The search for an economic and political “third way” between socialism and capitalism has been underway since the early 20th century, if not sooner. In Catholic circles, Distributism is a third way that many are eager to discuss. I suspect many of the people reading this blog have heard of Distributism by now.
I was once attracted to the idea of Distributism, until I came to the vital question of who would be doing the “distributing” of the private property that everyone was supposed to own and how it would be done. To be vague or silent on this question is completely unacceptable. And yet there are really only two possible answers. Either people will be persuaded via reasonable argument and successful example to get together with like-minded people and distribute property in various ways, or people will be forced to do it at gunpoint.
It didn’t take me long to realize that there was really no “middle ground” between these two options, just as there is really no middle ground between free will and determinism (even if various factors can influence person’s will). If you haven’t persuaded someone to do what you want, the only other way is force. So the question becomes: is it legitimate to use force to impose an ideology on society? Is it legitimate for a band of political visionaries to come together and either use the power of the existing state or establish a new state to drag the unwilling or apathetic masses along? And does a system which is supposedly in man’s best interests need to be established at gunpoint, as if it weren’t?
Catholic Social Thought has long recognized the right to a “just wage” (sometimes called a “living wage”), which is defined as a wage “sufficient to enable [a man] to support himself, his wife and his children.” CA 8. One common objection to the idea of the just wage is what might be called the calculation problem. Sure, the criticism goes, everyone would agree in the abstract that wages should be sufficient to support oneself and one’s family, but how are we to decide what is sufficient? What, specifically, is the minimum wage that a man may be paid without violating his right to a just wage?
For answers, I went to Father John Ryan’s A Living Wage, which is the classic American text in defense of the right to a just wage. Chapter five of the book, A Concrete Estimate of A Living Wage, tackles the calculation problem head on, and Father Ryan offers a specific estimate of the amount of wages a man must be paid as his due in justice (in what follows all figures appear to assume a five person family of husband, wife, and three children).
In the first edition of A Living Wage (published in 1906), Father Ryan gave $600 a year (or $14,143.39 in 2009 dollars*) as the minimum wage necessary to qualify as a just wage in the United States. Father Ryan opined that this wage was “probably” sufficient in certain parts of the country (such as the South) where the cost of living was lower, and was possibly sufficient elsewhere, though he noted that there were “certainly” parts of the country where it was insufficient.
One of the many unfortunate aspects of “cafeteria Catholicism” in our country today is that the Church’s social teaching has become virtually synonymous with liberal, quasi- or outright-heterodox forms of our faith. This should not be. The social doctrine of the Church is part and parcel of the deposit of faith, and those of us who embrace the truth of Catholicism must stop ourselves from assigning guilt by association with regard to social doctrine merely because its loudest proponents are very picky in the cafeteria line.