to your thoughtful query merits a book.

    It’s pretty much the case that those governmental entities — urban, inner -city, reservation — that depend upon Federal largesse are some of the most uninhabitable places in America, with disastrous outcomes for family stability, individual health, educational attainment, etc. Many pastors in those areas urge their parishioners and congregants not to take the Federal aid, because it’s as addictive as crack. Once someone in a distressed community gets on the dole, only with difficulty does the person come off, and often the dependence is multi-generational. The welfare reforms of the 90s were meant to address these problems and did so, to some extent. But look at major urban centers of blight and see how often they run under Democratic administration. The programs mitigate to some extent, but they don’t really solve the underlying problems: they just address symptoms.

    I think the reference to Reagan is perhaps a bit unfair, since the welfare reforms of the 90s was a bipartisan matter and the social networks were up and running during the aughts — W’s Faith-based initiative did much — much — to bring new non-profits, both faith-based and secular, to the table, teaching them how to apply for grants (Federal and other), how to network and collaborate, and how to address some of the systemic issues plaguing our poor and disadvantaged. Obama continued that initiative and expanded the net. We have to ask ourselves is it really a point of pride that more people are receiving food stamps and housing assistance than at any other time in American history; and does increased dependence upon Federal largesse really signal social and economic health? I will argue that it does not. This Administration, Democratic, has weakened independence while pretending to strengthen it (slight-of-hand are sets of tactics at which it excels). And (white, mainly) voters who support it turn a blind eye and go about their business.

    We need two sets of action here. First, incentivize people (and corporations) to get involved with 501(c) 3’s addressing problems by giving them more generous tax breaks and credits when they do, and second, lower the tax rates so that more people have more disposal income they can direct to organizations assisting the poor (as well as taking care of their own needs). And we might give them income tax credit for voluntary hours performed too (just thinking out loud on that one, don’t know how it would work).

    The bottom line is that we are all too dependent upon the Federal government intervening in the lives of distressed. There is a true failure of Christian charity when Christians do not undertake this work, and there is a true weakening of solidarity when people rely upon the bureaucracies to perform more work than they possibly can. Non-profits are stretched to the max because there is too much work to do, and the rest of us go our merry way often because we don’t know where the service opportunities are or how to go about creating solutions. Those solutions involve working with people very different from us, and we do well to recall the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    A second bottom line, if such a thing were possible, is that we have grown entirely too accustomed to letting the Federal and state governments weaken intermediary institutions. Those institutions are closest to the problems, and they should be incentivized, not weakened.

    A third bottom line is that the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations and faith-based entities are entirely too dependent upon Federal largesse for operating homeless shelters and assisted living facilities and for other social outreach programs. This dependence has tampered with bishops’ willingness to take on Catholic (in the main) Democratic politicians for their deviations from the Church’s social doctrine — not just regarding the family and reproduction, but also on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, too. The line in the Federal bureaucracy is “the first penny taints”: take one cent of Federal money and you are obliged for every regulation. That’s only fair, it’s public money: but we can re-construct the rules of the game to allow for more hands-on, immediate involvement and get the Federal government less involved. And we Catholics, especially those expert in the Church’s social doctrine (and by that I exclude the social justice warriors), should be leading the way.

    I’m not denying there’s a Federal role: there has to be, especially for the most intractable problems. But we have to acknowledge that the Federal role often creates greater problems than the ones they mean to solve, and that by our relying on “someone else” to do the work, we are failing in our obligations of Christian charity. We ought to insist that the rules be changed.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Dave I’m sorry I deleted my original post. I didn’t realize you and Fladlien would take such serious interest in what I, on second thought, felt was more rhetorical than substantive argument. I don’t have insight into some of your critique regarding Govt largesse assisting social programs like shelters, and subsequent Church dependency that influences bishops’ moral witness. Although I can perceive that since I’ve experienced it In my former Diocese of Gallup regarding the exemption and the Archbishop of Santa Fe discouraging priests from preaching against pro abortion candidates. On the other hand the Gallup Church provided soup kitchens for the poor and shelters for unwed pregnant mostly teens managed by sisters with little if any Govt assist. I do agree that the Church must extract itself from all Govt dependency including the tax exemption. We have become wards of the state and need to return to witness to Christ. Much of what you say is viable and should be implemented. My vision as suggested in the original comment was to eliminate all dependency related programs that serve to reinforce dependency. We do have state sponsored programs that can be efficiently managed to assist where there is genuine need. Regan did eliminate much needed Catholic social programs that taught skills and were making real progress until cut off. This is where the Republican agenda is hurtful to the kind of Catholic assistance designed to encourage men and women, teach skills, and acquire the dignity that comes from earning a living rather than being dependent. My point was that deregulation and lower taxes for corporations certainly would encourage economic growth, not necessarily industry and jobs in impoverished areas. Most of the new industry we have is high tech, not lower skilled. Govt can move resources into these areas as I’ve experienced by the BIA in native American areas in NM with on site training programs and work opportunity. The immigration issue will likely cause us to lose another election. Here the Catholic bishops have called for a comprehensive Govt plan for the estimated 11 million undocumented American migrants. The estimate is that roughly 30-40% of agrarian labor, and service related work in hotels, restaurants is by illegals, many with families born here and over 10 years in residency. How can we expect to arrest, split them up, deport them without dividing the country, and causing economic collapse locally, raising prices and likely affecting the stock market? This is where the Catholic Church must take a moral, courageous stand. That is social justice and the word amnesty is irrelevant to the issue. So then it is in many areas that the Catholic Church and Fed Govt. And the Church should and can be effective as a moral voice, with programs funded by donations and free from Govt interference and influence. By all means we should adopt some of your suggestions. However Dave on this site as said this is written off as implausible and socialistic. My conviction is Catholics have placed themselves in a position of self inflicted moral lethargy simply because Govt social programs, mainly Democratic have for the most part reinforced the conditions that keep persons in poverty rather than help them help themselves out of destitution and into the mainstream. Insofar as a major cause that must also be addressed Dave, Bill O’Reilly points out the breakdown of the family in impoverished areas. That problem is really a root cause and somehow must be addressed by all.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Dave I wish to add my thanks for your excellent in put. Much of what I discussed with you and others here is educational. It will help me refine my views on these important social issues.

      • Stephen_Phelan

        OK, this is closer to the point, but still has a rosy view of the US federal government as it actually exists in 2016. The moral lethargy is the key point, both on the part of those with greater means and on the part of those who are poor.

        The family comes first, which requires a set of virtues that have been abandoned by huge swathes of the country. Those with means can mitigate the consequences of moral blindness, those who are poor cannot, which makes the Planned Parenthood/2016 Democrat approach to “helping” the poor so destructive.

        The Church – starting with lay Catholics – must be more joyfully confident in making the case for flourishing based on Catholic social and moral doctrine. Lay Catholics should also not be criticized by fellow Catholics for emphasizing sound morality even among the poor. They are often criticized by those who think the one thing we should be able to agree on is more state programs for the poor – programs that are *necessarily* depersonalized and depersonalizing – and then at some point in the future we can get to morality. No. This is neither justice nor charity on a Catholic view. No community can function or can even properly receive and move away from welfare without a sound moral basis and solid families. The family comes first and our government is now openly hostile to the concept of the natural, biological family, and is providing huge incentives for every distortion or replacement of family.

        It is not uncompassionate to point this out, though it is often characterized as such. The Church’s MO is so much more radical than the state-first solution.

        • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

          I remain convinced that Govt has a role, certainly limited as compared to what we have in recovery for the unemployed and destitute. Nonetheless I very much appreciate your family centered approach, which is really at the heart of the issue.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    “The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common. They sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (Acts 2:44-45). “The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul. No one claimed for his own use anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Distributive justice has its source in the first Christian communities 2000 years before Karl Marx’ atheistic communism. The error many Catholics make today is to associate just distribution of goods as Marxist socialism. Republicans need to soften their views on care and concern for the less fortunate, otherwise they will remain the radically insular, morphed Darwinian version of what was the Grand old Party of Abraham Lincoln.

    • mrteachersir

      The error was a forced error, as Marxists were the ones who went around talking about “redistribution of wealth”, as in forced redistribution. When someone in the American political sphere talks about “redistribution of wealth”, they aren’t talking about charitable giving, or care for the less fortunate, rather they are referring to taxation and government centered redistribution. We live in a political climate wherein the government is looked to for solutions to all manner of problems, from education, to water quality, safe work practices, poverty, to food availability. When someone in that political climate mentions “redistribution”, charity is, perhaps, the farthest thing from their minds.

    • Stephen_Phelan

      I’m not a Republican, but I know many and none of them are indifferent to the plight of the poor.

      For a radical love of Christ and devotion to the early Church, the first Christians sold what they had and gave it to the Church, trusting that it would be allocated justly. If that’s what you’re proposing as a model, I’d be interested in fleshing it out. That is, with the Church as the locus of distribution and competent and incorruptible people working locally with people they know, this is a radical and just means of sharing.

      But if you are suggesting that this means that in the year 2016 AD the US federal government is the best means of wealth distribution in this nation, you’re making several non-Catholic and highly questionable assumptions. Why so many Catholic continue to make this leap is beyond me. When the State is Christian, highly accountable and personalistic, I’m ok with this. When the State is openly, aggressively anti-Christian, reckless, unaccountable, corrupt, incompetent, wasteful and untrustworthy the appeal to Acts of the Apostles in support of State distributism is absolutely untenable.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Even if this administration lacks the moral disposition to provide on site training and work programs for the millions of unemployed and instead keeps them in bondage to secure their vote, we as Catholics should not desist from addressing a true virtue, assisting the less fortunate to better fend for themselves. Many great Catholic initiated programs of that kind were ended by Regan’s policy to cut backs spending, the mentally ill were released from secure environments into the community, eating out of garbage barrels. I was at a parish in lower Manhattan and witnessed this. It is impossible if you convince yourself. And that conviction sanctions indirectly Democratic programs that perpetuate economic bondage. It denies the possibility for a better Republican administration to correct it. We have Republicans who if elected would provide a reasoned measure of Govt assist to uplift the destitute out of the misery that Reganomics, and Obama’s policies initiated. If your answer Phelan is to wait for the economy to grow, that has happened without results for the poor. Industry is going high tech in Am and the unskilled require Govt programs to retrain, provide work.