Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Distributive Justice"?, XXIV: The Common Sense of Distributive Justice

As we saw in the previous posting in this series, Msgr. John A. Ryan seemed to have some significant problems with the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, in whose name he was presumably speaking.  This inserts a degree of ambiguity, possibly even psychosis or schizophrenia into Ryan’s analysis of Catholic social teaching, even the natural law on which Catholic social teaching claims to be based.

This raises the question as to what, exactly, is authentic Catholic social teaching, especially with respect to “distributive justice” and “social justice.”  These were Ryan’s proclaimed areas of expertise, and in which he seems to have inserted significant changes.

Catholic social teaching regarding all forms of justice is based on Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy.  Within this philosophical framework at the individual level, justice is primarily concerned with “commutative” or “strict” justice, and distributive justice.

Where commutative justice governs relations between “independent others,” that is, persons of equal status, distributive justice governs relations among a group or community, and members of that group or community, e.g., among the State, and citizens of the State.

Distinguishing relations between versus among in this context is critical.  “Between” assumes an equality of status between individuals and groups, and thus equal bargaining power.  “Among,” on the other hand, assumes membership in a particular group, and thus unequal status and bargaining power, e.g., a shareholder in a corporation who owns one share has one-tenth the bargaining power of a shareholder who owns ten shares.

Confusing the roles of commutative justice and distributive justice undermines the whole of civil society.  Such confusion constitutes an attack on the integrity of the family and the sovereignty of the individual.

With respect to economic activity, distributive justice is the out-take principle connecting all inputs to the production process to the consumption side of the economic process.

Within the free market, distributive justice measures the just flow of incomes on the consumption side of the economic process.  It is based on the exchange or free market value of one’s economic contributions to the productive process. It holds that all people have a right to receive a proportionate, market-determined share of the value of the marketable goods and services they produce through their labor contributions, their capital contributions, or both.

In contrast to a controlled or command economy, this understanding of distributive justice respects human dignity by making each buyer’s economic “vote” count in assessing the value of goods or services offered by competing sellers of goods and services.  Such “votes” determine the just market value for prices, labor contributions and profits.

Just profits — the so-called “bottom line” in income statements — determine the just return to those possessing personal or joint private property rights in productive capital assets.  Just profits can only be determined after all labor costs, material costs and other production costs are covered by the prices of goods and services that are produced and actually sold in a free, open, and competitive market system.

Unfortunately, many people are confused about the role of distributive justice, especially when it comes to payment for labor (wages).  Consistent with Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, distributive justice determines what is due (just) in any transaction.

The actual exchange, however, comes under commutative justice, as do all contracts.  Distributive justice tells us what is just in a particular transaction, while commutative justice requires that what has been determined to be just in that transaction is delivered, that is, that the terms of the contract are fulfilled.

Thus, for example, a wage could be unjust under both distributive justice and commutative justice.  Differing from the market rate for the labor being purchased violates distributive justice.  An employer who cheats the worker out of the agreed-upon wage and fails to meet the terms of even an unjust contract violates commutative justice.

This is why Pope Pius XI could declare that, however flawed the system of determining the just returns to owners of capital and of labor under distributive justice “in the present condition of human society,” the wage contract (all contracts, in fact) remains permanently valid under commutative justice (Quadragesimo Anno, §§ 64-69, 110).

This understanding of distributive justice based on inputs must be clearly differentiated from definitions that base distribution on need.  The popes and religious leaders like the late Fulton Sheen, to say nothing of Chesterton, make this clear when critiquing the Marxist dictum, “From each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs.”  Distribution based on need is a valid principle for charity, a moral responsibility, but not for justice, which (of course) is also a moral responsibility — but justice can be enforced by the State, while charity cannot.  (Rerum Novarum, § 22.)

Charity does have its proper role, however.  As Pope John Paul I stated in a talk given during a “general audience” during his brief pontificate, “Charity is the soul of justice.”  Nevertheless, as Augustine of Hippo observed, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”  Charity should never be regarded as a substitute for justice, but as the fulfillment of justice.  As Moses Maimonides explained,

“The greatest level [of charity], above which there is no greater, is to support [your fellow man] by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.” (Mishneh Torah, Matnot Aniyim X,7)
If confusing the respective roles of commutative and distributive justice undermines the foundations of civil society, confusing the roles of charity and justice in general, and distributive and social justice in particular strikes at humanity’s unique political nature and the place of the human person in the pólis, the political unit.  This changes what it means for man to be (in Aristotle’s phrase) “a political animal.”  As Pius XI pointed out in the encyclical that has the “feel” of being a refutation of the philosophy of Msgr. Ryan (at least in part),

“If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”  (Quadragesimo Anno, § 120.)

This is because, while distributive justice governs relations among a group and members of that group, it remains an individual justice, directed to the individual good of each member of the group in proportion to the value of his or her inputs to the group.  Social justice, on the other hand, is directed not at individual goods, but to the common good, the good of the social order, the institutional environment within which individuals realize their particular goods.


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