The popular view—encouraged at every turn by left-leaning analysts and commentators—is that the conservative view on economics is essentially laissez-faire and that conservatives want to eliminate government social welfare programs, even if the needy have to suffer. As a result, some Catholics say that conservatism is at odds with the Church on this. Is this true?
I have written two books analyzing American liberalism and conservatism from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching, one over a quarter-century ago and another that’s due out this fall. My conclusion—as just one part of a much farther-reaching inquiry into the social, political, and economic thought and positions of these two leading American ideologies—is that this is not the reality about conservatism and, in fact, it mostly is compatible with Catholic social teaching (as derived from its most authoritative source, the corpus of social encyclicals) on economics and social welfare.
In both of my books, I looked to the platforms of the two major parties that were noted as being especially “liberal” ones (for the Democrats) or “conservative” ones (for the Republicans) and so were truly representative of the public policy thinking of each ideology in different areas. While it’s true that parties are “political” and can be expected to present nuanced or compromised issue positions in order to generate support, platforms are particularly good compilations of positions on a range of public issues on each side of the political divide. This is especially the case at a time when the two American parties are probably more ideologically distinct than they have ever been. In certain presidential years, the platforms stand out even more sharply as clear statements of liberal or conservative ideology, respectively, than in others. 2012 was such a year. For the Democrats, it was the platform of the most leftist presidential administration in U.S. history. For the Republicans, there was a kind of disconnect: the “moderate” Mitt Romney ran on a platform that The Washington Times said was viewed by “veteran platform writers” of the party as “the most conservative” in its history. So, when one examines it we get a pretty good picture of where American conservatism today stands on economics and social welfare policy.
Not surprisingly, the platform insists that “free market policies”—nothing in the platform identifies that with laissez-faire—is the best way to insure job growth and economic prosperity. That’s not at odds with what the popes have said. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus commends the “free market” or “business economy” and the entrepreneurship that is a central feature of it (#32, 42). In Laudato Si, Pope Francis talks about business as “a noble vocation,” which produces wealth, brings about prosperity, and furthers the common good by creating jobs (#129). The Republican platform wants to end “hypertaxation.” Rerum Novarum had a similar concern: it said that excessive taxation violates the natural right of private property (#47). The platform scores the “world’s highest corporate tax rate,” which it says has helped drive companies abroad. It clearly is concerned here about American job loss. While the encyclicals have not commented on corporate tax rates, Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate laments the deleterious effects of outsourcing in today’s global economy (#40). While endorsing free trade, the platform makes it clear that that must mean fair trade and it laments the abuses of countries like China. Thus, it does not make free trade a kind of dogma in the manner that Paul VI criticizes in Populorum Progressio (#58-61), even if it doesn’t follow him in explicitly saying that trade must be governed by social justice or expressing concern about the disadvantages of poorer countries in trade relations.
Conservatism, by the way, is hardly oblivious to the need to assist the world’s poor. The platform—and the individual conservative thinkers and spokesmen I also studied in the book—specifically support U.S. foreign aid efforts, so long as the receiving nations meet their responsibilities and while stressing the greater effectiveness of private sector international giving. This is consistent with Populorum Progressio saying aid cannot be allowed to encourage “parasites or the indolent” (#54), and the fact that while the Church may set forth moral obligations of nations she typically doesn’t mandate specific ways to carry them out.
The Republican platform rings of the Church’s social teaching in calling for such things as employer-employee cooperation, “employee empowerment and workplace flexibility,” “family-friendly” workplace options, and eliminating confrontation in labor relations. It does not seek to eliminate legal protections for workers, but in a sense calls for securing and expanding them by insuring that unions not violate them by such things as skirting requirements for secret-ballot elections for union representation. Some Catholics seem to almost unquestioningly support unions, but the fact is they as much as management can be abusive and their leaders can pursue agendas that may not be in the best interests of their members cannot be ignored. In Laborem Exercens, John Paul showed an awareness of this when he said, “[u]nion demands cannot be turned into a kind of group or class ‘egoism’” and unions cannot be “a mouthpiece for a class struggle” (#20).
By contrast, the platform’s call for a national right-to-work law perhaps downplays the need for union representation in various circumstances and ignores the likelihood that worker organizing efforts would be crippled without the union shop. Perhaps it implicitly makes too much of the issue of coercion in this context, while at the same time giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to the benevolence of today’s corporate elite (even while I also recount in the book the well-justified skepticism of traditionalist conservatives—the scions of the Russell Kirks, Wilmoore Kendalls, and John Courtney Murrays—of our corporate-oriented economy, which they say along with government welfare-statism has contributed to cultural corruption).
The platform criticizes the Obama administration’s extension of unemployment compensation eligibility to three-and-a-half years, but that in no way can be read as violating the spirit of Laborem Exercens’ statement that the state, as “indirect employer,” is responsible for seeing that “suitable grants” are made for the subsistence of the unemployed and their families (#18). The encyclical doesn’t actually say that government has to do this, but just that it insures that it be done (again, the Church doesn’t mandate policy approaches). Moreover, the platform doesn’t in the least want to eliminate unemployment compensation, but just have proper and prudential limitations. Recall what Paul VI said about not encouraging indolence.
Maybe one could criticize the platform for not making employment the overriding feature of its discussion about economics, since it is the central one for Catholic social teaching. Still, it is obviously concerned with employment when it speaks about job growth, job loss, and outsourcing.
Like the popes, the platform seeks to expand the ownership of private property. As Rerum Novarum says, “[t]he law … should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners” (#46). The platform even joins certain Catholic economic thinkers over the decades in endorsing employee stock ownership plans, so that workers become part owners even of the companies they work for. The platform implicitly seems aware of what the Church and Aristotle before her taught: ownership promotes virtue, responsibility, and freedom, and secures a sufficiency of wealth and temporal well-being.
In stressing that agriculture is “a fundamental part of the U.S. economy” and that federal programs should assist it especially in tough times, the platform makes one think of John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra, where he calls for keeping an appropriate balance among sectors of the economy and not neglecting agriculture and for “public authorities” to address its particular needs (#131). Also like the encyclical (#142), the platform gives the family farm supportive mention. It also seeks tax reforms to help it.
All of this, along with the platform’s insistence on a sounder monetary policy, policies to allow portability in employee pension and health care plans, and “reasonable federal oversight of financial institutions,” hardly bespeaks anything like eliminating governmental economic regulation. It’s reasonable regulation that it seeks.
On social welfare policy, the platform supports Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and even the much criticized Food Stamp Program. It doesn’t even call for scaling them back, but just for reforming them and putting them on sounder fiscal footing. It wants to restructure the FSP by giving block grants to the states and letting them administer it, which is in line with the social encyclicals’ principle of subsidiarity. Actually, if anything, the platform is overly generous here in supporting these major federal programs. Historians such as Allan J. Matusow have raised questions about whether Medicaid was needed in light of the vast amount of charitable care previously available to the poor and the track record of effectiveness of Medicare in insuring better health care for seniors.
The bottom line here is that, while even some faithful Catholic commentators think that economics and social welfare are areas that conservatism is especially weak on from the standpoint of the Church’s social teaching, it actually conforms pretty well.
I should point out, however, that the conservatism of 1950-1990 that I examined in my earlier book did not compare as well with Catholic social teaching on this subject as current conservatism does as expressed in the Republican Party platform. Key reasons were trade policy, viewing competition too much as the be-all and end-all, and employer-employee cooperation. Maybe that’s because conservatism has further distanced itself from an earlier version of liberalism that influenced significant segments of it: classical liberalism.
Editor’s note: The picture above, taken at the 1976 Republican National Convention, depicts Ronald Reagan in the foreground and Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, Betty Ford and Bob Dole in the background. (Photo credit: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)