Posted: November 20, 2009
The New Liberal Challenge
In "The Conservative Challenge," Charles R. Kesler writes with his typical eloquence that "To an amazing degree, Obama's agenda represents a return to liberalism's roots. Modernized, reenergized, repackaged, to be sure, but recognizable as a new installment of something that Americans have been resisting for a long time" (Summer 2009). Kesler correctly understands that the liberal drive for large government began in the late 19th century and lay at the center of the Progressive reform movement in the early 20th century. Yet, in describing this continuity of vision, Kesler fails to see that liberalism has undergone important changes in the late 20th century.
Early Progressives were primarily concerned with addressing the ills of industrial capitalism. With varying degrees of intensity depending on the politics of the situation, they called for public ownership of basic industries and municipal services, economic regulation of corporations, and the redistribution of wealth.
By the 1930s, however, it was clear that the New Deal Left had abandoned its explicit call for redistributing wealth. For all Franklin Roosevelt's talk of redistribution and his attacks on "economic royalists," he signed the Revenue Act of 1938, which moved away from radical wealth redistribution in favor of enlarging the tax base to raise more government revenue to support the expansion of social programs. Although tax rates on upper income groups and corporations were raised during the Second World War, liberals' single overriding goal became to increase government revenues to enlarge the welfare state.
More importantly, the liberal strategy for achieving the "good society" changed in the 1970s from controlling the means of production, as Marxists used to say, to control of American consumption through environmental regulation, energy use, national health care, and a range of other intrusions into American life. The recent federal takeover of General Motors was a result of political calculation and the circumstances of the financial collapse of 2008, but the primary goal of the Obama Administration and the progressive Left is to control American middle-class consumption, from the health care plans they can purchase, the cars they buy, the light bulbs they use, and even the food they eat. This "post-industrial" agenda is intent on transforming the nation into a European-type social democracy, all in the name of "fairness," protecting the environment, and ending American exceptionalism. The result is the same as the older Progressive vision: the erosion of traditional American liberty and constitutionally balanced government. It's no less frightening; indeed, it is more insidious because the full ramifications of the new liberalism, manifested in the Obama agenda, are less apparent than in the older Progressive tradition.
Donald T. Critchlow
Saint Louis University
Charles R. Kesler replies:
I would agree with Don Critchlow that "liberalism has undergone important changes in the late 20th century." My essay didn't deny that—in fact, I'd discussed a few of those changes in my previous treatment of Obama ("The Audacity of Barack Obama," Fall 2008)—but it did emphasize that his pursuit of ever bigger government was not one of them. My friend Critchlow concurs on that.
His own account of liberalism's changes is valuable but a little overdone. He contends that Progressivism and the early New Deal were concerned with redistribution of income and controlling the means of production, but that in the 1970s liberalism instead sought to control middle-class Americans' habits of consumption. But was there ever a bigger attempt to control Americans' habits of consumption than Prohibition? That was one of Progressivism's great triumphs, though happily a short-lived one.
Besides, it's impossible to control consumption without also directly or indirectly affecting production. Obama's health care plan would limit not only the quantity and quality of health care we're allowed to consume, but also the quantity and quality that doctors and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are encouraged, or permitted, to provide. And those pallid, curlicued light bulbs will only be adopted if the government chokes off the supply of the other kind.
* * *
What Unions Do
The breadth and writing of William Voegeli's "Look Out for the Union Label" are impressive, but the anti-union broadside ultimately fails to persuade because the position itself is untenable (Summer 2009). Different unions may act responsibly or irresponsibly, be forces for good or bad in given situations, but overall they and much associated with them—collective bargaining, labor-management safety panels, grievance procedures, representation—are integral to an industrial relations system that has spawned decades of prosperity. Corporate management has acted deplorably in any number of recent instances, with far more negative impact on average people; does that make "management" itself a negative?
Voegeli's brief boils down to four related assertions: (1) unions have little merit and serve chiefly to undermine the economy; (2) they are cartels that benefit from a labor monopoly; (3) the United Auto Workers epitomizes what is bad about unions; and (4) the Obama Administration embraces labor's agenda. Let's consider each, in order.
The importance of unions to our economic and industrial relations systems is clear on a variety of fronts, starting with the historical link between a robust labor movement and a thriving middle class. Labor's zenith, from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, saw the greatest expansion of the middle class in U.S. history—no more a coincidence than is the squeezing of the middle class in recent years as labor has declined. Voegeli questions the causality but doesn't even attempt to disentangle the advent of good contracts from the ascent of millions of Americans to the middle class.
Procedurally, our industrial relations system is based on vigorous representation by labor and management, and, when appropriate, government; over time the best private practices and public policies emerge. The marginalization of labor has contributed to skewed outcomes that have left ordinary Americans reeling, productivity and wages no longer rising in tandem, and the biggest share of the GDP going to profits and the smallest to wages and salaries in some 80 years.
In nuts and bolts terms, workers are best protected by a union and a set of agreements. For example, 2006 was the deadliest year for miners in a decade. Of the 47 deaths, only five were in union mines. Why? Because when a miner at a union facility feels unsafe going underground, he tells his safety rep and he doesn't go down. Good luck trying that at a non-union mine.
As I argue in my book, State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence, advocating a vibrant labor movement does not require agreeing with labor's positions, but rather recognizing that rigorous representation of the various stakeholders involved produces the best outcomes. This should not be a foreign concept to anyone who believes in free markets and democracy.
Voegeli makes three specific arguments against unions, including that they are a cartel with a monopoly on labor. With all due respect this is essentially the contention of the Neoclassical Economics School. It rests in part on a laissez-faire view that seeks to avoid interference in the workings of the economy from the likes of government or unions—a view that held sway until its shortcomings were starkly displayed by the Great Depression, though it has been making a comeback of sorts. Much of U.S. labor law and practice has for decades been based on the competing Industrial Relations model, which posits divergent interests that must be represented by institutions able to provide checks and balances.
Regarding the United Auto Workers, blaming Detroit's problems on the contracts won by men and women on the assembly line reflects ideology more than analysis. At their height, veteran UAW-represented workers earned roughly $55 in hourly wages and benefits—$8 more than their non-union counterparts at foreign transplants. Since labor accounts for only 10% of the cost of making a car, this differential contributes far less to the industry's problems than, say, management's designing of cars that people don't want. More significant are legacy costs, chiefly retiree health care. Unlike its German, Swedish, and Japanese competitors, Detroit pays the price for our lack of national health care. There's irony in the fact that the UAW's sharpest critics tend to strongly oppose national care.
In recent years, the UAW has made some of the largest concessions in U.S. labor history. While some affect only new hires, others such as the renegotiation of local operating agreements to boost plant-level managerial flexibility apply broadly. Voegeli says that UAW leaders must please members who put them in power, and so often don't look at the overall picture. Fair enough, but this also applies to other players. Corporate leaders are notorious for taking a short-term view based on quarterly profits and the need to please their Board and their stockholders—which, in Detroit's case, explains many of the problems.
Finally, Voegeli writes of a White House avidly pro-union. That would be news to the many labor leaders, activists, and rank-and-file workers I regularly speak to, who wonder when their massive efforts to elect Barack Obama will pay off. For months, labor's top priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, has languished on the back burner, while Democratic leaders have dealt with other priorities, including those of Wall Street and the banks.
Chevy Chase, MD
Because William Voegeli begins his important essay on unions and liberalism with quotations from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, let me do so, too. In his instructive, witty book Locked in the Cabinet, Reich recounts his profanity-laced meetings with union officials. Once, having been mocked by a boss at a previous meeting for not knowing what a screwdriver was, Reich insisted that he did know what it was, and triumphantly whipped out a monkey wrench he had taped under his desk.
Over the last eight years Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao threw a monkey wrench into the sort of union machinations Voegeli describes. The Bush Administration's Department of Labor (where I worked for a few years) began vigorous enforcement of a 1959 law requiring transparency in disclosing union expenditures. Previously, expenditures as large as $68 million were listed as "grants" or otherwise lacked itemization. How could members find out how their union was spending their money? See www.unionreports.gov—while the website remains up.
Democratic administrations routinely slash the budget for this office and defang a law intended to benefit wage earners. Add these tactics to brash demands for "card check," and we see unions' fear of accountability to their members.
William Voegeli replies:
I was sorry to learn that my "anti-union broadside ultimately failed to persuade" Philip Dine, but was reassured after his letter led me to some of his other writings. They showed that Dine cannot be dissuaded from his pro-union sympathies byany arguments or evidence, including his own first-hand experience.
In a newspaper column earlier this year Dine wrote, "If we had time, I'd tell you about being jostled to the edge of a San Diego hotel rooftop some 20 years ago by UAW convention delegates irate over my reporting on internal union divisions. As I'm getting a view of the city I hadn't expected, I'm thinking: ‘If they really disliked what I wrote this much, wouldn't a simple letter to the editor have sufficed?'" Those UAW scamps...always up to some new pranks!
It might occur to a journalist covering unions, as opposed to covering for them, that if this sort of intimidation can be visited upon a writer who is clearly a friend to the labor movement, there might be something fundamentally problematic with an "Industrial Relations model, which posits divergent interests that must be represented by institutions able to provide checks and balances." Reminding adversaries, or even allies, that they could wind up on a hotel's ground floor without availing themselves of an elevator is a decidedly non-Madisonian check and balance. The only moral Dine draws from his own story is that the labor movement needs to be more nimble at "getting out its message."
Dine exercises his willed credulity more broadly, rather than reserving it for stories where he is in the room (or on the roof). Arguing in another column that "dynamic leadership" is necessary for unions to overcome their public relations problems, Dine praises Richard Trumka, the new AFL-CIO president, while conceding enigmatically that Trumka has "been around long enough to provide critics with some fodder." Another pro-union journalist, John Judis of the New Republic, was less circumspect. He pointed out that the federal government overturned an election for the Teamsters presidency in 1996 after the winning candidate, Ron Carey, was discovered using union funds from members' dues to finance his campaign:
Carey's campaign would send the money to individuals in other organizations ostensibly for other purposes and the individuals and organizations would arrange for the money to be donated back to the Carey campaign. According to a statement made by Carey's former campaign manager, Trumka and the AFL-CIO were involved in this money-laundering scheme. At Trumka's request, $150,000 was sent to the AFL-CIO for get-out-the-vote efforts in the 1996 general election. The money was then sent to Citizen Action, a community organizing group, which passed it back to the Carey campaign. While Trumka was mentioned in the federal complaint, he was not indicted. And he refused to testify in the federal investigation on Fifth Amendment grounds.
According to Sam Hananel of the Associated Press, "Although the AFL-CIO had an internal policy to expel any officer who takes the Fifth to avoid scrutiny, the federation decided not to remove [Trumka] from office. [AFL-CIO president John] Sweeney insisted there was no evidence Trumka was part of the money laundering scheme." It's hard to improve upon the circularity of Sweeney's reasoning: waiving the Federation's policy against invoking the Fifth Amendment in Trumka's favor guaranteed that no evidence of his misconduct could come to light, and the absence of that evidence meant that Trumka deserved the benefit of the doubt for violating the policy.
This is the labor movement that inspires Philip Dine to praise a collective bargaining system where "rigorous representation of the various stakeholders involved produces the best outcomes." As Ken Masugi reminds us, labor's "rules are for other people" stance is not attributable to the occasional zealous or corrupt official, but is a defining characteristic.
Dine contends that "Labor's zenith, from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, saw the greatest expansion of the middle class in U.S. history—no more a coincidence than is the squeezing of the middle class in recent years as labor has declined." As I have argued before in these pages, the postwar American boom that Dine applauds is much more plausibly ascribed to an extraordinary, irreproducible set of world economic circumstances than to labor's zenith, Keynesian macroeconomic policy, or New Deal welfare state programs. By the late 1940s, as the historian James Patterson points out in his book Grand Expectations, the United States, with 7% of global population, "possessed 42 percent of the world's income and accounted for half of the world's manufacturing output. American workers produced 57 percent of the planet's steel, 43 percent of electricity, 62 percent of oil, 80 percent of automobiles."
These overwhelming advantages against the industrialized nations whose populations, infrastructure, and finances were devastated by World War II lasted a quarter century, but could not endure forever. "Labor's zenith" consisted of exploiting, not causing, these favorable circumstances, thereby hastening the demise of America's ability to compete as other countries recovered.
Dine, for example, absolves the UAW of any blame for the demise of America's auto industry. Mickey Kaus, as usual, has a less tendentious assessment. It's not just that Detroit pays its workers more than foreign car companies with non-unionized American plants, he says. Nor is it that the Detroit companies have huge legacy costs from trying to sustain a social-democracy-in-one-industry welfare state that the transplant auto makers don't have to pay for. The problem is also that the elaborate, burdensome work rules in Detroit's factories don't exist in non-UAW auto plants, and those rules, covering things like line relief, holiday pay, and paying workers when plants are shut, add about $1,000 to the cost of each car. As "a car consumer," Kaus wrote in 2007, "every time I see a nice Detroit vehicle I might want to buy—the Ford Mustang and Pontiac Solstice come to mind—and then I see the tacky materials used in the interior, I think about how much more appealing the car would be if I didn't have to pay $1,000/vehicle in extra costs to finance the UAW's work rules, etc."
Dine praises the Industrial Relations model, where labor and management have a political relationship for asserting interests and resolving conflicts, rather than an economic one. Kaus pointed out 26 years ago, however, that inane, suicidal work rules are not an accidental consequence of "Wagner Act unionism," but the purpose and even the glory of the Industrial Relations model:
Rigid work rules are not a mere by-product of unionism. They are central to the collective bargaining system and in fact have been praised by labor scholars as one of its great strengths.... At some GM plants, distinct job categories evolved for each spot on the assembly line (e.g., "headlining installer"). In Japanese auto plants, where they spend their time building cars instead of creating job categories, there is only one nonsupervisory job classification: ‘production.'
In his letter Dine says the UAW "has made some of the largest concessions in U.S. labor history." Of course, if a union has a long record of securing exorbitant contracts, it establishes a baseline that makes large concessions possible, while the contracts' predictably ruinous effects on the firms who signed them ultimately make the concessions necessary. According to one of Dine's newspaper articles, Martin Mulloy, Ford's vice president for labor affairs, told a Labor and Employment Relations Association conference in June 2009, "We regard our relationship with the union as a competitive advantage." Dine's account of the conference does not specify whether union charm school graduates walked Mulloy to the edge of a hotel roof before he manifested these signs of Stockholm Syndrome.
It's unclear, moreover, against whom Ford's "competitive advantage" helps it compete. It can't be against foreign carmakers, whose non-unionized factories in the U.S. have steadily taken market share from the ever-smaller Big Three by turning out better cars at better prices. Nor can it be against G.M. and Chrysler. In October, shortly after Mulloy expressed his gratitude to the union, Ford's UAW members overwhelmingly rejected the company's request for the same concessions on wages, benefits, and work rules the UAW had made to G.M. and Chrysler when they declared bankruptcy. Of course, UAW now owns large parts of G.M. and Chrysler as a result of the Obama Administration's even-handed adjudication of those bankruptcies. In any other context this situation would be a flagrant conflict of interest. Because, however, the standard UAW approach to the industry has always been that any employer that is still solvent is one from which too little has been extracted, the union can plausibly argue that it isn't treating Ford any differently than it would if it didn't have equity in its competitors.
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A Right to Health Care
I applaud Andrew Busch for recognizing that the fundamental frame for discussing health care reform should be core societal values ("Is Health Care a Right?," Winter 2008/09). This recognition—especially coming from a conservative writer—is an important correction to the "economics first" approach that dominates current health care debates. The particular value that Busch focuses upon is that of rights. As an anthropologist and a humanist, my own preference is to frame health care discussions around responsibilities rather than rights. The reality of human fragility and interdependence—that all humans need assistance when we are very young, very old, and when we suffer from illness or injury—is addressed by all societies in one way or another through beliefs and practices that ensure at least some degree of mutual responsibility.
However, I also believe that health care is a human right and thus am intrigued by Busch's argument that: "even if the right to life [as stated by our nation's founders] led to a positive government obligation to provide health care, that right would logically be restricted to medical actions essential to preserve life, especially emergency measures." This argument seems to assume that only a small subset of health care services save lives, an assumption disproven by Institute of Medicine data showing that Americans without access to on-going health care are significantly more likely to die than people with regular access to health care—even though current federal law already requires emergency departments to assess and stabilize medical emergencies. Moreover, this argument seems to assume that a clear line can be drawn between lifesaving procedures and other (life-extending? life-enhancing?) procedures. By Busch's logic, diabetics do not have a right to insulin, but once they experience renal failure due to lack of insulin they then have a right to dialysis. Is his concern here the immediacy of death? How immediate is enough: one hour, one day, one month, one year? What does he propose is the proper timeline for the right to health care to kick in? And who gets to decide?
Busch further argues that, "if a civil right to health care [is] derived from the [right to the] pursuit of happiness, one would have to show that it is positively correlated—perhaps even necessary—to the achievement of happiness. Yet this conclusion is surprisingly difficult to support." Surely Busch cannot be arguing that a paraplegic forced to scootch on the floor is as able to pursue happiness as a paraplegic using the mobility aid of a wheelchair? Indeed, the important issue here is less the goal (happiness) than the process (the right of pursuit). Access to health care is a necessary precondition for all Americans to have a shot at pursuing employment (as I have argued elsewhere, those who are visibly ill have become unemployable) and thus the basic material means to survive in a capitalist society.
Busch proposes a conservative approach to health care that "first ought to recognize that individuals exist in a social web of family, friends, co-workers, churches, and other associations." This point is well taken. Yet, in the context of our expensive, scientific, and highly specialized medical system, families and friends cannot possibly serve as medical providers. The role of government, it seems to me, is to take the burden of health care delivery off the backs of these social networks and free them up to do what they do best: provide nurture and comfort to the sick and infirm.
Susan Sered, Ph.D.
Center for Women's Health and Human Rights
Andrew E. Busch replies:
Because I do not believe there is a right to government-supplied health care, I quite agree with Dr. Sered that responsibility should be a greater focus. One of the chief drivers behind the explosion of health costs, and consequently behind the inability of many Americans to afford insurance, is the degree to which responsibility over health care is hidden. A free society should try to increase the responsibility that individuals and families have over their own health care, not to obliterate that responsibility either in stages or all at once. A key point here is that "mutual responsibility" is not synonymous with "government responsibility," let alone "federal government responsibility." One of the greatest innovations of mutual responsibility in human history has been the invention of private insurance.
The problem of line-drawing with respect to the right to life illustrates precisely why a "right" to health care is so problematic, and why I oppose it. If the "right" to health care is based on the right to life, what if anything would Sered exclude? Would we be entitled to relieve our fellow citizens of their income to treat swimmer's ear, to correct tongue-tie, or for male hair restoration? One gets the feeling that even elective abortion would somehow be made to fall under the right to life. When the action "required" by a right becomes too attenuated from the right, it becomes an open door for centralized government without limit. For this problem, Sered offers no solution.
Of course, personal health is connected to personal happiness. The problem is that there is a much weaker correlation between government-provided health care and actual health, which is why the United States has significantly higher rates of cancer survival than countries like Canada, Great Britain, and Norway. Surveys show that there is no obvious correlation between countries that have socialized medicine and countries that exhibit high levels of happiness. Perhaps this is because freedom is also connected with happiness.
Dr. Sered concludes by suggesting that the role of government "is to take the burden of health care delivery off of the backs of...social networks." This way of thinking about social responsibilities is a bit too close for comfort to Alexis de Tocqueville's troubling forecast, in which government
chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of [the people's] happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
What, in such a society, would remain of our humanity is hard to say.
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The Moral Case for Capitalism
Greg Forster argues convincingly that a moral argument is needed to save capitalism ("Sacred Enterprise," Summer 2009), but I think he overestimates that argument's dependence on Christian theology.
Because trade and a sense of fairness have been found in every known human culture (not to mention in higher primates), a strong moral case can be made, on the basis of human nature alone, for capitalism and against socialism's institutionalized theft.
Christianity has been ambivalent in its endorsement of capitalism. In just the past two centuries, its message of compassion has supported Liberation Theology, Christian Socialism, and Marxism. Although the sacredness of property is a valid argument against socialism, it has not had the same emotional impact as the claim that wealth must be redistributed to help the poor.
A moral argument with a universal foundation will resonate more strongly, and with a wider audience, than one based upon sectarian theology.
George L. Clark, Sr.
Manhattan Beach, CA
Greg Forster accurately diagnoses capitalism's lack of a moral defense as the cause of today's withering assault on economic freedom, and effectively dismantles the utilitarian arguments offered by Friedrich Hayek and others. Free markets will not achieve widespread support so long as they are seen as morally suspect.
Forster's central thesis, however—that Christianity supplies the missing moral ground of capitalism because it holds that "the individual is transcendently sacred"—is hopeless.
By trying to support capitalism with a scaffolding of faith, not only does Forster imply that reason is on the side of socialism, he ignores an inescapable fact—grasped by the "social conservative opinion leaders" he mentions—that capitalist morality is incompatible with Christian morality.
Nothing makes this conclusion clearer than the half-hearted defense of capitalism Forster offers in his own essay. He says that early Christian writers opposed interference with property rights, except when "justice" required it. Would President Obama disagree? He approvingly quotes Aquinas's "defense" of profit, which denies that the labor needed to attain it is "honorable or necessary," and claims profit is "licit" only if it is "directed to a necessary or even honorable goal." Why not have the government redistribute wealth toward "honorable" goals? Forster writes that Christianity is against interfering with people's property, labor, and exchange, "except where necessary to uphold justice and sustain society." Isn't that what Barney Frank claims he's doing?
What Forster cannot get around is the fact that capitalism does not just tolerate production and the profit-motive, it venerates them. A capitalist system rewards and exalts the rational, productive individual, whose highest value is the achievement of his own life, happiness, and material well-being. That is what one must defend if one wishes to defend capitalism. But all Forster can say is that Christian theology "largely" abandoned its hostility toward profit-making. And this is the strongest moral defense of capitalism Christianity has to offer.
Toward the end of his essay, Forster laments that a "robust moral philosophy of capitalism" failed to "emerge from 20th-century capitalist thought." But in her novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand argued on rational, secular grounds that human life requires productive achievement, and that the noblest act of moral virtue is using one's mind to create life-sustaining values. She argued that profit is moral because it enriches the individual who achieves it—that someone like Bill Gates deserves the highest moral praise, not for giving away his wealth, but for creating it in the first place. Thus Rand lauded capitalism precisely because it is the only system that rewards the profit motive and respects the individual's right to act on his own judgment in pursuit of his life and happiness. That is the moral defense capitalism desperately needs.
Dr. Yaron Brook
President and Executive Director
The Ayn Rand Institute
Greg Forster offers an excellent sweep of the intellectual history of "free market enterprise," especially impressive for its succinct presentation. His observation that the true moral ground for capitalism arose from the early Church's teaching on the sacredness of the person is both correct and timely.
Yet the Roman Catholic Church's contribution didn't stop there. It can be found in her modern social teaching as represented in magisterial documents from Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum in 1891 to Benedict XVI's recent Caritas in Veritate, and, especially, in John Paul II's landmark 1991 social encyclical, Centesimus Annus.
Centesimus Annus informs us that of the social systems currently available, democracy and free market economies have the best potential for promoting human development. It says the free market economy "should be viewed carefully and favorably" and should be proposed to the developing world, so long as it is circumscribed in a strong, juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality.
Perhaps one of the Church's greatest contributions has been the identification of three principles on which any social organization or issue should be evaluated: a correct understanding of the human person, solidarity, and subsidiarity. These provide the secular world a framework with which to develop specific positions based on fundamental, underlying social principles.
Mr. Forster's essay ably captures the basic premise from which all Catholic social teaching flows: the recognition that every human person has an inherent dignity that comes from being made in the image of God.
Solidarity, wrote John Paul II, "is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good." It implies a dedication to the poor and disadvantaged through individual actions and collective initiatives to make social, political, and economic structures more just and fraternal. This duty of solidarity also applies to nations, and indeed to the whole world.
Subsidiarity, introduced by Pope Pius XI and confirmed by his most recent successors, teaches that the economy should rely first on free markets and that the state should provide for human needs in another fashion only when they cannot be met by free markets or private associations. Benedict XVI put it this way in Deus Caritas Est:
We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.
John Paul II was quick to point out that many of our contemporary problems are not economic but moral. He called for a vibrant, critical interaction among economics, culture, and politics, emphasizing that, of these three, culture is the most important. On this point, the Church goes even further and points out that at the heart of culture lies morality and at the heart of morality lies religion. By insisting on a vibrant, publicly assertive moral-cultural order, the Catholic Church demands a dialogue with society, a dialogue unashamedly based on her social teaching.
Robert A. Nalewajek
President, Centesimus Annus
Director, Fondazione Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice—Vatican
Cos Cob, CT
Greg Forster's recap of the moral case for capitalism was a model of clarity. I confess, however, to being troubled by the moral argument itself—that interfering with profit-making is tantamount to curtailing our freedom and therefore a"violation of the sacredness of the person." If this is the religious argument, how does it differ from the contemporary secularar gument that the individual is autonomous?
Greg Forster replies:
My article did not offer Christianity as a moral basis of capitalism. As I observed, it would violate our duty to respect the religious freedom of others if we based public policy on the Bible. The transcendent sacredness of the human person, not Christianity, was what I offered as the missing principle. I traced the history of this principle in Christian thought only insofar as that history is integral to capitalism's real historical development.
Though the sacredness of the person is affirmed by Christianity, it is also widely shared by a variety of belief systems, and it is the focal point of the Declaration of Independence. Capitalism's moral basis requires nothing more than what the Declaration declares. If we can't look to the Declaration as a statement of our shared national principles, where can we look?
I therefore find little to disagree with in George Clark's letter: basing public policy on the Bible would be not only wrong and dangerous but also potentially counterproductive. I would only add that just because many people claim Christian teachings support socialism, it does not follow that they really do.
This will not, of course, be sufficient for Dr. Brook. He asserts, without argument, that anything involving "faith" must necessarily be contrary to "reason." Thus if I say that one of the principles embraced by the Christian faith is also the proper moral basis of capitalism, I must be implying that capitalism is irrational.
This supposed opposition between reason and faith is one of the great unwarranted assumptions of our age. My own investigation convinces me that all the logic and evidence unanimously point to the truth of Christianity. Would Brook advise me to negate the unequivocal testimony of my reason in order to become more rational?
Brook rebukes me for upholding justice, because some people define it in a manner inimical to freedom. He is certainly right that our liberty is endangered when justice is defined as whatever is in the interest of the weaker, and I would add that we are equally endangered when it is defined as whatever is in the interest of the stronger. But surely it is not wrong to use a word simply because some abuse it? Dr. Brook's own letter demonstrates a clear commitment to a concept of justice—namely the concept that, as someone once said, "the laborer deserves his wages."
Capitalism is inconsistent with Christianity only if we adopt Brook's idiosyncratic belief that capitalism's foundational principle is for each person to seek his own advancement above all else. If that were true, Adam Smith would have been capitalism's bitter enemy. I have never seen a more devastating refutation of ethical egoism than the one in Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.
But I will make this concession to Dr. Brook. I did write that Christian theological objections to profit have been "largely" but not entirely dropped. Though almost all Christian theologians agree that profit is not inherently bad, a few continue to hold that it is. If Dr. Brook thinks a religion is discredited if it encourages a climate of free debate and disagreement then I certainly wouldn't recommend Christianity. He'd be better off looking for some small, fanatical sect where everyone agrees on every issue, all living together in what G.K. Chesterton called "the clean and well-lit prison of one idea." Perhaps he won't have to look far.
I thank Robert Nalewajek for reminding us that the Christian moral witness for the sacredness of the person in economic affairs continues to the present. I think two things could usefully be added to his survey. First, a look at other theological traditions besides the Roman one would yield similar results. And second, let us be humble enough to confess that within all theological traditions there has been some failure to consistently profess, embody, and enact this witness.
Jim Severance asks how the view that the state should respect the sacredness of the person differs from the view that human beings are autonomous. I take him to mean the view that each individual makes his own moral rules, and is not under moral duties external to himself. I further take it he wants to know specifically how my argument that the state should respect the sacredness of the person differs from the view of "autonomy" that rejects God as the source of moral obligation.
The answer is simple: the state is not God. The state is not allowed to act as though I were morally subordinate to it because I am not, in fact, morally subordinate to it. The state is just a bunch of people, and I'm a person just like they are. God, on the other hand, is allowed to treat me as morally subordinate to him because I am, in fact, morally subordinate to him. He's God and I'm not. As a friend of mine once remarked, monotheism is the proposition that there is only one God and it's not you.
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Israel and the Natural Law
I am puzzled by Harry V. Jaffa's open letter to the president ("Correspondence," Summer 2009) because to my reading it seems opposed to the universal equality of men under natural law that he lays out in his wonderful book, A New Birth of Freedom. According to my understanding, natural law is based on the notion that truth is written not in American nature or Jewish nature or Arab nature, but in our underlying common human nature.
Jaffa appears to affirm Israel's legitimacy and reject the notion of a Palestinian state on the basis of sovereign right, asserting that the Palestinian Arabs never had such sovereignty, while the Jews did possess "a sovereign Jewish state, a state from which the Jews were repeatedly driven" and to which "Jews always returned." Israel's conservative Likud party and its hard-line settlers in the West Bank make the same argument with some variations.
But nowhere does Jaffa cite natural law. The Jews' claim to the land is based upon the biblical covenant with God, which requires obedience to the laws of God. There is a connection between natural law and divine law; that is, the commands of justice, respect, compassion, etc., are written upon the human heart. If Israel, as a nation, has lost its faith in the divine, then it has lost its faith in its own nature and therefore in the natural law that binds it.
In Ezekiel 33: 23-26, we read:
Then the word of God came to me saying, Son of man, They that inhabit these waste places of the land of Israel speak, saying, Abraham was one man and yet he inherited the land, but we are many; the land is given us for inheritance. Therefore say to them, thus says the Lord God: You eat with the blood and lift up your eyes towards your idols and shed blood; and shall you possess the land? You stand upon your sword, you carry out disgusting deeds, and you defile every man his neighbor's wife; and shall you possess the land?
In short, the prophet declares that injustice invalidates the claim to the land.
To me, it appears that Jaffa has actually taken up John C. Calhoun's argument for "might makes right" and applied it, against his own beliefs, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think Calhoun would argue that each nation or people may assert its values over others even at the risk of dehumanizing them. Perhaps the Arabs are guilty of the same prejudice. But it seems to me that Professor Jaffa owes his students a deeper, expanded argument.
Kenrick W. Hackett
Harry V. Jaffa replies:
My thanks to Mr. Hackett for his kind words. He is perfectly justified in asking me to defend what I have written in defense of Israel's existence, and its presence in what is called the West Bank, i.e., Judea and Samaria.
Mr. Hackett writes that in his understanding the natural law is written in our common human nature, which is neither Jewish nor Arab. In this he is perfectly correct. But the law of nature is also the law of reason, and we must seek the ground of nature in reason. It has long been an established principle that long possession is a ground for the natural right of property. How far back does one go to decide whether a family heirloom was rightfully acquired? Most existing governments stand on land that at some time in the distant past had been conquered. The government of England today is an inheritance, in part, from the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Southwestern United States, including Texas and California, were taken from Mexico, largely under the banner of "Manifest Destiny," the American equivalent of God's promise to the Jews. That the God of Israel promised the land of Israel to the children of Israel is certainly not a conclusion of the natural law. The 3,000-year persistent presence of Israelites in the land of Israel does however make it in some sense a family heirloom, a property right that others ought to respect under the law of nature.
No one would, I presume, call for returning England to the Saxons (who had conquered it from the Celts), or returning nearly half of the United States to Mexico. Most Americans in the mid-19th century believed that all the land of North America between the Mississippi and the Pacific had been destined by God to be the possession of the United States. And many of those who did not think that God intended any such thing believed nonetheless that it was a good idea. By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States incorporated 60% of what had been the land area of Mexico. The acquisition of these vast areas raised the question of whether or not they would be open to slavery. The differences on this question led to the Civil War, so that in the end Americans paid a great price for the land taken from Mexico. However, the difference today in the wealth, prosperity, and freedom in the states formed from the Mexican conquest, compared to the poverty and disorder in the remainder of Mexico, constitutes a good natural-law justification for the original conquest.
For a historical perspective on Palestine we should look back upon Mark Twain's visit to the Holy Land in 1867. It was, he wrote, a land of kites and crows with virtually no signs of human civilization. This devastating blight remained unbroken until the 1890s when in the wake of Russia's pogroms Jews bought land from the Ottoman Turks, and began the incredibly toilsome task of turning an apparently unredeemable desert into the Garden of Eden it eventually became. This process, which owed nothing to the Arabs, was begun before World War I. Here again is a good foundation for a natural-law claim to the Jewish Homeland.
In World War I, the Allies destroyed the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. But the Czars' empire was on the side of the Allies. Before Hitler, and before the Bolshevik revolution, the Czar was regarded as the greatest enemy of the Jews. Seeking Jewish support was a policy of the Allies even before America's entry into the war. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 must also be seen in this context.
The British made promises to both Arabs and Jews to support the war against the Ottoman Turks. The contribution of the Jewish Legion in Sir Edmund Allenby's army was certainly not less than that of the more celebrated Arab irregulars under the command of T.E. Lawrence. There has been a large literature on whether the British sufficiently honored their wartime promises. However, out of the remains of the Ottoman empire (outside Turkey) 98% has been fashioned into Arab states, among them Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan. The last was carved out of what had become the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine of 1922, to provide another monarchy for the Hashemites. It remained Transjordan until 1948, when it crossed the Jordan and occupied the West Bank. It was originally regarded as the Arab Palestinian state, while the remainder of the Mandate was considered the Homeland of the Jews. Yet on three separate occasions this remainder was further subdivided to provide a second Arab state in what had been the Palestine Mandate. On each of these occasions the Jews accepted the subdivision but the Arabs did not.
The Holocaust has proved beyond a rational doubt the necessity of a place for persecuted Jews to find refuge. The justification of Israel goes beyond this, however. To compare Israel with the neighboring Arab states—notwithstanding the trillions of dollars of squandered oil wealth—we need to ask the Connecticut Yankee to return to King Arthur's court and remind us of the difference between our own civilization and one untouched by science and democracy, and by the laws of nature and of nature's God.