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Jumping the Shark: Hoffa’s Rant and Rerum Novarum

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James Hoffa put on quite a performance this weekend—first on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and then in Detroit at a Labor rally with President Obama. Also this weekend, President Biden revealed that the White House seems to have given up and decided America is already a “house divided,” with “barbarians at the gate” in the form of the Tea Party. Coverage of these incidents is available from whichever news outlet you trust, but there is one thing that CNN has probably missed: this weekend’s rhetoric is a vivid reminder that most labor organizations have moved far beyond their proper and defensible role.

Though “the condition of the working classes” is much different now than it was when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891, the document provides a strong justification of labor unions and their position in society. This is done in the context of a response to the advances of socialism on one hand and atheistic individualism on the other. It would be inflammatory, perhaps even violent, to identify the labor leaders of today with Leo’s socialists, and it would be a stretch to say that Hoffa & co. advocate state-owned means of production, but their contribution to political discourse is remarkably similar to Leo’s characterization of socialist tactics:

They are moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.

So far as I can tell, requiring American companies with savings in the bank to spend that money hiring American workers is (1) robbery of the lawful possessors of those savings (which are not, by the way, buried in fields on corporate campuses) and (2) distortion of the functions of the State.

What I can’t find in Rerum Novarum is a justification for Hoffa’s insulting the mothers of Republican leaders. The “spirit of revolutionary change” which caused Leo to write the encyclical is not endorsed by it. (Video of Hoffa’s “remarks” here—strong language warning.)

As for Vice President Biden, he does seem to have read Pope Leo’s encyclical, or at least the part that says “perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.” But he seems to have missed the sentence that follows:

Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvelous and manifold.

The Vice President’s careful maintenance of his wall of separation between faith and government is admirable.

Kenneth Spence


  • Ken

    Okay, but how about “theistic” individualism? We are asked, after all,
    to take Caesar’s word (or, more to the point, that of Caesar’s armed
    goons) for what is Caesar’s. In the end, the authority claims of the
    state rest solely on force and warmed-over Filmer…which makes progressive claims to be progressive even more risible than they already were.

    • Roger McKinney

      See Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit” for the differences between atheistic individualism and theistic individualism.

    • Roger McKinney

      A better work by Hayek is “Individualism:
      True and False”, the first chapter in “Individualism and Economic Order”
      available in pdf at

       Here is an excerpt:

       “The difference between this view, which accounts for
      most of the order which we find in human affairs as the unforeseen result of
      individual actions, and the view which traces all discoverable order to

      deliberate design is the first great contrast between
      the true individualism of the British thinkers of the eighteenth century and
      the so-called “individualism” of the Cartesian schoo1.9 But it is merely one aspect

      of an even wider difference between a view which in
      general rates rather low the place which reason plays io human affairs, which
      contends that man has achieved what he has in spite of the fact that he is

      only partly guided by reason, and that his individual
      reason is very limited and imperfect, and a view which assumes that Reason,
      with a capital R, is always fully and equally available to all humans
      and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject
      to, the control of individual reason. One might even say that the former is a
      product of an acute consciousness of the limitations of

      the individual mind which induces an attitude of
      humility toward the impersonal and anonymous social processes by which individuals
      help to create things greater than they know, while the latter is the

      product of an exaggerated belief in the powers of
      individual reason and of a consequent contempt for anything which has not been
      consciously designed by it
      or is not fully intelligible to it.

      • Ken

        The line breaks make the excerpt a little hard to follow, but it’s enough to make a start and I thank you, Mr. McKinney. I’ll make use of the link you thoughtfully provided. I am, as one might suspect, fond of Hayek.

        • Roger McKinney

          Yeah that came out weird. It looked good in Word before I pasted it.

        • Roger McKinney

          In “Fatal Conceit” Hayek wrote that intelligence is overrated, especially by intelligent people who think they can control everything. They dismiss out of hand anything that has preceded them and anything they can’t personally understand. That would be false individualism.

          • Ken

            Agreed. Nagging doubt is one’s friend, provided it doesn’t turn one into Hamlet.

  • Markthomey

    I disagree that it would be inflammatory or violent to identify the labour leaders of today with His Holiness’ socialists, as that is exactly what they are. Let’s not get so caught-up in the minutia of socialism
    that we loose sight of the its larger picture. Just because they may not *overtly* advocate state-owned production does not mean that they don’t adhere to many other tenets of socialism. And they most
    certainly are violent themselves, as anyone familiar with not only their beginnings, but also their current operations can attest. I most definitely agree that they have moved FAR beyond their proper and
    defensible role. They have become a cancer in the body economic and politic and should, in my opinion, be abolished.

    • Bbmoe

      In fact, labor unions supported the takeover of GM and Chrysler by the Government which then abrogated contract law (and others) to put unions in front of bondholders for payouts, and gave them the lion’s share of the ownership stake, to which they were not entitled by law.  I don’t know if this is socialism (strictly speaking, no) but I think we can be confident that His Holiness would not find much virtue in any of these transactions.  Government + Unions = Unholy Alliance. 

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  • Roger McKinney


     One of the most successful strategies of socialists the last
    half century has been to convince people that socialism requires state ownership
    of business. It isn’t true and never has been true.

     Recall the fight between NAZI’s and Communists in pre-war Germany?
    What was that all about? German socialists had determined that it is disastrous
    for the state to own everything. Communists hated them for it and considered
    them sell outs. Communists refused to call themselves socialists for that

     State ownership of the means of production is technically
    communism of the Soviet and pre-reform China
    model. Socialists in Germany
    had tried that in pre-WWI Germany
    and found it disastrous, so they changed their policy to allow limited markets
    with state control.

     Of course, property without control is not property; it’s a
    ruse. German socialists allowed business owners to keep the paper title to
    their property, but took away all control. That fooled gullible people into
    thinking they still had property.

     Different flavors of socialism have always existed. Marx did
    not invent socialism; Saint-Simon did. For a good history see Hayek’s “Counter-Revolution
    in Science.” All socialists did not agree with Marx, which caused a split with
    Marxists calling themselves communists. Fabian socialists existed in the UK,
    NAZI’s in Germany,
    Fascists in Italy
    and communists in the USSR,
    but they were all flavors of socialism.

     The greatest lie of the 20th century is that
    socialism exists only when the state nationalizes industry.

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  • Roger McKinney

    Here’s another gem from Hayek’s “Individualism: True or False?” Notice the plug for Lord Acton in it:
    “The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke-the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on economic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them.2 In the nineteenth century I find it represented most perfectly in the work of two of its greatest historians and political philosophers: Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton. These two men seem to me to have more successfully developed what was best in the political philosophy of the Scottish philosophers, Burke, and the English Whigs than any other writers I know;”