5 of 5 stars. The book was repetitive, but Church teaching is just that. The whole Tradition thing. No problem there. It appears I am the only person on GoodReads to ever have read the book. Funny. Slightly boring and academic, but let’s get into the meat…
This review will actually probably be the most extensive yet, as the book almost requires annotations to fully grasp in a historical and economic sense. My understanding of natural law fits very well with the Catholic Church’s in general, which is likely the main reason I remain Catholic. The question of private property also dovetails nicely with the Church’s, although I find that beginning with a perfect (though slightly incomplete) annunciation of property rights in Rerum Novarum, I have to read Quadragesimo Anno and Magister et Magistra (on through Laudato Si) more and more broadly as encyclicals progress through time. I have been accused in the past of possessing an Enlightenment mind on the matter (particularly w/r/t Lockeanism – which is fascinating, given RN’s failure in fact and in background, to condemn his work as it did with Hobbes, Rousseau, and others) of private property and government, but I actually find the later encyclicals subject to modernist thinking as they go on through time. The archetype of this fact today, in my opinion, was Laudato Si, in which Francis used a postmodern and thoroughly Enlightenment approach to decry postmodernism and Enlightenment thinking. In doing so, Francis (who is a very good man and I mean in no way to impugn him absolutely here) exposes his economic ignorance as quite profound. Another topic for later, you can be sure.
I’ve also been accused of having put property rights above all others, or making them absolute, which the Church condemns in full. I would do the same. Property rights are extremely important and the secondary purpose for which governments exist, but they are subject to other interests such as human life as a matter of common sense. There is not a single right (even the greatest right, the right to life) that is absolute. This goes without saying, but keep it in mind throughout the analysis, as it is not a criticism to which my views are subject. I know it, and am happy to see in this text that the author explores the idea of rescinding property rights when human life is in immanent and certain danger. Simultaneously, we must keep in mind that the positive law (as made by governments) is always subordinate to the natural law as expounded by human rationality and revelation. Where they disagree, positive law must subordinate or be dismantled or disobeyed. There is no exception to this rule, and a surface dismissal via Romans 13 does not render it untrue. Christians who serve the state before they serve God will need to do better than that to show subsidiarity and minarchism are not the Christian standards.
What I DO believe, though, is that just as morality is a natural system which is almost karmic in nature, needs no positive law input from humanity to be full and complete, and is as unavoidable as gravity, I believe the economy to function naturally and bare. Regulations, fiscal and monetary intervention, these things interfere with a system God created to be both beautiful and effective, providing responsibility where it is most needed and in ways that directly translate to soul-building activity. As a matter of faith, it would only make sense that virtues like temperance, peacefulness, and cooperation would lead to an increase in wealth and virtue. This informs my views of economics, obviously, and vice versa. This idea is strengthened with how well it jives with the Church, per Aquinas, when it proclaims on the goodness and social morality to private property. I’d not deny that there is a social responsibility, morality, and benefit to private property simply because I do not believe force and redistribution should not interfere with the private property rights. The rich should share with the poor, interpersonally or naturally. But more than that, exchange and economic cooperation leads to social benefit by its mere goings-on. Capital investment and research/development bestow on all of us wealth untold in previous times. This beneficence/morality is often missed in the arguments of redistribution, because most who are in support of the latter believe anyone opposing it to be against charity in general as our moral requirement (though this is obviously and very importantly false). More on economics as a natural study if anyone is curious…
Through hundreds of discussions with devout Catholics & Christians, though, I find that a great amount of make-believe is read into around 1% of Encyclicals and other Church texts that simply isn’t there. The fact is, under a charitable interpretation or reading of the texts in this book, 99% (at least) of the principles involve morality of private property that is unquestionably broad and very strong – No requirement of force is needed in the vastly dominating readings of these things. Perhaps ignorance of history, lack of relevant comparable context, economic cluelessness, or status quo defaults mean that these people simply can’t understand any other meaning of that 1% of the teaching to mean anything but a stamp of approval on welfare-ism or redistribution by the modern nation-state. Guilds and mutual aid societies shouldn’t be thrown aside because we aren’t creative, though. It isn’t just here, but it is sharply here, that thoughtful Catholics who understand economics should be very disappointed in their insistent and suddenly utilitarian (though devout and well-intentioned) peers. A prolonged and widespread institution like our government teaches these principles as inextricable from the way of the world, and it teaches them to most of the people who live under its umbrella to the point that causes and effects become confused the point of unrecognition.
Let’s start (here in the middle) with RN, as the book does. Rerum Novarum is an explicit and purposeful condemnation of socialism, particularly in the form of Marxism. Marxism needs atheism to fully jive, and atheism almost certainly will lead to socialism – Leo saw socialism for what rot it was and meant to cordon it off from practicing Catholics as best he could. In part, his solution came of natural law, specifically the concept of property rights, which protect the common man from exploitation and allow him to provide for his family. Of course, this approach was magnificently trodden already by Aquinas and other Scholastics, who very literally seem to have addressed every important topic there ever was, even if only briefly. Leo was no pedestrian thinker on the matter, though, and his fecund exposition of property is enough to realize his genius for his own part (even if he had help in his crafting of RN!). RN would lay the foundation for future understanding of economic matters in the Church, even where future elaboration would distort the meaning some. Still, there is an assumption here, when the modern economy was very new, that government needed to regulate transactions between willing individuals to create wealth and protect property rights. This IS an Enlightenment approach which takes the newness of the free market for granted. It will pop up again and again, as you will see… I would be curious, though, about what freedom of the individual would look like in an absence of individualism. The latter is a heresy, and rightly so, but it is not clear to me where the Middle Way is, between “the state exists to serve the individual” and “individualism is wrong”…
Particular attention should be paid to Leo’s four arguments that private property is a natural right: “1) Property is man’s wages in another form; 2) Of all animals, only man can plan for future needs; 3) Man’s cultivation of nature entitles him to possess that which he cultivates; and, 4) Man, as a father, must provide for those he has begotten.” Though not a thorough exposition, this is a grounding enough to give a theorist a firm foundation to build natural rights private property. He also does a bang-up job smiting the daylights out of socialism, even presciently so: “They refuse obedience to the higher powers, to whom, according to the admonition of the Apostle, every soul ought to be subject, and who derive the right of governing from God; and they proclaim the absolute equality of all men in rights and duties. They debase the natural union of man and woman, which is held sacred even among barbarous peoples; and its bond, by which the family is chiefly held together, they weaken, or even deliver up to lust. Lured, in fine, by the greed of present goods, which is “the root of all evils, which some coveting have erred from the faith,” they assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law; and by a scheme of horrible wickedness, while they seem desirous of caring for the needs and satisfying the desires of all men, they strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one’s mode of life.” Love this guy.
Coming next to Quadragesimo Anno, 40 years later under Pius. In this encyclical, we begin to see explicit calls to the state to regulate labor and property. Read liberally, societal calls toward charity and justice are fundamental to Christianity – and the state needs moral guidance as any individual does (who better to give it than the Church!?). But in a narrow reading (which is what most people use, incorrectly, in my opinion), confusion begins. If the natural law is to be held as binding, and one has a natural right to property, what of taxation of that property, which is a positive law violation of that natural law? Before elaborating there, let’s take a charitable interpretation of social provision and disposition of private property when reflecting on the meaning of property rights and social responsibility. Perhaps the word “right” here is meant as a spiritual word rather than a positive law one, when Pius argues the poor have a right to private property. Or perhaps he just means that private property is a natural right that must be afforded everyone. In these cases, I can agree, and fully. Material charity is a matter of both justice and caritas that Christ required of each of us, and we must give in order to receive. People need to be able to own things to live. This is fine – where the requirement is one of morality and not force, we MUST agree with the Church. But then I read the next chapter…
It was not until Magister et Magistra that I began to realize that the state is not a natural law concept in these documents, anchored by some thought as to its inherent efficacy (even implicitly), but is a means to an end. That end is good: the formation and maintenance of the family AND the provision of the common good. But the means is taken completely for granted with a curt nod to the idea that private property rights are not absolute. This, as I said above, is a given. The question is how, using a deontological approach (one may not use evil means to create good ends), taxation is an acceptable function of the state (at least, that of income or property). I would qualify taxation as taking money/goods/services from someone without permission, that which would be theft were it done by anyone but a state agent. This does not follow from the fact that property is not an absolute right that one may expropriate for any reason whatsoever, and the popes are notably silent on this issue. “Common Good” again is not good enough, nor is the idea that God actually owns all property (because even granting this obvious fact, why does the right to expropriate come upon people with badges calling themselves a protective monopoly on the initiation of force? It is a non sequitur to say that since God owns everything, a certain group of people can take from you at will. It just does not follow. Who will decide His earthly will for Him because justice has demands? I certainly don’t trust the American political elite to do so…). “Render unto Caesar” is too glib a reply to warrant much analysis other than “If we rendered to God all that which belonged to Him, what would be left for Caesar, your god-king?”
It is also in reading this section that I came to realize that social justice, the term used to refer generally to social responsibility for sin and material fulfillment, was never a part of the rich tradition of the Church in the form of redistributive taxation until a Jesuit names D’Azeglio took up the concept in this fashion in 1843. In a far later chapter, Habiger spends a small amount of space trying to convince the reader that Aquinas did not give a more foundational right to property such that the redistribution aspect is required. But it isn’t well done, and perhaps Aquinas and the Scholastics (such as in the School of Salamanca) never intended it to go this way – it does somewhat seem like historical accident. Of those particular writers, fundamental property rights are a plausible if not required reading (where communism/socialism are impossible readings). Not having been directly within tradition is NOT sufficient reason to reject it as erroneous, but it is also grounds to be able to question the teaching more fully than if it were with us since Christ. This does not mean the Church has made a fundamental error as to a moral issue (the question of an encyclical’s binding nature obviously comes to mind, in small part), but perhaps made one that will later turn out to be similar to geocentrism. Walking down the path of (d)evolving property rights through these pages, it seems to me that we have gone astray from the Angelic Doctor (and I do believe he got it right!).
I’d take issue, in this vein, with the concept known as “just wage.” The original thought process behind the idea involved no economic thought or analysis, and merely assumed in some sense that wages and prices are arbitrarily chosen. In reality, wages are a function of productive capacity, supply and demand. In a great book called The Church and the Market, there is a wonderful argument about a Church making the proclamation that it would be moral if a cathedral would be built – but it would be a grave error to imagine that the Church should have a strong say in the matter of materials used to do so (the argument cuts both ways, but is effective nonetheless). (A column that went somewhat viral this week spoke far better to the issue than I could, found here: https://mises.org/library/failed-moral-argument-living-wage) What I find in QA on the matter reminds me of the cries of some feminists about it being unfair that women are the sex who produce children – that is, specifically Pius’ anger should be directed at God, for the scarcity that exists on earth, humanity, for the failure to have advanced to the robotic age fast enough to provide a western standard of living for all people, and Adam & Eve, for having chosen Original Sin, leaving the Garden of Eden, where all was free and abundant eternally. Meanwhile the fixed pie fallacy is nearly abundant in the discussion of worldly wealth in QA. It’s just not a tenable position any more, not because the morality has changed, but because our understanding of exchange, double coincidence of wants, and Pareto efficiency have come into play. On page 217, for example, we find an impossibility: “Considering the common good on the national level, the following points are relevant and should not be overlooked: to provide employment for as many workers as possible; to take care lest privileged groups arise even among the workers themselves; to maintain a balance between wages and prices; to make accessible the goods and services for a better life to as many persons as possible; either to eliminate or to keep within bounds the inequalities that exist between different sectors of the economy–that is, between agriculture, industry and services; to balance properly any increases in output with advances in services provided to citizens, especially by public authority; to adjust, as far as possible, the means of production to the progress of science and technology; finally, to ensure that the advantages of a more humane way of existence not merely subserve the present generation but have regard for future generations as well,” if only for public choice economics, the fixed pie fallacy, market function in general, or even that great falsity they call a Philips Curve. This type of statement isn’t just blah, it is downright dangerously foolish.
Other thoughts of mine in no particular order on intervening walls of text:
– Could it also be the case that subsidiarity, which demands that anything the market/people can provide be left to their authority and domain, demands in present times that all things be now outside the purview of the state? After all, we are wealthier than we have ever been, and the freer markets are the more abundant ones.
– Market failures seem to be a convenient excuse for the Church to ally with power, rather than a troubling actuality, given the history of food production and scarce resources.
– What if the moral law and economic law and physical law dovetail altogether? Why was this never considered for an omnipotent God?
Gaudium et Spes steps beyond all of the previous encyclicals, arguing that justice DEMANDS expropriation. Three qualifiers are given (p. 261) which make me think that “demands” may mean nothing at all, but the idea is in there all the same. Who will decide what is God’s justice, how many dollars should be extracted, what people have enough, who doesn’t, and on and on? I don’t mean this in any way as a moral skeptic or relativist, but rather because these are not ideas that can be tossed out among obvious wolves subject to Original Sin to the same degree you and I are.
I would like to end with a brief comment I made on a priest’s summary and reflection on Chapter 5 of Laudato Si which explains in good part where I think a few Church leaders have stepped out of bounds on reflections in the economic sphere. These issues are tangential to morality, of course, but are not so fully within that domain that I am uncomfortable saying the teachings are superfluous and even erroneous. Economics is a social science, but that does not mean it possesses no laws or internal consistency. Supply and demand are fixed rules that cannot be broken. Enjoy.
> I’ve been following these entries with some interest, and appreciate you taking the time. It is our job as Catholics to carefully and very personally examine LS to ensure that we are working toward Christ and helping others do the same.
> That said, I do have some concerns about this analysis, specifically where economics plays a part. It is unclear if the advocacy here and in a few paragraphs of LS truly grasps how the economy works (in practice, and ideally). The truth of the matter is that profits are helpful (as are all prices in an economy) in directing resources to that which is most desired by the people. Our concern with consumerism and consumption in the first world are important spiritual considerations, but the effects of the production of consumer goods, namely increased and widespread wages in the third world, are aspects that deserve serious consideration. The hose cannot be shut off directly without severe damage to the poorest of the poor.
> In light of the price system and economy in general, it is troubling that one possible solution envisioned in LS involved public ownership of water sources and other necessary goods. Not only does this simplistic version of economics and naïve view of benevolent government fail to account for economic history littered with misery and death of those under the “protection” of government for such goods (USSR, Mao’s China, Today’s Venezuela, etc.), it fails to account for nearly all political theory involving the tragedy of the commons and economic theories from public choice theory to Hayek’s Law of Unintended Consequences and his price theory for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974. These problems have not been entirely conquered by economists, but there is vast consensus that the most important goods should be produced by market economies.
> It is true that the common good is important, especially in the spiritual sense. What this account fails to consider is the idea that the common good can be reached by pursuit of profits and money – the world is not a static pie that must be divided between people, it grows as we cooperate. Pursuit of the common good can involve money and finance – these are not evils in themselves. It must also be noted that the type of thinking that leads to the static-pie thoughts are also those that pursue goods by means of violence – whether that violence be as great as oil wars or as banal as redistribution of wealth.
> In addition to that consideration, it is obvious that moneyed interests in the political sphere are incredibly dangerous and often destructive – many economists and spiritual masters would find this hard to dispute. Your comments about the nature of political action in pursuit of wealth are crucial to the problems our economy and world face. But these spheres of influence are not the natural habitat of industry. Regulatory capture is an aspect of a democratic culture whose vision has been twisted to believe that the legal and the moral/good are synonymous. There is no side of the political aisle responsible for this confusion, but the irony in the idea that what is needed is a greater degree of regulation is not lost on those who are tuned into the politicized nature of big business weeding out competition with legal positivism. There is great nuance in this point that LS misses, likely for the fact the Papa Francis is not in Rome to be a master of the “worldly philosophy” (economics). Even so, the argument here should involve separation of economy and state as it is with religion and state – nothing less stops the expropriation of the poor foremost. It is the freest markets that have done the most good for the poorest of the poor and the environment, and those which are controlled most fully from the top which have wound up killing the most people.
> I would be glad to provide sources on any of the above ideas, including data.
> Thanks again for the analyses. Always useful and thoughtful.
> I admire the respectful tone of Kev Ahimsa’s intellectually serious criticism of Fr. XXX’s column. I’d like to make three comments, without entangling myself in an infinitely long debate or hoisting myself by my own petard. First, the “tragedy of the commons” is a thought experiment designed by Garrett Hardin, whose ethics is called “lifeboat ethics.” Although it may operate like an axiom within the constraints of rational choice theory, it is not an axiom. There is an abundant literature of critique. Second, neither is Austrian economics axiomatic in the mathematician’s sense. Here too there is an abundant critical literature. So neither the “tragedy of the commons,” “lifeboat ethics,” rational choice theory, nor Austrian economics should be considered to be demonstrative in the way that geometry, for example, is demonstrative. Their normative grounds are therefore also open to question. Third, the reason why I’m making these observations in the first place is that the views in question are inconsistent with the social teaching of the Catholic Church going back to RERUM NOVARUM. What’s at issue here is not science but philosophy and theology, in particular a distinctive philosophical anthropology, which locates human beings within a universal human family centered on the imago Dei and the unconditional dignity of the human person. Take St. Thomas, for example. In his moral, social, and political thought, Aquinas systematically subordinates private property and wealth accumulation to the overarching requirement of the common good. Furthermore, Aquinas’s notion of the common good doesn’t really align with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which is itself an artifact of the eighteenth-century idea of “enlightened self-interest,” alien to Aquinas’s way of thinking about things. It should not be surprising to discover that in contemporary terms, Aquinas’s way of thinking about things would be embodied, for example, in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the great Thomist Jacques Maritain made a fundamental contribution. So Aquinas’s views of private property and wealth accumulation are systematically inconsistent, for example, with John Locke’s or Robert Nozick’s justifications of a supposedly “unalienable” and indeed the first right–the mother lode of rights–to the unlimited private accumulation of the wealth of society by those who (again, unsurprisingly) already have it, on the other side of the universe from a “preferential option for the poor.” Whether the common good is or can be adequately secured by a global regime of unregulated markets is partly an empirical question, but its philosophical and theological grounding come first. Respectfully, peace, SIR.
> Very engaging, SIR. Thank you for the reminders and useful rebuttals.
> The axiomatic nature of the tragedy of the commons is undoubtedly of ongoing concern and question – but for my own, I would only encourage the historical case (not the philosophical one). I gladly concede the point as one of natural occasion, not axiom.
> Austrianism does not purport to give any normative standards. It may be that one prefers the shortage that results in goods for the fact that an artificial floor on prices is legislated – for the fact, perhaps that the law has a utilitarian end of some higher worth. The axioms of Austrianism in Hayekian models are not mere platitudes, though. There are binding aspects to the theories that are shown time and time again in the more positive science perspectives given in alternative approaches. At this point, very few economists doubt that free markets are the primary means to wealth today, the question is where alleged market failures exist and what should be done about them.
> I can very much appreciate Aquinas’ take on the matter, and believe that his work and the work of the Scholastics in the School of Salamanca speak specifically to the economic and social vision in question – and this approach isn’t so clearly anathema to Catholic teaching as many believe. St. Thomas Aquinas was of the opinion that government was a “necessary evil” derived as a reasonable response to Original Sin. Necessary though it may be, his work did not use it as the primary means toward the common good, thoughts on Adam Smith notwithstanding. There are social forces and pressures that need to exist before and in addition to the law that will hold the value of human life in high regard. As I tell my dad in these discussions, “Once you have to make a law [prohibiting some new widespread behavior], you have already lost.”
> Property rights do hold some meaning as well, even if not absolute. Income mobility, despite rumors to the contrary, is very high in this country. Inequality is low in economically free countries as compared to others. It may appear to us that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, but the statistics tell a story of the rich being income-stagnant (after taxes), income inequality decreasing among individuals (rather than the oft-cited household), and the middle class disappearing primarily for the fact that it is moving upward. It is also very likely that inflation in general (of the money supply) yields statistical anomaly in stochastic systems (like finance) in which highs are higher and lows lower, following a Mandelbrotian set rather than Gaussian bell curve. Either way, the financialization of literally everything should be ended immediately.
> This does go into political theory and the opinions of the individual, of course – my own inklings are likely obvious here. For my part, I think government services have insulated us from our community concerns to the point that charity is quieted as a main concern of each of us. Studies showing that every dollar of government charity funding decrease private sector charity work by $0.70 aren’t to be ignored in light of the fact that it takes $5 of tax receipts to yeild $1 of charity work by the federal government.
> Thank you again SIR. You and I would have some great conversations! These are challenging problems, and it is very important to lay a path before we act.