Go Back to the Common Good

The Vocation of Businessby John Médaille

Continuum. 364p $34.95 (paperback)

In many ways the subtitle captures the expansive scope of this highly original, intriguing and challenging book much better than the more pedestrian sounding, the vocation of business. John Médaille, a real-estate broker who also teaches at the University of Dallas, deftly employs Catholic social teaching on the economy but insists that a teaching that cannot be enacted in the daily life and mundane concerns of our world ceases really to be a teaching and becomes a mere set of platitudes. As he puts it: If justice really does have some meaning beyond abstractions and platitudes, then it must be capable of being embodied in real economic institutions, including the institutions of business, without conflicting with the inherent nature of those institutions. He sets himself the task to show how a just economy could also be a flourishing, productive one.

Médaille knows a mere vision of justice does not necessarily result in just institutions. He claims that Catholic social teaching on economics needs to be closely correlated with the complexities of economic laws. There is, to be sure, no one Catholic economics as such, only an orienting ethical vision for the economic order. The author summarizes his goal in the frontispiece, citing a saying of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such, it is the antithesis of morality.

In a sophisticated and learned excursus, The Vocation of Business parses the regnant economic models and their assumptions and shows that the ideal of a completely value-free economics shorn of any nexus to ethics is a chimera. Along the way, Médaille treats the utilitarianism of Bentham, the free market theory of Adam Smith, the contributions of John Maynard Keynes and the neo-liberal Chicago school of Milton Friedman. He points out the strengths and weaknesses of three competing business models: the shareholder model; the stakeholder model; the common good model. Médaille strongly opts for the third model but ably demonstrates his claim that every economic system, including our own, has embodied some notion of justice.

In a chapter on economic history, Médaille explicates how, over time, any notions of distributive justice and the common good have fallen out of the regnant economic models. Part II of the book takes us through the social encyclicals and claims that Catholic social teaching stands or falls on the validity of some variant of the just wage. The central question for economic systems and thought remains: Is labor just another commodity in the process of production? Is the worker just another thing? Médaille demonstrates empirically the important contribution of human capital (labor) to economic productivity.

While the notion of the just wage may seem quaint to many secular economists, Médaille proposes a definition: economics is about social provisioning, or how societies provide for their material reproduction. Hence, three central questions get pressed: What to produce? How to produce it? Who should benefit?

This book is so rich and wide-ranging that any brief synopsis easily dilutes its strengths. Though treatment of certain issuese.g., marginal productivity, externalities, the law of rents, Gini coefficients and economic equilibriumis technical, most are explained in terms a lay person can follow.

In one chapter, Médaille takes on Michael Novaks The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and critiques its dualistic understanding of natural law, which allows an autonomous economics cut loose from explicit ethics. He accuses Novak of reducing social justice to formal liberty and tellingly questions the sequestration of economics from direct interaction with the political and cultural orders. Médaille then turns his scrutiny to the Austrian school of economics and argues that its view of economics is incompatible with a Christian vision of human dignity, the common good and a priority option for the poor.

A final section, The Practice of Justice in the Modern Business World, includes chapters that treat of the Grameen Bank, the Catholic workers cooperative movement in Spain and the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. Other chapters address globalization and the issues of marginalization of underdeveloped areas and the rich potentialities ingredient in the notion of an ownership society. The gist of Médailles argument is that there can be no self-correcting market equilibrium in the economy without a prior equity based on a living wage. So, much depends on a re-vindication of a proper notion of distributive justice when thinking about the economy, some variant of a just or living wage and a widely dispersed ownership of the means of production.

G. K. Chestertons aphorism is evoked to show the connection between equilibrium and equity: You cannot pay a man like a pauper and expect him to spend like a prince. As Médaille sees it, the real debate should be between concentrated ownership (whether in the hands of the state or corporate bureaucrats) and distributed ownership. As Catholic social teaching insists, too many inequalities in a society threaten democratic freedoms and the common good. Something is amiss when the freedom of the few so impinges on the options for the freedom of the many.

Some elements of Médailles argument are bound to be controversial, e.g., a proposal for a time-bound ownership in stocks and a plea to limit the scope of business in the political order. The author wants us to entertain something richer than a mere notion of negative economic freedom and to distinguish between a so-called free market and an economy in the service of freedom. The Vocation of Business offers a feast to chew on.


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