THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Role of the State

Recently we saw a tweet or twit or whatever-you-call-’em stating that the terms “student debt” and “medical debt” should be eliminated, as no one should have to go into debt in order to get an education or be healthy.  We couldn’t figure out, however, whether the poster meant that people should pay only what they can for schooling and healthcare, or it should all be free, i.e., paid for by somebody else, usually the State meaning everybody else.


This raised some interesting questions.  Why only student debt and healthcare?  What about food, clothing, and shelter?  After all, these are more fundamental to life than an education (which is voluntary, except when the government mandates it, in which case it provides for a “free” alternative), or medical care, which presupposes one is still alive.

Does a right to life mean an absolute right to the necessities, even luxuries of life?  A formal education is, frankly, a luxury, after all.  Or does it mean the absolute right of equal access to the opportunity and means of maintaining life, with a provision for those who don’t quite make the grade or are unfortunate?  The former is pretty much a mandate for total State control of everyone’s life and the abolition of private property and freedom of association.  The latter would include a necessarily limited role for the State, but not the degree of control envisioned by those inclined to socialism.

Msgr. John A. Ryan


For example, as we saw in the previous posting on this subject, we noted that Msgr. John A. Ryan’s theory of natural law included a provision that makes the inalienable natural right to be an owner inherent in every single persona alienable.  We commented that the effect of this is to hand over total control over each and every life to the State in order to achieve the perfect life in this worl for all (except those whom Ryan didn’t like)..

Primarily, Ryan dismissed the significance of private property and its key role in a program of social restructuring, except as a limited supplement to wages and as a means of imposing State control of the economy.  As the solidarist economist and student of Fr. Heinrich Pesch Dr. Franz Mueller reported,

Fr. Heinrich Pesch, SJ


Ryan was particularly pleased by the fact that Quadragesimo Anno approved of or suggested a modification of the wage contract by a contract of partnership which would permit the workers to share in the ownership (Quadragesimo Anno, § 65), and consequently also in the management and earnings of the firm in and for which they work.  Another passage which appears to have delighted him was the one in which the Holy Father confirmed the view that “certain forms of property must be reserved to the State.” (Ibid., § 114.; Mueller, The Church and the Social Question, op. cit., 118.)

Thus, despite the overwhelming emphasis in the encyclical on widespread private ownership as the goal in individual justice and a necessary precondition to the restructuring of the social order (Quadragesimo Anno, § 76), Ryan was “particularly pleased” only by an expedient tailored for the current state of society.  He was “delighted” by the warning in § 114 that certain things too dangerous for private ownership — weapons and other instruments or systems intended for war and law enforcement (no vigilantism!) would appear to be the intended types of ownership — and should be under State control:

Pope Pius XI


So also the war declared on private ownership, more and more abated, is being so restricted that now, finally, not the possession itself of the means of production is attacked but rather a kind of sovereignty over society which ownership has, contrary to all right, seized and usurped. For such sovereignty belongs in reality not to owners but to the public authority. If the foregoing happens, it can come even to the point that imperceptibly these ideas of the more moderate socialism will no longer differ from the desires and demands of those who are striving to remold human society on the basis of Christian principles. For certain kinds of property, it is rightly contended, ought to be reserved to the State since they carry with them a dominating power so great that cannot without danger to the general welfare be entrusted to private individuals. (Ibid., § 114.)

That Ryan egregiously misinterpreted § 114 is evident when the passage is put in context and read in its entirety.  Far from giving permission for the State to own or control the means of production, Pius XI plainly meant that instruments of coercion were to be under strict State control.  Public instruments of coercion were not to be used to advance private interests: an application of the first law of social justice. (Ferree, Introduction to Social Justice, op. cit., 34.)

Waugh's "Occupation" novella.


Paragraph 114 is obviously directed against the tactics of Fabian-style socialists and capitalists alike.  It condemns the use of the tax system, courts, police, and military to advance private interests, such as imposing socialism on the one hand or preventing workers from organizing or becoming owners of capital on the other (Cf. “Strikes and lock-outs are forbidden; if the parties cannot settle their dispute, public authority intervenes.” Quadragesimo Anno, § 94.).  This is why Evelyn Waugh referred to post-World War II England under the Labour Government that embodied the Fabian program as “the Occupation.”

Ironically, this passage may have been directed in part specifically at Ryan and his enthusiasm for State action, and not merely towards the Austrian fascists and socialists. (Diamant, Austrian Catholics and the First Republic, op. cit., 66-69.) Ryan’s innovations and distortions of Catholic social teaching are in many respects indistinguishable from the Fabian socialist program.

Henry George


This is not surprising considering that both are based on the proposals of Henry George.  In this way, the State would gradually take over control of the economy through “a dominating power so great that cannot without danger to the general welfare be entrusted to private individuals.”

If the State were to use its coercive power to impose “these ideas of the more moderate socialism,” few people who accepted Ryan’s version of Catholic social thought would be prepared to distinguish socialism “from the desires and demands of those who are striving to remold human society on the basis of Christian principles.”  This is, in fact, what happened with the New Deal, as we will see in the next posting on this subject.