Letters to the Editor: July-August 1984
Christianity & Economics
Economic disparities are always more visible in times of distress or transition. For Christians, the severe recession of the past few years has revived once again the discussion about the “Christian view” of economics.
Economics is not an autonomous realm of man’s sociality; it should never have been split off into its own science. Instead, economics is, as even Adam Smith understood it, merely one branch of the moral sciences, which is in turn ruled by the highest science or art, the political art — the art of the statesman. Economics as a descriptive science is most useful; that is, it can tell us with some accuracy about the cause and effect relationships of “economic” factors such as prices, commodities, interest rates, deficits, money supply, etc. But economics is not prescriptive; it cannot tell us how to live, nor does the “invisible hand” of the market supply moral guidance for our behavior toward our fellow man.
Ironically, no one understood this better than Adam Smith. It is something of a scandal how many of those who invoke Smith’s name and wear those silly neckties bearing his likeness have never read The Wealth of Nations or have never even heard of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Far from elevating self-interest and laissez-faire to the level of dogmatic principle, as his contemporary followers do, Smith saw the need for government to prevent self-interest from retarding society and economic progress itself: “Some attention of government is necessary in order to prevent the almost entire corruption and degeneracy of the great body of the people.” Smith also distrusted the commercial class, advising legislators to beware of the business class because it is “an order of man whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” Does this sound like George Gilder or Milton Friedman?
Today’s laissez-faire, self-interested Social Darwinists are much more inspired by Hobbes’s “war of all against all” than by Smith.
Smith understood that the economic relations of men, while governed by market forces, are nevertheless only a subservient part of society and culture as a whole. In other words, the prerogatives of the common good of society are prior to the prerogatives of the economic dimension of life. But the “common good of society” is the everlasting problem of politics.
Ironic as it may seem, modern free-market commercial society attempts to solve the political problem of the common good the same way Marx does, by asserting the primacy of the economic realm of life. Free-market capitalism, abstractly considered, is a utopian idea; it holds that self-interested individuals guided by the “invisible hand” of the market will spontaneously bring forth a good ordering of society. It is an attempt to “de-politicize” the political question of society. It shrinks the scope of government, by removing from government the questions of ends, purposes, and the common good. Instead, the “common good” is simply what the market dictates. Government today deliberates mostly about means, the means of keeping the commercial machinery humming smoothly along. Government is thus limited to the care of the body, whereas the idea of “the common good” must include the care of the soul.
Unfortunately, only secular and Christian socialism (not Marxism) have recognized as a matter of principle the primacy of the political, or the primacy of the common good. I say “unfortunately” because socialism is a colossal failure.
Which brings me, abruptly, to Stuart Gudowitz’s article “A Christian View of Economic Virtue (March). Gudowitz affirmed private property while saying Christians should “reject free-market economics.” He makes two general proposals for reform. First, he advocates profit sharing, capital accrual to workers, and, where practicable, worker self-management. Secondly, the common good should supersede the competitive market as the governing factor in economic life. While I agree with Gudowitz’s sentiments and sympathize with the intent of his moderate proposals, I must nevertheless strongly disagree with his analysis.
To begin with, it makes about as much sense to suggest we should reject free-market economics as it does to suggest we should reject the law of gravity. For, in a free society, the idea of the “free-market economy” is not an arbitrary choice or preference of economic organization, but is in fact descriptive of the way people make economic decisions, just as the law of gravity describes the motion of falling objects. There is no way of altering fundamentally the behavior of millions of people making independent decisions.
As I indicated above, this is not to say that the market must be made the pre-eminent factor of society. After all, it is the free market that brought us Hustler magazine. But it is to say this: just as the law of gravity has not stopped us from building skyscrapers and going to the moon, so too the exigencies of the market need not stop us from efforts to make the economy serve the common good. In making suggestions for altering the economy to a better end, one rule should always be recalled: the market is bigger than all of us. There is nothing inherently wrong with restricting the free market, but it must never be done lightly, and it should always be the least restriction possible.
Let’s take an example: consider a company that decides because of competition it must either relocate overseas or automate, with the result a loss of 10,000 jobs. While those 10,000 workers would be better off if the government blocked the move or subsidized the present operation, we would all (including the 10,000 workers) be worse off in the long run. What happens to that company when consumers buy the less costly product of a competitor? How much tax money must be diverted from other needs for this company’s subsidy? How many new jobs will be lost because of diverted investment by this firm? If this company does not heed competition, it will die. There will be no profits, new investment, or job creation; instead we will have a stagnating and eventually useless plant and rapidly depreciating capital.
Another possible answer would be a combination of market-oriented remedies. Generous severance pay for workers could be required, for a start. A “capital relocation tax” might be levied on plants moved overseas, with the revenue going to the displaced workers. The House Democratic Caucus has proposed a “Workers’ Productivity Incentive,” which would provide generous tax breaks and credits to companies that hire and retrain displaced workers. These measures would allow the market to operate while affording some protection for the interests of workers.
Housing is another example. Rent control, most economists concede, causes distortions in the rental housing market, and discourages new building, leading to chronic shortages and even higher rents. Rather than rent control, I would propose a progressive tax on rents above a certain fixed “fair rate of return.” This would discourage excessive price gouging, and certain deductions would encourage maintenance. I would also require that landlords hold a certain amount of equity in their apartments, which would discourage speculation and leveraged buying of buildings in a “pyramid” fashion. The revenue raised could be used for low income rent assistance. None of these measures is ideal, but there are no ideal solutions to these problems.
In short, it is not enough to state that the common good should take precedence over competition. What is called for is an appreciation of the market, and a great deal of prudence and technical expertise to design sensible and productive answers that truly serve the common good. Gudowitz’s general suggestion that the common good be prior to competition is fine in itself, but its application is fraught with hazards, as I hope I have shown.
Gudowitz’s first proposal — for profit sharing, capital accumulation for workers, and worker self-management — is once again a sentiment with which few could disagree. However, these ideas are highly problematic. Are workers who share in the profits willing to share the losses as well by taking pay cuts? In other words, if workers are to share the rewards of capital, does not fairness dictate that they share the risks as well? I’m not sure this is in the best interest of workers. And who is to control the use of the workers’ “free capital”? Business investment is terribly risky, a consideration Gudowitz may not fully appreciate. Seven oil companies, for instance, recently spent $1.8 billion for what turned out to be a dry hole on the north slope of Alaska. I do not think it is a sensible idea for workers to share this sort of risk. While I support profit sharing, I do not think it should be asserted as a matter of right.
I also don’t think Gudowitz fully understands the role of capital in the generation of wealth. He draws a distinction between the right of private property for the performance of one’s trade — e.g., the hammer of the shoemaker or the personal computer of the accountant — and the passive ownership of common stock by an investor. The investor, he asserts, differs from the tradesman. This obscures the function of capital. What is to be done when the “tools of the trade” are beyond the means of any one person to own, such as a steel factory? This is why stock was invented — to allow hundreds or even thousands of individuals (or institutional investors) to own collectively what no single person could own or create alone.
But it is not my purpose endlessly to dispute Gudowitz’s ideas, because I share his fundamental purpose. This is merely to point out that Christian theorists must devote a good deal more time, energy, and hard-bitten thought to the subject beyond general sentiments. Indeed, Christian economists must achieve a measure of technical as well as theoretical expertise if their suggestions are to be taken seriously by policymakers.
There is no perfect system of justice in this world, and nearly every modern tyranny can be attributed to those who sought to put into practice some imaginary system of “perfect justice.” But our effort to serve God and emulate His ways on earth knows no end, which is why this is a crucial discussion. Let the discussion continue.
San Marino, California
STUART GUDOWITZ REPLIES:
Should workers as owners share in the losses as well as the profits of their firm? Of course, though the concept of “limited liability” (the cornerstone of modern corporations) might certainly be adapted and applied to worker-run firms.
In fact, workers are already affected by unfortunate investment decisions that impair the health of their firms — even to the extent, at times, of being laid off. Now they have no control over the sorts of risk their firms take; in worker-owned firms, they would have such control.
And how would worker-run firms raise funds before they are able to do so through their firms’ own profits? Simply the way many capitalist firms (not to mention home owners) do now: by borrowing (e.g., by the issuance of bonds rather than shares of stock which confer ownership).
It is not clear what Mr. Hayward means by the market. If he means by it simply the conjoining of individual economic decisions currently being made, surely there is nothing sacred here: the decisions are not necessarily infallible nor the results and effects beneficent. If he means by the market the market as defined in free-market or neoclassical Keynesian thought, he is quite wrong in thinking that this is “descriptive of the way people make economic decisions.” As rigorous and vigorous economic thinkers, not mere naïve Christian sentimentalists, of various schools of thought have maintained for over a century, the economic models of free-market theory and its variants are based upon assumptions (e.g., perfect knowledge on the part of economic actors) that are laughably incorrect. Further, such models assume some overarching economic order with laws (akin to Hayward’s laws of gravity). But actual economies exist on earth, in human society, and are invariably affected by historically contingent (and ever-changing) factors such as culture, institutions, and the ecology. Any sane, true, and helpful economics thus must have a good dose of induction, and take account of variable societal and historical factors, unlike mainstream economics which is positivist, deductive, and uses elegant, though feckless, mathematical abstractions which blithely ignore historical, cultural, and institutional factors. An excellent recent example of economic theorizing which recognizes that the market’s “laws” are essentially mythic is The Irrelevance of Conventional Economics by the well-known Cambridge University economist Lord Thomas Balogh.
One last point: Adam Smith did think there was an economic order whose laws would regulate human economic activity for the common good (and he was suspicious of businessmen because he thought they would collude to get round the market’s “laws”). Smith’s views are not true, as I have stated above, but simply one of the many pernicious fantasies of the so-called Enlightenment.
Want to Trade Places?
The purpose of this letter is to complain bitterly about the cynical sarcasm of the Rev. Robert G. Pumphrey in his letter to the editor (April). If he really thinks full employment would be “hellish,” perhaps he would like to trade places with me! I have been out of work since July 30, 1981.
It was over 33 months ago when I last drew a paycheck, and even then the take-home pay was half of what it had been in July 1980. President Reagan harps about “how much better off the workers are” now than four years ago, but the fact is that four years ago I grossed $360 per week as a PECB engineer and mechanicals draftsman. Yet 33 months ago I grossed only $228 — but my rent had almost doubled and I was forced to commute 30 miles each way to work, as against only four miles in 1980. Since August 1981 I have gone bankrupt just searching for work, lost my apartment and all credit, forfeited my bank account, been exiled 760 miles from my home in southern Florida (a climate I require for my health), and must mooch off my aged and retired parents in their small cottage here in a South Carolina ghetto.
Going to look for work is about as fruitful as trying to melt a mammoth iceberg with a cigarette lighter. All I get are brush-offs, excuses, and hogwash rejections. Such has been my “reward” for voluntarily serving this ingrate nation in Vietnam.
I worked my way through college, obtaining two degrees. But I put myself in the hospital twice by going to school and working full time plus a part-time job to boot, and maintaining an “A” average. Hard work, Father Pumphrey, sir! That is very hard work.
It was sheer arrogance for a pastor (now my former pastor) to tell me — a hungry, homeless, jobless worker — to “Thank God for your situation.” In essence, Fr. Pumphrey is telling me the same thing.
Reagan and his clones and cronies are trying to turn the calendar back to 1884 — or 1784. Their concept of “full employment” is for masses of workers to toil in unsafe conditions at low wages in environmentally polluted industries and climates, all huddled together in shanty-towns, while a few fat cats at the top enjoy total libertinism. Now, that would really be hellish!
Contrary to Fr. Pumphrey, I think laws forcing the elitist muckitymucks and uppityups to hire the poor, oppressed, and unemployed workers at living and decent wages is long overdue.
I am not alone in my condition. No, I’m one of millions of unemployed. Moreover, the officially acknowledged unemployment figures hardly tell the whole story. Fortunately, there are some honest commentators and analysts unafraid to “tell it like it is” on PBS’s Frontline series, and who reveal in documentary after documentary that the unemployment figures do not show that the only persons really being hired are young persons (19-22 years old), without college or at best one year of junior college, lacking skills, and hired for dead-end, tidbit, whippydip “jobs” at minimum wage in the so-called service (i.e., demeaning servitude) sector, or for temporary jobs (two weeks to three months duration) via Manpower and similar agencies. Furthermore, unemployment benefits are continually expiring for workers like me (mine disappeared on Jan. 31, 1982), whose numbers are now two — to four million (depending on whose statistics you believe), which persons are officially UNPERSONS as a result of our Orwellian Reaganomics, because they are not counted in the official unemployment figures.
If there is, as Pumphrey says, “hellishness” to full employment, then what, pray God, is it we are experiencing now? Would Fr. Pumphrey call this “heaven”? If he wants to trade places with me, I’ll gladly give him my address. And I’ll gladly live off his no doubt sizable pension.
Spartanburg, South Carolina
Response from Opus Dei
At the start of a long letter to the editor criticizing Opus Dei (March), two quotations from seemingly authentic sources appear.
The first quotation is from Cardinal Oddi and deals with the parents’ duty not to abandon the education of their children into the hands of professionals, whether of the Church or of the state.
The second says literally: “‘When God enters the picture, parents’ rights cease.’ — official Opus Dei directive.” My principal purpose here is simply to state that such an Opus Dei directive does not exist. It is actually contrary to the spirituality of Opus Dei, as often expressed by its founder, Msgr. Josemaría Escrivá, and sincerely practiced by its members.
The founder of Opus Dei from the very beginning called the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother” the “sweetest” of the Decalogue. Following his teaching, Opus Dei has always stressed in the formation of its members the obligation to love and venerate parents, in accordance with St. Paul’s teaching and the constant tradition of the Church. For example, centers of Opus Dei organize spiritual activities, conferences, and gatherings for parents and family members. When parents of celibate members of Opus Dei are in need, they receive at least as much help from their son or daughter in Opus Dei as from their other children.
By virtue of Opus Dei’s somewhat unique nature among Church institutions, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons are all capable of receiving the same vocation to Opus Dei. In practice, this frequently does happen: sometimes the parents have discovered their own vocation to Opus Dei through the vocation of one or more of their children; more often, sons and daughters have come to Opus Dei through the example and inspiration of their parents.
In educational endeavors of members of Opus Dei throughout the world, family co-operation is always striven for. Once again following the teaching of Msgr. Escrivá, the school’s order of priority should be: first the teachers, then the parents, in third place the students. This ideal is translated into an ongoing effort to involve parents in the educational process: parent-teacher conferences, periodic meetings with advisers, parents’ committees, and so on.
In sum, nothing could be further from the truth than to suggest that the parents and families of Opus Dei’s members, or of all those who frequent centers of Opus Dei, constitute some kind of “problem” for Opus Dei. On the contrary, families are the greatest help to Opus Dei in its work of apostolate; and Opus Dei for its part tries to be as much help as possible to parents in raising their children in a Christian manner.
Let me now turn to the area of concern that centers on the possible vocation of a young person. Here it is helpful to keep things in perspective, for most of the youths who participate in formative programs of Opus Dei do not even consider the possibility of a vocation to this Church institution.
Secondly, it is young people we are talking about here; say, under the age of 20. But of the 100 people who have most recently asked to join Opus Dei in the United States (men’s and women’s branches), only 16 were between the ages of 17 and 19, while 26 were between the ages of 20 and 25, and 58 were over 25 years of age. Furthermore, none of these persons is permitted to make any kind of binding commitment to Opus Dei, and then for no more than a year, after one and a half years have elapsed from the time of his or her request.
Finally, we should keep in mind that most members of Opus Dei are married, not celibate; and yet parental concern seems to center on the latter, by and large.
A vocation to Opus Dei, like any other vocation in the Church, is a personal calling from God to be freely accepted or rejected, without any coercion from others, be they relatives, friends, or potential associates (see canon 219 of the new Code of Canon Law and Article 1 of the 1983 “Charter of the Rights of the Family”).
Parents should foster and support their children’s quest to live their own vocations. Talk of “parental rights” in this context must be balanced with this consideration of the parents’ responsibility to respect God’s call, wherever it might lead their children. Of course, generally parents do respect and appreciate their children’s vocations, even to such out-of-the-way places as a cloistered convent, where there are carefully circumscribed visitation rights.
But neither can we be surprised if sometimes it happens that parents are opposed. Not for nothing did our Lord say: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37). St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, to name just a few, all had parents opposed to their vocations. If they had paid too much attention to parental reservations, the Catholic Church might well be short a number of its outstanding saints.
When a young person encounters a particular way of spirituality in the Church that finds its full expression in a vocation to an approved institution, the principal concern of both parents and directors of the institution should be: Is this what God wants for this person? Discerning a vocation takes prayer, time, and a lot of soul-searching, especially on the part of the young man or woman involved.
Outside of exceptional cases, the advice the founder of Opus Dei gave is clear: “Precisely because…decisive steps…affect an entire life and because a person’s happiness depends to a great extent on the decision made, it is clear that they should be taken calmly, without precipitation. They should be particularly responsible and prudent decisions. And part of prudence consists precisely in seeking advice. It would be presumption — for which we usually pay dearly — to think that we can decide alone, without the grace of God and without the love and guidance of other people, and especially of our parents” (Conversations with Msgr. Escrivá, n. 104).
The time at which parents are consulted in the prospective vocation of their children varies according to the desires and circumstances of the persons involved. Obviously parents are aware when their sons or daughters are frequenting centers of Opus Dei, and of the nature of the spiritually formative activities that take place there. They have ample opportunity to get to know Opus Dei, something we encourage. Likewise, they can consult and advise their children at any time, and most do so.
The general provision of Canon Law is that the earliest a person can make even a temporarily binding commitment to a vocation is 18 years of age (can. 656). People by that time are legally adults and entitled to make their own decisions for the future. Moreover, lifetime commitments to Opus Dei are not made until age 23. People can request to join Opus Dei before they reach age 18, but the earliest they can apply formally is age 161/2.
When the question of a vocation is being considered, but before any binding commitment is made, almost everyone speaks with his or her parents about it. In any event, both they and their parents have the right to consult whomever they want at any time, just as they are free to turn down the vocation and leave.
Celibate dedication to the service of God sometimes entails a certain separation from one’s family. A vocation to Opus Dei is, after all, quite serious, with a complete commitment to service and apostolate. What could cause some concern is that this new commitment is not ordinarily accompanied by a change in external circumstances or lifestyle. Instead, the college student continues his or her studies, the young workingman or — woman — continues his or her career. Nonetheless, each has taken on, in addition to his or her ordinary responsibilities, a challenging plan of spiritual life which takes a significant amount of time each day, and a commitment to the study of Catholic teaching that, in effect, takes up vacations. Add to this the apostolic efforts that members of Opus Dei try to carry out on an ongoing basis, and it is not surprising that he or she finds it necessary to shorten the time spent with family. It is part, and not a small one, of the self-denial God’s service entails.
The same or greater separation can be occasioned for other reasons, for example, professional ones. Dr. Benjamin Mays, the black educator who was the spiritual mentor of the civil rights movement, left home at age 19 without his father’s blessing in order to pursue a high school diploma: “If you feel called to do something great and wonderful, you don’t let anybody stop you, not even your father” (CBS Evening News, March 28, 1984). If parents have to live with that, they can also come to terms with a similar situation occasioned by the love of God. Happily, as I have said, such difficulties are relatively infrequent.
Dwight G. Duncan, Director
U.S. Information Office of Opus Dei
New York City
Miriam Nixon’s letter (May) presents a strong argument for acceptance of abortion as a compassionate, and sometimes necessary, solution to the overwhelming problems faced by the welfare mother. Her argument, though however touching, is based on fallacious thinking and misguided charity.
The fundamental flaw in Nixon’s argument is, of course, her failure to see the unborn child as a real, live human being, worthy to share in the same life we all share. She speaks of abortion, for the welfare mother, as a means of keeping “open the possibility of a decent life for herself and her children.” Has Nixon forgotten that the mother’s born children were all once the same size and shape and age as the unborn child, and yet were still the same individuals they now are? Killing the unborn child is really no different from killing born children — though the latter seems more abhorrent. With Nixon’s reasoning, it should be all right for the welfare mother to kill off any one (or more) of her children to preserve that “possibility of a decent life for herself” and the rest of the children.
Nixon says she does not feel she has the right to tell a welfare mother “No!” concerning abortion, unless she can offer 18 years of help to the mother in caring for the child. I tell you, until we stop accepting abortion as a “solution” to problem pregnancies, our society will make little or no progress toward real help for the welfare mother. Can we really expect a father to stick around and help a woman who is inconveniently pregnant? After all, it is her choice to have the baby. She could easily have an abortion instead. Why should he accept any responsibility?
The same theme is picked up by the whole of society. Why should more money be spent on welfare or child care? After all, those welfare children could have been aborted! Abortion is cheaper than welfare subsidies, you know!
This deviant philosophy extends to other “burdens” of society. How about the handicapped? Why should the public be forced to provide special services for these “imperfect people”? Didn’t we already donate so mothers could have prenatal counseling to search out and destroy their “defective young” before birth?
Abortion is a germ-laden bandage, covering up the wound but spreading the infection.
Class & “Quality of Life”
Gregory Aloia served us well with his article “The Treatment of Handicapped Infants” (March). The quality-of-life ethic to which he alludes has indeed become aggressively ascendant among an astonishingly wide array of physicians and ethicists.
Indeed, it has developed well beyond the examples he cites in his article. Last fall doctors at Oklahoma Children’s Memorial Hospital in Oklahoma City wrote an article describing how they selected more than a third of their spina bifida patients for nontreatment — with the not-unanticipated result that the babies died. The basis for the decision? Anthony Shaw’s despicable Quality of Life Formula, QL=NEx(H+S), where NE stands for “natural endowment” and H+S stands for “contribution from home and society.” The results show that, by and large, babies whose parents were white and middle class lived, and those whose parents were poor, black, and Indian died.
John C. Blattner
As an admirer of both Edith Black and Msgr. George Kelly, as well as a former admirer of Raymond Brown, may I comment on her review of Kelly’s The New Biblical Theorists (April)? Few books in my lifetime brought me the satisfaction Kelly’s demolition job on Brown’s Catholic scholarship did. For that reason, my hope is that Black’s closing wish, that her critical review will not dissuade anyone from reading the book, will be fulfilled.
As an orthodox and competent Scripture scholar herself. Black naturally feels that those in Brown’s own field are the ones who should have answered him. She makes much of the fact that Kelly’s doctorate is in sociology, not Scripture.
As a matter of fact, though, most of Kelly’s career has been concerned with matters of Roman Catholic teaching, the subject his book is fundamentally about. He was once secretary for education in the Archdiocese of New York and later director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Catholic Doctrine as well as the John A. Flynn Professor in Contemporary Catholic Problems at St. John’s University, New York. He is, therefore, quite competent to point out, as he does trenchantly, how Brown deviates widely from authentic Catholic teaching.
Rev. Thos. F. O’Connor, S.S.J.
St. Joan of Arc Church
New Orleans, Louisiana
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