“Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good,” said Thomas Aquinas, “while envy grieves over it.” Unfortunately, grieving over our neighbor’s good has become a dominant part of recent economic discussions (“income inequality,” the “Buffett rule,” the “99%”).
Thanks to George McGraw, Executive Director of DigDeep Right to Water Project, for his kind and thoughtful Counterpoint to my original post. He and his organization are clearly dedicated to the noble cause of providing clean water and sanitation to all, a cause which everyone can and should support. It is also a very sensible objective that would aid the world’s poor much more than trendier causes such as “climate change” and “population control” which tend to view the human person and his industriousness as fundamental problems to be solved through central planning, birth control, sterilization and abortion.
McGraw is certainly right to say that the Holy See does not believe that water should be free for all, despite the purposely provocative title of my post. And the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document does indeed presuppose market mechanisms for the distribution of water resources. My fear, however, is that while paying lip service to the validity of market economics and the role of profit, many religious-minded people still have a low opinion of business and fail to recognize that markets have been and remain the best way to allocate resources, especially absolutely necessary ones such as food and water. The profit motive may not be the most high-minded way of caring for the poor, but it has proven to be the most reliable and effective one. No one claims that markets are perfect; they are still more likely to meet human needs that the alternatives, whether these are government services or private charity.
I agree that there are circumstances in which food and water must be provided to those who cannot pay for them, but this does not make them “free” or without cost. Someone else still has to produce and deliver them to the poor, and it will be the government who does the commanding at some level. This is necessary in emergency situations, though still not always the best solution, as the relief efforts in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath proved. My main concern is that introducing a legally-recognized “right to water” shifts the focus from the rights and duties of the private sector to those of the government, and away from the individual and toward the collective. It should also be recognized that the public, subsidized provision of a good often displaces or “crowds out” private sector providers, to the detriment of the development of local businesses, a sine qua non if countries are to escape poverty.
Having worked for the Holy See at the United Nations, I witnessed all sorts of perverted thinking on the issue of human rights. The UN was where, for instance, the Soviet Union and its satellites continually pushed for “economic, social and cultural rights” at the expense of the political and civil rights promoted by the West. This was yet another cynical ploy to deny individual rights and collectivize society. Since the end of communism, many of these “new” rights, also called “second- and third-generation” rights, have become less obviously ideological but remain problematic. As the very notion of “generational” development makes clear, there is no clear standard by which to measure or order these rights. This is the “progressive” rather than the truly liberal understanding of human rights and it ought to be rejected as such. Two of my graduate-school professors, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, put it well in a 1982 essay on “The Philosophical Foundation of Human Rights”:
[Economic, social and cultural rights] are merely things that most people want, and that the poorer countries wish they could persuade the richer ones to give them. They are open-ended and hence often unreasonable. There is no way, for example, that an underdeveloped country can provide adequate education or medical care for all its citizens. By proclaiming these as universal human rights, however, such countries arm themselves with the most respectable of reasons for pressing for global redistribution of wealth. No one can blame them for that; but we can question the status as “human rights” of what are, in a sense, letters to Santa Claus.
I have to admit to being a bit surprised by the Catholic World News report on my blog post that placed me in opposition to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It’s not every day that I have to prove my Catholic bona fides, so I should clarify my understanding of what the Church means by the “right to water.” (The RealClearReligion website may have contributed to the problem by titling its link to my piece “There is No Right to Water.”) All Catholics and indeed all people of good will should believe that human beings are entitled to the necessities of food and water as human beings; in no way do I support depriving anyone of these at any stage of life. And the Church is not wrong to identify “rights” that are due to the person as a result of his ontological dignity. My point was that calling for a legally-recognized international human right to water may not be the best way to ensure that everyone actually has access to it; results should matter just as much as putting some nice-sounding words on paper. The difficulty results, in my opinion, from the long-standing abuse of the term “human rights” that I previously mentioned and a lot of subsequent incoherence, not least coming from academics looking for justification for their soft-left-wing policy preferences.
The Church is, nevertheless, a pre-modern institution that has a different understanding of human rights and human nature than liberals and progressives do, and the presuppositions of Church teaching on human dignity are crucial. As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once put it, “The Catholic doctrine of human rights is not based on Lockean empiricism or individualism. It has a more ancient and distinguished pedigree.” Without emphasizing the presuppositions made by this pedigree, any call for new rights is likely to be misconstrued and misapplied. We need to recover the fullness of Catholic moral and social teaching without exacerbating the problem, while also appreciating the role that private enterprise has within the liberal tradition.
Not surprisingly, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP)’s latest document on water has garnered scant media attention. Why, after all, would journalists, already notorious for their professional Attention Deficit Disorder and dislike of abstract disputation, report on something named “Water: An Essential Element of Life,” especially when it is nothing more than an update of a document originally released in 2003, and then updated in 2006 and 2009, with the exact same titles?
Back then, First Things editor-in-chief Fr. Richard John Neuhaus mischievously remarked, “There is an unconfirmed report that under discussion at the UN is an International Year of Air. If that ambitious step is taken, informed observers say, the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace will be ready with a major statement, ‘Air, An Essential Element of Life.’” If nothing else, the PCJP, where I worked from 1999 to 2004, needs to hire a marketing specialist to come up with snazzier titles for their publications.
So you could be forgiven for thinking that reading such a document would make a spiritually-beneficial type of intellectual mortification during this Lenten period. But skipping it altogether would also mean neglecting the serious questions contained therein on how the Holy See thinks about important matters such as human rights and economics. In fact, one may wonder if those responsible for the document have taken them as seriously as they should have.
Thanks to the invaluable Real Clear Religion website, I came across this analysis by George McGraw of DigDeep Water. It’s a mainly positive appraisal of the Holy See’s call for an internationally-recognized “right to water” but it also draws attention to some problem areas:
[T]here is one aspect of the Vatican’s position on water that makes its international intervention decidedly controversial. In this year’s “Water, an Essential Element” the Holy See will defend water access as an essential human right, one still hotly debated in international law.
When legal human rights were first introduced in 1948, the right to water wasn’t included in either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in the treaties derived from it. Many scholars believe that water was considered so basic, that it was quite simply overlooked. Since then, other water-related obligations have found protection in international law, but the closest thing we have to formal recognition of a human right to water is a (non-binding) 2010 UN resolution.
It seems states have generally failed to acknowledge the right to water for two reasons: either due to a concern that it would make them liable for water provision (a costly endeavor), or because such a right might challenge traditional property rights.
The Vatican’s position is doubly controversial because it’s couched in a criticism of “an excessively commercial conception of water” which the Holy See insists isn’t just another “for-profit commodity dependent on market logic.” This language was used to announce the new position paper at last week’s World Water Forum in Marseille — a gathering that suffered criticism for allowing corporate interests and dissenting states to weaken consensus on the human right to water.
So, assuming the importance of water and sanitation has not been simply neglected, there are at least two reasons why the “right to water” doesn’t exist: 1) States are neither able nor willing to pay for “free” water, and 2) it would interfere with the property rights of those who, for example, own land with abundant supplies of water. These would seem to be quite understandable, but not insurmountable, concerns for those who care about the common good. There are many ways for necessary goods to be produced, distributed and consumed through a novelty called commerce, the supposed “excess” of which is criticized by the Holy See. In fact, the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen has argued that calamities such as droughts and famines are most devastating where local markets and effective protections of private property do not exist.
One has to ask: Does the Holy See really believe that water is any less of a commodity, or any less necessary to human life, than food, normally considered the most common form of commodity? If markets don’t exist for important things like food and water, why should they exist at all? Wouldn’t markets be truly useless if they only traded “non-goods”?
If States are reluctant to recognize the “right to water,” why does the Holy See insist on it so regularly? One likely explanation is that most States and the Holy See have very different understandings of human rights. Does a right fundamentally entail freedom from state coercion or entitlement to a government-provided benefit? Should all human goods and needs, which obviously go beyond basic rights such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” be considered human rights? If so, who will protect and provide them, i.e., the State, civil society or individuals? Is accommodation or synthesis possible among these divergent understandings of rights, some of which would limit the scope and reach of governmental (and ecclesiastical) power while others would expand them? More basically, aren’t these notions of rights and government based on fundamentally different understandings of human nature, on which we are unlikely to agree at anything approaching a universal level?
It ought to be clear that such questions are central to our understanding of the liberal human rights project, much larger than that of providing “free” water for all. But I wonder if the idea of limited government that allows individuals and voluntary associations to provide for needs beyond those ensured by certain enumerated rights is adequately understood by those who promote previously-unrecognized human rights. Some will say that these new rights are proof of an increasing awareness of human dignity, but I am not convinced. Many of these “rights,” in fact, are not based on a fixed idea of human dignity or human nature, but a denial of it; man is nothing more than a historical, “progressive” being whose wants and needs are constantly evolving. And it is, of course, these “progressives” who are constantly calling for new “rights” to be delivered by the state, rather than the private sector (exhibit A: Obamacare).
In my opinion, the continual expansion and discovery of new “rights” to cover all human needs have a particular appeal to religious believers because it institutionalizes and universalizes our social obligations to care for our fellow human beings. But we must also realize the particular, albeit partial, truths of liberalism and economics, especially with regard to the distribution of resources such as water. (The socialist paradise of Cuba, after all, recognizes the “right to water” as well as those to “health”, “religious freedom,” etc.) God did indeed create the world with enough goods for all. He also gave us the freedom and responsibility to cultivate and share these goods with each other, though we all too often fail at doing so. But let’s not assume He commands us to toss international law, private property, and economic good sense out the window as well.
As promised in the context of yesterday’s discussion here and at First Thoughts, my piece on the future of fusionism is up over at the Comment site, “Small is Beautiful (Except When it Isn’t.)” I take my point of departure in the “crunchy” or “communitarian” conservatism of Rod Dreher, recently profiled by the NYT’s David Brooks.
My basic point is that the social or communitarian conservatives generally have a great deal to learn about economics and the way that economic development underpins the very lifestyles they manifest. But on the other hand, economic or “market” conservatives have a great deal to learn about the cultivation of virtue and the value of communities and civil society from social conservatives. So in contrast to those who perennially herald the divorce between economic and social conservatives, I find that they are “deeply interdependent in many often overlooked ways.” I conclude that in this time of crisis (financial, moral, and spiritual), “Perhaps now more than ever communitarian and market conservatives need each other’s insights to mutually test their respective assumptions and the practical implications of their views.”
One of the distinctive features of the fusionist project over the last couple decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union is the absence of anti-communism as a unifying force. Instead, the dynamic of globalization, and the generally differing evaluations of globalization between social and economic conservatives, has served as a centrifugal rather than centripetal force for the fusionist project.
In this regard I think it is worth taking note of a paper given by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985 (PDF) about the relationship between ethics and the market economy. He lays out in brief but brilliant fashion a framework for fusionism in his concluding paragraph:
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. A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific. Today we need a maximum of specialized economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialized economic understanding may enter the service of the right goals. Only in this way will its knowledge be both politically practicable and socially tolerable.
I think “a morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws” sometimes too painfully represents the position of social conservatives, including Rod Dreher, as I note in the Comment piece. But all too often economic conservatives take a “scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos.” The union of these two wings of the conservative movement is the fruitful, and indeed necessary, basis for fusionism, which still, I believe, represents the most hopeful way forward for conservatism in America.
I was asked for my initial reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and the handsomely redesigned Think Christian posted them last night, “Jobs, Steve Jobs, and the State of the Union.”
As I point out, the president’s protectionist posturing is belied by the realities experienced by companies like Apple. The president is essentially telling companies: Ask not what you can do for your company, but what your company can do for America. My contention is that “in casting global trade in terms of a simple win/lose proposition, the president missed a wonderful opportunity to show that Americans need not be made better off at the expense of other countries.”
The president also provided the latest instance of the yearly bi-partisan political ritual, in which the commander-in-chief is transformed into the cheerleader-in-chief, praising the American dream to high heaven and extolling the virtues of the American work ethic. The state of our union is always strong, it seems. “Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win,” said the president. He also claimed the priority of “the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”
That the government’s attempts to underwrite this promise has played a large role in putting us in the dire fiscal straits we face today was a concern absent from the president’s speech. That the biggest threat to continued flourishing in this country is a spendthrift federal government continues to be ignored, while more and more promises about what government can and must do are made.
Anyone who would put foreigners to work is unpatriotic, it seems. Anyone who would point out the very real problems facing America are equally erroneous: “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says the president.
Mark Twain said that patriotism is “supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” And as Christians, we know that our ultimate purpose is not to promote our own individual (or national) interests at the expense of others. A government that uses trade and tax policies as a club to bring other nation’s to heel is little deserving of support.
Perhaps the best way we can support our country in this time of trial is to call our governmental leaders to account. As the president’s speech also made clear, we are entering the prime time of election season, and there’s no better way to hold politicians accountable than at the polls.
The latest episode of This American Life follows the story of Mike Daisey and his investigation into the origins of Apple products, especially the iPhone which is “Made in China.”
What might the iPhone say if it could speak for itself? Ira Glass provides some answers to such a question in the opening moments of this episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” It’s illuminating that Daisey half-jokingly describes his devotion to Apple products in religious terms (this doesn’t prevent him from using the Lord’s name in cursory fashion, however).
Just like the pencil in Leonard Read’s essay, “I, Pencil,” the iPhone is “a mystery,” one “taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril.”
There are many, many lessons to learn from the story of I, iPhone. One of these lessons has to do with the dignity of the various people who work together to invent, assemble, market, sell, and distribute such wonders. This is where This American Life largely focuses its energies in this episode.
Another lesson has to do with the lessons about global trade and interdependence. In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, Lester DeKoster leads us through a thought experiment, in this case having to do with “I, Chair.”
As seeds multiply themselves into harvest, so work flowers into civilization. The second harvest parallels the first: Civilization,
like the fertile fields, yields far more in return on our efforts than our particular jobs put in.
Verify that a moment by taking a casual look around the room in which you are now sitting. Just how long would it have taken you to make, piece by piece, the things you can lay eyes on?
Let’s look together.
That chair you are lounging in? Could you have made it for yourself? Well, I suppose so, if we mean just the chair!
Perhaps you did in fact go out to buy the wood, the nails, the glue, the stuffing, the springs—and put it all together. But if by making the chair we mean assembling each part from scratch, that’s quite another matter. How do we get, say, the wood? Go and fell a tree? But only after first making the tools for that, and putting together some kind of vehicle to haul the wood, and constructing a mill to do the lumber, and roads to drive on from place to place? In short, a lifetime or two to make one chair! We are physically unable, it is obvious, to provide ourselves from scratch with the household goods we can now see from wherever you and I are sitting — to say nothing of building and furnishing the whole house.
There’s much more to unpack just from these two lessons, of course.
How much of our expectations about the conditions of workers are simply culturally hegemonic forms of colonialism? Don’t Americans tend to assume that the ideal is immediately possible? What about the difficult choices that actually face workers in other countries in their concrete situations?
On these kinds of choices, consider Nicholas Kristof’s “In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop” (Kristof is also heard from in this episode of This American Life): “We in the West mostly despise sweatshops as exploiters of the poor, while the poor themselves tend to see sweatshops as opportunities.”
As we listen to Daisey’s story, our natural instinct is revulsion. We certainly wouldn’t want to live and work that way. And even apart from concerns about cultural colonialism, Daisey documents real abuses that ought to make both consumers and producers reassess how things are done.
And so what might it mean for someone else to have the opportunity to work their way out of such situations, to have more choices than the binary options of industrial manufacturing and subsistence farming (or starving), and to have these opportunities not merely individually but corporately?
What might true compassion, which places us within the context of the other person in their concrete situations, mean in these kinds of settings?
Greetings from London, which is only partially shut down today due to a public sector strike over the British government’s not-so-temporary austerity plan. The worst fears of extremely long delays at the airports and of possible violence have yet to materialize and let’s hope they never do.
We’ll be holding the last of our Poverty and Development conferences here tomorrow on the theme “From Aid to Enterprise: Economic Liberty and Solutions to Poverty.” Our speakers will look at the (rare) successes and (recurring) failures of government-to-government development assistance, and it just so turns out that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair weighted in on the subject with a Washington Post op-ed last Sunday entitled “Ending global aid in a generation.” Blair boldly and confidently predicts: “I believe that within a generation no country need be dependent on aid. This matters around the world but especially to Africa, the continent most dependent on aid and a focus of my own work. ” You’d be forgiven for thinking that Blair was the keynote speaker at our event, having seen the light on the futility of Official Development Assistance (ODA).
Alas, you’d be wrong. For while Blair does cite the positive example of South Korea’s development based on enterprise, he still clings to the dogma of the church of ODA: governments must still fulfill their commitments to provide 0.7 percent of GDP to ODA. He doesn’t seem to ask the obvious question, which will surely be raised at our conference: if ODA is generally ineffective, in some cases counterproductive to the cause of development and only serves to breed economic dependence, why should governments continue to honor their commitments to a failed policy? Courage in the service of an ignoble end is no virtue, after all.
I, for one, still note an lingering prejudice against free enterprise in Blair’s supposed conversion: “Lord, make me trade with others as equals, but not yet”, to adapt St. Augustine. Like everyone else in these times of austerity, Blair preaches the need for economic growth. But also like many others, he doesn’t seem to realize how to achieve it. Yes, he addresses important factors such as governance and investment, which only leaves me wondering why he couldn’t seem to mention that dreaded word “business” in his article. Development, for Blair, remains in the hands of government leaders and aid experts, rather than in the hands of the people who take risks, seek new opportunities to provide goods and services to others, and thereby create wealth.
In the words of a former U.S. president, “Yo, Blair!” You should stop by our conference tomorrow to complete your bold vision of world without foreign aid.