From the Publisher: Of Pigs and Men

Next year will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, and it is much to be hoped that Pope John Paul II will issue a new encyclical summarizing and developing the papal understanding of the economic side of human development. He could hardly do better than to extend his reflections on the fundamental “right to personal economic enterprise” which he articulated so startlingly in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

Economics is far from being the whole of human development. God loves those in dire need most of all, and their salvation is by no means jeopardized by their poverty (on the contrary). Still, in proportion as one fixes one’s eyes upon the urgent need of freeing the world’s poor from the prison of grinding material poverty, economic development is a necessary condition for human development. Human dignity requires it.

Moreover, by grounding economic development in the creative power of God, an inalienable impress of which is endowed by the Creator in every man and woman, Pope John Paul II has decisively shown that economic creativity has a source and origin far deeper than mere material interest. If to produce new wealth is a creative act, the profit motive is not merely a selfish reflex. To produce economic progress for one’s family, one’s nation, and the entire human race is to share in the creative power of God. From this principle, powerful moral obligations follow.

This creation theology of Pope John Paul II is important. It shows that the cause of the wealth of nations is not material, but spiritual. It confirms theologically what economists (including Nobel Prize winners) have been discovering empirically: that human capital is the most important form of capital. This is why nations as bereft of natural material resources as Japan can become very wealthy. This is also why the modern world places so much emphasis upon education—investments in human capital are far more fruitful than any others. To have grasped the primacy of the spiritual even in the seemingly material realm of economic development is one of the major contributions of Pope John Paul II to the history of papal social thought.

Moreover, this emphasis upon the spiritual source of economic development helps to explain an otherwise puzzling fact about the wealth of nations; namely, that the wealthiest nations (The Netherlands, Japan, Hong Kong) are often the most densely populated. The reason for this is that every new child is born with the capacity to create more than he or she consumes. Given a non-repressive or even a favorable system, nearly all will do so. That is why merely arithmetical measuring techniques reach absurd consequences: If a pig is born in Peru, economists raise the per capita income an increment, whereas if a child is born, they lower it. But the pig will create nothing, whereas the child is capable of creating much. The child is a far more important source of national wealth than a pig.

This insight into the cause of the wealth of nations illuminates from a fresh direction the classic Catholic teaching about human life. Each child is precious, not only intrinsically so, but also economically. What makes nations poor is not “overpopulation,” but the inadequacy and the repressiveness of their systems of political economy. Some systems are so badly designed that they treat human beings as burdens, obstacles, or even enemies. Well-designed systems release the creativity of all—and not only their economic creativity, but their cultural and religious creativity as well.

It is true that economic development alone does not bring happiness (not to mention salvation). It brings both unparalleled liberties and unparalleled temptations. Since even the angels were tempted in the courts of God, and Adam and Eve were tempted in Paradise, there is no escaping from the responsibility inherent in freedom. Thus, economic development, far from ending the moral struggle, reintroduces it in a more challenging form. In some ways, it is easier to fight against poverty than to fight against the temptations of affluence. An easygoing ethic is very soon corrupted, and thus the price of liberty is duty. As Lord Acton said, true liberty is not the liberty to do what we wish, but the liberty to do what we ought. The American hymn captures this kind of liberty succinctly:

Confirm thy soul

In self control

Thy liberty in law

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII in effect predicted the end of socialism by demonstrating the inadequacies of its fundamental principles. The cracking open of what was falsely known as “the second world,” Soviet Communism (1917-1989), offers Pope John Paul II an opportunity to present an alternative vision. Soviet socialism failed because it repressed the fundamental “right of personal economic initiative”; because it repressed creative liberty; because it failed to respect the rule of law that binds nature and individuals; because without markets it had no method for understanding costs and gains; and because without private property individuals had no defense against the virtual omnipotence of the state, and no long-term, multi-generational incentive for improving the condition of their families and the patrimony of the nation.

Pope John Paul II is in a position to restore to their places of honor in a political economy human creativity, freely offered social cooperation, ordered liberty, natural law, and the system of natural liberty. A social ethic drawing on such principles, and others, would help to fill the vacuum that yawns open in much of the world. This is an era for placing the world’s vision of political economy upon a fresh and profound moral foundation, a foundation hardened and burnished in the flames of a century’s harsh experiences.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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