The Catholic Worker

Stephen Leacock, the great Canadian economist (and amateur humorist, 1869-1944), wished to justify his choice of the academic profession when he could perhaps have become a successful businessman.

“In point of leisure, I enjoy more in the four corners of a single year than a businessman knows in his whole life. I thus have what the businessman can never enjoy, an ability to think, and what is still better, to stop thinking altogether for months at a time.”

God, in my opinion, can be blamed (indirectly) for the success of the capitalist system of investment and returns, for He designed the human race with free will, on stochastic principles, such that anyone who puts his mind to something consistently can get good at it.

The Devil, on the other hand, played the larger role in the invention of socialism, in which all investment decisions must be made by a bureaucracy. This is the system in which the State picks winners. It works because the State also picks police.

But is capitalism any better?

I, and Mr. Leacock, too, noticed that some very sub-prime intellects get rich in unquestionably vulgar ways, not simply because their minds are vulgar (though in a mass market, it helps), but because they use their wits day and night only for the purpose of money-making.

It is the system of “try, try again,” and if you play enough times, your score may accumulate. This can be statistically demonstrated by the fact that hardly anyone is trying to lose; and the banks punish the players who are. (Socialist banks do just the opposite.)

Under the capitalist system, this sort of behavior – busy-ness – is praised, and down there in the States you celebrate the “American Dream,” in which everyone makes a lot of money.

While I have emphasized production, there is also the flip, consumption side to this great wheel of fortune. It increases with production – or decreases, once socialism has been achieved.

For if you are not an investor yourself, but a worker under either system, you get what the boss is paying. Under capitalism, this will resemble what you are worth to the company, but under socialism, what you are worth, abstractly. (“We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us,” as they used to sing behind the Iron Curtain.)

In California, for instance, the State has recently ruled that everyone who works in a restaurant is entitled to $20 per hour (less the State’s considerable taxes).

As a critic of fast food, I don’t think this is a very good idea, for it will make unskilled workers too expensive, and close down perhaps half the trade.

The capitalists in this “mixed economy” will still be able to keep a few expensive restaurants open, however. That’s why I would prefer a minimum wage of $50, or perhaps $1,000 per hour, for it would eliminate restaurants entirely.

While this would be all to the good, it does not address the “root” of the problem: people frying, or at least dreaming of frying, fast food.

Cradling Wheat by Thomas Hart Benton, 1938 [St. Louis Art Museum]

There are environmental objections if anyone tries to eat the stuff, but they wouldn’t anyway because, under our commercial arrangements, you are either a customer or a server. And once service has been priced out of existence, everyone can starve. We will have achieved socialism!

The only complete equality is death, which, as the economist J.M. Keynes argued, can be anticipated “in the long run.”

But back to present-tense capitalism, provision is made for everyone to live, while they are unequal. Indeed, capitalism has made it possible for more and more people to live, and eat ever more extravagantly, all over the planet.

The trouble is, that while it favors consumers in slightly broader ways, it only rewards producers with money. This is especially a problem for the people who must work for money, alone. All the other avenues of human creativity and expression are cut off.

In fact, capitalism does not encourage productive work, except during the brief moments when that proportion of the population that is in the labor force is actually awake, and not eating or taking one of many breaks.

The economist E.F. Schumacher estimated this at three-and-one-half percent of total human consciousness, in modern, Western societies, but higher in less advanced societies, where the people are happier.

Calculations like this are of a piece with Ivan Illich’s estimate of the average speed of cars. He guessed, I think, that it was just under three miles per hour, after allowing for the time spent in the mining, making, and fueling of them. Walking would be faster, and we could eliminate traffic jams.

But why would we want to eliminate work? For as we learn in the first few sentences of the Bible, the place of work in the human identity was there from the beginning.

We were to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,” implying that we would have work to do, and be full persons in the image of God.

The Lord also said, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” and true, when work degenerates into tedium, it becomes a penance.

But note, nowhere in the Bible, nor any other inspired Christian document, does it say we must work for money, or for money alone (still less State taxes).

And we were to fill the earth and subdue it, not to subdue our neighbor, whether through the instrument of investment or by some other more horrible means.

It is for this reason that Catholic thought has consistently championed the dignity of the person, has promoted the family, the right of property, subsidiarity, and the common good. It has expressed the worth of human labor, too, and of the poor and disabled; for charity, peace. And it has neglected the balance sheet.


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David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: