Can Economic Justice Be Achieved Without Law?

October 2000By Thomas Storck

Thomas Storck is a Contributing Editor of the NOR and author most recently of Christendom and the West: Essays on Culture, Society and History.

The radical difference between the type of life fostered by the Catholic Church and the type of life fostered by the modern world is becoming increasingly clear. In the 1950s it might have seemed that the general culture and the culture of the Faith did not differ in too many respects, but the incongruity between Catholic life and modern secular life is apparent now, both in questions of individual morality and conduct and in the life of society as a whole.

In this essay I want to take a look at a moral issue affecting all of society and every individual: the question of economic activity. Economics has long been a subject of Christian concern. Popes, saints, theologians, and philosophers have given considerable attention to the relation of economics -- and its moral dimensions -- to the Faith, understanding that economic activity affects other vital matters, above all family life: Can fathers earn enough to support their families without requiring mothers to enter the paid workforce? Will the cost and availability of housing encourage couples to practice artificial birth control?

In economics as in other areas, the Church has to contend with more than one error at a time, for truth is one but error is many. Socialism, for example, has been condemned, and the definitive judgment of Pius XI in 1931 that "No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist" (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 120) still holds. But here I want to take up another error about economics equally incompatible with Catholicism. This error is succinctly put in the following sentence: "The way to have people make better choices is not to coerce their economic decision-making, but to inform their personal morality." The writer is Fr. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a libertarian think tank in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Let us take a look at the background to this statement, as Fr. Sirico has developed it in his publication, Acton Notes, to understand what it means and why it is wrong.

Fr. Sirico begins his discussion by speaking of economics and its relation to the concept of scarcity. He writes, "Simply put, economics is the study of human action with regard to scarcity," adding that "Scarcity is one of the inescapable facts of life." Nor is it unusual to link the notion of scarcity closely with the definition of economics. Standard economics texts do the same. But Fr. Sirico means, as do nearly all economists, not actual scarceness of resources (lack of food or clothing or building material) in the world. Rather they are talking about a kind of disproportion. Fr. Sirico says that man's "wants and desires are always greater than the resources available to meet them; people are forced...to rank their alternatives and choose from those available options." Scarce resources, he adds, can include not only a lack of money or goods but even a lack of time in which to do everything one might want to do.

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I have returned to this story several times over the last few years. Each time I notice something new that I never considered before. I commend this article in many ways.

My contention is that it fundamentally misses the mark. The application of the principles espoused would likely result is an atrocious state as well.

I agree that economic activity, or, more appropriately, human activity should be directed towards our spiritual/vocational ends. This includes fulfilling the duties of our station in life, promoting the fulfillment of our fellow mans’ duties in his station of life, and attempting to grow to our spiritual potential. If an entire economic system could exist to fulfill these particular ends I would be happy. So would most readers of the NOR.

But…people who desire such ends are rare. Most people I deal with on a day-to-day basis are basically pleasure seekers/pain avoiders. I could argue the merits of my way of life until I am blue in the face. They will ignore me. To make such people cooperate in the sort of economic system suggested would require AMPLE coercion, probably of the most brutal sort.

Let’s consider a story. There is a factory that makes condoms. There are consumers who use these condoms, a good, which provides them with a much-desired activity—obligation free sex. Most people will freely choose to allow these factories to operate given that they adhere to the same quality control and financial honesty regulations that other businesses do. Condoms are with out a doubt an evil good which is purely injurious to the true ends of economic activity, as good Catholics know. But the only way we could achieve those good ends in this world would be trough illegalization of the production of condoms. This would require the expenditure of resources on enforcement, which would probably fail anyway. Condoms would be produced clandestinely the way most illegal drugs are today. I feel great unease whenever any government, or any body of fallen men, outlaw any particular thing. Why? Precedents are set! Because any authority that can ban condoms can just as easily turn around and ban rosaries! Might is right in any world where people use force. Democracy can be merely mobocracy. I fear that the ideas espoused in this article, like forcing economic activity into an end to which it is not naturally inclined, will probably backfire in the worst imaginable way.

I would love to live in a catholic fantasy world, but I don’t. I’d much rather live in a country that allows basic human liberty (even if it is libertine) than live in a country that compels its people towards a religious or ideological end (unless I share that religion and ideology, but I am a hypocrite).
Posted by: argaddini
July 29, 2008 09:50 PM EDT
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