A proper examination of President Obama’s assertions about entrepreneurs requires a close consideration of the underlying moral claims they contain. But first it should be conceded to the President that much of the infrastructure that facilitates business is created by the state. Indeed, he is correct to say that the state plays a role in economic activity.
But where is government’s place in the order of causation? If entrepreneurship is described in a mathematical or neutral fashion, as the accumulation of amoral factors in a line of production, then one can argue at length about the relative place of one factor against another. If economic rationality is merely instrumental and factors such as inventiveness, risk, creativity, will, practical intelligence, perseverance and vision are one more set of factors in an assemblage, the element of government investment is yet an additional neutral link in the chain of causality. But a truly human act cannot be devoid of intentionality; it is moral.
Now, where can we fit government activity within the order of entrepreneurial initiative? If entrepreneurship is something that can be understood, it must have structure. If it has structure, it must possess a hierarchy. Catholic moral theology can assist us in finding out where the state fares in that vertical order. Moral theology is, in a sense, comparable to economics. If good economics can help us recognize and predict proximate and ultimate consequences of economic activity and policy, then moral theology can help us understand the moral relevance of factors related to, and antecedent to, human activity.
Catholic theology speaks of degrees of cooperation with evil. The more we cooperate in the act, the greater our culpability. Some people cooperate with evil directly either by approving of the act or committing the act directly. If for example, I encourage a person to have an abortion or volunteer to drive a person to a drug house to buy narcotics, I am very close to the act itself. Indeed, my will and action directly merges with the evil committed. In such instances my cooperation may be termed formal or proximate.
If I, however, am in the chain of causality due to duress or to circumstance beyond my control or knowledge, my cooperation may be called remote or material, with various degrees of remoteness. Remote cooperation refers to any assistance one may provide to the commission of an evil act without approving it. The type of material cooperation may depend on what one actually does. Even under duress, one is closer to the evil act if the act one performs is essential to it. For example, if I operate the suction machine that aborts babies, I am committing what is called immediate material cooperation, which is more morally relevant than if I just cut the grass at the facility. Yet, if it causes scandal, even a remote or mediate cooperation ought to be avoided precisely because, say, I do work at a facility where babies are killed.
Another example can be given of remote material cooperation with evil where culpability would be even less present (or totally absent). For instance, I am a clerk at a store and a man comes in to buy a pen. After receiving payment, I hand him the pen. He then stabs the person next to him with the pen. Or he uses the pen to write a ransom note after kidnapping an innocent person. I am, of course, in the chain of causation but I cannot be blamed for the act. My cooperation was so remote that it loses moral relevancy.
Similarly, there are morally proximate and also remote causes for the performance of good deeds, including successful entrepreneurial activity. When a government of general jurisdiction builds infrastructure in view of the common good, it is in the line of causality of every conceivable purpose of the populace using it. When, for example, a road is built, the state assists the work of entrepreneurs as much as it assists in, say, the act of a man who drove his car to a movie theatre and fired bullets at innocent people. The same is true for a drive-by shooting, or even for deaths from a car accident. Thus, by definition, such governmental acts of general purpose are remote to the specific acts of those benefiting from them. They may facilitate human action in general but they are not proximate to human action in particular.
If a public school graduate goes on to accomplish great things, the number of antecedent and influential intervening factors is so great, so difficult to quantify, that the high school experience itself also becomes an increasingly indeterminate factor in his later achievements in life. In effect, the same teacher who encouraged a student may have another student who goes on to become a hardened criminal. Other teachers might have failed in preventing bad behaviors of students who later on wreck their lives. The incommensurability of such remote influences is simply too vast. It is like me taking credit for your literary masterpiece because I sold you the paper it was written on. When we survey the scene of entrepreneurial success, we see that the state’s cooperation is so remote that it is not worth mentioning at all. Since the state offers only a remote material cooperation with the work of entrepreneurs, we ought to focus our praise on the entrepreneurs themselves and the proximate causes of their success.
Moreover, when the human person, made in God’s image, creates and acquires property, there is a metaphysical reality at play. Human creativity springs from our divine nature. Each creative act does not depend on any analysis of social usefulness. Property and creation are identified with the person. Those who insist only in social usefulness identify right with the purposes of the state and may think that the common good is the only value (with the state the primary instrument). They might be tempted to say that private property really belongs to everyone. Entrepreneurship, regardless of the myriad antecedent influences, is a holy sanctuary against pagan statism precisely because it flows from the person. There is, in short, a self-justifying right to it.
In the end, the debate is more about our attitude toward the world of entrepreneurial creativity and there lies the President’s misunderstanding. His categorical assertion that business success depends on government action reveals his ideological prejudice against individual initiative. In a world where individual prosperity depends on the collective will, talking of entrepreneurship is like finding the relationship between freedom and security in an age that ignores the meaning of freedom.
Interventionist liberalism is animated by an excessive and unjustified confidence in the value of government action. By using the state to solve social problems, interventionists fall short of their best intentions only to leave conformity behind. Yet such narrative has become a rich vein feeding the organs of a growing statist monster that crowds out civil society.
Instead of exercising restraint in proposing government initiatives, President Obama speaks of federal power as being an ever present and all-encompassing reality. In his account, government is like the protagonist of a play in which the individual is merely the scenery. There lies our president’s error.