Thrift and the Just Social Order

“It is the duty of those serving the people in public place,” said Grover Cleveland in his first inaugural address in 1885, “to closely limit public expenditures to the actual needs of the government economically administered.”
That was, for Cleveland, plain common sense, and his practice proved that he meant it. He was an implacable opponent of spurious appeals to the treasury for army pensions, and of posh jobs handed out as political favors, and even of calls for the federal government to disburse alms to citizens suffering from natural disasters. He would give his own money, and would call upon his generous countrymen to do the same, but was committed to defend the Constitution against a most dangerous opponent, the sentimental desire to do good, or to see that somebody somewhere does good, with somebody else’s money.
We must keep the government lean, he said, “because this bounds [its right] to exact tribute from the earnings of labor or the property of the citizen, and because public extravagance begets extravagance among the people” (italics mine).
There were two principles at stake, and in Cleveland’s mind they were related: liberty, and the thrift upon which a free and virtuous people rely. He was not simply asserting the obvious, that if the government is free with your money, you have less money to be free with yourself. He claimed also that you would be more likely to follow the government’s extravagance — and that vice will hurt or destroy many a marriage and family. Therefore Catholics who reject Church teaching about the family but who say they support some vaguely defined “social teaching,” usually one that endorses public extravagance in the cause of “helping,” may in fact be rejecting the Church’s actual social teaching, too. Their policies not only rob people of their just earnings and encroach upon their due liberty; they help to ruin communities by encouraging vice and punishing virtue.
Suppose, instead, your town has a school scrupulously responsible with the people’s money. Suppose the school board, the principal, and the teachers believe that their jobs are quite modest: to teach children to read good works, to write grammatically, and to compute; to teach them in some coherent way about geography and history; and, in the upper grades, to teach them about the natural world, and perhaps immerse them in Latin or another language. That’s all. If the students want a football team, they can have one, and raise money for uniforms and blocking dummies and barbells. If they want to swim, there are lakes and ponds for that. And they will have time for it, too: They’ll be walking to school, most likely, since school will not be a great prison-like complex, outdated and leaking after 25 years, somewhere far outside of town on what used to be a farm.
What virtues would such a policy encourage? Thrift, for one — and not just from the school’s directors. Students would learn by experience that all the flashy “learning resource centers” in the world aren’t worth as much as a few good books in a quiet room. They might help clean the floors and trim the grass and uproot the weeds, too, because though it’s fun to foul somebody else’s property (and the big, distant, anonymous school is always somebody else’s property) most people don’t want to live in a pigsty. The townspeople, not only the parents, would also feel that they owned the place and had a stake in its upkeep and success. It would be a kind of town homestead. “There’s the schoolyard, there’s the big tree, there’s the place where I gave that bully a black eye.” A few such overseers, with sharp eyes and tongues, could keep the school from degenerating into a moral slum, because the place would be too small and conspicuous for the vicious teacher, and because, living on a parsimonious budget, the school could never afford to alienate the neighborhood. The good teachers would enjoy, and the bad teachers would suffer, all the virtues of responsible ownership.
It would not take much money to keep that school running, so property taxes would be low. Then old people on fixed annuities need not move away and sell their homes. That means no less than that a genuine neighborhood might thrive from one generation to the next. People who own their homes, too, and who do not expect to flee them when their income dwindles, are more likely to keep those properties trim, and to improve them when they can afford it — a garden house, a real fence, a grapevine on a trellis.
Extend the thrift beyond the bounds of the school district. Let the town and county and state be thrifty, too. Let the nation mind its business. Some parents, not taxed to death, might use the saved income to send their children instead to a Catholic school, and exercise stewardship. Or they might be content to live on a single income in a modest house, and that in turn would serve the neighborhood, returning to it the lifeblood of daily social interchange, the work and mutual help and oversight of women.
Would there be no social services? Plenty; they are called “neighbors.” No help for the poor? Neighbors would pitch in there, too, with sweat that cements a bond between helper and helped. Thrift, which lends us the liberty not only to cook our neighbors a meal when they are sick, but to know who they are, would remind the poor too that God has given them two things more powerful, more real, and more human than any scheme for organized robbery. They hang at the end of one’s arms, and are called “hands.”
Shiftless, squandering, heedless of the hard-won victories of our forebears, heedless of posterity, we and our government do less with wealth than a thrifty people do with penury. We pillage and spread the plunder, and gain graduates who can’t read Dickens; evacuated downtowns, imbecilic libraries, fatherless children, crowded prisons.
Cleveland won his first term as president after a preacher accused him of being friendly to Catholics, and the accusation backfired. I wish now more Catholics could be accused of being friendly to Cleveland. It might bring them nearer to his greater and wiser contemporary, Pope Leo XIII. They might recall some old social virtues, not yet erased from the Catechism. The poor would be better off for it, too.

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Rob H

    Bring back Grover Cleveland! “Plain common sense” is sorely lacking in the political arena today.

  • Ben

    While I sympathize with the moral and the message, I also think we need to be a mite cautious with our projections of bliss.

    I have at times been guilty of such optimism, and while it seems apparent that the current way of doing things is a massive failure, there are problems in all modes of living here on earth, pre-parousia. These communities may easily be plagued by gossip; thrift is a virtue easily lost; charity needs to be carefully tended, because on one side, sure, there is entitlement and people trying to escape the taxes (ie, no charity at all) but on the other side, there is arrogance and debasement and insufficiency – only in the middle is there gratitude and generosity properly paired.

    So, while we should all realize that FDR was a massive failure, the more so for having disguised it well, we should also remember that Cleveland didn’t rule over Eden.

  • Jerry L. L.

    And people wonder why throwing more and more money at our public schools isn’t helping much . . . It’s not necessarily more money that they need; it’s a more efficient budget, as you implied so very well.

    Kudos for the great essay!

  • Joe H

    And here I thought it was the left that is supposed to be sentimental and emotional about the issues.

    The title of this article may as well have been “Back to Mayberry”. We all remember the Andy Griffith Show, right? Of course you don’t need welfare when you can stop by Aunt Bee’s place and get a home cooked meal. In a small little community like that you don’t even need “law and order” – two cops and one gun keep the whole town safe while pies and fried chicken practically grow on the neighbor trees, and even a toothless miscreant like Ernest T. Bass can bask in the charitable goodness.

    How about now a reality check? We live in a massive industrial society founded on the economic philosophy that private vices become public virtues through the magical power of markets, and that “society” is nothing but an aggregate of individuals pursuing their own self-interest, not, as previously held by some ancients and medieval Christians, that it is an organic body. What was yesterday condemned as a selfish act is now a benefit to the community. We are taught that our rational self-interest will not sometimes, but almost always end up contributing to the greater good.

    So why should we bother with personal charity? Don’t I do enough by simply satisfying my own wants and desires? Does this not help push the invisible hand along a little further towards its end of satisfying everyone’s needs simultaneously? Not even Adam Smith took his own philosophy to the places that some of his theoretical heirs have done – he still recognized that the deck was always stacked against the poor.

    It’s true that we all have the individual ability to give to charity and to be charitable with our time and money and we should. But there are environments that are inherently conducive to establishing charity as a way of life, and there are environments that make charity difficult at best. In America we have the latter, by and large, in our major cities. We’re not in Mayberry anymore.

    And besides, the social doctrine of the Church also speaks of human dignity, of the right to work. It does not expect anyone to be perpetually dependent on handouts, but rather insists that society find ways in which everyone can fully participate and benefit from economic life.

    The social doctrine of the Church is not a series of suggestions of what individuals should do with their money in charitable efforts, but directly addresses the very foundations of society. If that makes some Catholics uncomfortable, perhaps there is a Protestant denomination with a more suitable outlook, perhaps one of those “Gospel of Wealth” churches. Joel Osteen would be happy to have you.

  • Ben

    While I agree with Joe that we shouldn’t be too sentimental about a past that never quite existed and couldn’t be practically enacted anywhere off a movie set, I disagree with him fundamentally about his concept of what Charity does and whether government can be usefully involved in any way.

    Charity happens to equalize wealth or at least distribute its products more evenly. However, that is a mediocre byproduct of true charity, and it happens to be the only byproduct that Robin Hood government can every hope to yield – while destroying opportunities for the real thing.

    True charity grows from and encourages character; it springs from generosity and yields gratitude. These aspects, which are not produced when the rich spend their time evading the taxman and the ‘advocates’ for the poor line up to protest and the poor themselves grumble about their handouts, are the more important part of charity – virtue in the community. True charity thus binds the community together, as well as allowing targeted mercy and grace, cooperation, and interaction between people who have had different fates thus far.

    Charity is tax exempt not because the government should be encouraging the distribution of money to the poor but because if government could choose what charities to tax, it would selectively destroy them – perhaps it would choose to destroy the catholic charities (as it often does try) or the jewish ones, or the ones favoring dogs. Whatever the case, we try to keep the tax man away from these things because they represent basic freedoms – not because the government is actually subsidizing them. Tax exemption is no subsidy – taxation is a burden.

    As for how to manage charity in a large, complex, industrial society – collecting and handing money out by robots serves none of the major purposes of charity, but it does dissipate the necessary wealth inequality to make charity happen. There must be a potential energy in the society to allow for a flow of money and the resultant goodwill. Breaking down the dam doesn’t run the turbines. So the Soviets found out.

  • Joe H

    In this country I realize one is either a libertarian or a statist, a “conservative” or a “liberal”. I would consider myself a distributist or communitarian. Meaning, I don’t think anyone should have to depend on charity as a means of existence, that we all have dignity as human beings and therefore a right to fully participate in economic life. I think the social doctrine of the Church is 100% correct on these matters. Charity is not the solution to a social problem, but rather something we are called to do as individuals. But the social problems still demand a solution.

    I actually would like to see societies such as the one Esolen wrote about come into existence, but they can’t without an actual social and economic foundation that is conducive to those aims. They can’t just grow out of the ground and our good intentions. We can’t throw seedlings into a pot of dirt and tell it to grow. We have to water them, make sure they get enough light, etc.

    My problem is with the conservo-libertarian assumption that people, if they just “wanted to”, could make this global capitalist economy work “for them” – with no property, no assets, no political influence, up to their necks in debt to acquire the necessities of life.

  • David W.

    While I don’t impugn President Cleveland’s personal integrity, the fact is that there were many social and political problems during the late 19th Century. The US economic fantasy land that Libertarians imagine pre-FDR is a myth…a fantasy. Truth is the government intervened in the economy then, too.

  • Ben

    I understand the desire to avoid trivial dualism in identifying a person’s beliefs and positions. As such, I think there are a two things I should make clear:

    1. Each person has dignity
    2. Each person deserves participation as a human in human life – to the extent possible, in economic affairs as well
    3. Starvation, destitution, illness due to preventable exposure, are grave evils.

    Now, there are some things you haven’t imagined:

    1. A persons place in economic affairs, and other affairs of their life, may be mainly as the recipient of charity. You would agree, I think, that a person born with Downs; or a person dependent on an iron-lung; is not going to be able to sustain themselves economically. Why do you rid them of their dignity by pretending they are not participating in economic affairs when they receive charity? Each has dignity, can receive charity thankfully, and can even dispense charity him or herself, in appropriate measure.
    Perhaps the person in a coma has no economic abilities – but even then, that person can bless caregivers who give of their economic goods freely.

    2. A person does not need to be wealthy, or even out of debt, to be an economic actor. Only a person forbidden any possessions, forbidden any purchases, forbidden any earnings or holdings, is a person cut completely out of the fabric of economic society. This sort of situation – a person forbidden private property – is heinous after the age when a person can comprehend property. As for political influence – we each have our own spheres. A child with a pretty stone can be generous or miserly among children, and cause joy or sadness accordingly. Similarly, we are not all going to be directly adjusting the attitudes of princes.

    3. The state has a role to play in assuring people that they can be economic actors. It does – by confirming and enforcing contracts, by protecting property, by assuring appropriate weights and measures, enforcing labeling laws, preventing fraud, assuring appropriate liberty, and limiting taxation. It has no appropriate role in dispensing largesse or welfare or alms of any sort. Families have a duty to support their own. The church has a duty to support poor christians – and sometimes may participate in charity society-wide, as people generously give and wise deacons distribute. Individuals may choose to do this directly or through the agency of the church – and should choose to do this often.
    But the state has no rights in this matter, and people who are tempted to utilize the state as an organ of force – to plunder other people’s property for their own ‘charitable’ ends – are the agents of disorder on the earth.

  • Tony Esolen

    Mayberry, right?

    Let’s cut the namecalling, shall we? I am arguing that the welfare state does not simply arise out of the destruction of communities, to ameliorate the harm. It too destroys communities. This is not a conservative-libertarian position, as I see it — I am emphatically not a libertarian; nobody who believes in the authority of the local community, as I do, can possibly be a libertarian. Read again what I have to say about schools. I’ll add this: if a people cannot be trusted to run their own schools as they see fit — I mean the local people with all their failings — they are not free.

  • Joe H

    Ben,

    I want to address a few things you said.

    “Why do you rid [handicapped people] of their dignity by pretending they are not participating in economic affairs when they receive charity?”

    It should go without saying that I am obviously talking about people who are able to work, who are, in theory, able to make decisions about their economic well-being but can’t because they are in a position of dependence and subservience.

    The handicapped are an entirely different category altogether.

    “A person does not need to be wealthy, or even out of debt, to be an economic actor.”

    Who claimed otherwise?

    That’s why I said “fully participate”. Meaning they have a substantial say in their own economic fate, which is really only possible through direct ownership of economic enterprises.

    “Only a person forbidden any possessions, forbidden any purchases, forbidden any earnings or holdings, is a person cut completely out of the fabric of economic society.”

    Well, I don’t think the Church has so narrow a view. People who are caught in a cycle of poverty are not legally forbidden but there are a million obstacles in the way, which makes them de facto forbidden.

    So the typical worker may not be cut “completely out” but entire communities are defenseless when the economies upon which they rest are uprooted by owners in search of greater profit. This is not the best system we can have. Not even close

    “This sort of situation – a person forbidden private property – is heinous after the age when a person can comprehend property. As for political influence – we each have our own spheres.”

    I agree, but why isn’t it just as heinous that we have such highly concentrated wealth and property? Why aren’t more conservatives and libertarians supporting wholly voluntary distributive projects that seek to bring more people to direct property ownership used in a cooperative way?

    Property rights should begin with the right to the products of one’s labor, which can only be secured through ownership of the productive forces.

    The Church completely recognizes this and has stated more than once its preference for cooperative economics. It is through ownership that people are able to fully participate in the economy, to have a say in what happens to them economically, and to benefit more fully from their labor.

  • Joe H

    “It has no appropriate role in dispensing largesse or welfare or alms of any sort. Families have a duty to support their own.”

    And when families can’t? When the Church can’t? Do you even think that people should be able to get temporary assistance? And what do you think of corporate welfare, subsidies and bailouts? Why don’t we hear more from the right about these things? Talk about your “agents of disorder” – everyone except the poor can make claims upon the government. I’m sick of this “blame the poor first” mentality, which isn’t rooted in Catholicism and has no precedent in the early or medieval Church. I think its a relic of the so-called “Protestant work ethic” that holds that economic success is a sign of God’s favor while poverty is a sign of sin. I’m not singling anyone out as believing that specifically, but I think there are traces of it.

    “But the state has no rights in this matter, and people who are tempted to utilize the state as an organ of force – to plunder other people’s property for their own ‘charitable’ ends – are the agents of disorder on the earth.”

    But that’s just where I disagree – I think, at least if we are talking about taxes on corporate profits, or the massive personal fortunes derived thereof, that this is social wealth. It is made possible by thousands, if not millions of workers and citizens worldwide. Just because it happens to end up in the bank accounts of a handful of wealthy stock holders and executives doesn’t mean that it is properly theirs.

    It means we have a flawed system with flawed priorities, it means there is an injustice that needs to be rectified, not sanctified.

  • Joe H

    Anthony,

    I really didn’t mean offense. I like Mayberry. I have idealist goals. I even said to Ben that I like your vision of society.
    I’m sorry for the sarcasm though. You’re right, it’s not necessary.

    I too believe in the power of the community but I also believe you can’t go from welfare state to community support overnight, and without a clear vision of how economic affairs are to be organized. I think the structures of concentrated wealth and political power need to be addressed as well as the virtues, or lack thereof, of the people.

    The complaints about taxes need to be clarified too. Will you acknowledge that there is a difference between what a person earns and what a person simply derives from ownership? I don’t think it is just for a small group of people to reap the entire product of thousands of people’s labor. If that’s freedom, I’ll take tyranny.

    If we really want power back in the communities, then we have to acknowledge why they have lost it. We have to acknowledge that we can’t have it both ways – we can’t have unlimited accumulation of personal wealth and the ceaseless consolidation of the economy into fewer hands in the name of “freedom” and then start talking about community and values and thrift.

    Plants have a better chance to grow if you put them in the sun and water them regularly as opposed to keeping them under a dim lamp and barely watering them at all. What are the economic conditions under which communities thrive?

  • Rob H

    Joe H:
    Forgive my ignorance, but what is “cooperative economics”? Also, what are some examples of “wholly voluntary distributive projects that seek to bring more people to direct property ownership used in a cooperative way”? If these are wholly voluntary, what difference does it make whether or not conservatives and libertarians support them?

  • Joe H

    Rob,

    By cooperative economics I basically mean distributism, I mean an economy which is based upon the widest possible diffusion of property ownership, used in a cooperative way. There are thousands of examples of it in communities and cooperative enterprises all over the world.

    You ask what difference it makes – the point is that, if they are Catholic, this is a way to address social problems in a non-statist but still effective way.

  • Rob H

    Joe H:
    Thanks for the info. I thought you meant conservatives and libertarians had some sort of philosophical objection.

  • Jason

    Joe H.

    You really seem to have an axe to grind against those who get rich because of ownership. You say (among other things): “I don’t think it is just for a small group of people to reap the entire product of thousands of people’s labor. If that’s freedom, I’ll take tyranny.”

    It sounds like spite or envy is creeping into your logic when you say things like this. I really don’t see how any cure to this “problem” wouldn’t be much worse. The owners are usually the people who took a risk and started the company that, due to their hard work, grew into an entity that can provide jobs for those thousands of others. Private ownership of property and the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor are not rights that stop once you make it to the highest income tax bracket. What deterrent effect would it have if the State – or the Church, for that matter – said “thus profit you may make, and no more”?

    Capitalism as practiced in America has been the source of more opportunities for wealth and economic growth than any other system. (note: this not to say that material goods are the most important, but they do remain goods and a system that makes it possible for many people to attain them through hard work and thrift shoudl not be chucked because it also allows what you consider to be excess). How do you redistribute this wealth without being unjust?

  • Joe H

    Jason,

    “You really seem to have an axe to grind against those who get rich because of ownership.”

    I have an axe to grind with the SYSTEM that enables a handful of people to monopolize wealth that is created through a social process by thousands of people’s blood, sweat and tears. There are no particular individuals on the list, except the corporate criminals who rip off their customers, small shareholders, workers and society.

    But I want MORE, not fewer people to be owners, I want EVERYONE to be able to prosper and have more control over their economic fate. That means decentralizing and diffusing ownership from below.

    “It sounds like spite or envy is creeping into your logic when you say things like this.”

    Why does it “sound” like it? Because anyone who has a problem with this system must have a secret longing to climb to the top of it?

    What does it mean to be envious? Maybe I’m completely wrong about this, but I thought to envy someone is to desire what they have for myself. Here’s the truth: I do not need or want to be wealthy. I am happy living well below my material means, doing more important things with what I earn, and only indulging in luxuries once in a while.

    I think anyone who makes it their life’s goal to become wealthy is the envious one, the only difference between them and the truly envious poor being that they became successful in satisfying their envy, their desire for the material things, luxuries and pleasures they saw their neighbors with and just had to have for themselves.

    “The owners are usually the people who took a risk and started the company that, due to their hard work, grew into an entity that can provide jobs for those thousands of others…

    How do you redistribute this wealth without being unjust?”

    Unfortunately risks do not create anything, not products, not abstract wealth – only labor does that. People should not be seen as these helpless, passive objects waiting for an individual to come along and give them a job – provided they give up any and all claims to the furits of their labor.

    They should instead be encouraged and motivated down a different path. There is no reason why the capital needed to start businesses should only be bestowed upon individuals. That is why, in so far it is possible, I advocate the formation of cooperatives, where everyone involved is an owner and a worker, everyone shares in the risks and benefits from the rewards. This is what a social recognition of human dignity demands.

    I’m not against ownership – I’m against the idea that labor should remain a statistic on a balance sheet, seen but not heard, in the productive process. I don’t advocate some kind of violent overthrow of the boss, just that charitable, and I should hope Catholic people with money and education use their resources to help workers and poor people develop alternatives to the economic and political structures that keep them poor and rob them of their dignity. Charity as rational investment and not as handouts. The whole “teach a man to fish” idea on a mass scale.

  • Tony Esolen

    Joe,

    Apologies accepted, heartily.

    I would like to continue our discussion; I think it might prove profitable for all concerned. Let me ask you to consider what Chesterton said in The Outline of Sanity, about the propensity of normal people to return to health when you stop feeding them poison. It isn’t necessary, in the first instance, to find the perfect diet; the first thing you need to do is to stop feeding poison. The welfare state feeds poison — by supplanting the father; by replacing human charity with institutionally dispensed entitlements; by divorcing material from spiritual needs; in particular by divorcing all discussion of poverty from a discussion of vice. The result is that you end up replacing a poor community with no coherent community at all.

    I have a friend who insists that we had to create the Frankenstein of all-competent government to counter the Godzilla of big business. I don’t buy the argument, because as it turns out Frank and Zilla get along quite nicely together, to squeeze the community from both ends. That’s why I focused on schools, not on income or on business, as a clearer field for the exercise of local authority and human responsibility. Would you agree with me that a people used to civic liberty — which is essentially communitarian and even hierarchical — will also feel competent, in their own communities, to set sane rules for buying and selling? I mean, is it really inevitable that small businesses should all have gone belly-up — wasn’t it an alliance of big-government regulation and big business that did it, with the local communities, robbed of authority, powerless to resist?

    A side question: if we Catholics were an army and wanted to take over the country, what sane strategies might we undertake as communities to get that job done? I sometimes think that if one Catholic parish in ten took a vow to fast from all television (and to train boys in manhood and girls in womanhood, in defiance of that monster Ed that makes Walmart look like a field mouse), we’d have the nation in our hands in one generation, because we’d be the only people left with any brains …

  • Joe H

    Tony,

    Regarding the poison: I understand the logic, but dependency is a difficult cycle to break. I can’t imagine what the single mothers I know would do if they couldn’t get some form of help from the state, since the fathers of their children have absolutely no interest in helping out. In the cases I’ve seen personally, and its a small sample I realize, parental abandonment came before and not after the welfare checks. The idea of women having babies just to get another check, sometimes invoked by the right (I’m not saying you did) is just lunacy – if there are such women, they have to be a sliver of a fraction of the women who actually need the support because the father walked out.

    My fiancee and I do what we can for the people we know but we’re barely keeping our heads above water as it is.

    Regarding your second paragraph, I agree. Again, my concern is, you have to have something replace what you take away. I think welfare should be dismantled in proportion to the creation of alternatives to welfare. It’s going to take a real effort.

    From Pope Leo 13 to JP 2 the idea has been put forward that work and ownership should be linked as closely together as possible, that this is foundation for individual prosperity and human dignity in economic affairs. It isn’t a panacea, just a start.

    I think it begins with convincing people to pool their resources, seek out sympathetic investors, and create an economic backbone for a community, something that distant shareholders and executives cannot pack up and ship out as soon as the market forecast looks a little sour. It may involve worker buyouts of local businesses, an agreement with the community to invest so much profits in local services, a reduction in our personal consumption of resources. And I think the Church could be involved at every level, organizing and motivating these efforts.

    And, I like your ideas in the third paragraph. I’m all for private and home schooling, and if we can win the political battle against the anti-homeschoolers then we can create community “schools” that are accredited. Ultimately I think the only effective solutions are grassroots. The political machines in this country, the major parties, will never get the job done.

  • Jason

    Can Joe or Tony please tell me what the problem is with this thing they call “Big Business”? As I see it, business – big or small – is still a free exchange: money for goods/services, labor for wages, investment for productivity, etc. We have laws in place to guard againt the monopolization of an industry. What else needs to be restricted?

    I’d be much more inclined to listen to rational arguments and reasons why big businesses and corporations were bad for people if I didn’t think the speaker was motivated out of spite or envy. I say this as a homeschooling dad who is comfortable bucking the establishment – but I’m not persuaded that you have a solution.

    Joe, to continue our discussion from above – are you saying that those who worked for their ownership stake – investing the seed money, taking the risk, working long hours, organizing the money and labor, hiring the workers, harnessing the resources – that these people should, in justice, just give away some of their ownership to their employees, based on the simplistic premise that broader ownership is better for everyone? How is it better for the guy who built the successful business? And if his business is successful (ostensibly because of his leadership), aren’t we risking its continued success (and everyone’s coninued employment there) by placing it into the collective hands of a group of people who haven’t proved themselves yet?

    Have you ever read “Atlas Shrugged”?

    Yes, our current system has problems, but I’d lke to have some good discussions of real possibilities that take human nature into account.

  • Tony Esolen

    Jason,

    Fair questions. I’m suspicious of big business (note that I am talking about wariness here) for the same reason that I am adamantly opposed to the vast all-competent welfare state (note that I am not talking about wariness, but about knowing the enemy and wanting that enemy eliminated). It’s that both tend to level things that are distinctly human: the family, the community, and what used to be called culture. Take for example the huge business that major league baseball has become. Now I confess that I am a true-hearted fanatical follower of the Saint Louis Cardinals. And yet … most people are unaware that until Branch Rickey revolutionized the system (over the objections of Judge Landis, then commissioner of baseball), the minor leagues were their own leagues, with their own teams, their own stars, and their own loyal followers, and that there were players in Baltimore (a minor league city at that time) that were every bit as good as most major league players. The minors were not enslaved to the majors. And there were many, many more cities with teams than we now remember; and that’s not including little towns with semipro clubs. They were all over the place. In other words, baseball in America exhibited a breathtaking variety, and really was an expression of popular culture, and not an engine of mass entertainment fed to millions from one big business. The tendency of big business, though, is not only towards monopoly — the actual danger of monopolies in American life is greatly exaggerated. It is towards the flattening of culture, which is always, in the first instance, local.

    I don’t see that it is in the interest of any of our big industries — and it is CERTAINLY not in the interest of our social services, our schools, and our governments — to foster strong, stable families, with — let us say — at least one parent at home to make that home a place of some genuine economy. It is not in their interest to foster the independent man with a field and a plow and a well and a couple of good books. Your orderly family is an offense to the ambitions not only of the state but also of Henry Ford. It is true, to a degree, that businesses only provide what people freely choose to buy; yet they are also in the business of promoting desires, of persuading people that they want what they do not want and need what they do not need. There is hardly a commercial on television that does not appeal to three or four of the seven deadly sins; indeed, if it were not for those deadly sins, half of our colleges and universities would have to shut their doors (and real knowledge might slowly revive!).

    I don’t propose any political solution here for what to do about McDonald’s; as I’ve said, to create a monstrous State to slay that dragon simply makes matters immeasurably worse. I do think that the welfare state is intrinsically evil, because its very principles violate the foundations for human community; and I’ll concede that McDonald’s and Walmart and the rest don’t do that. What we require is a cultural revolution, or rather the resuscitation of something resembling a culture, here and there, in pockets of local authority and well-informed sales resistance. I mean that in a broad sense — because we who buy lousy food at McDonald’s pay handsomely for lousy schools, and ship our kids off to daycare for lousy years of childhood, all to gratify our sloth or greed or vanity or something nastier still.

    I don’t agree with Joe, by the way, that we need to establish a great alternative to the welfare state before we stop feeding its poison. Most of the young women I meet in Canada who have children out of wedlock do so defiantly and shamelessly, as their “choice.” Payments to them constitute little more than a social reward for the destruction of the family.

  • Ben

    Joe H;
    Very simply put, you are preaching Marxism, not any form of Christianity. I could have guessed it, but when you started talking about the workers owning the means of production collectively, it was more than clear.

    Now, I won’t bother to discuss Marxism in the negative; instead, I want to put forward several positive propositions.

    1. You say that the handicapped are in a different category altogether with respect to their basic human rights. I say no. They are fully human and any right that makes them seem less than human can be no human right at all.

    2. People have a right to property and ownership. They have a right to the productive fruits of their property. Property tends to beget more property when fruitfully used. Even the poorest Americans have money in the bank earning interest. I agree with you that we shouldn’t have a class of individuals to whom all property is forbidden. Those would be serfs, in the later Russian system, slaves in the US south. Not even most serfs or slaves, historically, were forbidden private possessions and the products from them, but only those in the most degenerated of slave holding economies.

    3. Most people do own things, and get produce from them. There are individuals who own so much that they have trouble keeping it productive – those few people tend to pass on some of it, give much to charity, and their heirs rot away the fortune in a while. No big deal, overall.

    4. You say ‘what if the families can’t’ and ‘what if the church can’t’ supply the basic needs of people who are destitute relatives or destitute brothers and sisters – I tell you, when 1/3rd of the world claims to be christian, there is no case when the church CAN’T provide the basic needs of the brothers. And in many families, if they tried to do it as a matter of duty, they could – but if they get used to leaning on the state, they don’t try, and they don’t go to the church for their needs either.

    Your ‘medicine’ is pure poison. For the people, for the community, and for the church. But is the church acting rightly? No, I think not – it has abandoned the support of the brethren, trying instead to give things to _everyone_, christian or non-christian, and ignoring the sort of rules that the original deacons and apostles appointed for the widows’ rolls. If the church were to honestly endeavor to care for all its own, there would be no poverty within it – and, in all likelihood, because of the scope of that endeavor, almost no poverty without.

  • Joe H

    Atlas Shrugged, the novel? No, I haven’t read it.

    As for your other questions:

    “Can Joe or Tony please tell me what the problem is with this thing they call “Big Business”?”

    As if it isn’t clear from everything that has been posted?

    I’m sure you, like others, have a problem with “big government” – there are just as good reasons to have problems with big business. My primary objection isn’t to the actual size of the business but rather the size of the power that is concentrated in to very few hands. The larger the distance between the top executives and shareholders on the one hand, and the workers on the other, the more the latter simply become dehumanized as numbers on a balance sheet.

    I object to this as a Catholic, and our social doctrine has clearly stated that a) the dignity of the worker is the top economic priority, b) that large entities should not undertake what can be done by local communities (subsidiarity), and c) that a diffusion of property is an optimal state of affairs, because when people can directly appropriate the products of their own labor it is both morally and economically good. If you desire specific references to the Compendium as well as the encyclicals on social matters that have been written over the last 150 years, I can provide them. Needless to say, they don’t reference “Atlas Shrugged” either.

    “I’d be much more inclined to listen to rational arguments and reasons why big businesses and corporations were bad for people if I didn’t think the speaker was motivated out of spite or envy. I say this as a homeschooling dad who is comfortable bucking the establishment – but I’m not persuaded that you have a solution.”

    Well, if you want to read spite or envy into what I say, I can’t stop you. All I can say is that I don’t have it. I am angered by what I think is an irrational, unjust way of doing things because I see the damage it causes to the human spirit. If that disqualifies me from your careful considerations, so be it.

    To answer your next question:

    “Joe, to continue our discussion from above – are you saying that those who worked for their ownership stake – investing the seed money, taking the risk, working long hours, organizing the money and labor, hiring the workers, harnessing the resources – that these people should, in justice, just give away some of their ownership to their employees, based on the simplistic premise that broader ownership is better for everyone?”

    No. Did I ever use the words “give away”? Did I ever suggest anything along those lines? The answer is no.

    Before I tell you, again, what I think, I’d like you to honestly ask yourself what gave you the idea that I suggested such a thing. I mean I really, really would appreciate if you would just go back, re-read my last post to you, re-read this question you asked me, and ask yourself if you think it is a fair question based on what I said.

  • Joe H

    Now, what I am saying is that all of those things you mention, can and should be done by groups of workers instead of small groups of investors or individuals who happen to have a lot of money. Why? Because ownership is “better for everyone” – starting with the basic premise that labor is what creates property, and when people can own the products of their own labor (instead of giving up their right to them, as every wage worker does), it is not only just but it is also the greatest economic motivation. It means that people are more directly in control of, and more responsible for, their economic fate. It means that instead of mindless competition people must use their property in a cooperative and charitable way within the context of their communities.

    This is not simply Marx or other secular philosophers speaking. This is what Pope Leo XIII said in Rerum Novarum, it is what Pope Pius XI said in Quadragesimo Anno, it is what Pope John Paul II said in Laborem Exercens. The Church does not reject the cooperative economy and in fact prefers it to all others, both unfettered capitalism and communist command economies. What the Church opposes and what I have not advocated is violent expropriation or any other sinful MEANS to these perfectly just ends.

    If that isn’t “rational” enough for you, I don’t know what will be. Now given that I am for a grassroots, bottom up approach, and not the arbitrary division of already-existing property, the rest of your questions are moot. I would love it if some big business owners decided to convert their enterprises to cooperatives, but I don’t see it happening. It will have to be the next generation of companies and if we distributists are right the old model will fade away and if we are wrong, it won’t.

    You’ve read Atlas Shrugged, now try reading some of the encyclicals I mentioned and perhaps the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

  • Joe H

    Ben,

    “Very simply put, you are preaching Marxism, not any form of Christianity. I could have guessed it, but when you started talking about the workers owning the means of production collectively, it was more than clear.”

    Marx was not the first or only thinker in human history to talk about workers owning the means of production.

    But hey, I’ll give you credit for one thing: people usually just assume Marx meant state ownership. I’m glad you know he was almost always talking about worker ownership.

    Now you should also know, as I just explained to Jason, that this is actually what the Church has preferred historically. What it has rejected are command economies, which I also reject, and violent class warfare, which I also reject.

    So, either the Popes aren’t Christian, or, perhaps, you have a little reading to do. I don’t doubt your intelligence or Jason’s, but I do doubt whether or not you are fully aware of what the Church has supported and rejected with regards to property ownership. Unfortunately the platform of the American Libertarian Party and the Social Doctrine of the Church do not overlap.

    “1. You say that the handicapped are in a different category altogether with respect to their basic human rights. I say no. They are fully human and any right that makes them seem less than human can be no human right at all.”

    I’m really kind of saddened that you would twist the meaning of my words to the point where you make it seem as if I don’t think the handicapped are fully human. The debate isn’t so important that you have to make me out to be some kind of monster.

    Of course they are fully human and I never said otherwise. But what society expects from them is obviously going to be different. If I don’t expect a man in a wheelchair to climb three flights of stairs, does that mean I think he is less human? Is that the level of absurdity we are going to descend to?

    All I mean is that the handicapped are going to be entitled to more assistance from society than people who are not. If they can do without it, God bless them, sincerely. But if they need it, they get it first. That is all I ever meant.

    “2. People have a right to property and ownership. They have a right to the productive fruits of their property. Property tends to beget more property when fruitfully used. Even the poorest Americans have money in the bank earning interest.”

    And this is supposed to mean something, when consumer debt is at an all time high? You may as well say everyone has a right to food, and then point to the reserves of bread crusts and dirty water that the poor have as evidence that no one is denying them their rights.

    What I am suggesting is that society take more active and positive measures to bring more people into direct ownership of productive property, of the products of their own labor, so that they are no longer mere objects of economic forces but active subjects who can better decide their own economic destines, in accordance with what human dignity demands.

    And, as I explained to Jason, the Church fully supports this goal. If it isn’t your cup of tea, don’t do it. But don’t try to make me out to be some sort of apostate for taking the social doctrine of the Church seriously. If you don’t like the doctrine, write a letter to the Vatican.

  • Joe H

    “3. Most people do own things, and get produce from them.”

    We must have very different conceptions of what sort of “things” that are owned are “producing” things for their owners. We must also have a very different understand of “most people.”

    Most people do not own a significant share of the products of their own labor, or have any say in what happens to them at their place of work. If you think this is the best of all possible scenarios, fine. I don’t object to you doing what you think is just within the moral boundaries established by the Church.

    Can you tell me why you would seriously have a problem with those of us who want to peacefully organize alternatives to this state of affairs? If we are destined to fail, we will fail – but success stories such as the Mondragon (successful, I believe, because of its Catholic roots) give me encouragement that what has been missing from secular economic experiments is precisely what we Christians possess.

    “4. You say ‘what if the families can’t’ and ‘what if the church can’t’ supply the basic needs of people who are destitute relatives or destitute brothers and sisters – I tell you, when 1/3rd of the world claims to be christian, there is no case when the church CAN’T provide the basic needs of the brothers.”

    Yes, “claims” being the operative word here. There are a lot of claims going around but not nearly enough action to back it up.

    If the Church believed that what you suggest is viable, it wouldn’t have a social doctrine at all. I am grateful that those who have lead the Church and continue to lead it are able to see clearly into these matters. There are individual responsibilities and there are social responsibilities, there are individual sins and there are social sins.

    This isn’t the Middle Ages, when the Church could and did provide for those needs. The Church was literally robbed of its ability to do so by the forerunners of modern capitalism through the Protestant reformation. Who do you think expropriated Church lands in England and Germany and why? Where do you think the peasants when after rapacious nobles and aristocrats eager to leap into the world of commerce went to when the latter evicted the former by the thousands from their lands? And what do you think happened to them when this final refuge was expropriated by the same greedy nobles in pursuit of the same economic ends that most businesses are today? To them the Church was a great obstacle in the way of commerce and industry.

    Why do you think one of the greatest thinkers in Church history, St. Thomas More, scathingly and mercilessly condemned the original “robber barons”?

    “Your ‘medicine’ is pure poison. For the people, for the community, and for the church. But is the church acting rightly? No, I think not – it has abandoned the support of the brethren, trying instead to give things to _everyone_, christian or non-christian, and ignoring the sort of rules that the original deacons and apostles appointed for the widows’ rolls.”

    So people having their own productive property and controlling their own economic fate is “poison”? Then I don’t want the medicine! Maybe you still don’t realize that all I am advocating is more, not less property ownership, and done in a purely voluntary way.

    So now the Church isn’t acting rightly – but I will remind you that these basic principles of the social doctrine pre-date Vatican II by a hundred years, so the post-modern liberal boogeyman can’t be invoked to smear it.

  • Ben

    I do not need to make you out to be a monster; but you need to think through the implications of what you say. When you say it is a basic human right to have full participation in the economy, I believe you, and I agree. We just have a very different conception of what is held within that right, I guess. I believe that all basic human rights are held by all humans. The handicapped are human… thus they have this right, in full.

    Now, we can discuss at some point the property rights of infants, let alone a fetus – this, I admit, requires some thought. But my argument carries me to the point that I can say: handicapped people have the right to personal property and to dispose of it as they will. They can give gifts, receive gifts, earn money, spend money, have personal possessions and even investments.

    This suite of rights is no different than that of a millionaire, a billionare, or Bill Gates. A dollar _is_ the means of production; in our capitalist system, any property is fungible and all can produce more.

    I’m not making you out to be a monster to say that you have misunderstood this fundamentally. You would imagine that the poor are stripped of their right to participate in the economy and the handicapped couldn’t possibly have it. I, on the other hand, believe that the smallest infant that comprehends ‘my toy’ is involved in the economy, and the child who understands lending something for a piece of candy has joined capitalism with the means of production.

    This makes Marx out to be, not so much a liar, but silly. He was stuck looking at one scale, and tried to force everyone and everything into his procrustean bed. If he had been more flexible to imagine workers owning stock in the corporation that employed them (or employed somebody like them) – like we have now – or lending money at interest to someone who bought that stock – he would have realized that the people in a capitalist system DO own the means of production, the moment they put money in the bank.

  • Ben

    Our next point of contention is the Church.
    The people who despoiled the Roman Church in the West and the Greek Church in the East were not all protestants. It started with corrupt priests (and popes) and nobles who saw this corruption and seized on simony to provide their riches. Drunk friars and abbots continued on this path. Reform after reform failed to uproot this before the protestants came along.

    And among these protestants, we can hardly name some, like King Henry, or Emperors in the east, who were simply Monarchs pillaging, not the pious outraged.

    But when I criticize the ‘church’ presently, I don’t mean, as many critics do, just the Pope and his ordained subalterns.

    When I criticize the Church for not providing, I mean the laity, the religious, and the ordained, Roman, in communion with Rome, and protestant. Some of these have done better than others locally or historically, but none are at present taking up the mantle of providing for all the Christian poor. This is a church-wide problem, in part caused by people who imagined that ‘distribution of the means of production to the proletariat’ would lead to instant bliss, others who believed that ‘progressive taxation’ and heavy estate taxes would lead to … instant bliss… and so on, as those synonymous statist/fascist/communist/socialst systems promise the parousia through the redistribution of wealth.

    Well, it isn’t to come. Nor will it come through a pure market economy interacting with the naked individual. Society needs, and will always need, the Government, the Market, the Church and the Family to be in some approximate balance, until Christ comes and unifies all of these.

  • Jason

    Hi Joe. Thank you for your reasoned replies. Nothing you said summed up your position (as distinguished from what Ben and I both thought you believed) as this: “Maybe you still don’t realize that all I am advocating is more, not less property ownership, and done in a purely voluntary way.”

    Provided it is truly voluntary, I don’t disagree, except for the point I made above about human nature, so I return to ask you HOW you envision this playing out. A business owner might sell the majority of his ownership stake to those who want to buy it, including his employees. But he probably won’t if he believes he still has more productive years of his own to give to the company and reap the benefits thereof for himself and his posterity. Christian faith may temper our desire for ever more aggrandizement, but most people – even people of faith – won’t feel compelled to sell their ownership to others.

    And in our economy, despite its flaws, what you wish for is not too different from how things really are now, is it? Even the common laborer can acquire property. He can buy ownership in companies – perhaps even the one he works for. As suggested above, the most important thing is that no citizen is prohibited from doing so. Their situation in life may prevent its realization, but how can this be resolved without violating justice? You don’t want to just give them someone else’s property – you wwant it to be voluntary. And so it is. What more do you want and how do you propose to achieve it without violating the rights of others?

    A final point – I have not read the Church’s social encyclicals or the Compendium because I am a late-comer to this entire field. I will at some point read these things, but “Atlas Shrugged” was an entertaining novel with some powerful ideas – ideas that sparked an interest in this area. The fact that I haven’t read everything (or much, even) on this subject shouldn’t prevent me from participating in a reasoned debate based on principles. Additionally, as I understand it, the Church enjoys no particular charism of infallibility on these matters. Her ideas – and yours – need to stand on their own merit. So an appeal to this or that social teaching doesn’t end the discussion, especially since we’re talking about concrete applications, not just the guiding principles our Church offers. I welcome the principles, but they are not inviolate, and they guide us, not resolve these issues.

  • Joe H

    Ben,

    Acknowledged and understood, though I still disagree (not on the handicapped thing – I was never denying them a human right, simply acknowledging that if they cannot use that right, we have to help them in other ways). I only want to address your last paragraph.

    “This makes Marx out to be, not so much a liar, but silly. He was stuck looking at one scale, and tried to force everyone and everything into his procrustean bed. If he had been more flexible to imagine workers owning stock in the corporation that employed them (or employed somebody like them) – like we have now – or lending money at interest to someone who bought that stock – he would have realized that the people in a capitalist system DO own the means of production, the moment they put money in the bank.”

    Marx readily acknowledged all of this. He was, after all, well read in Adam Smith and the other classical economists. Marx actually saw the development of joint-stock companies as part of the same process of the socialization and centralization of capital as industrial machinery had performed. He saw them, in other words, as a prelude to socialism.

    When I look at the reality of the distribution of stock in this country – that 90% of it is concentrated in the top 10%, and that most of that 90% in the hands of the top 1 or 2%, I’m going to have to say that Marx was right to not expect capitalism to automatically provide everyone with a share of productive capital. As he shows, historically, capitalism presupposes the separation of the workers from the productive forces, and often with great violence and fraud, though certainly not always.

    Now this doesn’t mean that there can’t be strides made once again towards worker ownership, without violent revolutions and excessive state involvement, but I don’t think we see that going on today.

    You can’t honestly look at the distribution of stock holdings today and say that this has lead to a situation where everyone owns enough to really be economically self-sufficient and enjoys the total fruits of their labor. Nor does it appear that the trend, sans any effort on our parts to the contrary, is going to diffuse this ownership; on the contrary the trend for the last 30 years has been for greater, not lesser, concentration of wealth, and this includes stock ownership.

    Furthermore, we are talking about a global and not a national system. American workers are technically exploited, but they live in luxury compared to the workers of the developing world. I don’t think the workers in Wal-Marts Chinese factories are being offered stock options, and the same can be said of the vast, vast majority of the world’s laborers.

    As for this notion that having money in the bank is equivalent to direct ownership of the means of production, again, this is a way of trying to say people have in theory what they really don’t have in practice. If I take out a loan to start a business, the bank doesn’t tell me whose deposits are making that loan possible. Putting your money in the bank only entitles you to take out an equivalent sum plus interest, it doesn’t make you an investor or a co-owner with borrowers who start companies! Would that it were so.

    All I would ever ask of you, or anyone else, or any business owner, or any politician, is that at the minimum, in the name of the liberty you claim to love, you simply allow us to develop alternatives and not purposely try to undermine them (as was done repeatedly to the workers cooperatives of the 19th century by traditional capitalist firms out of pure spite); at the maximum, in the name of Christian charity, I would ask for any and all assistance in developing a viable plan for a cooperative community.

  • Joe H

    Ben,

    Only one last thing,

    “This is a church-wide problem, in part caused by people who imagined that ‘distribution of the means of production to the proletariat’ would lead to instant bliss…”

    To be fair, this never actually happened, at least not through the infamous revolutions of the 20th century.

    Where it did happen, such as through the Mondragon in Spain, it may not have brought instant bliss but it combined a sound economic model with worker ownership and control and restored human dignity to the productive process.

  • Joe H

    I’m sorry if I came off defensively referencing the encyclicals and the social doctrine. I’m used to having my guard up in debates like these so I apologize for any offense I may have caused.

    Now, as to how – again, I think we have to have an organized effort and start form the bottom up. I was talking about it in earlier posts. I think it begins with education, with making people aware of possible alternatives. There are actually cooperatives all over the US, performing at different levels of the economy and with varying degrees of success.

    What I think is missing is an integrated approach such as they have in the Mondragon in Spain, where a whole community is built around a complex of several cooperative businesses, including schools, medical services, etc. They all support and reinforce each other in a positive way. The schools provide the factories and businesses with skilled workers which provide the schools with revenue to train more skilled workers. It works well because it is done locally on a small scale, where the results can be closely monitored, adjustments quickly made. It is a good example of subsidiarity in action, of processes which can be done on a local, smaller scale being done that way instead of delegated to distant bureaucracies.

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