There is a wave of millennials running for office this fall, and many are running as democratic socialists. The most popular may be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congressional nominee in New York whose clarion voice has already made her a national leader. From Hawaii to Tennessee, from county to federal positions, dozens of members of the Democratic Socialists of America are on the ballot. But can Catholic millennials intrigued by socialism find a warrant for it within our tradition? Or do we find a restraining check?
Catholic social teaching gives us a strong rubric to turn to for answers. It does not throw its weight behind any particular economic or governmental structure. Instead, it promotes principles of justice and asks the faithful to adjudicate whether and how a policy promotes them.
The fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching is the reality and vitality of God in creation and each human individual. We can judge all social action against this simple criterion: Does it promote that dignity? Here are four specific principles derived from this criterion that help us evaluate what is now being called democratic socialism.
What do we serve? Is God alive in the market or in the person?
People over markets. In 1986, the U.S. Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter in which they said: “Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral, and Christian must be shaped by three questions: ‘What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?’” Too often, Americans serve the market as if it were its own end, its own good. But the market must exist to promote human flourishing. What good is the market if it rots one’s ability to flourish, whether we are speaking of a father who cannot find work and health care to support his family because the market does not “value” his labor or an executive who works 100 hours a week to keep productivity up with shareholder demand? What do we serve? Is God alive in the market or in the person?
People over labor. In our capitalist society, many value a person based on the wealth their labor generates. (Economists call this “human capital theory.”) This often means we do not respect the person who does low-wage labor, while so-called wealth generators, from small-business owners to titans like Steve Jobs, are venerated. But C.S.T. says that we, made in the image of God, are ourselves creators. Our labor is valuable precisely because it is human. What if the seams sewn in Bangladesh, the appliances assembled in China and the food delivered via phone app burned for us with the sacredness of the unseen hands who made them?
If we do not base a person’s value on their output but on their dignity, then regardless of what one makes or does, one’s work should be safe and it should garner a secure life.
People over profit. The corollary to “people over labor” is that human creativity must be dignified. If we do not base a person’s value on their output but on their dignity, then regardless of what one makes or does, one’s work should be safe and it should garner a secure life. This is why, from the first papal encyclical of Catholic social teaching in 1891, the church has expressed unequivocal support for the formation of labor unions. The dignity of one’s life—whether or not one is safe from the violent arm of a boss or a machine; the ability to buy a good breakfast, clothes and school supplies for one’s children; the possibility of retirement; the care of one’s body; healing in a time of sickness—should not depend on whether or how one was able to turn a profit.
Subsidiarity. C.S.T. has a clear warning about socialism: The rights and dignity of the individual must not be violated or diminished, even in service of the greater good. This warning is related to the principle of subsidiarity, which states that individuals’ needs should be met by local government or civil society whenever that is feasible. Democratic socialists have their eyes on big problems and are suggesting big solutions at the national level. In some cases, this may be what we need, but voters should be sure that one-size-fits-all proposals do not diminish individual liberty and expression.
Since no two democratic socialist candidates have identical platforms, each should be analyzed on their own terms, using these four guidelines.
Baby boomers tend to associate socialism with Communist nations such as the Soviet Union and Cuba—brutal, bloody, authoritarian regimes. But millennials do not much remember the Cold War, the “red” threat to religious freedom and democracy or hiding under desks for fear of nuclear annihilation. Our generation’s crisis is the financial collapse of 2008, the ensuing economic recession and the explosion of inequality that now persists. We feel it devaluing our labor, making it hard to own a home, get married, have children or pay off student debt. We came of age as Social Security, voting rights, workers’ rights, public schools and our infrastructure have been allowed to deteriorate in the name of freedom and capitalism.
We tend to associate socialism with democracies: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland—countries that have low economic inequality and a high quality of life, achieved through universal social programs and financed through high tax rates. By my analysis, democratic socialists’ economic policy proposals are compatible with Catholic social teaching. But each voter must judge with his or her own conscience, moved by the promises of Oslo or the warnings of Stalingrad.