Thursday, August 25, 2011

Redistribution of wealth, the environment, etc.

Here are a couple of provocative thoughts on economics. See if you can guess the author. (Italics are author's emphasis; highlights are mine.)

Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution…

Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics...

   No, they're not the musings of Barack Obama. One can imagine the vitriolic response from the right if they were. In fact, these endorsements of redistribution of wealth are excerpts from His Holiness Benedict XVI's papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Sound surprisingly far to the left, politically? Let’s just say he's unlikely to be accused of plagiarizing from the Fox Business Channel.
   Before making my main point, though, let me add a couple of quotes from the same source on the environment.

Today the subject of development is also closely related to the duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole... 

On this front too, there is a pressing moral need for renewed solidarity, especially in relationships between developing countries and those that are highly industrialized. The technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens. It should be added that at present it is possible to achieve improved energy efficiency while at the same time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy. What is also needed, though, is a worldwide redistribution of energy resources, so that countries lacking those resources can have access to them. The fate of those countries cannot be left in the hands of whoever is first to claim the spoils, or whoever is able to prevail over the rest. Here we are dealing with major issues; if they are to be faced adequately, then everyone must responsibly recognize the impact they will have on future generations, particularly on the many young people in the poorer nations, who “ask to assume their active part in the construction of a better world.

   It could well be argued that the encyclical as a whole (which is great in scope and difficult to grasp entirely) puts the pope rhetorically, at least, far to the left of most American politicians—farther even than the so-called socialist in the White House. It's probably a mistake, though, to try to place what is ultimately a theological document onto the political spectrum of one nation's politics. So I won't try to claim that if Benedict XVI was an American he would be a registered Democrat. I won't even claim, for now, that the complementarity of these ideas with mainstream liberal thought suggest it's acceptable to vote for a pro-choice Democrat.
   I will make two observations, however, that I wish many Catholic conservatives would acknowledge as self-evident. The first is that many of the deepest motivations for liberals—justice for workers, care for the poor, concern about environmental degradation—square really well with Church teaching. The dichotomy that views Republicans as holy defenders of the Catholic catechism and Democrats as its godless opponents is obviously false to anyone aware of the Catholic Church's social justice doctrine. Thus, people who care about the poor, the immigrant, the innocent Iraqi, and the planet that makes all life possible should at least be accorded respect, even if simultaneously regarded as naive, bleeding hearts.
   The second point is that, while I would never judge someone negatively for voting for a Republican (or for only Republicans), the free market agenda of the right—which extols accumulation of wealth as a prime virtue and which generally possesses scorn for any environmental regulation which might hurt the bottom line—should make a Catholic voter uncomfortable, at a minimum. If an individual is aware of the dissonance between most conservative candidates' positions and those of the Church, and for other reasons (i.e. abortion) they vote Republican, I respect that choice. But there are many Catholics who speak the ultra-capitalist language of Ronald Reagan, Sean Hannity, John Stossel, or Rick Perry as if their words echo the voices of the Vatican corridors. Read Caritas in Veritate. They do not.

No comments:

Post a Comment