Posts tagged with: society

One of Pope Benedict XVI’s great emphases in his new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, is the idea of gift. A gift is something that we have received without earning. As the Pope wisely notes, “The human being is made for gift,” even though man is often “wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society.”

The truth is that we are not the authors of our own lives. We did not earn or create the conditions that make our lives what they are. We did not merit our genetic code, and we are not worthy of the parents that we had growing up. Neither do we have ourselves to thank for our societies and the opportunities that they hold. To some degree, hard work, creativity, and self-cultivation can enable us to better ourselves and our lives. That this is even the case is not because of our own efforts, though. We are not the reason that merit can lead to success.

We live lives gifted to us in a world gifted to us by God. God is not random, and He has reasons for giving each of us the gifts that He has. We do not by any means know what those reasons are much of the time, but we can use our reason to search for them. Reason shows us that we as humans are social beings, meant to live in coexistence with one another and to seek the common good and the wellbeing of everyone. The gift of our lives and our own particular gifts are meant to benefit the whole of humanity and not just ourselves. As Caritas in Veritate puts it, gift “takes first place in our souls as a sign of God’s presence in us, a sign of what he expects from us.” Gift, then, is the basis for duty. We have not earned what we have and are or the world in which we live; therefore, we do not have license or entitlement over our gifts. We have duties to use them for the common good.

What, then, is the best way to organize society such that the gifts given to each are used for the benefit of all? One possibility is to empower a central authority to identify the gifts of each person, then to have that authority determine how we are to use our gifts. This is the totalitarian tendency, the desire for an authority to have total control over the resources gifted to persons and to all people. (more…)

I cannot tell you how many times Catholics have used “the common good” as an excuse for more government involvement in peoples’ lives and the installing of socialistic, “spread the wealth” programs. This version of the common good is the foundation for some people’s idea of distributive justice, but actually it is based on the “Robin Hood fallacy” of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

How did I come to this conclusion? I did so merely by reading Aristotle and St. Thomas. Both of those great thinkers say that government must rule for the common good, but both of them oppose “common good” to the “particular” or “private” good. This means, as Aristotle writes, that any law must be good for not a ruler alone, or his cronies, or even the majority, but for the state as a whole. To use the analogy Plato makes in the Statesman, a physician gives a medicine to a sick person even if the sick person finds it distasteful. When he leaves the scene, he leaves behind a prescription containing his instructions. The instructions are not for his good, or the family’s benefit, but for the health of the sick person. BUT . . . nowhere in Aristotle or St. Thomas does it say that the common good is the exclusive or even main province of the government. They merely give a negative prohibition that the state cannot make laws which are good for only one segment of society.

The Church, as opposed to some Catholic writers, recognizes this. The Church holds to the principle of subsidiarity, originally enunciated by Leo XIII and actually named as such by Pius XI. Firstly, this principle states that nothing should be done by a higher level of society that can be done by a lower level. This means that, say, in my profession, the professor in the classroom is presumed to be doing his job unless some serious problem arises. His department chairman is not to be breathing down his neck and nitpicking his work. Certainly, the chairman’s boss, the dean, has no business butting into the professor’s work. If a problem arises, and the dean hears about it, he should ask the chairman to investigate it and take care of it, assuming the chairman has not done so already, which is an unlikely assumption. Secondly, the principle of subsidiarity says that nothing should be done by a government agency that can be done by a private agency. This means that government is a last resort, when all private possibilities are exhausted and the problem is a serious violation of justice or something that only a government can resolve, like an invasion.

Take a look at how Vatican II defines the common good: “The common good of society consists in the sum total of those conditions of social life which enable men to achieve a fuller measure of perfection with greater ease. It consists especially in safeguarding the rights and duties of the human person.” The fact that the Church does not have a list of specific positive programs here is that it is clearly stressing the notion that the common good is a “habitat” in which the human person can flourish. The onus is on the person to do the flourishing, with the assistance of the spontaneous institutions arising in a free society which are there for that purpose. On the other side of the coin, the onus is also on the individual to make sure that his fellows have that environment to flourish, with the government as a last resort remedy for that which individuals and social groups cannot do to provide that habitat.

Therefore, we can conclude with Bertrand de Jouvenel that a healthy society has many social organizations, and that the role of these groups should not be usurped by government. If government participates in this usurpation, it is rejecting the human person’s duty and ability to help himself and his brothers and sisters. Remember what we wrote about John Paul II and personal responsibility? (Maybe you should review it). Personal responsibility is founded on self-governance and self-governance leads to self-determination. Surely, self-governance of a social being like man leads him to take responsibility for the success of ourselves and of our fellows who cannot succeed by themselves, but it should never substitute for the action of the persons themselves. Neither should government. Nor should the citizens demand that government take over the responsibility for themselves or their fellows, except when they CANNOT succeed in doing so. Not only does this have dire consequences, which are not part of this essay, but—and this is the most important reason—it violates the person’s dignity.

Read more from Dr. Luckey at “Catholic Truths on Economics.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Here’s more from David Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice, in which he is engaging Rawls’ thought experiment on original position that presumes a closed society as the basis for his social thought. In a closed society we only enter by birth and leave by dying. Schmidtz observes that

as a matter of historical record the least advantaged have always been better off in open societies, societies where people are free to move in search of better opportunities. if we are theorizing about what kind of society is best for the least advantaged – if that is the desired conclusion – then is anything more fundamental than the freedom of movement? Indeed, why not deem freedom of movement the core of the first principle: Everyone has a right to live in a maximally open society, a society where they have no obligation to stay if they would rather be elsewhere? (222)

My guess is that Rawls is concerned with describing a grand (perhaps utopian) global vision for human society, which ultimately is closed and in which migration wouldn’t be of consequence. But Schmidtz is right to point out that practically that vision is not within our grasp, and is of little use when comparing the various actual different human societies.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Make trade, not war? In an excerpt from his new book “The Commercial Society,” Sam Gregg examines the long held view that nations engaged in trade are less likely to wage war. He notes that nations which are busy with commercial pursuits, instead of war making, may also be more vigilant about “protecting the fabric of freedoms upon which commercial societies depend.”

Read the commentary here.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The Minimum Wage: A Denial of Freedom and Duty,” I look at the concept of minimum wage legislation from the perspective of the employer/employee relationship.

In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul sets down a moral principle: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” But Paul’s words seem also to imply the opposite positive principle, something like, “If you will work, you should eat.”

Even so, I argue, it does not follow that the government should be the guarantor of this reality. Drawing in part on the thought of Abraham Kuyper, I find that “the civil government has a role in justly and fairly enforcing the contractual relationship between employer and employee. It does not, however, have the absolute right to determine the specific nature of this relationship in any and all circumstances.”

Throughout the commentary, I address some of the concerns raised in an interview conducted by Faithful America, a weblog associated with the National Council of Churches. Faithful America talked with man named Dan, who gave his experiences of working for and living on the minimum wage. A transcript copy of the interview is pasted in below the jump (the audio is available here). (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 13, 2006

For a quick overview of the current state of appreciation for economics and capitalism among various ‘academics,’ see the newly inaugurated e-journal Fast Capitalism. It might as well be subtitled: Marxism, Alive and Well. Most of the contributors to the first issue are in sociology, communications, or political science. Here’s a sampling:

In “Beyond Beltway and Bible Belt: Re-imagining the Democratic Party and the American Left,” Ben Agger, who teaches sociology and humanities at the University of Texas at Arlington, writes, “Electoral politics now matter. George W. Bush, Jr. and his evangelical-Christian supporters have seen to that. Bush threatens to undo the welfare state, roll back civil liberties (and block new ones), and isolate the United States from the rest of the world. His foreign policy is an admixture of isolationism and unilateral adventurism. Homeland Security, his contribution to our political lexicon, has a Nazi-era resonance. Gays, lesbians, foreigners, liberals, the left have been demonized by a supposedly literal interpretation of the Bible, which drives the Christian right, Bush’s base of support. This has the makings of fascism.” One other tidbit: “FDR’s welfare state, while not perfect, significantly buffered the ravages of capitalism for those without jobs and without hope.” Also check out the planks in his “agenda for American social democracy,” which include “economic restructuring,” in which “the Democratic Party must take the lead in reconceptualizing the United Nations not only as an international police force but as an agent of the redistribution of capital.”

See also Charles Lemert, Andrus Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University, who is self-described as “once a minister, still a student of theology, seldom a church-goer.” He writes an encomium to Reinhold Neibuhr, praising him for, among other things, opposing the Ford auto company in the early 20th century. “Though called to serve a traditional, declining urban congregation, Niebuhr, still in his twenties, quickly engaged himself on the side of industrial workers in a city where automobile manufacturing ruled by the hand of Henry Ford who presented himself as the patron saint of economic justice in the offer of then higher wages. Thus began Fordism, born not of fairness, but of greed for efficient production. The higher wages famously broke Marx’s rule on the suppression of labor costs as the key to the extraction of surplus value. But the break was only apparent. The wages were taken back in the purchase of the automobiles labor produced—thereby doubly exploiting the laborer,” he writes.

And don’t miss “Politics and Self in the Age of Digital Re(pro)ducibility,” by Robert W. Williams, who teaches Political Science at Bennett College in North Carolina. His claim, explicitly made within “the Marxist tradition,” is that “there is a dialectic of in/dividuality present in the conjuncture of globalizing capitalism and liberal-democratic policies. The relationships that reduce us as separate selves to digitally mediated signifiers and that “reproduce” those signifiers as dividuals also provide the potential for resistance against the oppressions resulting from digital re(pro)ducibility.”

HT: The Blogora

Amy Welborn’s blog has a post on the January 21 conference Acton held in Rome and links to Jennifer Roback Morse’s recent Acton Commentary article.

Welborn’s post and comments can be read here. Roback Morse also wrote about the conference here.

Much of the debate is about whether there is one “European Social Model”. After all, European nations are still distinct enough to be affected by varying religious, cultural, and socio-economic factors. Yes, there may indeed be “Anglo-Saxon”, “Nordic”, “Continental” and “Latin” versions of the social model, but what they tend to have in common is this: high taxes, high regulations especially concerning labor markets, and radically secular populations.

This is certainly the model pushed by the European Union and its most influential member states upon new member states, many of which are post-Communist and therefore quite suspicious of state power and control. And no matter what you call the model, it tends to result in lower economic growth and shrinking populations – which will eventually spell the end of the welfare state because such as system depends on increasing tax receipts from a growing work force.

Of course there are and will always be exceptions. The British Ambassador to the Holy See attended the Acton conference and noted the UK and Ireland as such; Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Ponitifical Council for the Family, agreed but added that the trend still exists and needs to be addressed directly.

The problem is a lack of economic and religious freedom. High taxes and regulations are signs of increasing state control over the economcy, and less economic freedom means less economic opportunity. (See Richard Rahn’s recent Washington Times column for the evidence.) On the religious front, Christians are marginalized in European public life, church attendance is declining, and the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” is ignored. In the end, radical secularization and statism go hand-in-hand, as Mark Steyn argued in the Italian daily Il Foglio.

So how much more debate is needed? Isn’t reform the next necessary step? What Europe needs most right now are courageous leaders who are willing to risk unpopularity and even political defeat in order to promote a free and virtuous continent. They will have to remember the old saying that no good deed goes unpunished, but it’s a punishment that will eventually prove to be beneficial for Europe.

Blog author: kjayabalan
posted by on Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Pope Benedict’s long-awaited first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, was published this morning in Rome. The English translation of it can be found on the Vatican website by clicking here.

There’s obviously much to reflect on in this fairly short letter on Christian love, but a few aspects may be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

The pope cites a number of political philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Descartes, Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine (several times), and Marx. Besides revealing what we already know about the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s formidable education, the encyclical reminds us that human and divine love is a theme the greatest minds have grappled with throughout the ages, and often through the lens of politics and religion.

The passage cited from Plato’s Symposium in n. 11 happens to be one of the most beautiful allegories of love ever penned; Pope Benedict compares it to the language of the Book of Genesis. Like any great teacher, he makes the reader return to the originals for their poetry and insights.

From the more prosaic perspective of social doctrine, the section on justice and charity (nos.26-29) contains an illuminating discussion of the distinct yet complementary functions of Church and State. The pope begins his treatment by taking on the Marxist critique of the Church’s charitable activity, i.e. what the poor need is justice, not charity, and even admits some truth to it:

It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community’s goods.

But then comes this:

Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished.

After tracing the history of Catholic social doctrine from Bishop Kettler of Mainz to Popes Leo XIII and John Paul II, Benedict distinguishes “the necessary commitment to justice and the ministry of charity.”

The entire section deserves to be read with care and attention, but the general point is that the realms of justice and charity are interrelated yet distinct. Justice is the proper aim of the State, not the Church, but justice, and hence the State, is not enough.

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.

This is the Catholic case for limited government par excellence. Justice and politics are necessary and good objectives to pursue, but they are not what human life is ultimately about. Divine love transcends politics. This is the language of a political philosophy that points beyond itself to theology, and it’s perfectly fitting as Benedict’s first encyclical.

I don’t need to tell you to read the whole thing.

Proponents of social democracies claim that a large role for the state is important in tempering the profit motive of capitalism and creating a more humane and cultured state.

Free markets, they argue, result in an inhumane and disintegrated society, while the social democracy models of Europe protect the weak and create social cohesion. Yet these proponents rarely question whether the reality of Europe today bears this out. Even a cursory examination of European and American life reveals that the social democratic models have not achieved their goals. Europe is disintegrating more and more into a collection of individuals who rely on the state as their primary caregiver, and the effects on the family, society, and cultural output are insidious.

Acton Senior Fellow, Jennifer Roback Morse, addressed several of these issues in a lecture with titled “Catholic Social Teaching on the Economy and the Family: an alternative to the modern welfare-state.” The lecture was part of the Centesimus Annus Lecture Series, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the John Paul II’s encyclical. The second of the series, The Family in New Economy, was held on January 21st at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and Professor Manfred Spieker, one of Germany’s leading experts on Catholic social thought, also spoke. To listen to a Vatican Radio report on the conference go here.

She writes:

Today everyone understands that communism is not a viable strategy for achieving either economic growth or solidarity with the poor.

The more urgent task now is to see that Western European socialism has also failed. Although some aspects of the Western European model originally claimed Christian inspiration and objective, it is now clear that the modern Western European welfare-state is collapsing. And while many modern countries share some of the problems I shall loosely call the “European social model,” it is Europe that most desperately needs a genuinely Catholic alternative.

(more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 23, 2006

Bill Robinson at The Huffington Post says that the real “enemies of marriage” consists of “those who treat it as a commodity, a temporary merger, a corporate buyout,” citing the impending fourth divorce of billionaire Ron Perelman.

In typically overblown fashion, Robinson asks, “Where are the Defense of Marriage Nazis when marriage is actually under assault? Why aren’t they boycotting Revlon? Is it possible billionaires and celebs are undermining this sacred institution more than ‘the gays’? David Hasselhoff, Babyface, and Christina Applegate, are just this week’s divorce stories. What kind of world are we living in when Eminem remarrying his ex-wife is considered the love story of the day?”

On the one hand, Robinson is right to point to divorce as the most pervasive threat to the institution of marriage. We shouldn’t forget that the biblical allowance for divorce is quite limited and was enacted only because of the reality of human sin, because our “hearts were hard,” and intended to function as a preservational check on further corruption.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t other threats to marriage, which may just have the potential to be just as dangerous and insidious. It really isn’t an either/or question, but rather a both/and. For example, Acton senior fellow Jennifer Roback Morse highlights the move from gay “marriage” and polygamy, from “creating legal institutions to accommodate same sex couples and creating legal institutions to accommodate multiple spouses.”

In today’s Townhall.com column, Morse writes of the situation in Canada, which “have proven that the advocates of marriage are not being hysterical when they warn of the cultural and legal slide into polygamy.”

It’s a bit ironic to note how the world’s argument against the traditional Christian position has changed over the last few decades. When marriage and divorce laws were being relaxed in the last century, the move was hailed by feminists and others as a liberation from patriarchy and monogomous tyranny. When Christians opposed the change of such laws, they were labeled Neanderthals. But now that gay “marriage” is the issue du jour, the world asks, “Where are the Defense of Marriage Nazis when marriage is actually under assault?”

Christians need to witness to the world with humility and recognition of the realities of hypocrisy. When “born-again” Christians are “just as likely to divorce as non-Christians,” there are some huge problems. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other threats, or that Christians shouldn’t speak up. It just means that we should be consistent and careful in our witness. Indeed, Christian silence might end up being the greatest threat to the institution of marriage.