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.

No comments: