Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Religios Politikos, IV: The Act of Social Justice


Thirty years or so after Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, Pius XI was elected to the papacy.  From the very beginning of his pontificate he made it clear that he was going to reconcile individual ethics and social ethics, and thereby present a practical means to implement the vision of Leo XIII.

Pius XI presented his reconciliation of individual ethics and social ethics to the world with his completed doctrine of social justice, presented chiefly in Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Divini Redemptoris (1937).  This is summarized in Father William J. Ferree’s pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice, so it is unnecessary to describe it in any detail here.

All we have to know for the purposes of this discussion is that, contrary to what Aristotle believed, people can gain direct access to the common good.  With direct access to the common good it becomes possible to effect necessary changes in the institutional environment so that the individual practice of virtue becomes the optimal choice for every human being, and Christ can thereby reign as “king” over both individuals and society: “the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ,” as Pius XI put it in the motto he chose for his reign.

People gain access to the common good not as individuals, however.  Especially given the increasingly complex nature of modern society, individuals as individuals are frequently helpless to effect necessary changes in institutions — usually removal of barriers to full participation in those institutions (Divini Redemptoris, § 53).

No, it is not as individuals that people gain access to the common good, but as citizens of the pólis — as members of a group, of a social unit.  By organizing with others in social charity (i.e., loving our institutions as we love ourselves, cf. Matt. 18:20), individuals gain the power as members of organized groups to make changes directly in institutions and bring them into conformity with individual ethics; by acting socially in conformity with social ethics, we make it possible to act in conformity with individual ethics within an institutional environment.

This is “the act of social justice.”  It is by means of the act of social justice that individual ethics and social ethics are reconciled, and the institutional environment of the common good — the social order — is brought into conformity with the demands of individual morality.

The problem with Pius XI’s breakthrough, however, is that he left in place Leo XIII’s suggestion as to how people can become capital owners: cut consumption and save until enough is accumulated to purchase capital.

And capital ownership is critical to sustaining an individually and socially just society.  In order to maintain justice, people must have power: even organizing to gain power requires power.  The ordinary way in which people gain power sufficient to maintain a just society is to own capital; “Power,” as Daniel Webster noted, “naturally and necessarily follows property.”

Most people, however, lack the capacity to save in the amounts required sufficient to purchase a meaningful capital stake.  Nor does simply raising wages solve the problem.  Raising wages adds to costs, and adding to costs raises prices, leaving the wage earner often worse off than before.

What is needed to turn the vision of Leo XIII and Pius XI into reality is a means whereby people without savings or the capacity to save can still purchase capital.  This is what Louis O. Kelso and Mortimer J. Adler presented in their two collaborations, The Capitalist Manifesto (1958) — which isn’t really about capitalism — and The New Capitalists (1961), which isn’t about capitalism, either.

The key to Kelso’s and Adler’s resolving the final problem of how people can acquire capital without violating individual ethics by redistributing what already belongs to others is found in the subtitle of The New Capitalists: “A Proposal to Free Economic Growth from the Slavery of Savings.”  Instead of relying on what could be withheld from consumption in the past to finance acquisition of capital, Kelso and Adler explained how new capital could be financed by turning future increases in production into money now, and repaying the loan of such new money out of the future profits of the new capital itself.

One specific proposal to implement a program of expanded capital ownership financed with such “future savings” is described in the book, Capital Homesteading for Every Citizen (2004).  The techniques have been proven to work.

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