Monday, June 30, 2014

Pope Francis Writes Again, II: Work and Fulfillment

Last Thursday we looked at one of those comments by Pope Francis that so many people love to misinterpret to fit their own preconceptions.  The main thing we pointed out (and hoped to get across) is that Pope Francis really isn’t saying anything different from any previous pope when it comes to Catholic doctrine or the social teachings.  Just don’t expect to get a scholarly treatise in a tweet.                                      

That’s why, if we want to understand what Pope Francis is saying about anything, we have to correlate it with what we know by reason and (for Catholics) what we accept on faith — including the fact that no pope can change “the deposit of faith,” as they say.  If one pope says something about faith and morals, they all say it.  We can’t claim that the pope is agreeing with us, especially if it turns out he’s saying exactly the opposite.

Thus, to understand the proper place of work, we need to keep in mind what Pope John Paul II said in § 9 of Laborem Exercens (after removing those annoying British spellings).  Noting that humanity seems to be stuck working, John Paul II said,

“And yet, in spite of all this toil — perhaps, in a sense, because of it — work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the terminology of Saint Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man's dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man — a good thing for his humanity — because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’.

“Without this consideration it is impossible to understand the meaning of the virtue of industriousness, and more particularly it is impossible to understand why industriousness should be a virtue: for virtue, as a moral habit, is something whereby man becomes good as man. This fact in no way alters our justifiable anxiety that in work, whereby matter gains in nobility, man himself should not experience a lowering of his own dignity. Again, it is well known that it is possible to use work in various ways against man, that it is possible to punish man with the system of forced labor in concentration camps, that work can be made into a means for oppressing man, and that in various ways it is possible to exploit human labor, that is to say the worker. All this pleads in favor of the moral obligation to link industriousness as a virtue with the social order of work, which will enable man to become, in work, ‘more a human being’ and not be degraded by it not only because of the wearing out of his physical strength (which, at least up to a certain point, is inevitable), but especially through damage to the dignity and subjectivity that are proper to him.”

Note that in this passage John Paul II separated income, i.e., the transformation of nature and adapting it to human needs, what we might think of as the purpose of work, from the meaning of work.  We do not merely work for income (to meet our material needs), but for our fulfillment as human beings.  John Paul II even suggests (horrors!) that working for mere income is actually degrading to human dignity, i.e., “Without this consideration [fulfillment as a human being] it is impossible to understand the meaning of the virtue of industriousness, and more particularly it is impossible to understand why industriousness should be a virtue: for virtue, as a moral habit, is something whereby man becomes good as man.”

Logically, then, “creating jobs” just to get income to people offends against human dignity at the most fundamental level; it takes meaning away from work.  As for raising wages without a corresponding increase in productivity, all you’re doing is raising the price level.  Everything else being equal, wage earners are proportionately no better off than they were before wages were raised.

The problem is that everything else is not equal.  Whenever an increase in the minimum wage is announced, something odd happens.  The price level starts to go up before the wage increase takes effect as employers try to grab as much as they can before the increased cost kicks in.  Then there is the problem that, as labor becomes more expensive, technology becomes cheaper in comparison.

Has anyone ever wondered why, for example, servants in high wage economies tend to be paid under the table or simply don’t get jobs in the first place?  Or why Japan, with the highest per capita restaurant visits in the world, has so many vending machines per capita, and most restaurants are small, individually or family-owned operations that are not subject to minimum wage laws?  The answer is that, as wages go up without corresponding increases in productivity, things become more expensive in real terms across the board. An increase in actual productivity would bring real prices down, where increasing costs simply raises real prices.

We necessarily conclude, then, that what Pope Francis said about being entitled to jobs and a living wage applies as an expedient in the current condition of society, a stopgap.  It is not a solution to today’s economic problems.

The question is, if “job creation” and higher wages aren’t a solution, then what is?  We’ll take a look at that tomorrow.


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