The Debate Continues: CST, Markets & Morality
Ethika Politika strikes again: at me, that is, and my recent Crisis piece defending libertarianism from the charge of heresy contra Mark Shea. This time it is not my friend Gabriel Sanchez on the attack, but Gregory J. Guest. It is really quite something to read the sort of things that people assume you believe. The point of my Crisis piece was rather straightforward, I thought: the libertarian rejection of confiscatory taxation is not some kind of heretical argument, but finds justification in Pope Leo XIII’s defense of private property as inviolable and his explicit teaching that charity – the pretext upon which some would confiscate wealth at gunpoint – is not a duty of human justice (except in extreme cases).
According to Guest, however, I am defending an “ideology of license” and thereby our “materialist culture”; that I – and he wrongly shares this view with Sanchez – “discard all “ that doesn’t align with “preconceived notions” about business, government, etc.; that, once again, contrary to much of what I’ve written I do not “afford man a social nature” and that individual contracts are everything (stock anti-libertarian canards); and this is only for starters. Of course none of it is true: the defense of private property rights against the pretense of those advocating violent confiscation has nothing at all to do with an “ideology of license” or materialism. Moreover I’m quite open to as many radical alternatives to the traditional business model as people want to suggest, provided that they can actually persuade people to participate in them instead of forcing them. I do not deny, and no one in the classical liberal tradition has ever denied, the social nature of man; it is our belief in his social nature that justifies our rejection of the modern state, as many of its activities at least imply that we are somehow unable – i.e. that it is not in our nature – to organize our affairs and take care of each other without the threat of violence hanging over our heads. Coercive violence is anti-social; peaceful cooperation, which all libertarians advocate, is practically the definition of society.
But this is really about the Papal encyclicals, and both Guest and Sanchez are fixated on paragraph 36 of Rerum Novarum. All I can do is reiterate: there is nothing in this part of the encyclical that suggests that the state is morally obligated to confiscate my wealth at gunpoint and give it to someone else. Whatever else it may say wouldn’t have much to do with the point of my Crisis article, which was to defend the libertarian position against the confiscation of private property by the state. Guest writes, “[t]he picture that Leo paints is hardly one of the libertarian dream centered on a materialist market.” I’ve already agreed to this. I have never argued that Rerum Novarum was a perfectly libertarian encyclical, only that it recognized as true and good certain core libertarian principles which I believe, if taken seriously, would make for a mostly free economy.
It is also a bit of a stretch to suggest that paragraph 36 is listing the “extreme needs” mentioned in paragraph 22, precisely because much of the list 36 wouldn’t require confiscatory taxation. Here we’re talking about mediating disputes or perhaps implementing a few regulations. I don’t see anything here about needs that would necessarily have to be met through the violent redistribution of income, which was, after all, my main concern.
Regarding Pope Pius XI and Quadragesimo Anno, Guest is quite right to say that I reject some of its claims. I do not apologize for this. Take this passage, from paragraph 88, for instance:
But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life—a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated.
Free competition is what has and continues to drive forward the technological innovations that have improved the standard of living of billions of people on this planet, including the people that Pius XI mentions in this very encyclical who live in the wealthier nations:
Certainly the condition of the workers has been improved and made more equitable especially in the more civilized and wealthy countries where the workers can no longer be considered universally overwhelmed with misery and lacking the necessities of life. (59)
How did this happen? No, it wasn’t the trade unions, which at their peak in the 1950s never represented more than 35% of the work force. No, it wasn’t the government bureaucracy and its thousands of regulations either, which create nothing. No, the necessities of life were produced in great abundance and at cheaper prices by free competition. All of that evil liberalism and capitalism was directly responsible for the vast increase in living standards experienced by tens of millions of workers in Europe and the United States and continues to remain responsible for it today in places such as China and India.
Regarding the libertarian response to the absurd policy of a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, Guest writes: “Simply put, the economic end of higher employment and lower prices is expected to justify the means of lower (possibly unjust) wages.”
It is all too simplistic. I suppose some libertarians may put their argument in those terms, but many of us are content to point out what the inevitable consequences will be. Because Seattle is not (yet) a communist dictatorship, these businesses will still exist under private ownership, and they will respond to the socialist-led initiative by cutting jobs, replacing human workers with computers, moving their businesses out of the city and depriving it of a vibrant economy and public revenues. If the feeling of white-hot self-righteousness burning within their breasts is more important to the voters than a fair economy that works, then they are free to run their city into the ground and turn it into another Detroit. I have no desire to intervene with force on behalf of the great libertarian ideal. I prefer to let people watch as the mad scientist’s experiments’ explode in their faces. It’s been 20 years since the fall of the USSR, so we could all use another lesson I suppose.
That said, it would be easy to make the case that embarking upon a course that will bring economy misery to many people is itself immoral, no matter what sort of language it is wrapped up in or what the intentions of its authors are. Consequences are not everything, but they do matter – just as intentions, while they do matter, are not everything.
Finally, Guest writes: “For someone with an eye to genuine Catholic social thought, the response should rather be focused on how to go about ensuring a just wage.”
Why? The just wage isn’t an end in itself, after all; the idea is to enable average workers who are morally well-behaved to have a standard of living that is dignified (that old evil materialist goal!). So why hyper-obsess over wages? What if – as free competition and genuinely free trade would accomplish – the prices of basic consumer goods were to fall so that virtually everyone could afford them with the wages they currently earn? I’ll leave aside the fact that this is already the case in the most economically free countries in the world. What if – as would happen with an end to the regime of centralized fiat money – the value of the currency with which wages are paid were to increase in value? There is more than one way to actually accomplish what the just wage would allegedly accomplish, ways that are more fair, rational, and just than arbitrary wage hikes.