In order not to lose the timeliness of this posting, we're once again delaying the completion of the series, "On Usury and Other Dishonest Profit" in order to post a letter we wrote yesterday to the Wall Street Journal. While one individual who reviewed the letter stated that the Wall Street Journal probably would have to put too much thought into understanding it, and thus would not publish it, you never know. Besides, publishing it on this blog gets it out to a somewhat more insightful, if somewhat smaller public.
July 15, 2009
Pope Benedict XVI's new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate makes a good start on giving principles for straightening out the economy — but only a start. Its effectiveness depends on what "just and moral people" do with it. As both Father Robert Sirico ("The Pope on 'Love in Truth'," WSJ, 07/10/09, A17) and Ms. Julie Davis ("Economics Isn't Jesus's Main Focus," WSJ, 07/15/09, A14) understand, "there is no just or moral system without just and moral people."
Unfortunately, many people will be tempted to take this to mean that the system itself cannot be corrected, or will not function properly until and unless a determinate number of people in the system are just and moral. If we wait to act until most people are perfect, however, we are going to be waiting a very long time, as well as obviating the very reason we have a system in the first place: to assist individuals in the task of developing more fully as human beings through recognition of and respect for personal sovereignty and human dignity.
As even Adam Smith understood, as long as our economic institutions are properly designed and maintained in a manner consistent with essential principles of justice, it is not necessary for everyone to be just and moral before they work to become just and moral. Initially, a small cadre in positions of power can organize and act justly and morally to correct the system, thereby opening up equal opportunity for everyone else. After that, as Smith pointed out in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776), even a "selfish and rapacious" individual can develop habits of doing good.
Applied consistently, as in the design of the United States by the Founding Fathers, principles of justice would result in a system in which 1) the role of the State is limited to what is necessary to protect life, liberty, and property, and provide a "level playing field," 2) the market is free and open and recognized as the best means for determining just wages, just prices, and just profits, 3) the rights of private property are restored, especially in corporate equity, and 4) all artificial barriers are lifted that inhibit or prevent universal or equal access to the means of acquiring direct ownership of the means of production, whether by individuals alone or in free association with others.
Although this last was a central point in the teachings by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), the necessity of widespread ownership of the means of production was not mentioned in Caritas in Veritate. This suggests to many people, unfamiliar with previous encyclicals and the Catholic belief in their permanent validity, that private property is no longer important, and the State must now assume responsibility for and control over everyone's life.
That is why in the near future we should probably expect to see a clarification of the principles of justice as they apply to economics, at least as soon as the Vatican sees the variety of contradictory interpretations people will force on Caritas in Veritate in spite of explicit warnings in the encyclical itself. The alternative is to leave unchallenged the wrong idea of the proper role of the State, and neglect the importance of private property.