In yesterday’s posting we saw how, even though paying interest (usury) on government debt is bad, it is not objectively evil. It can be justified in extreme cases, even though it is clearly not justice.
Today we look at the similar case of redistribution by the State to meet an emergency. Pope Leo XIII described this in § 22 of Rerum Novarum. As he explained,
“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.”
Now, most people reading this passage would instantly assume that Leo XIII put redistribution under distributive justice. After all, in Catholic social teaching the State operates on the basis of distributive justice, here is a distribution by the State, therefore it must be distributive justice.
Read the passage carefully, however. Leo XIII did not say that redistribution by the State is just, but that the State has a duty under justice to redistribute in extreme cases. That is something entirely different.
What is the State’s primary duty? To care for the common good, that vast network of institutions within which human beings as moral persons acquire and develop virtue, thereby conforming themselves to their own nature. The State's obligation here is a duty under justice, specifically (in Catholic social teaching) distributive justice.
Extreme cases of need, however, endanger the common good. When private charity cannot handle the situation, the State is obliged to step in and redistribute enough wealth to keep people alive and in reasonable health until the emergency passes and the underlying problems that caused the extreme need can be resolved.
Here is where many commentators go wrong. They assume that the duty of the State in instances of extreme need is to redistribute wealth. On the contrary! The duty of the State is to preserve and maintain the common good, not to take care of people’s individual needs. The fact that this can presumably only be done by redistributing wealth — taking from some for the benefit of others — is an unintended evil.
More than that, redistribution is not actually the means by which the State preserves and maintains the common good. Redistribution only buys time until the underlying problems that caused the situation to begin with can be fixed. It is not a solution. If the underlying problems are not addressed, redistribution can actually make things worse — especially if people think that it is a solution.
Admittedly, Leo XIII could have been clearer in this passage about what is just, and what is justified. His main point, however, was the moral duty of each and every person under charity to give alms when others are in need, not to justify a vast expansion of State power through redistribution. Mentioning the role of the State in extreme cases was something of a footnote, an exception to the general rule, not a blueprint for change or a justification of increased redistribution by the State.
Still, realizing that redistribution by the State is justified under the principle of double effect, not distributive justice, tells us how to handle it. To review the conditions,
One, the act must not be evil in and of itself.
Is redistribution evil? Hardly. What is evil is redistributing wealth without the owner’s free consent. Redistribution is therefore not evil in and of itself.
Two, the unintended evil must not be the means by which the good effect is attained.
What is the good effect intended? To maintain and preserve the common good. How is this done? By keeping people alive and in reasonable health until the emergency passes. How is that done? By redistributing wealth. If people can be kept alive by other, less damaging means, then those other means take precedence. The point here is that the common good is preserved and maintained by keeping people alive and in reasonable health, not by redistributing wealth.
Three, the good effect must be what is intended.
Equalizing income or wealth is not in moral philosophy the goal of redistribution by the State. The goal is the preservation and maintenance of the common good. Equalizing income or wealth is a political goal, an incidental that preserves the State or gets politicians reelected.
Four, the intended good must outweigh the unintended evil.
Maintaining and preserving the environment within which people develop more fully as human persons by far outweighs the short-term bad effects of State redistribution of wealth . . . assuming that redistribution by the State is not considered a solution, and it doesn’t last too long.
The problem with State redistribution, however, is that people do think of it as a solution — which means that the real solution in social justice gets ignored or marginalized, even attacked.
That, however, is what we will look at in the next posting in this series.