Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mixed Signals

Some of us on the Right are skeptical of the Church's instincts as it pertains to economic or political things. This is a matter of some exasperation for Church partisans. They can say, as Boethius does, "Look, the Church rejects socialism, the Church respects private property, the Church opposes class warfare. It says so right here in Rerum Novarum, written by the pope himself"

Well, our suspicions are not merely paranoia. Here's a couple of interesting links of back-and-forth from Rep. Joseph Kennedy and Abp. Dolan of New York (hat tip to the Corner). Note especially the words of Abp. Dolan: there's nothing in them that suggests any wavering on the traditional doctrines of the Church, in this case the prohibition against abortion. But, without explicitly agreeing, he seems to acquiesce to Rep. Kennedy's premise that of course we all support Democratic-sponsored health care reform once we can resolve these small side-issue dealbreakers.

Of course this ignores the multitude of problems with the various Democratic proposals that have nothing to do with abortion. So, statements such as Dolan's which I suggest are fairly typical are one step up and two steps back: the Church's doctrines are affirmed while at the same time seeming to place them in an improper or uncertain context and conceding too much to the Left on non-doctrinal issues.

The Priority of Labor

Boethius has written a lot of worth responding to. At the risk of repetition, let's pick up on this business of the priority of labor over capital one more time.

Boethius, speaking with the Church, is certainly correct in one sense: we can have labor without capital but we cannot have capital without labor therefore labor is literally first. But as I argued in a prior comment, most contemporary thought on about this topic is about the ethics of compensation: how much labor gets vs. how much capital gets.

But even if we accept this to be an error, the train of thought is still interesting for me at least. The idea is that the material goods of the world are ordered to human welfare. Labor, having priority, is more fundamental to human welfare than capital therefore it must be compensated at the expense of capital if necessary. What's interesting about this is that if even if some of the Left's premises are faulty, not all of them are. In particular, I have no problem conceding to the Left that the goods of the world are properly ordered toward human welfare.

But there's something of a paradox that says that if property that is held privately serves public ends better than property that is held publicly. But paradox or not, that's what the history of the last 150 years or so tell us very strongly. There are substantial costs in trying anything else.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Nothing is more useful..."

...than to look upon the world as it really is." This migh be mistaken for one of Koz's fundamental assertions, but this quote in fact comes from Pope Leo XIII, in his criticism of socialism in Rerum Novarum, section 18. Since Koz has additionally asserted that what passes for Catholic Social Doctrine includes "Economics for Leprechauns and Unicorns," my goal with this series of posts is to explore whether the difference in apprehended reality can be accounted for by 1) the Church's social doctrine is incorrect or deficient in some aspects; 2) Koz's opinions, on the contrary, suffer from those defects; or, 3) what Koz is criticizing is not actually church doctrine, but popularized versions used by factions within the Church for political ends.

"Capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital [R.N. 19]," for example, seems to be another principle at odds with what Koz says is claimed by the Catholic left, which apparently implies that the Church should be more concerned with laborers than with capitalists. I would like to see a reference to where this is claimed, though I don't dispute that this is indeed claimed by many. The problem with this position, the distorted 'liberal' view, is also documented by Pope Leo, when he writes:
The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth [19].
I would agree that there is largely a knee-jerk notion smoldering in areas of the American Church that capitalists, those who provide capital for the benefit of laborers, are basically evil people. Obviously the Church does not teach this, and by emphasizing the necessity of harmony between classes would actually seem to be closer to the Reaganometric 'trickle down' theory than, say, an Alinskian agitprop strategy. We will see, however, that this is far from a clear endorsement of a completely free market or 'unbridled captialism', though the extent to which the Church is clear on the precise duties of capitalists is still very much openly disputed by conservative Catholic economists. We have much more to wade through before weighing in on that dispute, but for today, suffice it to say that if Koz's criticisms are aimed at real assertions by real people, I would hold that they do not speak in accord with Leo XIII.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Is the Church by Nature Socialist?

At times, some within the Church have imagined that the ideal depicted in Acts 4: 32 should be the norm guiding the Church at all times:

"The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common."

For this reason, it has been an easy move for many Christians in the past 150 years to adopt a kind of de facto socialist point of view. However, already by the fourth century, and probably much earlier, Church Fathers were pointing out that this ideal from Acts was only lived in monastic settings, where in addition to a promise of poverty, monks and nuns also vowed celibacy. Marriage, being an institution of God for those in the world and not in monastic communities, necessitates the ownership of private property, which allows for parents to produce goods for the benefit of those who are helpless to do so for themselves, namely for children. Thus it is that Pope Leo XIII can write:

"it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property. This being established, we proceed to show where the remedy sought for must be found."

He also makes the interesting exegetical argument that God Himself ordained private property, by noting that the commandment, "Thou shalt not covet," makes no sense if what someone else has to be coveted is in fact common property.

Finally in this section of Rerum Novarum (11-15), the pope accurately predicts the drying up of capital (=means of production) in communist states (as Koz noted in a recent comment on the current state of Polish labor) when he writes:

"the sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry; and that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the levelling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation."

It is worth noting that in both quotes, the interest of the Holy Father is in the alleviation of poverty, one of the Church's main projects while in the world. Thus, we see that the 'preferential option for the poor', is not an invention of Vatican II or socialists, but is inscribed in the very nature of the Church. However, when it comes to proposals on how to carry this out, the Church's preferential option, as we shall see, is realistic in the sense that it acknowledges the shortcomings of actual people and the need therefore of justice. The traditional definition of justice is the virtue of giving each person his or her due. In the area of our material existence, this means the preservation of justly acquired capital in the hands of the laborer who created it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Labor, Capital, Private Ownership

First of all, happy feast day to all of you out there named Boethius, who died on this date in 525 or so.

And in celebration of this wise man's life, I will, at long last, begin contributing some observations on Catholic social teaching, as presented in the encyclicals beginning with the timeless Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII.

One should note, right off, that we tend to read these older documents especially in light of present concerns, and with a history of interpretation, not all of which, as Koz has rightly suggested, actually harmonizes with what Pope Leo actually wrote. Thus, there is a tendency to look for clues of the Holy Father 'taking our side' by condemning socialism or capitalism and promoting the other option. In fact, the very assumption of having to choose between one or the other is largely false and is one more aspect of the debate of recent decades that distorts the teaching (and again, with Koz I assert that this distortion frequently comes from Catholics themselves).

That said, it can hardly be denied that the Church from the outset has condemned socialism firmly; indeed, Rerum Novarum was written precisely at a time that the Specter of Communism was hovering expectantly over much of Europe, certainly over the future of the royal family in Russia. The problem with socialism according to Leo, is the denial of the rights of private property by the proposal of common ownership administered by the state. In defending the right of private ownership, the Pontiff indirectly sets out a principle with which Koz apparently takes exception, that is the primacy of labor over capital.

I will conclude today's post by suggesting that this principle, when reduced to a 'catchphrase' (as rightly portrayed by Koz a few weeks ago), gives the false impression that somehow capital is a bad thing or should be 'given fewer favors' by whomever is doling them out. That already gives away some of the problems of this leftist stance. Who is giving the favors away if not the state that has unjustly appropriated capital? But more to the point, there is no need to choose between capital and labor. Labor takes raw materials and produces capital, and capital in turn opens up opportunities for new labor and an improvement in man's situation that hardly is available to, say, settlers on virgin land. The priority of labor over capital follows from man's spiritual nature enjoying priority over his material nature. By use of reason and imagination, man changes raw material into workable capital. Capital as such, therefore, does not exist in nature, but is always a product of thinking man. As a product of man's spiritual nature, it is a good thing, and should not be disparaged. The question pressing Leo, as we shall see, is the problem, obvious in socialism, but also a problem in some expressions of capitalism, of working man unjustly deprived of the fruits of his labor, that is, of his own capital, and therefore of his freedom to improve his own situation. He is typically today deprived either by the state, or by unjust practices of those whose power is primarily economic.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Some Disguise

Steven Chapman tells us that 2016 Olympics not being awarded to Chicago is a "blessing in disguise." If that's so, the disguise wasn't very effective. I don't know of a single Chicagoan not trying to ride a gravy train who wanted Chicago to host the Olympics.

Economics for Leprechauns and Unicorns

Let's make a couple of clarifications with respect to Boethius' lastest post.

First of all, the is/ought gap I was talking about in this post is referring to Catholic Social Doctrine. Catholic Social Doctrine is primarily (but not exclusively) associated with a set of papal encyclicals starting with Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII (and Boethius conveniently linked to). This is not the same thing Christian doctrine in general, Christian exhortations such as the commandment to love one's enemies, or Christian foreign policy.

Second, the is/ought gap is not about "goals" as much as premises. CSD often tries to instruct us on the proper social and economic relations in situations that are only vaguely recognizable to most of us.

If I had to reduce this to one example, I'd pick the "priority of labor over capital," a catchphrase of both the Catholic Left and the secular Left as well. First of all, it's fundamentally mistaken to think that the disparagement of capital is the way to meet basic human needs. But more than that, to a substantial extent the priority of labor over capital is a logical non sequitur. There is not necessarily any "they" who doles some goodies for labor and some for capital (and who is also subject to moral instruction from popes).

This is especially revealing in the context of the modern industrial welfare state. If the place where we arbitrarily choose between labor and capital is foreign for us, the modern welfare state plainly is not. Not every nation with a social-service apparatus is the same of course, but there's enough commonality to treat it as one phenomenon. But in spite of being a tangible reality for most of us, the social encyclicals speak of the welfare state only in vague terms. This leaves the field open for the Catholic Left to identify the expansion of the welfare state as the "Catholic" solution for modern social relations. Whatever may be said for that (and those of us on the Right are skeptical), the world that describes is a much more boring place than the one that actually exists.

The Sailer Strategy

For at least a decade, Steve Sailer has found a good niche in the punditocracy by looking hard at margins of politically correct mainstream discourse. Nonetheless, I've got a strong gut feeling that this is fundamentally misguided.

First of all, the "fundamental Manichaeism" of black-white race relations is weaker now than at any time in American history. For the most part our cultural narratives have moved on to other things. Besides that, I think it's more effective to attack the "coolness deficit" directly. The GOP should emphasize that voting Republican signals the voter's intent to earn their own living. And, mooching off the taxpayers is not cool.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Things as they ought to be?

Koz is mainly in the right to suggest that some, perhaps many, doctrines that have been advanced in the social encyclicals of the past 118 years seem at odds with things "as they are." By contrasting this to things as they ought to be, he implies that Catholic doctrine in general posits goals that are at odds with things 'as they are'; the root example being Christ's commandment to love, which receives plenty of lip service while Christian example too frequently is wanting in terms of performance. Those reborn in the Spirit are new creations, and yet they seem to change little, etc, etc. Chesterton's bon mot regarding Christianity never having been tried comes to mind.

That said, I think that Koz has a slightly different point in mind, that the encyclicals actually try to make observations of things as they and get them wrong; or propose ideals that might be fine if we were dealing with Christian kingdoms, but are very problematic when dealing leaders who are elected by population less and less evangelized and other nations that simply do not believe in the Christian gospel (i.e. Islamic states).

The difficulty in such charges is that the data is lacking, and I wonder what would happen if we actually examined specific phrases or sections of the social encyclicals, which are all readily available at the Vatican website (I may have left some out of that hyper-link barrage). Then analyze with respect to whether these things that ought to be can be understood without recourse to papal obtuseness.