Wednesday, March 13, 2013

State Sovereignty . . . Or Sovereignty of the People?


As the Preamble to the Constitution clearly states, “We, the People” are the source of all rights and powers that we have delegated to the government so that it may carry out its proper function.  This is in strict accordance with the political philosophy of Saint Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, with which most of the Founding Fathers were familiar through John Locke and Algernon Sidney, although George Mason of Gunston Hall may have read Bellarmine directly.

The purpose of government is to secure and protect each person’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property.  This is generally construed as restricting the role of government to providing equality of opportunity, not pre-determined results.  To this, Catholic social teaching adds that, in “extreme cases,” in distributive justice the government may levy additional taxes to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves.  (Rerum Novarum, § 22.)

(This should not be confused with the responsibility that employers have to pay an adequate wage when workers are dependent on wages for their sole source of income.  That comes under commutative justice and has a different rationale.  Quadragesimo Anno, § 110.)

The problem is that, as ownership and control of capital have become concentrated in the hands of a private sector elite (capitalism) or a public sector bureaucracy (socialism), the great mass of people have been forced into a condition of dependency, either on their employers for wages, or the State for welfare: “a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” (Rerum Novarum, § 3.)

Because (as Daniel Webster noted in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820) “Power naturally and necessarily follows property,” the obvious solution to the problems caused by concentrated capital ownership is not to vest ownership/control in the State, as Marx advocated (“The insane remedy of agrarian laws,” as Orestes Brownson put it).  Rather,

“The law . . . should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)

Widespread capital ownership (what some have called “the Distributist State”) cannot be achieved by redistribution of existing wealth or by redefining the natural law, e.g., turning private property from a natural right into prudential matter by over-emphasizing the social aspect of ownership.

This creates a dilemma.  As far as most people are concerned, the only way to finance new capital formation is to cut consumption and accumulate money savings.  They are unaware of the fact — or reject it outright — that since the 17th century and the invention of central banking, most new capital formation during periods of rapid growth has been financed not with past reductions in consumption, but with the present value of future increases in the production of marketable goods and services.

Reliance on existing accumulations of savings to finance new capital formation paints you into a corner, however.  By definition, because they are the only ones who can, in general, afford to save, existing accumulations of savings are a virtual monopoly of the rich.  That means, absent some stroke of luck or happenstance, all new capital formation will belong to the already-rich by right of private property.

Chesterton and Belloc, realizing this, could only advocate sitting back and waiting for the current system to collapse, then hope that the new system would be built along more rational lines.

Unfortunately, many people are impatient, or don’t think that a collapse of civilization is something to be hoped for, even as a last resort.  They demand that the State move in and redistribute in some fashion.  Since this is done as a solution, rather than as an expedient in an emergency, this requires that fundamental natural rights such as life, liberty, and property, even the natural law itself, be redefined to allow redistribution without necessarily calling it redistribution.

Even more unfortunately, you cannot give the State the power to “re-edit the dictionary” (as Keynes called it) without surrendering everything and becoming a “mere creature of the State.”  In order to preserve their livelihood, people will agree to almost anything, even legalized abortion, massive redistribution, or complete regimentation of the economy — violations of life, property, and liberty, respectively.

Is there a way out of this situation without having to commit what Saint Thomas Aquinas hinted is “mental suicide”?  Yes: a program that would vest every child, woman and man in America with direct ownership of capital paid for not with past reductions in consumption that already belong to others and that cannot be redistributed without destroying the institution of private property entirely, but with the profits of the capital itself.  One such proposal is called “Capital Homesteading for Every Citizen.”

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