Thursday, May 1, 2014

“Inequality is the Root of All Social Evil”

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog posting to bring you an important news bulletin.  On Monday, April 28, 2014, Pope Francis did it again.  He completely baffled both “liberals” and “conservatives.”  He “tweeted” a short message (as if there can be extended discussion in a tweet): “Inequality is the root of all social evil.”

Roma Locuta Est . . . Timeo Verbum!

Is God evil?
From the reactions on both sides of the aisle you’d have thought Pope Francis said something like “sin is good,” or “God is evil.”  Come to think of it, there do seem to be people who put that interpretation on whatever Pope Francis says.

The fact is, we agree 100% with what Pope Francis said.  Further, we are convinced more than ever that he really needs to have a meeting with CESJ.  Pope Saint John Paul II did.  We can’t say that he was canonized because of that, but we also can’t say he wasn’t . . . (aside from the fact that you can’t logically prove a negative). . . .

Everybody’s reaction seemed to assume as a given that the pope was talking only of income and wealth inequality.  From the past savings perspective that rules economic, political, and social policy today, that can mean only one thing as the proposed solution to inequality: massive redistribution of existing wealth and the imposition of desired results using the coercive power of the State.

Right.  Forget the fact that the Catholic Church has condemned socialism in no uncertain terms.  Ignore that Saint Paul guy who said if you’re too lazy to make yourself productive, don’t expect to have anything to eat.

That’s sarcasm, by the way.

Understanding truth requires reason.
It’s time to Get Real.  There is really only one thing we can assume from what the pope said and the near- (and in some cases full-blown) hysteria of many of the commentators.  That is that most people have no idea what the pope is talking about, any more than they understand one of the most fundamental truths of Catholic social teaching.

The irony is that Catholic social teaching is so simple, it’s astonishing that so many people can get it so wrong for so long.  We have addressed this in other blog postings and articles, and have a book in progress on this very subject, and we believe we have identified the source(s) of the problem, but that’s a discussion for another day.

To say again what we’ve said many times before, Catholic social teaching addresses two distinct, yet related problems.  If we are not aware of both of these problems, we will egregiously misunderstand such otherwise innocuous statements as, “Inequality is the root of all social evil.”  What are these problems?

Charity is immediate.
One, there is the immediate and direct need to do something about the fact that people are in dire need right now, at this very moment.  This is individual charity, and it must be done now.

Two, there is the mediate and indirect need to fix the problems that are causing people to be in dire need right now, at this very moment.  This is social justice, and it takes time.

Individual Charity: Equality of Results

The present inequalities of wealth and income call for an immediate increase in individual charity.  In “extreme cases” redistributing a measure of existing wealth may be justified, assuming it is carried out by duly constituted authority and does not impose excessive burdens on anyone.  As Pope Leo XIII explained in § 22 of Rerum Novarum,

“How must one's possessions be used? — the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: ‘Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, “Command the rich of this world . . . to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.”’ True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly.’ But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. ‘Of that which remaineth, give alms.’ It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law.”

Justice takes time.
Is the moral (not legal) obligation to share with others a permanent solution?  Hardly.  The pope explicitly stated that sharing one’s material possessions is only an obligation “when others are in need.”  This is not a systemic response, but a provisional bypassing of the system in order to achieve a specific, short-term, limited, individual objective.

Giving alms or redistributing existing wealth must therefore be regarded only as a temporary expedient on the way to a solution.  It is clearly an individualistic (charity by individuals) or collectivist (redistribution by the State) response to a specific situation: people are in need.  It is not a systemic, that is, political response leading to a sustainable solution.

Social Justice: Equality of Opportunity

The present inequalities of opportunity call for getting organized now to start taking effective action to gain the long-term, systemic, social objective of eliminating the underlying causes of the present inequalities of wealth and income.  Because most people are not used to thinking politically (in the classic sense of the term), this requires more explanation than the demand for immediate charity.

To become virtuous is the purpose of life.
Man, as Aristotle noted in the Politics, is by nature a political animal.  This means each human being is by nature a “person” (something with individual rights), but who carries out the “business of living” (Volkswirtschaft), that is, the task of becoming more fully human by acquiring and developing virtue by exercising individual rights (“pursuit of happiness”) within the context of the pólis, the organized social unit.

Restructuring this “context,” i.e., the social order, is the second problem the popes address in the social encyclicals.  This recognizes the fact that you can feed someone today, but he will be hungry again tomorrow.  Does that mean you have to keep feeding him?  How long can you continue to take care of others without getting anything in return before you’re tapped out, and can’t produce enough for yourself and your dependents, much less for others?

Wouldn’t it be better for both of you, and more respectful of his human dignity, to put him in the position of being able to take care of himself?  That is why social justice (as opposed to individual charity) is directed not at meeting people’s individual needs, but at making it possible for people to meet their own needs through their own efforts.

Social justice is therefore directed toward the social order itself, “the system.”  Social justice is not directed to the people who are supposed to be using the system to help them meet their own needs and develop more fully as human beings.

What, Exactly, is “Social Justice”?

Social justice is the particular virtue directed to the reform of institutions (“social habits”) that are creating barriers against people participating fully (or at all) in the common good.

Goods owned in common are not the common good.
The common good is not the aggregate of individual goods, or even goods owned in common for the sake of expedience (e.g., goods considered too dangerous or expensive for individuals).  Rather, the common good is something specifically common to every single human being and that, in fact, defines humanity as human: the capacity to acquire and develop virtue, that is, “human-ness” — the capacity to become more fully human.

As we noted above, humanity is by nature a political animal.  Human beings therefore ordinarily carry out the task of becoming more fully human — of acquiring and developing individual virtue, habits of doing good — within a social context, the pólis.

The common good can therefore be understood as that vast network of social habits (institutions) that creates and provides the environment within which people acquire and develop virtue.  Social justice is the virtue — the habit of doing good — that is concerned with repairing and maintaining this institutional, social environment so that it operates properly, and people can get on with the business of acquiring and developing individual virtue.

Social Justice No Substitute for Individual Charity . . . or Vice Versa

It is critical to note that social justice is not concerned with meeting individual needs directly.  That is the job of individual justice and individual charity, whichever applies to a specific situation or transaction.  Social justice is concerned with making it possible for individual justice and individual charity to function, not with trying to substitute or make up for the failure of individual justice and individual charity.

Socialism is not the answer.
Individual charity, that is, distributing on the basis of need, is not social justice.  It is, in fact, when coerced (non-voluntary) no kind of “justice” at all — or charity, for that matter.  It is the abolition of both liberty (freedom of association/contract) and property, the essence of socialism.  (Cf. Rerum Novarum, § 15.)

To try and force individual charity or coerced redistribution to do the work of social justice and apply it as a solution, instead of as an expedient on the way to developing a solution, is thus profoundly wrong.  As Pope Pius XI explained this rather obvious point, “[N]o vicarious charity can substitute for justice which is due as an obligation and is wrongfully denied.”  (Quadragesimo Anno, § 137.)

In fact, implementing Karl Marx’s dictum, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875) — replacing “exchange” with “gift” — only makes things worse for those the abolition of private property is intended to help.  As Pope Leo XIII declared, “[the socialists] would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.”  (Rerum Novarum, § 5.)

The Source of Confusion

This has been the source of massive confusion among people attempting to “do” social justice.  They think that agitating for someone else or the State to redistribute existing wealth, or condemning others for not redistributing existing wealth, is “social justice.”  People are often shocked or even outraged to find out they are wrong.

This is not to say that such things as living or minimum wage arrangements, family allowances, redistribution, healthcare, education, and so on are not important, or (worse) are somehow evil.  They are, in strict fact, very great goods . . . and absolutely essential in the present condition of society.

Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J.
There are, however, two problems with distributions based on need, what the solidarist economist Franz H. Mueller, a student of the great Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., called “meliorism.”

One, such things build a sense of entitlement in the recipient, and create a condition of dependency that makes it much more difficult for someone to become more fully human.  In other words, distribution on the basis of “gift” defeats the purpose of being alive as a human being in the first place.

Two, all these measures and more are individual charity.  Social justice is something different.  As Pope Pius XI explained in no uncertain terms,

What We have thus far stated regarding an equitable distribution of property and regarding just wages concerns individual persons and only indirectly touches social order, to the restoration of which according to the principles of sound philosophy and to its perfection according to the sublime precepts of the law of the Gospel, Our Predecessor, Leo XIII, devoted all his thought and care.”  (Quadragesimo Anno, § 76.)

So What Did Pope Francis Really Say?

When Pope Francis said that, “Inequality is the root of all social evil,” he was saying nothing less than the truth.  The obvious and hideous evils caused by inequality of wealth and income are, however, only the tip of the iceberg, socially speaking.

Just the tip of the iceberg.
It is the unobvious, yet equally if more subtly hideous social evil that consists of the lack of equal opportunity in the system that is causing the individual inequalities of wealth and income that is the 90% of the iceberg we don’t see.  This, too, must be addressed.  This is the great evil that overshadows all the other evils, without, at the same time, making those other evils any less evil.

Fortunately, there is a way to address the greater evil while, at the same time, addressing all the other evils.

One, increase charitable giving.  If necessary, increase State redistribution.  This will be much easier and more feasible if done as a short-term temporary expedient instead of as a long-term (and unworkable) solution.

This makes sense.  Anyone would rather give $200 now, secure in the knowledge that a program is being implemented that means there is a high probability that it is the last time he will be asked for money, than be faced with having $5 a week taken away for the rest of his natural life, and imposed on his heirs and assigns for all eternity.

Pope Leo XIII
Two, get organized to push for the implementation at the earliest possible date of an aggressive program of expanded capital ownership.  Is this a solution?  The popes have evidently thought so.  As Pope Leo XIII clearly stated, “We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable.  The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”  (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)

As the pope continued, specifically refuting the contention that he was calling for anything resembling the abolition of private property, redistribution as a permanent solution, or an expansion of State control of the economy,

“Many excellent results will follow from this; and, first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided. For, the result of civil change and revolution has been to divide cities into two classes separated by a wide chasm. On the one side there is the party which holds power because it holds wealth; which has in its grasp the whole of labor and trade; which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purposes all the sources of supply, and which is not without influence even in the administration of the commonwealth. On the other side there is the needy and powerless multitude, sick and sore in spirit and ever ready for disturbance. If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another. A further consequence will result in the great abundance of the fruits of the earth. Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. That such a spirit of willing labor would add to the produce of the earth and to the wealth of the community is self evident. And a third advantage would spring from this: men would cling to the country in which they were born, for no one would exchange his country for a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a decent and happy life. These three important benefits, however, can be reckoned on only provided that a man's means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation. The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair.”  (Rerum Novarum, § 47.)

So, instead of trying to force Pope Francis’s words to fit our own preconceptions and prejudices, why don’t we get with the program, and start working to implement Capital Homesteading as soon as possible?

Don’t want to help?  Think we’re on the wrong track?  Well, then, get out of the way and stop impeding the effort, or stop lurking in the corner and tell us, exactly, what’s wrong with what we’re saying so we can fix it.  Failure to do either means that you — yes, you — are the biggest part of the problem.



nail-in-the-wall said...

LIBERTY AND EQUALITY: "IT USED TO BE THE FASHION to praise the rich; now it is the fashion to curse them. Formerly the rich were identified with prosperity; now they are identified with exploitation. The mood has changed; the fashion has gone into reverse; the wealthy are now on the defensive and the forgotten man is exalted. The “have’s” have been unseated and the “have-nots” are in the saddle. It is very easy to believe that the former view is right and the present one wrong, or vice versa. The truth is both are wrong."

~ Fulton J. Sheen: Liberty and Equality, Chapter 11, Freedom Under God 1940 [ Just Third Way Edition 2013].

There are three possible views concerning equality:
1. Equality understood in the political sense.
2. Equality understood in the economic sense.
3. Equality understood in the spiritual sense.

Maria said...

sThank you Michael- fantastic article!

We already know capitalism doesn't work; communism doesn't work - the answer?
Christianity in business works. This is the only model that can work for all people and bring about equality. This is what Pope Leo XIII spoke about in Rerum Novarum what Venerable Fulton Sheen talked/wrote about.
Only in Christ - true God and true Man do the answers lie for our lives spiritual and temporal. The Lord gave us all the answers also on how to run our business affairs. How many will do it? Is it fear that stops most catholics/christians?