Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Economic Justice, III: What is “Distributive Justice”?


If you thought yesterday’s posting on participative justice was a bit difficult to grasp, you ain’t heard nothing yet.  Participative justice is relatively easy to get across.  It’s a new term, so there’s no baggage to jettison before we started to talk about it.  Unfortunately, everybody “knows” what “distributive justice” is: just what Karl Marx said in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

Many people confuse the distributive principles of justice with those of charity.  Charity involves the concept “to each according to his needs,” whereas “distributive justice” is based on the idea “to each according to his contribution.”  Confusing these principles leads to endless conflict and scarcity, forcing government to intervene beyond its natural scope to maintain social order.

That’s exactly and precisely . . . wrong.

As a principle of economic justice, “distributive Justice” defines the “output” or “out-take” rights of an economic system matched to each person’s labor and capital inputs.  Through the distributional features of private property within a free and open marketplace, distributive justice becomes automatically linked to participative justice.  Incomes are linked directly to productive contributions.

The principle of distributive justice involves the sanctity of property and contracts, i.e., liberty, or freedom of association, which links both participative justice and distributive justice to social justice (tune in tomorrow).  Under the principle of distributive justice, the free and open marketplace, not government, is the most objective and democratic means for determining just prices, just wages, and just profits.

What is the philosophical justification for distributive justice?

According to both Aristotle and Aquinas, distributive justice involves people taking out or receiving from a common endeavor in strict proportion to the relative value of what they put in.

There is no mention of need in the classical form of distributive justice.  Need is a valid basis for distribution under charity — but the faith-based virtue of charity fulfills and completes the reason-based, natural law virtue of justice; charity does not, and cannot ever replace or supersede justice.

The need mentioned in, e.g., § 2411 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church as relating to distributive justice refers to the State’s responsibility to care for the common good under the natural law virtue of distributive justice, not to distribution on the basis of need per se.  Significantly, the Catechism states that redistribution on the basis of need by the State is to be regulated by the State under distributive justice, not compelled on the basis of need under what might be called “redistributive pseudo-charity.”

After all, the State is a unique social monopoly created by people for people.  God did not create people for the State: “Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” (Rerum Novarum, § 7.)

People vest the State with coercive powers in order to establish justice.  The role of the State is not to compel presumably voluntary works of charity dictated by someone’s faith, not justice.

This might require some explanation.  As Pope Leo XIII explained in § 22 of Rerum Novarum, distribution on the basis of need comes under justice only in “extreme cases.”  As we at CESJ understand this, a distribution on the basis of need by the State is permitted when the extremity of the case is such that the common good is endangered.

In extreme cases, then, under the principle of double effect, the State may redistribute a measure of existing wealth sufficient to meet the emergency.  The directed end of such redistribution is not, however, the redistribution itself, that is, meeting people’s individual material needs, but the care of the common good.  The redistribution to meet the particular or individual needs of people in extremis is only the means by which the State carries out its responsibility to care for the common good.

This is a key point.  The State is charged with the care of the common good, not individual or particular goods.  As Aquinas reminded us, the common good is not the aggregate of individual or particular goods. (Summa, IIa IIae, q. 58, a. 7 ad. 2.)

Were the theory correct that the common good is the aggregate of individual or particular goods, the State would, ipso facto, necessarily be charged with providing for every individual or particular need.  By controlling the disposition of all wealth, the State would effectively become the universal proprietor, a subtle and indirect form of socialism.  As Pius XI explained in § 120 of Quadragesimo Anno,
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.

Consequently, the correct understanding of the common good is, rather, that vast network of institutions within which humanity, as moral and political creatures, meet their own material needs, and acquire and develop virtue through their own efforts.  People do not become more fully human by having the State (socialism) or monopoly capitalists (capitalism) take care of them and maintain them in a permanent condition of dependency — effective slavery.

The belief that either the State or a tiny ownership elite have the primary responsibility to care for people, rather than all members of society having more equal opportunity to provide for themselves and their dependents to meet that responsibility, is the strongest force undermining the integrity and independence of the family today.  It turns the great mass of people into “mere creatures of the State.”  As Leo XIII explained in § 13 of Rerum Novarum,

“A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father. Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, “at least equal rights”; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.”

Thus, as Leo XIII made clear,

“That right to property, therefore, which has been proved to belong naturally to individual persons, must in like wise belong to a man in his capacity of head of a family; nay, that right is all the stronger in proportion as the human person receives a wider extension in the family group. It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children, who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, should be by him provided with all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance.”

To put it more succinctly, “Power naturally and necessarily follows property.”  (Daniel Webster, Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820.)  The family will never be free and independent as long as capital ownership, and thus productive power, remains concentrated in either the State, as in socialism, or in a relatively small private sector elite, as in capitalism.

All this, of course, becomes a key issue as Pope Francis works to focus attention on the family as the cornerstone of society.  The question becomes, when so many people are convinced that distributive justice means distribution on the basis of need, how are we to make a “course correction”?

That is the job of social justice, which we will look at tomorrow.

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