Catholic discussion of economic policy usually takes place on a ridiculous level of abstraction. What is fairness, and can the market accomplish that? Shouldn’t the civic order bear responsibility for the health and well-being of its members? How can we balance the demands of social equality and individual ownership?
These are all very high-minded questions, but they have essentially nothing to do with either the core choices we face or the operation of the state as we know it.
Let’s state with utmost clarity the issue at the outset: There are only two possible ways to organize the economic life of a nation. There is the market way, which relies on voluntary exchange, protection of private property, and no unwanted invasions of another’s space. The result of this system is commonly called the free market, or capitalism, if you will, but both terms are too limiting. The voluntary, property-rights approach encompasses more than economic exchange; it also encompasses the whole of the voluntary sector that empowers houses of worship, charitable institutions, the family, and every other institution that serves an intermediating role between the individual and the state.
The other system is very different. It uses the state to intervene in this voluntary system by use of the police power of force, coercion, guns, and jails. That means more laws enforced at gunpoint, taxation, forced redistribution, monetary manipulation, nationalization, war, and all the rest.
There is no third system.
You can invent all the terms you want — solidarism, distributism, fascism, democratic socialism, localism, or any other -ism — but it is logically impossible to get around the central issue of consent vs. coercion, of market vs. the state. You are either forced by law to do something — and the law always means force — or you are not. This is also true of the management of individual sectors of society, such as business relationships, education, international relations, consumer protection, care of the vulnerable members of society, health care generally, and all the rest.
Either voluntarism or force will prevail.
In some ways, the choice is nicely summarized in the story of the shepherd, as told by Jesus and recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 14. Jesus says: “Whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him.”
Here we have stated with utmost clarity the issue of invasion vs. invitation. The property in the story is private (owned by someone) and protected from intruders by a gate. If a person sneaks into the sheepfold without permission, this person is a thief, a robber, someone who does not intend well, someone who intends to do damage. But if he comes in through the gate and is let in, he is someone to trust.
Organizing the whole of society along the lines of the story, we can either have a system that permits robbery or we can have a system that relies on agreement.
Again, there is no third option.
There is a reason that all the discussions of fairness and justice, equality and solidarity, tend to avoid talking about this essential choice: It is too clarifying. It exposes the person who advocates anything but the pure market solution as an advocate of invasion and coercion — a proponent of thievery and robbery, to use Jesus’ term.
You can attend 1,000 seminars on Catholic social teaching and still hear not one word on this essential choice. The real-life issue ends up shutting down this endless and necessarily abstract discussion over what kind of society we want to live in.
So too with books. Nearly every month another book comes out purporting to offer the final word on “Catholic economics,” but most simply illustrate the dazzling talent of writing hundreds of pages on everything but this central issue.
This is to say: If you are not permitting the market society to flourish on its own, you are inviting in the state to manage the system. The first question to ask anyone, Catholic or not, who decries the free market is: What is it that you want the state to force us to do?
Once that question is answered, we can move on to others. Is displacing human volition with coercion the right thing, the workable thing, the cost-effective thing to do? Further, what makes the critic of the market believe that once the state is empowered to override human choice with coercion that the critic’s own values are going to prevail in the political process? What makes the market critic so sure that the central planning power will be turned over to him and him alone?
If we can ask these questions, we can get somewhere in our dialogue. If we keep avoiding them, we are avoiding the realities behind economic policymaking.
People imagine that they can introduce a bit of regulatory force into the mix without much consequence, but this is pure illusion. Once we let intruders into the sheepfold, we don’t really know for sure what the intruder will do. And the intrusion alone creates a problem that cries out for another intervention — which is to say, more invasions of property rights, more uses of uninvited action that amount to robbery. It is not possible to disguise the essential nature of what is going on by having the state do the invading under the cover of law. The moral issue of thievery vs. voluntarism is still there.
This is why Jesus did not say: “If, however, the seeming thief or robber announces that he has been democratically elected, or otherwise appointed by the civic authority, to sneak into the enclosure, it is not a problem at all.” There is no such proviso. Jesus specifically said that the only person to trust is he who enters the approved way, and only then once the gatekeeper lets him in. The addition of the state changes nothing.
Catholics have a bad habit of theorizing about economics and politics in ways that sneak the state in under the cover of personal morality. Is it right to do nothing to help the suffering when the means are easily at your disposal to help? If you say that doing nothing would be wrong, and that action needs to be taken — so the argument goes — the next step is to say that “society,” meaning the state,” must therefore act.
But there is a huge difference between individual or institutional action and state action, and it is the essential difference highlighted in Jesus’ story of the shepherd you can trust versus the intruder you cannot. To slip so easily from moral obligation to political policy is a dangerous game. In the name of enforcing Christian obligation, you can inadvertently create a nation of thieves and robbers, or those who benefit from thieving and robbery. This is what happens when you ignore the distinction between invasion and invitation.
To be a politically astute Catholic means being aware of this little sleight of hand that is visible everywhere — on the left and the right. Great scholars have searched the Scriptures for many centuries, but no one has yet come up with a rationale in them for a positive obligation for the state to become an instrument of individual Christian virtue. This is the job of individual Christians. It changes the nature of the virtue itself to foist the job on politicians and bureaucrats who ask no one for an invitation to do anything. The state is all about imposing its will, regardless of the desires of those affected.
We need to bring these political and economic discussions out of the realm of abstraction and back down to earth. No matter what your political values and priorities, the essential distinction between voluntary and forced action needs to be stated at the outset.
Scholar Jennifer Roback Morse argues that the very existence of the state creates a kind of “occasion of sin” for every member of society. The state stands ready to provide the shortcut to achieve your highest values, bypassing the need for consent. It is the institution prepared to invade the sheepfold with any excuse and under any cover. She has put her finger on a core problem of the modern age — and Catholics need to be aware of it.
You can say that you hate the rich, that you love the environment, that you favor the equality of all, that you are for the family wage, that you care about the poor, that you believe in some preferred demographic arrangement of society, that you favor virtue or you favor vice — but until you state outright the means by which you seek to achieve your goals, and how you can be sure that the state will follow your wishes, you have said very little of any relevance to the core choice that all peoples face in all times and places.
It’s true that this distinction does not solve all problems that face us. It doesn’t deal with issues of moral obligation; it doesn’t provide immediate and complete answers to complex issues of the “social assistance state,”Â publicly provided social benefits, spending priorities, the business cycle, and so on. But it does the critical work of at least defining the terms of debate. Perhaps that is why it is the one issue everyone wants to avoid.