Thursday, February 14, 2019

Fulton Sheen and the Problem of Savings

In the previous posting on this subject, we noted that, according to Fulton Sheen’s understanding of the natural law right of every human being to be an owner (at least as expressed in his 1940 book, Freedom Under God), private property is an essential means to secure individual liberty.  Ultimately, private property in capital is the principal means by which people acquire and develop virtue in a social setting, thereby becoming what God intended them to be.

As it says, Fulton J. Sheen
There is, however, a problem that surfaces with respect to recognizing and protecting every human being’s right to be an owner, especially of labor-displacing capital (e.g., robots, intellectual technology), which increasingly creates the bulk of the world’s wealth. Most of the world accepts without question the disproved assumption that the only way to finance new capital formation is to refrain from consuming all that you produce.  You must presumably first produce something and refrain from consuming it before you can produce anything for consumption.
If we respect human law, this fallacy of past savings as the only source of financing for new capital restricts all ownership to those who already own and who can afford to refrain from consuming all they produce. The alternative within this framework — humanly speaking — is to change the definition of private property, and put the State in the place of God, with the power to change the definitions of natural rights; “re-edit the dictionary,” as the past savings economist John Maynard Keynes put it. (John Maynard Keynes, A Treatise on Money, Volume I: The Pure Theory of Money. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1930, 4.)
Given the assumption of the absolute necessity of past savings to finance new capital, then, we are faced with two alternatives. Neither of these is either realistic or acceptable but is more or less plausible. We then have a third alternative that does not appear to be practicable.
The alternatives are capitalism, socialism, and what Sheen called “diffused possession.”  As Sheen explained,
There are three possible solutions of the problem of property. One is to put all the eggs into a few baskets, which is capitalism; the other is to make an omelet out of them so that nobody owns, which is Communism; the other is to distribute the eggs in as many baskets as possible, which is the solution of the Catholic Church. Or to characterize them differently: selfish possession (Capitalism); personal dispossession with collective selfishness (Communism); diffused possession (Catholicism). (Freedom Under God, 33.)
Brownson: Socialism is bad.
Trying to reconcile the demand that the right to private property be regarded as “sacred and inviolable” under human law based on justice, and yet not absolute under divine law based on charity, however, the social Christian paints him- or herself into a corner. Bound by the assumption that past savings are the only source of financing for new capital, social Christians can only hope and pray for a change of heart on the part of the wealthy, and urge the poor to resist the blandishments of socialism.
Unfortunately, if we wait for the wealthy to have a change of heart before things can get better for the poor, we shall all be waiting a very long time. Added to that is the fact that socialism, as Orestes Brownson pointed out, is so very attractive to the poor and their champions that it has the potential to “deceive the very elect, so that no flesh should be saved.” (Orestes A. Brownson, Essays and Reviews, Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialism.  New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co., 1852, 502.)
Within the barriers imposed by reliance on past savings as the only source of financing for new capital formation, the rich can more or less honestly claim that, were they deprived of their wealth, little or no new capital would be financed. Few if any jobs would be created. The rich can also claim that, if their savings finance new capital formation, simple justice dictates that they own the new capital for which they have paid.
Out of frustration, social reformers and activists try to justify on the basis of bad faith what cannot be justified on the basis of sound reason. Seeing that the traditional understanding of private property seems to be standing in the way of implementing something they accept on faith as God’s Will, they change the definition of private property from a natural right inherent in every human being, to something granted by the State as an expedient. They become socialists and abolish private property.
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.
If freedom gets in the way, then freedom, too, must be abolished. The so-called “logic of gift” based on emotion and false charity must replace God’s gift of logic based on calm reason and true justice. This abolishes not only freedom under God, but under anything else.
In all of this the reformers and activists claim to be enforcing God’s law — something that must be left to God alone!  They ignore the fact that Christians have been carefully instructed to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21.) Based on their private interpretation of something they accept on faith as God’s Will, their opinion overrides merely human ordinances based on reason, that is, knowledge. They try to render unto God that which belongs to Caesar, or set up Caesar in the place of God.
In their desire to take revenge for what they see as the crimes of the wealthy and privileged against the poor, they forget that they themselves are not God. They turn social Christianity into Christian socialism, and then into fascist socialism or communism in a vain effort to make their ideal systems work.
But is nothing to be done?