In my opinion, “Just Economics” is a great essay. I don’t agree with all of it; for example, I don’t think that collecting unemployment compensation is immoral even if one is capable of earning money, and I would have taken income inequality a little more seriously. But Professor Beck’s essay is well done. It is sophisticated, sober and serious. It is up to the high standards of America.
As a longtime reader, I am thrilled to see such a high-quality piece of writing on economics in your magazine. It would be great to see more writing of this caliber on economics and public policy in the future.
Stacie Beck should visit Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” (1891) for the universal destination of goods and John XXIII’s “Mater et Magistra” (1961) for the redistribution of wealth and our bishops’ pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All” (1986), which said that all economic and social policy should look first to its impact on the poor and the vulnerable. And the board game, Monopoly.
How many winners are there at the end of Monopoly? One! The Quaker who invented the game did it to demonstrate that unregulated capital inevitably accumulates at the top. How is wealth to be redistributed? By the charity of the powerful? Hold not thy breath!
John Paul II’s “Centesimus Annus” (1991) held that the welfare state is not the answer to all our ills. The best system will not work unless people take personal responsibility for the works of mercy. Our frayed social network, the weakest in the industrialized world, keeps millions from misery and early death, though it may allow some to sink into permanent dependency. That is morally bad, as bad as the permanent dependency of some heirs of wealth and privilege on their inheritance. Parasitism is where you find it.
As Stacie Beck points out, there are inherent problems with traditional Catholic social teaching that supports taking cash from one class of citizens and allocating it to another. I applaud her expression of the problem and a solution.
Part of the issue underlying the problem is that the world has changed dramatically, at least in the United States, between “Rerum Novarum” in 1891 and the present. Pope Leo XIII wrote to a world with virtually no organized labor, state-supported safety net for the poor or retirement programs for workers.
But the world has changed. Social Security and Medicare provide enormous assistance to retirees, and workers are protected by unemployment compensation. There are many other programs. Also, the tax system institutionalizes charity in that those earning the most pay the most. This is social justice.
Professor Beck’s strongest point is that the free market system permits people to lift themselves out of poverty. Work within the system not only dignifies the worker, but is a condition of transforming the planet, co-creating it with God. This is the best possible system of creating social justice.
“Just Economics” presents a theory of economics that is fair and internally logical and that emphasizes important virtues. But the problem I have with it is that it does not fit modern America as I experience it. We do not have a system of Adam Smith, free-market capitalism. We have a system of corporate capitalism. Con-sequently, much of what Professor Beck says is irrelevant to the culture we live in.
Professor Beck writes of “anticompetitive regulations.” If a regulation is anticompetitive, it was probably written by a corporate lobbyist, not a government bureaucrat. Corporations hate real competition; it cuts into profits.
The subtitle of “Just Economics” is: “Questioning the assumptions of social justice advocates.” It would have been more honest and braver to have said, “Questioning the assumptions of Catholic social teaching,” or braver still, “…of the modern popes from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI.”
Instead of aiming her critique at unnamed and unquoted “social justice advocates,” why doesn’t Professor Beck offer an analysis of the faulty assumptions of John Paul II’s “Laborem Exercens” (1991) and Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritate” (2009), which offer strong critiques of the unfettered free-market ideology she champions? In fact, the article gives no evidence that the author is even aware of these authoritative Catholic documents, much less ready to engage them in a serious way.
I wouldn’t quarrel with the editors’ decision to publish a substantive critique of magisterial doctrine on economic justice, but I am surprised and disappointed they allowed a strawman caricature of Catholic social teaching to pass for intellectually credible argument. This article is not worthy of the America I have been reading for three decades.
Stacie Beck is to be thanked for a provocative discussion. She is correct that it is wrong to encourage dependency for those capable of earning their own way, and she is right to point out the free enterprise system unlocks human potential more than any other economic system yet tested. But her attack on “redistribution” only as it benefits the poor reveals a serious weakness in her argument.
She conveniently fails to address redistribution through tax and other policies that favor the middle and upper-economic classes: loopholes, preferences and deductions like those for home mortgage interest; subsidies and tax breaks for big agriculture and the extraction industries; not to mention tax dodges like the “carried interest” rule for hedge-fund managers.
Power and Nature
Stacie Beck wrote, “The goals of social justice assume a society prosperous enough to support them.” In her presentation of neoclassical theory, she left out two concepts: power and the environment.
In Appalachia 23,000 retired miners and their dependents face losing their negotiated health benefits because two coal companies exercised their power to offload their heritage liabilities to a spin-off company that went bankrupt.
Also, strip mining is polluting streams and causing sickness in local communities.
Social justice does not depend on prosperity, but on human dignity and respect for God’s creation. The adage “to give a fish, or teach to fish” has a third dimension: accessibility. Social justice walks with people as they gain access to the lake that is not polluted by greed.
An opinion held by a Catholic is not necessarily a Catholic opinion. That to me is a failure of your logic in publishing “Just Economics.” Professor Beck does not demonstrate a reasoned disagreement with the supporters of social justice. Rather, she attacks the very nature of social justice, reducing a principle of faith to a matter of pocketbook practicality.
If her view were truly within the broad range of Catholic teaching, it would not be based on prosperity and productivity. Catholic social teaching is ultimately rooted in our belief in a triune God whose nature is communal and social, not competitive.
Professor Beck sees the speck in the eye of the nonproductive “rent-seeker” but does not see the beam in the eye of corporate greed. She praises a world economy that includes food and water among worthy commodities for trade. This is not “breathtaking prosperity”; it is life-taking piracy.
“Just Economics” is an eloquent and well-written defense of the market economy. I am sure it will inspire responses both from defenders and critics. The ongoing conversation must not be just an exchange between ideologies. Rather, it should be guided by the viewpoint of the current pontiff.
In an address to ambassadors on May 17, Pope Francis compassionately touched on the fears of many people over the economic future even in rich countries. One of the causes, in his opinion, is our relationship with money and our acceptance of its power over us and our economy. This, he said, is a gravely deficient perspective because it reduces man to one of his needs alone: consumption. Pope Francis speaks of this attitude as being a rejection of ethics and of God.
I read his message as a rejection of not only the ideologies of market economics, but also a rejection of the extreme advocacy of social justice ideals.
Politics of Envy
“Just Economics” is a magnificent piece. The task of alleviating poverty and suffering falls to us as individual Catholics. Without prosperity (and the only economic system that has ever delivered it consistently), how exactly are we to do this?
The social justice agenda reminds me very much of the politics of the Labour Party here in the United Kingdom and socialist parties throughout Europe: the politics of envy. Instead of “you shouldn’t have so little,” we hear, “you shouldn’t have so much.”
Renters and Producers
The “renter” versus “producer” worldview fails on many levels to be a model of reality, especially if the definition of a “producer” is measured by accumulation of capital.
Are our children, the sick, infirm and the old, doctors and educators, the military and the church, all “renters”? Is taking care of our environment and public resources, including infrastructure, an activity of the “renters”? Are banks, insurance companies and stockbrokers “renters” or “producers”? Are they producers when making a profit but renters when losing money? Do they really create wealth or just move money around—making wealth for some but taking it from someone else? What do the terms “producing” and “renting” really mean in this economic construct?
Maybe we are all simultaneously producers and renters. Maybe we are “producers” when we use our resources to benefit others and “renters” when we use our resources to benefit only ourselves. Maybe the real underlying principle, or “law,” of economics is that more people benefit when resources are available and spread around, and fewer people benefit when resources are accumulated and stockpiled.
Stacie Beck presents a lucid and important message for those who truly focus on the common good and especially on improving the circumstances of the poor. History lends support to her concerns.
Looking back at the writings of social advocates of a century ago, none of them had the vision to propose the benefits widely afforded by today’s poor: buildings with central heating and electric lighting, the ability to communicate instantly and economically with relatives around the world, vaccines against many communicable diseases and so on. These developments relied entirely or in large part on inventors with clever ideas and investors who put their savings at risk. As a society, we need to realize that risk-taking is not automatic. It can be stifled.
Professor Beck’s message is important, and the editors were wise to publish it.
I want to thank Professor Beck and America for sharing this article. Whether one agrees with Professor Beck or not, her piece represents a perspective often missing in the social justice dialogue. She raises questions that advocates of social justice should consider and be willing to engage as we discern how to be Christ’s feet and hands in the ongoing creation of his kingdom.
I also appreciate the comments of those who raise real issues and concerns with how free-market economies, including the one present in the United States, fail to lift everyone to prosperity. Constructive replies always add to the discourse.
The cover story was a real disappointment. The problem with market-based economies (like capitalism) is that they put people in competition rather than harmony; they pit our interests against each other, leading to a state of perpetual warfare among all people. The Christian mission should be to find a way to overcome the greed and competition inherent to capitalism and to find a way to cooperatively work together for the well-being of all people.
The mistake most on the left make is using the state to bring about a moral economic ideal by violating the rights of others. We must bring about change by supporting moral enterprises and boycotting immorally run ones. Compulsory charity is not charity. It is a mistake to assume that state-enforced charity is morally laudable in any respect.
In the catechism, the church teaches that the government has a fundamental role in safeguarding the common good according to the principle of the universal destination of goods. The Seventh Commandment is not just about protecting private property; it is about ensuring that everyone, not just the rich, has what they need to live a dignified life. Redistribution of wealth was a Judeo-Christian notion long before the emergence of socialism.
Professor Beck misses the heart of Catholic social teaching. People have value, not because they are useful to society, but because they are created in the image and likeness of God. The economy and markets exist to serve that social order, not the other way around. When the church says social justice demands access to health care and safe housing, Professor Beck asks if that is teaching children that they are entitled to something for nothing. No, it is not. It teaches them that they have inviolable human dignity as children of God.
A few weeks ago I took part in a conference at Lindenwood University devoted to “Free Markets and Localism.” Most of the other faculty participating in the event were far more sympathetic to libertarianism than are most Catholic theologians, including me. Conversation was sometimes challenging, but I am learning things from this dialogue that I don’t learn in my usual circles.
For example, libertarians can be passionate about human dignity. The libertarians I spoke with echoed Stacie Beck’s claim, “It is best to encourage and assist people to become more productive whenever possible. In addition to more prosperity, this creates a sense of satisfaction and self-worth and is almost surely most consistent with God’s plan.” Like Meghan Clark, I worry when I hear great concern about entitlement coupled with limited acknowledgement of social structures that keep some people down and prop other people up. But what if, instead of pointing to that (admittedly large) area of disagreement, I tried to point to the overlap on human dignity?
Editor’s Note: The preceding are excerpts from longer blog posts. For the complete posts, visit “A Response to ‘Just Economics,’” by Meghan J. Clark on America’s In All Things blog (4/29), and “What I Learned From Talking Economics With Libertarians,” by Julie Hanlon Rubio on the Catholic Moral Theology blog (5/2). See also “A (Second) Response to ‘Just Economics,’” by Joseph Tetlow, S.J. (In All Things, 5/20).